Pictured: ActualLorde performs at an intimate show at the Powerstation in Auckland on November 14, 2017 (Photo: Dave Simpson/WireImage)
Pictured: ActualLorde performs at an intimate show at the Powerstation in Auckland on November 14, 2017 (Photo: Dave Simpson/WireImage)

Pop CultureApril 24, 2021

Big acts, small shows: When stadiums just won’t work

Pictured: ActualLorde performs at an intimate show at the Powerstation in Auckland on November 14, 2017 (Photo: Dave Simpson/WireImage)
Pictured: ActualLorde performs at an intimate show at the Powerstation in Auckland on November 14, 2017 (Photo: Dave Simpson/WireImage)

When the world’s biggest musicians come to town, sometimes they want to play the smallest stage they can find – and calamity can ensue. Chris Schulz looks back on the buzziest ‘intimate’ Auckland gigs. 

“It’s the last one left,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. “Do you want to buy it?”

Yes, I wanted to buy it. In 2003, Foo Fighters were coming to town to headline the Big Day Out in front of tens of thousands of people.

But, the Friday night before the festival, Dave Grohl and co had announced a small, intimate, quick-fire gig at Galatos in front of a few hundred.

I desperately wanted to be there. So I was on the phone to Ticketek, because that’s how you bought your concert tickets in the early 2000s, and I was about to buy the last one.

The only problem was the cost. Tickets were $50. As a struggling student, I had just $70 to last me a week. Could I survive on just $20 until the next pay day?

I decided I could. But just as I was about to scream, “take my money!” into the phone, I got some bad news.

“Oh,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “The ticket just disappeared. Someone else bought it. Sorry about that.”

The show was sold out. I wasn’t going.

When Covid-19 shut down the live entertainment industry last year, memories like this started coming back to me.

With everyone stuck at home, concerts were the thing I missed most. I had been going to three gigs a week for decades, but during the lockdown, my ears suddenly stopped ringing.

So I started thinking about the time The White Stripes played The Dogs Bollix and everyone lost their mind over it. Or when Pixies finally came to New Zealand and chose to play to just 1,000 people at the Powerstation.

Or how Kendrick Lamar and Lorde did the same thing, when they could have filled Spark Arena.

You don’t get anything more intense than when a big stadium act, used to belting out songs to every far corner of an enormo-dome, performs in front of just a handful of people in a tiny venue.

I wanted to capture some of that energy, and find out why those shows happened. So I made a list of all the times big acts had played small shows here, and started tracking down the promoters who put them on, or those fans who were there.

After the past year, when gigs have been scarce, it turned out that there were plenty of other people who wanted to reminisce about their favourite gigs too.

I may not have made it to see the Foos play at Galatos, but talking to those who were there, and to those who spent the show holding up the floorboards to stop them caving in, really helped.

Maybe it will help you too.

Coldplay, Galatos (January 18, 2001)

When Chris Martin and the rest of Coldplay stepped off the plane for their debut New Zealand show, they were rusty. “We picked them up at the airport and they said then and there they hadn’t played together for a while,” remembers Nikki Streater, who was employed as a Big Day Out festival publicist at the time.

A furore surrounded the group following the release of their debut album Parachutes six months earlier, which included the soft-rock smash ‘Yellow’. The four-piece had been enjoying a Christmas break before heading down under to play their first Australasian shows as part of the 2001 Big Day Out line-up, to share a stage with imposing nu metal acts Limp Bizkit and Rammstein.

Coldplay’s Chris Parker at the Big Day Out in 2001 (Photo: Martin Philbey/Redferns)

Coldplay were desperate to rehearse, says Streater. “Specifically, they wanted to do it in front of a live audience – but not publicise the fact.” Streater faced the tough ask of organising a concert in just 24 hours. Galatos, a small venue off Auckland’s Karangahape Rd that holds just 500 people, was chosen due to its availability. She remembers a “mad frenzy” dealing with record labels, the venue and the band’s management to make the show happen. There wasn’t time to sell tickets. “We phoned around everyone we knew and invited them all to come watch a show at Galatos,” remembers Streater. “It was literally a phone-around of family and friends.”

One of those who got the call was Francesca Rudkin, an Auckland-based TV and radio personality who knew little about the band, but decided to head along anyway. She ranks the gig among her favourites. “Everyone was captivated by Chris Martin,” says Rudkin. “This really unassuming guy came out – I think he was barefoot – and performed and the songs won us all over.”

