The closure last year of Masterton’s dedicated music venue King Street Live is blamed by some for an apparent decline in the Wairarapa music scene. But is it in such bad health? Simon Burt takes a listen.

Look hard enough and on pretty-much any night of the week you’ll find someone performing music somewhere in the Wairarapa. It might not be what you prefer to listen to – or even what the performer prefers to play – but it’ll be there. Somewhere.

The Musos

Miles Reay is one the busier musicians in the Wairarapa. Now in his 70s, Miles has played in plenty of high profile groups, most notably the legendary Hamilton County Bluegrass Band. Miles feels that in the dozen years he’s lived in the Wairarapa the venues have been in steady decline, especially for local musos. He has a bit of a beef with the services clubs who choose to import their ‘dinner and dance’ bands from out of town – diplomatically, he suggests that they might just want a change from the local combos. However, he has plenty of regular gigs in the region and concedes that “perhaps we need to get off our bums and knock on a few new doors. Maybe we’ve had it a bit easy for too long.”

Ryan Coles is half a century younger than Miles Reay, but he too feels that the venues have “dried up” for his rock band The Dead Zephyrs. “I was at King Street Live every week listening to anything and everything, as well as playing there often. It started with a hiss and a roar – new, exciting, novel – but people now take cheap alcohol home rather than coming out for live entertainment”. Ryan feels that the local scene needs more community and council funding. “They consistently turn youth down for any type of grants while they’re putting money into Aratoi and facilities for tourists. Music is so undervalued in the Wairarapa that we now have to drive an hour north or south to get our music heard.”

Fellow rocker Nikki King of ‘Spank’, who is somewhere between Miles and Ryan in years, says that “parts of the local scene are doing OK”. She, too, laments the demise of King Street Live and has a passion for original music and for up-and-coming bands. She feels we are losing local musicians because “no venue, no point. Local bands are having trouble getting traction. We’re not nurturing what we’ve got here, there seems to be a lot going on in the visual art world but not a lot for music.”

Barry Saunders is the songwriter and frontman for perennial country favourites The Warratahs. Although not considered a Wairarapa band, three of the current lineup now has a home here and they have regularly played local wine festivals, packed King Street to the rafters and heralded in the New Year at Greytown’s White Swan. Barry is also a solo artist and you could often find him with guitar and harmonica at one of the music-friendly local bars until a busy Warratahs schedule intervened. “I’m keen to get out solo again,” he says, “but the days of expecting people to just turn up for live music are gone. They’re getting more selective – you really have to earn your audience now.”

Also high profile in the so-called ‘alt-country’ or ‘Americana’ world is Ebony Lamb of Eb & Sparrow. While not a Wairarapa resident, Ebony spends time here at a friend’s cottage and the band has played here often. They recently recorded a full album – with an internationally regarded audio engineer – in a large house at rural Ahiaruhe. “There is a great blues and folk community in the Wairarapa,” Ebony observes, “and a growing number of people moving here who want to go out to shows.” She’s also convinced that the region has a place in a touring artist’s schedule – “It’s the perfect spot, situated between Wellington and Hawke’s Bay, Palmerston North or Rotorua.” The one missing element currently, she thinks, is an active local promoter.

Steve Trotman has been gigging for years with the Verandah Band and the Elderberries among others. He, too, believes that local venues are on the wane. “They’ve stopped paying bands.” Steve laments the loss of Carterton’s ‘Lounge’ a few years ago, a cafe/bar which over six years saw a steady stream of national touring musicians while also providing a regular stage for the Verandahs and many other locals. “Nothing has replaced it.” Steve’s new band The Idlers recently debuted at Carterton’s Regent 58 Ale House – a new venue for music, ironically in the very same building that housed ‘Lounge’.

David Clark performs his individual brand of alternative folk under the moniker ‘Holy Loner’. A Wairarapa resident for six years, David became disillusioned after a couple of early gigs he promoted for visiting international acts were less than successful. “They were woefully under-attended,” he says. A veteran of various Christchurch bands through the 90s, David doesn’t identify as part of any Wairarapa scene – in fact he wonders “if there actually is one.” He believes that there are opportunities to perform. “Rather than cry about the demise of King Street, celebrate the fact that Wairarapa is full of country halls and every band has a PA. All we need to do is make use of them.”

