The Eastern

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7 April 2018, The Cabana, Napier
By A. F. Smythe

This show has been a long time coming. Bay fans have been waiting since December. That date was postponed by frontman and band-backbone Adam McGrath’s near-death experience and subsequent hospitalisations. Tonight, McGrath is alive and well. He chats with guests at the door. It’s like he’s at home and he knows us all – it’s a crowd thick with local musos and gig stalwarts – he’s on first-name basis with many.

Personally, I’ve been waiting to hear The Eastern play live again way longer than last December. Since seeing them open for Old Crow Medicine Show I’ve wanted more. That gig in 2010 was the first time I’d heard what has repeatedly been referred to as New Zealand’s best folk band. They were definitely something special and at least as impressive as the main act. After a period of Eastern-obsession I lost touch with the band’s journey over the last eight years. Working damn hard, by all accounts: they tour constantly and have four albums, all met with critical acclaim.

So, tonight in The Cabana, when McGrath announces that this gig is perhaps their last (besides a final finale in Christchurch later this year) it’s with great poignancy and a bit of sadness that I realise this is it: both a reacquainting and a farewell. After 12 years of constant gigging, including tours with Steve Earle, Fleetwood Mac and Jimmy Barnes, the band members are all off to do their own thing. The Eastern exodus may have already begun because on this night there’re only two, the original seed from which the Eastern blossomed: McGrath and his guitar, and banjo-playing Jess Shanks. Together, they serve up a 50-cent lolly bag of tracks: originals and covers, slow and upbeat, bittersweet and hopeful.

The closeness between Shanks and McGrath is obvious and contagious. As the night goes on the audience gets closer and more familiar – at one point an eager fan breaks ranks and kisses McGrath on the lips – by the last song there is no audience, they’ve all joined the band. They are clustered around the piano as guv’nor Roy Brown bangs out honky-tonk accompaniment on the bar piano.

When there’s a tech hitch, McGrath and Shanks leave the stage completely, unplug and perform acoustically from amongst the audience. Revellers dance around them like it’s a barn hoedown.

In between and during songs, McGrath’s true nature is revealed: he is a bard in the finest sense, and a folk-hero. He’s political, socially conscious, opinionated but poignant and poetic with all of it. And he’s funny, sometimes even when he’s telling a sad story.

He and Shanks play original Eastern tracks including LA to Linwood, Talking Americana Cowboy Yeeha Blues, Celtic Jack and Temuka Tom and songs written from McGrath’s recent Christchurch song-writing ‘sit-in’; as well as covers: Ed Bruce’s Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys, John Pine’s In Spite of Ourselves.

There’s a running joke about the notoriety of banjo-based Wagon Wheel with obvious distain from McGrath but being a travelling troubadour he says he will play it: for a price. Sure enough, a groupie at the front approaches him like he’s a stripper and slips him a $50. He bangs out Wagon Wheel, and the crowd can’t help itself, we go wild.

McGrath and The Eastern have made a significant mark on the New Zealand music scene. They go down in history as a pivotal band, for their music, but also for their way with the people. These are real folk musicians, in the socialist sense: there for the people. And tonight the people are there for them too.

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