She remembers a punter standing next to her looking around the room and declaring: “What is happening?!” Everyone in the room, says Rudkin, fell in love with Martin. “We were all standing there thinking, ‘He is singing to me.’ That is charisma.'” Coldplay have played many more shows in New Zealand, including sell-out concerts to thousands at Spark Arena and Mt Smart Stadium. But Rudkin says the Galatos performance will stay with her for the rest of her life. “He (Martin) has got it,” she says. “He’s got the X factor.”

The White Stripes, Dogs Bollix (January 17, 2002)

Jack and Meg White have played plenty of kooky shows together in Auckland, gracing Queen Street restaurant Pizza Pizza in 2000 and performing to school kids at Freeman’s Bay Primary School in 2003. The colour-co-ordinated pair’s first overseas tours were in New Zealand, with Meg telling the Herald in a rare 2006 interview: “We love you.”

They’d go on to headline the Big Day Out, but a few years beforehand the pair delivered what many remember as their best-ever show here. At Newton Road venue the Dogs Bollix in early 2002, just a few hundred crammed in to see The White Stripes rip through a set of carefully picked covers and songs from ‘White Blood Cells’, the album that would soon send the Detroit duo into the stratosphere.

“The first song they played was Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’,” remembers PK Stowers, who worked at student radio station bFM at the time. “Hearing the power of his voice in that small venue was just astonishing.”

The White Stripes playing the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London in 2002 (Photo: Tabatha Fireman/Redferns/Getty Images)

Like many at the show, Stowers dressed like the band, donning a pair of red corduroy pants for the show. That fan worship helped create a vibe unlike any at their bigger shows.

“With a gig like that, it’s a different atmosphere inside. You kind of felt like you were going to witness something special,” he says. “I don’t remember how much tickets were, but whatever it was, it doesn’t matter.”

After a set that included the band’s signature hits ‘Hotel Yorba’ and ‘Fell in Love With a Girl’, as well as cover versions of Lead Belly’s ‘Boll Weevil’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Isis’, many didn’t want to leave. “They played an amazing set,” says Stowers. “People hung around afterwards to talk about it to soak up more of the atmosphere that was inside that venue.”

Foo Fighters, Galatos (January 16, 2003)

Dave Grohl’s band of rock ‘n’ roll giants have made a habit of playing smaller shows in New Zealand, gracing the Auckland Town Hall with their presence for a Christchurch benefit gig in 2015, at a time when they could easily have a filled a stadium. But the smallest gig played here by the American stalwarts happened in 2003 as a one-off warm-up show the night before the Big Day Out in 2003.

Announced well in advance, the Foos’ show at Galatos easily sold all 500 tickets, but Big Day Out producer Etienne Marais remembers panicking when the group’s tour party arrived to set up the show. “They had so much gear,” says Marais. “By the time they’d set up … there was so little room left that even fitting the people who bought tickets in was a major, major issue.”

Dave Grohl performing with the Foo Fighters at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom in 2003 (Photo: Getty Images)

The guest list was cut to help ease the load, but it remained “an alarmingly over-capacity event”.

More problems arose once the Foos hit the venue’s tiny stage, ripping through a set packed with fan favourites like ‘Monkey Wrench’, ‘My Hero’ and ‘Everlong’. The crowd moshed so hard that organisers thought the venue was at risk of damage.

Downstairs, in the band’s backstage area, a security guard was watching floorboards buckle above him. “The floor was bouncing so much that the security guy was literally trying to jam road cases on top of each other under the floor to stop it from flexing so much,” remembers Marais. “He thought it was going to break. He was totally freaking out. He said we should stop the show.”

Marais was so busy sorting out the gig’s various issues that he only saw about five minutes of the Foos’ performance. But he says it was incredible seeing a band up close that would one day go on to create seismic tremors during a Western Springs show in 2010. “It was sick, bro,” he says. “It was epic. I just wish I’d taken some photos.”

Pixies, Powerstation (March 11, 2010)

When Boston band Pixies released their fourth album Trompe le Monde in 1991, they cemented their status as alternative rock icons. Two years later, they broke up, leaving many Kiwi fans distraught. Across the release of four albums over seven years, Pixies failed to pay New Zealand a single visit. Their break-up meant that was now impossible.

By 2010, the group’s original line-up had reformed, and Pixies announced their first show here, not in a stadium or an arena, but at Auckland’s Powerstation to just 1,100 people.

