LIAM FINN AT NOSTALGIA FESTIVAL 2017 (PHOTO: Naomi Haussman)

Nostalgia Festival: Contemporary music in a replica 19th century colonial village

From small beginnings, with fewer than a thousand punters at the first event in 2014, Nostalgia Festival has grown slowly but steadily to become one of the most unique on the New Zealand summer circuit. James Dann talks to festival director Johnny Gibson ahead of the fifth iteration this weekend.

The Ferrymead Heritage Park is a peculiarly Christchurch thing. Found halfway between Christchurch and Lyttelton, on the site of New Zealand’s first railway line, it’s a trip back in time to a past that never really existed. As a kid, it was a regular destination for a Sunday out with my grandparents – tram rides, cream buns, and model railways. The centre of the park is a replica Edwardian town, and this Saturday sees its biggest day of the year, the 5th Nostalgia Festival. From small beginnings, this year 4,000 people are expected to come and see Connan Mockasin, The Chills, Estere, Glass Vaults and more.

Festival director Johnny Gibson had worked in bars and in wine sales but hadn’t run an event of this scale before 2014. After watching a particularly poorly organised show on the street in the post-quake CBD, he figured he couldn’t do any worse. It was a rapid learning curve. After the first event, Gibson was so stressed out he spent the night in the hospital. When I catch up with him to talk about this year’s festival, he’s just had a 10-minute power nap on the grass in Christchurch’s east frame – his way of dealing with an unexpected change to the long-range weather forecast. “I’m trying to be good at not stressing out about the things we can’t control,” he says. You can’t stress when you’re sleeping.

Johnny Gibson (PHOTO: Naomi Haussman)

A replica late-19th-century colonial village might seem an odd place to hold a music festival, but it’s actually pretty canny planning on Gibson’s part. It’s essentially a street festival – except he doesn’t have to go through all the rigmarole (and cost) of getting the council to close down multiple streets to do it. Food trucks, drink stations, and a small selection of vendors line the vintage cobbles. Most of the 18 societies that have their homes at the park will be open for the day. You can visit the Post and Telegraph Society, the Radio Preservation Society of New Zealand, or the Printmaking Society. The trains run all day – “It’s the only festival I know of that has a working steam train” – and you can wander around the old Masonic lodge.

‘Curation’ is an overused word these days, but it sums up Gibson’s approach. He not only programmes the music but also selects all the food vendors and drink suppliers. His aim is to create a unique, memorable experience, and if he succeeds, the festival can return for another year.

He also focuses on getting musicians he knows will put on a good show. “Lots of people don’t know the musicians, but I want to get a great performer who will blow people away.” Previous years have seen the likes of The Bats, Delaney Davidson, The Phoenix Foundation, and Tami Neilson take the stage.

NOSTALGIA FESTIVAL 2016 (PHOTO: Naomi Haussman)

Last year’s programme opened up with a set from Nadia Reid, just over the hill from the Sitting Room studio where she recorded Preservation, which would go on to win so many plaudits later in the year. Local favourite Lawrence Arabia (who had previously played the festival with Fabulous/Arabia) was about the moment that the picnickers decided it was time to stand up from their rugs, in time for Liam Finn, resplendent in leopard-skin onesie, performing as if he’d just chased down, killed, and skinned said cat. The music then winds down, and the whole thing is wrapped by 7:30 or 8. It keeps things simple for the organisers, and also stops the day from turning into a boozy mess.

With touring becoming an increasingly large part of musicians’ income streams, there seem to be more options for the festival goer. Nostalgia is on the same day as the Tuki Festival in Wanaka (the re-booted Rippon Festival) and in a month with both a big beer festival and the Electric Avenue music festival being staged in Hagley Park. In an increasingly crowded festival market, you can either go bigger or go boutique, and Gibson has pumped for the latter. “It seems to be the smaller, more unique festivals that are doing well,” he says. I ask him about the future of the festival, but it’s not something he’s really thought about. “It’s year by year – but here we are, five years on.”

Nostalgia Festival is on Saturday 10 February at the Ferrymead Heritage, Christchurch. Click here for more information and tickets.


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