28 October, Spiegeltent, HBAF18 By Jess Soutar Barron
Phil the Random Dancer is up the back. Dave’s been pre-loading since lunch. Olivia just slipped off her cardi. Jamie’s shaved. The signs are all clear: there’s going to be a party in the tent tonight.
Hopetoun Brown make their post-drinks-break entrance right into the middle of it: A swarm of volunteers, crew, bar staff, MCs and venue managers, hard core festival fanatics, all top hats and peacock feathers let loose on the last night of the Festival. Those in the know stay up the back where dancing is allowed, and singing is aloud. Thin slivers of mirror multiply the crowd and with Hopetoun there amongst it, we’re all festival folk, in this together.
The Hopetoun Brown sound is very Pakeha New Zealand. Reflected in it is the military and missionary who scourged this place, then the ranting storytellers drunk on their own myth, then the DIY we-make-our-own-fun nerve, then the working class, shearing shed shindigs.
“Feel free to stomp,” they prompt our participation, “Just keep the tempo.” It’s a big ask. White folks can dance, but only when they are also clapping and stomping. I’m going to say it: this music has spirit but no soul, it’s sassy but not sexy. And that means it meets our jerky hips right where they’re at.
HTB are the big guns, there’s little left to say that hasn’t been said and if you haven’t seen them, then do because they are worth the hype and the holler. But it’s time for Hopetoun Brown to shuck off their “Brass Section of Supergroove” nomenclature. They are much more than that. Tim Stewart can sing like a mother-father and play bass. Nick Atkinson brings control to the mid-field when discordant disorder is mounting up all around him, then leads its resolution, satisfying musicians and audience. He also knocks out whole melodies for long minutes on a bass clarinet. That’s ballsy, brash, and about as gangsta as you can be on a licorice stick.
As part of the encore Nick salutes “My lady in the white shirt” for her dance moves and tells the rest of us “There’s room for improvement”. They end as they began, in the middle of the back row, where the action is, as if to say “If you won’t come to the party, we’ll bring it to you”.
Rewind to the beginning of the night. All in together, Carnivorous Plant Society and HTB mashing it up on stage with drums, horns, sax, keys, vibes, gat, bass. Finn Scholes reaches down and pulls a tuba from his pocket like a mysterious stranger bringing a rocket launcher to a fist fight. Then it’s all on.
The sound is too candy pop to be called cinematic. It’s music for the MTV generation, for the kids who played spacies and watched after-school cartoons, and made huts for their he-men out of ice block sticks. Those beeps and snaps are the sounds of our happy youth, the same youth we spent listening to Supergroove. But if it is cinematic then this sound is Del Toro and Tarantino, El Mariachi mayhem with lashings of arriba arriba. In the background, an added layer of Gen-X pop culture is delivered up through film, like a series of 90’s music vids, think Gorrilaz and Paranoid Android, and felt tips on acetate on overhead projector.
Multi-talented musicians, CPS often play ten instruments between five of them, at the same time. Finn on keys and trumpet, Siobhanne Thompson on vibraphone then violin, somewhere in there tambourine, flugelhorn, afoxe, ganza, suitcase all played with as much panache as the more regulation guitar and keyboard.
The stop motion camera in my mind captures snippets: Jamie Macphail reading the two carp fable, bass player Cass Basil (seen in Tiny Ruins) serenely thonking out that killer groove, like she’s playing for Mia Wallace. Alistair Deverick up the back on drums delivering a terrific solo that makes everyone sit up and shut up. A band made complete by Tam Scholes on guitar.
HTB and CPS are a beautiful blended family tonight, with some of his, some of his and a few of theirs. They take turns, switch things up, play homage to each other’s best bits and big hits. Slave Song, a CPS track, is soaring when dealt to by HTB. Their own standards, and crowd favourites – St James Infirmary, Put It Down, Look So Good – are made mighty by the inclusion of Finn Scholes et al. This is a musical lovefest, set alongside a Fest lovefest. And tonight, together, we’re blowing the top off the Big Top. (Well, up the back we are).
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