“Dr Rob” Maunsell is highly active in the Wairarapa with his band Grafia. Grafia has played most of the available cafes and bars over the years as well as creating their own gigs. “A venue like King Street Live could work if it was run by a group rather than one person carrying the can,” Rob thinks. “It would need to be diversified with different activities, one of which would be music”. He says that most of the venues will still pay musicians, “but with four or five of us and a drummer who comes from Waipukurau, we’re certainly not doing it for the money!”

Verandah Band at Gladstone Vineyard. Photo: Charmaine Reay

 

Up-beat veteran singer-songwriter and band leader Stefan Brown reckons there are good things happening at the moment. “There are a lot of musos here, people who have moved from bigger centres and are looking to play.” With Rod Lawrence, Stefan organises a monthly session which attracts a good group of players and listeners at the Gladstone Inn. He thinks the general scene has changed since KSL went and that the younger groups have been left with nowhere to play. “The big loud groups in pubs thing is almost over,” he believes. “Gigs are smaller. It’s more about duos, trios and intimate audiences. The upside is that this lends itself to more original material.”

Apart from Barry Saunders, Americana proponents Bob Cooper-Grundy and Kate Marshall may be the best known Wairarapa musicians outside the region. They play a lot of gigs, festivals and clubs around the rest of the country and are also very active locally. Bob feels that many cafe-bar owners don’t fully appreciate what live music can do for them. “You’re not necessarily going to attract more people, but they may stay longer and buy another drink or dessert.” He agrees with others that “it takes a lot to get people out these days.” and has noticed a lot of interest in house concerts. “We put one on ourselves, filled it up with 50 people and it’s a really fun thing to do.”

Sarah Saunders was part of the very successful inter-school band ‘Halafaxa’ which won Best Band in the Smokefreerockquest Wairarapa finals in 2015. Now in Year 13 at St Matthew’s Collegiate, Sarah says there are always good bands coming out of the local colleges. She cites contemporaries L.A Women (formerly Back to the Remedy and Vacant City), who’s single ‘Hurricane Love’ has had three million Spotify plays, as a real success story from what she sees as a golden era of Wairarapa high school music. “I had a great experience in the band,” she says. “I feel like people really gave us an opportunity to play which may not have happened if we’d been in a bigger town.” Sarah is also quick to point out that the now Los Angeles-based musician Ladyhawke played in school bands in her time at Masterton’s Chanel College.

 

The Organisers

Toby Mills has a foot in several camps as a musician, live sound provider and event organiser. He performed all three roles for the highly popular ‘Eclipse’ Pink Floyd tribute shows at Stonehenge Aotearoa, which attracted several thousand people. “These bigger shows are still viable,” he says, “but risky”. Toby also laments the closure of King Street Live, not least because he had something of a stake in it by providing the much-lauded sound system. He says such closures are commonplace around New Zealand as the drink-driving laws become stricter. “No-one wants to go out, have a few drinks and listen to a band any more.”

Brendan Smyth (MNZM) was NZ On Air NZ Music Manager for 25 years and has recently retired to Martinborough. He’s involved with the inaugural Martinborough Music Festival at the end of September – four chamber music concerts over three days with headliner, pianist Michael Houston. He’s excited about the new Waihinga Centre in Martinborough but “hopes that the SWDC takes some professional advice regarding the sound system.” Brendan is a fanatical gig-goer and has found plenty locally to enthuse about – “One of my favourite gigs of all time was [Auckland band] Tiny Ruins playing in a rural Carterton house in June.” He reckons “a venue like the Waihinga centre could put Wairarapa back on the circuit for touring bands.”

