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The Newtown Festival. Photo: Ben Lynch.
The Newtown Festival. Photo: Ben Lynch.

Pop CultureMarch 7, 2019

How the Newtown Festival captures the suburb’s community spirit

The Newtown Festival. Photo: Ben Lynch.
The Newtown Festival. Photo: Ben Lynch.

The Newtown Festival, one of the capital’s biggest festivals, celebrated its 22nd birthday over the weekend. Ben Lynch was there.

Since its inception back in 1997 as a celebration of council tree planting and street improvements in the centre of Wellington’s most bohemian suburb, Newtown Festival has evolved to signify a great many things. The handover from summer to autumn. An opportunity to check out a host of local (and several national) acts across a range of genres. The temptation of a great many stalls selling everything from natural health soaps to real fruit ice cream. The festival has also become synonymous with persistent pushing and shoving, thanks to the size of the crowds it now attracts (70,000 in 2017, and an estimated 90,000 this year).

Most importantly, the festival embodies exactly what it was designed to express from day one: a sense of diversity and tolerance befitting the suburb where it was born. 

Last weekend I arrived in Riddiford Street, the festival’s epicentre, before the crowds and the sun had properly taken hold. A flick through the programme revealed a host of acts catering to crowds from metalheads to roots fans. For a free festival focussed overwhelmingly on local music, the range of artists was impressive, testament to the variety of acts who call Wellington home.

Punters at the Newtown Festival. Photo: Ben Lynch.

I was briefly concerned that my day had peaked before it had properly begun when I stopped at the Wilson Street stage to watch Linen. Despite hearing good things about their live show, with only one song currently available on Bandcamp I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but the band were fantastic.  

Moulding together a sound that takes the experimentation and expansion of psych and combines it with the power of classic rock and ferociousness of punk, the band put on what was undeniably the best show I saw all day. Vocalist and guitarist Emerald Rose was on feral form, leading the troops through a journey of math-inflected melodies and moments of unrelenting force.

For those with a penchant for the heavier side of things, the Wilson Street stage outside Deathray Records was the place to be. Another highlight was local metal act Spook The Horses, who played towards the end of the day. Largely relying on a combination of vocalist Callum Gay’s spine-shattering growls and the pummeling instrumentation, their aesthetic seemed almost misplaced amid the bustling crowds and persistent sunshine. Regardless, they expertly injected a sizeable dose of metal into Newtown’s mainline, a welcome inclusion to the overall chilled-out Newtown vibe.

Punters at the Newtown Festival. Photo: Ben Lynch.

As with any festival, by far the best way to experience this vibe is to wander around aimlessly and see what you happen upon. And it was when I found myself heading blindly from stage to stage that the range of music hinted at by the programme really came to life. Rock music isn’t your thing? Well, maybe the Songs From The Old Country stage was the place for you. Both dance group Bulgarian Ensemble Horo, and Vox Ethno, performing a series of old country songs from the Balkans, were a delight. If Bulgarian folk music isn’t up your alley, perhaps the Sounds Almighty Sound System or Renegade Bass Stage on Donald McLean Street were where you should have headed. Ant Dub/Taiko’s series of jungle classics drew a faithful, if fairly small, crowd in the mid-afternoon heat, appeasing those attendees who were happy to give Bic Runga a miss on the larger South Stage.

Elsewhere, the excellent Brannigan Kaa on the Tangata Whenua Stage at the north end of Riddiford Street, similarly had his own sizeable collection of fans assembled. A far cry from the sounds emerging from the Wilson Street stage just around the corner, Kaa’s charisma and smooth singing came as a joyful relief.

Holding strong to a mantra of diversity is one thing – creating an environment, and securing the calibre of acts, to result in quality performances is another. And, largely, Newtown Festival also did a good job of this. From the smaller, more colourful Newtown Avenue stage to the much grander scale of the South Stage, there was a decent attempt at differentiation both in terms of sound and environment.

The only real disappointment was the Normanby Street stage, which despite a really strong lineup seemed to have a few issues with sound. The much-loved ska outfit Dr Reknaw managed to pull an insane crowd both in terms of size and energy, and might have emerged as one of the acts of the day if the vocals weren’t lost in the slight breeze. The coy but highly promising indie duo Fruit Juice Parade and excellent O-Boy! fared better, but the shaking of the blow-up cover and occasional screech from the mic continued to impair on the acts playing.

A band plays at the Newtown Festival. Photo: Ben Lynch.

I’ve already mentioned the soaps and ice cream, but despite the fact they’re impossible to escape, it’s easy to overlook the variety and importance of the many many stalls. Admittedly a disproportionate amount of my time was spent gawping at the lines of food stalls, but when you’re treated to everything from Mexican to Ethiopian to Vietnamese, it’s hard to direct your attention to anything else. 

There were also any number of stalls selling handbags, cute earrings or ceramic pottery, all of which highlight both the best and the worst in local business ventures. But where the magic really lay was in the niche societies and endeavours that warranted a quick stop and chat. Case in point: ghost fishing.

If you’d have told me I’d have hung around the ghost fishing stall looking at all the things they’d reeled up around Wellington, you’d have been lucky to receive a glazed look in response. But there I was. A laptop, telescope, sunglasses; this stuff was bloody fascinating. Add to this the volume of other proudly local and lovingly curated stalls, and sometimes – just sometimes – it’s worth stopping in the midst the crowd and taking a moment to examine some of the goods on offer.

While we’re on the topic of the crowds, let’s discuss what was without doubt the main issue with the Newtown Festival: the Wellington Batucada street event. The other similar event I came across, the Wellington Capoeira Angola, caused no issues. It restricted itself to Donald McLean Street, in no way imposing itself upon passers-by, and was a quietly moving display. The much larger Wellington Batucada, however, unfortunately developed from an electric spectacle down on Colombo Street, off the beaten track, to a walking, drumming battering ram that made its way up through the main drag of Riddiford Street and ended at the Living Wage Stage on Constable Street.  

Seemingly oblivious to the mid-afternoon flow of people up and down Riddiford Street, it effectively acted as a dam in the middle of Newtown Festival’s main drag, leading to all sorts of blockage-related issues. A crowd of 90,000 people (nearly a fifth of the population of the wider Wellington region, even if it’s spread over a day, isn’t ever easy to deal with. You couldn’t help but feel that the hour or so of panic-induced pushing and shoving could have been eased somewhat without the Samba train ploughing through the centre of the festival.

Still, despite my gripes, even the mid-afternoon brawl added to the overarching character of Newtown Festival. There is a kind of chaotic beauty to the whole thing, from the howling of Linen’s Emerald Rose to the laptop caught while ghost fishing.

It’s a festival that bursts with love for its local community, typified by the Community Stage, situated in the centre of the whole event, which hosted a number of exceptional local performances. Watching the likes of Everybodies Choir sing their hearts out was as emotional as anything else I saw all day, and without the festival, they would almost certainly have missed out on the chance to perform on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in the middle of their hometown.

And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. It might not always be perfectly orchestrated, but Newtown Festival is replete with the energy and diversity that define a local community. And for that alone, 2019 has got to go down as a success.

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