25 February 2018, Summer Sunday Session Rod McDonald Wines, Te Awanga By Ester Du Fresne
“I’d be crazy not to follow, follow where you lead”
Prescient lyrics in the opening track from local band Hail to the Thieves’ performance at the fourth summer Sunday session at Te Awanga Estate. The band lead a charming tour of Radiohead’s back catalogue.
I’m a nostalgic rather than a card-carrying Radiohead fan – they were the first international rock show I saw perform live. 1998; I’d just turned 14. Jonny Greenwood was the hottest thing in pants, and Thom Yorke was a teenage-angst hero.
Twenty years later, arriving at this luxuriantly green venue, seeing the stage set up in a grassy clearing between a grove of trees and the lush grapevines, I wondered how the occasionally dour strains of Radiohead songs would mesh with the vivid setting and vibrant crowd. It’s a real mix: older couples on chairs, reading. Young hipsters, tanned skin, beards. Cycling tourists, American and Canadian. Children exploring, playing in the vines. Chilly bins and prams in tow.
But it seems we might be in for something merry: There’s an eclectic, relaxed feel about the band’s set up – woven cloth, wooden crates and dented, stickered cases are sheltered from the hot sun by a shade sail and two umbrellas. The band members are close by, some munching on woodfired pizzas ahead of starting the set.
It feels like hanging out at a friends’ backyard party. Bikes lie on the grass. The cellar door plays house. Kids emerge sucking on Juicies and adults slurp rosé from plastic cups.
A quick yet lulling refrain drifts across the grass as the band eases into things with “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” from the album In Rainbows. Chord changes lead us down a gentle path with strong harmonies kicking in with the second verse.
HTTT singer Ben Throp and bassist Willie Devine might be recognised from Ben Throp and The Inquiry or The Intimate Strangers, while guitarist Jeff Boyle and drummer Jason Johnston will be familiar to locals from somewhat cult-status local three-piece band Jakob. Local guitarist Bysshe Blackburn tops off the five-piece band. They’re united by their common passion for Radiohead.
Ben’s voice is strong but not arrogant, and he leaves plenty of room for the band to show its masterful talents. The band gains momentum as songs like Ok Computer’s ‘Lucky’ and ‘Karma Police’ weave their occasionally unsteady paths. These musicians are obviously seasoned performers; polished but not sanitised. They make the songs their own, use them as a foundation on which to produce something different, and much better suited to the locale.
A highlight is the band’s rendition of House of Cards. Sitting on the grass amongst the trees, looking out over the greenest vines and bluest ocean to the north side of the Bay, this was a heavenly soundtrack.
By the time the band ends a generous first half with a satisfyingly-chunky ‘Optimistic’, guests are still arriving. Kids have advanced from the playing in the vines, to playing in the trees.
A ponytailed blonde teenager runs a non-stop relay delivering platters of delicious food to impromptu picnics beneath the trees.
The band returns with a grunty execution of 1995 album title track ‘The Bends’, and they’re really starting to jell. While traversing a wide range of Radiohead albums, they also play a track from R.E.M, attributing them as an inspiration to Radiohead. In fact throughout the performance, singer Ben throws the crowd insightful little nuggets about Radiohead. He’s comfortable chatting, and an affable frontman.
As the set progresses, the vibe well and truly takes hold. The band engages but doesn’t overpower. A girl of about nine grabs a toy tambourine joins in; a boy pretends to play drums with his devil sticks. Brave kids have taken folded wine boxes to the hill behind the winery, to sled down the dry grass. Heads bob, shoes come off, hips sway and toes tap as small group take to dancing in the grassy clearing in front of the stage.
I was very glad I followed, very glad indeed.
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