Mark Rogers has been promoting music in the Wairarapa for six years, initially using rooms such as the Wesley Wing of Aratoi, Carterton Events Centre and even a Masterton bowling alley for the national and international acts he brought here. Mark believes King Street Live was a boon for the entire area because it attracted visitors from outside. “It provided employment on several levels. But it’s gone, we’re off the circuit and the younger bands are no longer getting the inspiration.” Mark concedes that building a new venue is a big commitment and that getting people off their couches can be a problem, but “if the Councils are so keen on supporting the arts then maybe it’s time for them to step up for the music.”

Georgina Wiles has been organising a few gigs at the Ventana Collective creative space in Martinborough recently. As one of the organisers of Tora Tora Tora (more on that soon) Georgie loves the way musicians would often gather after their official sets to jam or try out new songs on each other. “The Ventana gigs are an excuse to recreate that relaxed vibe between festivals or when we take a year off. Martinborough is now home to people from all over the world – everyone’s loving building a life here but there are some gaps, one of which is live music. I do the Ventana shows simply for the joy of it.”

The Greytown Music Group has been organising classical concerts in the Wairarapa since 1977. They have hosted over 200 performances at the home of Ed and Juliet Cooke featuring prominent musicians from all over the world. They offer a regular monthly programme and keep the seat price at a modest $25 – all of which goes to the performers – by applying for grants from local funders and attracting sponsorship to offset their overheads. “We feel we’re fulfilling a need in this area,” Juliet says. “For many of these players it’s hard to find a venue.”

 

The Festivals

Tora Tora Tora is a small music festival with a big heart. Run (almost) annually on the Tora coast over three days by live music enthusiast Neil Bramley, the family-friendly event packs 500 campers on to the Bramleys’ front paddock and boasts a lineup the envy of the larger festivals. Over the years the event has hosted many of the nation’s major acts as well as a host of Wairarapa musicians in various forms. Trinity Roots’ Warren Maxwell, a Featherston resident, has been a great supporter since the start. Family member and co-organiser Georgie Wiles says it’s very much a non-profit exercise – “It’s all about supporting the musicians and providing an event that families can attend without breaking the bank.”

The Martinborough Jazz Festival is a four day event held every first weekend of September since 2011. As well as out-of-town headliners there is always local content in the dozens of shows held in spaces village-wide. The Jazz in Martinborough organisation runs a ‘Fresh Jam’ workshop for college bands and combos two weeks before the main festival – it’s a free concert and an opportunity for students to play jazz in an acoustically-acclaimed auditorium in front of an appreciative audience. Patron Rodger Fox provides tutorials and feedback and often brings with him internationally renowned players.

Kokomai is Wairarapa’s biennial creative festival and like most events of its kind it’s usually a bit music-heavy, according to Festival Director Heidi Holbrook. “Generally we find music is more accessible to the public,” she says. Heidi was very excited to see the success of the Gladstonebury Festival last summer but misses King Street Live where she has programmed smaller shows during Kokomai. “I know the kids miss KSL but hopefully people will create more pop-up events and temporary stages.” 

The Gladstonebury festival sprung up for the first time in 2017 and according to organiser Nikki King was hugely successful, providing opportunities for local bands as well as out-of-towners. The sold-out one-day event at Gladstone Vineyard looks likely to double in size for 2018.

Wine and Food festivals such as Toast Martinborough and Wairarapa Wines’ Harvest Festival also provide opportunities for live music, both local and imported.

 

Local Music on Television!

Wairarapa TV hosted a May Music Marathon for NZ Music Month this year, showcasing twelve performers over twelve hours. It presented a good cross section of the local scene, from jazzy originals Honey Tea Trio through the old guard Grafia and Bearded Theory, indie folk performer Holy Loner to rock band The Dead Zephyrs and Masterton metal outfit Inhale. Also on the bill were established locals Saali Marks and Mike Rigg along with veteran originals band Nzumeus and singer-songwriters Coral Griffis, Shayne Cater and Lisa Jimmieson.

