A new festival held over Matariki weekend hopes to transform Taranaki into a midwinter destination for the music-loving masses.
David Benge wanted to do something different. For several years, the promoter had been dreaming of creating a midwinter music festival away from the usual spots. “I want to do stuff that isn’t just the same rinse and repeat,” he says. “What is it that’s unique and exciting about New Zealand that we could play on?”
He’d been thinking about the “magic and majesty” of New Plymouth, the coastal destination often bypassed by touring acts. “International artists do Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch,” he says. “You need to be doing a fairly robust tour of the country to get to the point where you’re including New Plymouth as one of your stops.”
While he was thinking about all this, several things happened. Matariki, the official start of the Māori New Year, became a public holiday. Alongside it, the New Plymouth District Council announced a midwinter version of its hugely popular summertime Festival of the Lights, moving it from the scenic bush of Pukekura Park to the central city.
Benge thought: “This is the time to do this thing that we’ve been talking about. Let’s launch this.”
And so Night Light was born. Held over the three days of Matariki weekend, Benge has booked an impressive lineup of local and international acts to perform in venues around New Plymouth across July 14-16 in a series of events timed to coincide with everything else going on.
Some of those names are big. Kirin J Callinan, the Australian pop provocateur behind that Jimmy Barnes meme, will be performing on Thursday night in the Theatre Royal and says it will be among his final headlining shows. Arlo Parks, the UK hip-hop singer who has just released her acclaimed second album, is playing her only New Zealand show on Friday night in the Showplace.
Over the rest of the weekend, there are performances from Alien Weaponry, Earth Tongue and Dartz, Jess B and Church & AP, and DJ BBYFACEKILLA to take in. While it hasn’t all gone to plan – a performance by the UK rapper Slowthai was cancelled, along with an Auckland show, after rape allegations surfaced – Benge says the lineup has been carefully curated, with the spooky Auckland singer Erny Belle opening for Callinan, and the rapper PollyHill playing before Parks.
He hopes Night Light can grow into an annual fixture and give New Plymouth more than just Womad to get excited about every year. To do that, he needs everyone to buy into the concept. He hopes punters “mix and match the bits and pieces and choose their own adventure” and that New Plymouth businesses enjoy the boost in tourism revenue the festival will bring.
It’s also important the artists have a good time, which is why indoor venues have been chosen – so “they’re not on one stage in the street freezing their genitalia off”, says Benge. The sum of the parts, he hopes, “is greater than any of the individual components”.
Attendance rates are expected to be split 50-50 between locals and those travelling to New Plymouth for the weekend. He encourages punters to take advantage of the region’s activities during the day – from the Taranaki Thermal Spa to the Len Lye Centre, Puke Ariki museum and the Coastal Walkway, to the many cafes and craft brew bars – before he supplies the evening’s entertainment.
Benge has high hopes for Night Light, talking about adding a film festival component, cherrypicking even bigger artists from Australian festivals like Splendour in the Grass happening at the same time, and perhaps one day growing it to a size that could rival Sydney’s massively popular Vivid festival. He wants it to be something people can plan well in advance because we know Matariki weekend’s dates for the next 30 years, and “you know that whatever the lineup will be, it’s going to be interesting”.
But he also knows Night Light is brand new, launching a new music festival is hard work, and Aotearoa has a growing graveyard of events that haven’t lasted the distance. “It’s baby steps,” he says. “I’m not wanting to pitch this as this fully-formed thing. This is year one … I do have a habit of trying to run before I can walk,” he says. “Let’s get this one across the line first.”