Black Francis of Pixies performing in 2010 in Austin, Texas (Photo: Getty Images)

On the night, fans were ecstatic as Pixies ripped through the entirety of their classic 1989 album Doolittle, as well as a series of B-sides. They also found room for two encores, delivering fans a whopper of a gig that included 29 songs. But they were also typically moody, with front man Frank Black refusing to say a single word to the crowd. Instead, banter was left to bassist Kim Deal who cracked occasional jokes and announced certain songs.

“An event worth waiting for,” raved one NZ Herald critic at the time, who called it “magnificent … each track is greeted warmly like an old friend”.

Pixies went on to play a bigger show the following night at Spark Arena, but to make their first New Zealand shows more memorable, fans could buy the entire concert on CD, fully packaged with artwork and two discs, just moments after it ended.

Despite Deal’s departure since those shows, Pixies remain a going concern, releasing their latest album Beneath the Eyrie in 2019 and playing New Zealand several times since. That includes a performance here last March in Spark Arena, one of the last gigs in the country before touring ground to a halt over travel restrictions enforced by Covid-19.

Pixies’ Powerstation concert CD (Photo: Chris Schulz)

Kendrick Lamar, Powerstation (December 18, 2012)

Some of the best gigs I’ve seen have involved incendiary rappers in venues that can’t contain them. I’ve seen Odd Future nearly tear up the Powerstation’s floorboards, and an overexcited Lil Yachty fan jump off the venue’s upper deck, crashing many metres onto the floor below.

At a Travis Scott concert in Sydney’s Metro Theatre, the shirtless rapper threw fans off the stage, berated security guards and crowdsurfed over my head.

Kendrick Lamar performs at a nightclub in Atlanta in 2012 (Photo: Getty Images)

But the gig I, and many others, missed out on was Kendrick Lamar’s Powerstation show in 2012. After the release of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, the Compton giant had already become too big for a 1,000-strong venue. That meant no review passes for media, no guest lists to sneak onto. I missed out on buying a ticket, and sulked about it for days.

It’s no wonder, because I missed something incredibly special: an ascending rapper reaching full stride as he ripped through a set packed with soon-to-be-classics: ‘Money Trees’, ‘Backseat Freestyle’ and ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’.

Over the years, I’ve consoled myself by watching the few YouTube videos that exist from that concert. In one, a frothing crowd chants the lyrics to Money Trees back at Lamar like their lives depends on it. Damn, I wish I’d been there.

Lorde, Powerstation (November 15, 2017)

In 2013, at the age of 17, New Zealand’s newest pop star made her live debut at two intimate gigs: one at Wellington venue Mighty Mighty, the other at Auckland’s Galatos. They were concerts that announced Lorde’s arrival on the world’s pop stage, one she would soon dominate thanks to her Grammy-winning single ‘Royals’.

By the time she reached the Powerstation in 2017, Lorde had done exactly that, winning multiple awards, making headline appearances at Lollapalooza and Coachella, being photographed with Kanye West, and embarking on several stadium-sized world tours.

Lorde playing at the Powerstation (Photo: Chris Schulz)

When it came time for her first major New Zealand tour, it was a mystery that Lorde skipped playing large venues like Spark Arena or Western Springs and instead chose to play to just a few hundred people.

Her seven-night New Zealand-wide tour opted for small venues in Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington. In Auckland, she played to just 1,000 people a night across two shows at the Powerstation.

As Apple DJ Zane Lowe asked her afterwards: “Why? You could have played four nights at Vector [now Spark Arena]?” Lorde told him she wanted to see her New Zealand fans up close. “I wanted something really intimate. I wanted to be able to say, ‘You were there and I was there, we did this amazing thing, we sweated on each other and it was a good time.’”

It was a great time. Reviewers raved about seeing a capable stadium performer in such a small venue.

“She kept total control over the crowd at all times,” wrote NZ Herald critic Siena Yates, while Coup de Main called it a set of “total raw emotion”.

Will we ever see Lorde play in a stadium here? “I think you’ll find that there will be a two-step campaign… she’ll come back and play some bigger venues,” promoter Brent Eccles told Stuff.co.nz at the time.

It hasn’t happened yet, but restricted borders and limited tours by overseas acts mean demand to see our royal pop queen would be huge. She reportedly has a new album in the works, so cross your fingers and pray for the Lorde’s return.

Relive some of the great BDO sideshows in this episode of Remember When… Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

Keep going!