 

The Venues

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon and Club Carterton is hosting the ‘Hillbilly to Hard Rock’ open mic, a monthly meeting run by Featherston’s Peter Jackson and Paddy Greeks who also act as the house band. A small audience is seated at tables as the signed-up performers trade songs with assistance from the band (on this occasion joined by highly-regarded drummer Roger Gordon-Wiles). The organisers concede that over the eight months they’ve been going, the performers have been significantly slanted towards the ‘hillbilly’ end of the spectrum – so, is this an opportunity for the ‘hard rock’ sector to come and play? Bring their friends, make an occasion of it?

Also in Carterton, Regent 58 Ale House has recently started hosting live music in its cosy brewery and newcomer Balter Bar & Kitchen provides music on Sunday afternoons. Clareville Bakery holds a monthly ‘dine and dance’ evening which originated as an open mic run by the late Lenny T.

In Greytown, Turkey Red’s Marilla Rankin says there’s an awful lot of music going on in the Wairarapa. “We love having the music, we’ve supported the musicians for seven years, it lightens the place up, but the audience is getting older and they don’t come out as much.” Marilla says that the dwindling turnout doesn’t cover the cost of providing the music and thinks the musicians need to be more realistic. “If they want to play they have to market themselves, bring their own followers in. We do radio and Facebook etc. but they need to do more of their own.”

Just up the road the Top Pub has regular live music befitting its Irish theme. Bands “with a good following” are their mainstay, according to owner Ursula Murphy – it’s the ‘craic’ they’re after so expect either Shenanigans, Uncle Monkey, Hobnail or The Travellers on the bill at least monthly, with local performers “filling in the gaps.” The “name bands” definitely bring in the crowds, Ursula says, adding that they like to support their customers with good live music to create the atmosphere in the pub.

In Masterton, Iberia Restaurante in Queen Street has had live music from time to time, although they’ve taken a break over the winter. Owner Wayne Dellabarca claims not to be much of a music listener himself but says he likes to look after the local musicians and provide an experience for his customers. “It costs me, actually, as it doesn’t seem to attract extra customers but they’re a good bunch and we’ve had some fun nights.” The Lake House in QEII Park has been hosting Grafia from time to time on Sunday afternoons and band member Keith Austin provides some tunes on a Friday night. There is also talk of a couple of new music-friendly establishments opening soon.

For many years the regular home of the (seemingly defunct) Cross Creek Blues Club,  Tauherenikau’s historic Tin Hut has been silent of late. Proprietor Kate Sullivan, along with Club stalwart Matt Ginnane, held music nights over last summer and Kate is looking to start them up again soon. She says that the nights are good for the pub, with the local musicians bringing their followers along and adding to the “country local” atmosphere.

The Rimutaka Country Music Club holds monthly meetings in an ‘open mic’ format at Messines Restaurant in Featherston. The resurrected Black Board Concerts are now held monthly at the Lions Den in Martinborough, again as an open mic session with occasional guests. 

 

The End

King Street Live’s Carl Schdroski is philosophical about its demise. He and the other investors discovered what many other venue owners around the world are finding out – people are just not going out so much and when they do, they’re not putting money over the bar. King Street was run on a ‘pay to play’ model where the band hired the stage and the sound system then kept 100% of the door charge; the venue took the bar and food. “On a good night, it was OK,” Carl says, “but averaged over the quieter nights the takings were not enough to run the place.” Like others in hospitality, he saw revenue drop off markedly when the drink-driving laws were tightened. 

Carl is rightly proud of the big national and international shows attracted to KSL but says that often it was the lower profile artists who provided the best musical experiences. “Masterton didn’t come out for the smaller touring bands, the unknowns,” he says, “although they did support the local bands. It’s the musicians who’ve lost out the most – it was one of the best music venues in the lower North Island. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to what appeals to the public.”

The general consensus seems to be that the Wairarapa doesn’t have the population to support a dedicated, permanent music venue, but that there are existing facilities which are perfectly useable now or that could be re-purposed. Carl Schdroski agrees with others that a multi-use facility might work if it was set up properly. “Get the acoustics right and run it as a non-profit.” But it won’t be the Schdroskis running it this time. “It’s a bit of a shame, but we did try. We all lost a lot of money, but we’re not bitter about it – the experience was awesome, the gigs were amazing and I have no regrets at all.”