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Monthly Archives: June 2013

Last week in Dunedin – pints by the fire and a night at the opera.

I’m about to disappear from my adopted hometown of Dunedin again for a few months, and I must admit I’m a bit sad to be bidding farewell to this wondrous little city. I’ve lived here on and off for eight years and something (beyond work) always draws me back; despite the occasionally fraught relationship I have with the place. For every chill southerly blast that sweeps down Crawford Street, there’s a warm, welcoming bar filled with original music to hide in. For every Speights-swilling student spewing their Saturday night out on Albany Street, there’s an engaging conversation to be had with one of the city’s more interesting inhabitants. Musicians, academics, scientists, artists, filmmakers, writers, sportspeople – many of them world-class, reside in Dunedin and you never know who you’re going to bump into out on the town. It’s the people and the music that keeps me coming back to Dunedin

The week for me began with the Midwinter Carnival last weekend, where Dunedin showed off and celebrated its wintry side. On Sunday I watched Ivy Rossiter of Luckless perform her haunting, electric guitar drenched music at the cozy little Inch Bar. On Monday night I drank pints of good beer and talked documentary-making at Eureka. On Wednesday I attended Tahu’s open mic night at Queens where I was thrilled to hear new songs from one of Dunedin music’s real treasures – Grant Ramsay, who performs as Swampy. Grant writes incredible songs that fuse magical realism with sharp local references and haunting tunes to create something truly original, something truly Dunedin. It was great to hear him play again.

On Thursday night I watched the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Dunedin City Choir perform Verdi’s “Requiem” at the Town Hall. When the terrifying Dies Irae shook the paint from the ceiling it was one of those music moments you never forget. The whole thing was spellbinding.

And last night? Well I had the best intentions of going out again but then Dunedin’s other great attraction – a roaring fire and a bottle of whisky – got the better of me.

Midwinter Carnival with Tahu and the Takahes

Last night I played with my other band Tahu and the Takahes to a huge crowd in Dunedin’s Octagon. It was all part of the Dunedin Midwinter Carnival, held on the winter solstice every year.  The surreal grace of all the paper lanterns being paraded around the centre of the city reflects the sombre majesty of winter here in the south. In the darkened hinterland, hills crouch with their burden of snow. Beyond, the basins of Central Otago freeze in the grip of ice. Here on the coast, the city is lashed by a fleet of wind and rain that draws back in time to give respite to this carnival of cold. Stilt walkers, drums and flag dancers file past in the early evening dark, the crowds looking on in appreciation – silently acknowledging and celebrating our place here in the shadow of the planet. And we had a great time, playing in front of the biggest crowd we’ve played before. The evening was capped off by seeing good friends Matt Langley and Lindon Puffin play a great set at Queens. Winter in the south is a special time – embrace the cold!


photo: Jill Karyn

photo: Jill Karyn


Bound for America

I’m coming to the end of my current job in Dunedin and preparing to head out into the world on an amazing adventure. First stop is Australia, where I have a few gigs lined up; one each in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. From there, its on to America, where I have the thrilling opportunity of filming a documentary about New Zealand songwriter Donna Dean, who is touring over there with her Dunedin-based band. I’ve never been to the States before, so this is an opportunity too good to refuse!

donna dean

As well as filming for a documentary on Donna, I plan to work towards another couple of creative projects, which will give me the impetus to travel from one side of America to the other, taking in both coasts and the vast mythical landscape in between . The first is a film exploring the song “Davy Lowston,” which I have alluded to in previous posts. I plan to track the journey of this old New Zealand folk tune from the remote shores of the South Island to America and beyond. Another area of interest for me is Massachusetts on the north eastern shoulder of the continent, and particularly its whaling ports such as New Bedford and Nantucket. I have been researching for a whaling documentary for a while now, so I plan to make my way up there after Donna’s tour finishes and see what I can dig out.

I have a strong sense I’m going to be uncovering some pretty fascinating stories on this trip, so stay posted to this blog because I’ll be regularly posting updates. For now, it’s prep time – I’m organizing all my video equipment and booking flights and of course loading up the MP3 player with appropriate tunes to guide me on my way. My research into Davy Lowston has already led me down some interesting musical paths. A few days ago I started listening to Seattle duo Pint and Dale. They specialize in music of the sea and recorded Davy Lowston for their 2001 album White Horses. I emailed William and Felicia the other day and they sent me a download of their latest album Blue Divide. My first stop in the US may be Seattle, where I hope to catch up with these two. Stay tuned.


Nick Knox at Queens

I had the pleasure last night of hearing the incredible Nick Knox perform at Queens. A couple of local filmmakers are making a documentary on Nick, so the performance was filmed. It’s been a few years since I saw Nick play. I was astonished at what I was hearing – Nick’s music is thrilling, strange and utterly unique. Imagine Rammstein’s tour bus, with a troupe of Tibetan throat singers on board, crashing into the middle of a Bach recital and you can begin to imagine the sound. Nick was performing as part of Queens Got Talent night, organized by the indomitable Tahu. It’s great to see Queens turning into a real creative hub…I’ve seen Hector build Chicks in Port Chalmers into a national treasure of a music venue and now he’s gone one step further by creating a really vibrant little alcove in Dunedin’s creative scene. Good beer and coffee too!

nick knox

Song of America

Over the weekend I drove up to Omarama and used the three hour road trip as an opportunity to listen to an album called Song of America, which I had been put onto by an American friend after we played a song off it at a recent gig in Naseby. I knew nothing much of the album, but I found it on Spotify and downloaded it. A triple-album with over 50 songs on it, it was perfect for a long-ish drive, so I chucked it up and started listening. It was only by the time I got almost to Omarama that the concept of the album was becoming clear to me. It was a journey through American history, revealed in song.


Song of America starts with the native American “Lakota dream song,” then touches on the pilgrim music that crossed the Atlantic to take root in the cold swamps of Virginia. It traverses African-American spirituals from the days of slavery; rally-calls from the era of independence, civil war anthems, popular tunes from the 20s and 30’s and the Second World War, folk and rock from the 60’s and 70’s before bringing us into the current day with a nod to rap music and 9/11.

By the end of the drive I was hooked,waiting in fascination to for each subsequent track to reveal its chapter of the story. I actually finished my journey a couple of songs before the album ended so I had to sit in the car for another ten minutes to hear it out. I am planning a trip to the States very soon, so this sort of thing has a lot of resonance at the moment.

Here were a few of the highlights of that first listen:

Let us break Bread together – the Blind Boys of Alabama;

Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child – Beth Nielsen Chapman

Peg and Awl (the album version is by Freddy Johnston, but this links to the version off Anthology of American Folk Music)

Go Down Moses

Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye – Janis Ian

Thousands are Sailing to Ameri-kay – Tim O’Brien

Deportee – Old Crow Medicine Show

Rosie the Riveter – Suzy Bogguss

Youngstown – Matthew Ryan

The Message – Shorty Wop (link to the original by Grandmaster Flash)

And finally…

Here’s a link to the recording of some of the tracks on the album

Davy Lowston – A New Zealand folk song

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It’s a chilling story from New Zealand’s past – one that has passed down through two centuries and still carries a wind-torn melancholy that fascinates those who hear it. A group of sealers set down on a remote island off the coast of New Zealand, only to be stranded for four years when the ship consigned to pick them up sinks and they are forgotten about.

This is the true story behind Davy Lowston; one of New Zealand’s oldest and most haunting songs.

Having learned the guitar chords for this song for the recent gig in Naseby at the Bards Ballads and Bulldust festival, I decided to learn the lyrics and incorporate it into my set. I soon discovered there are several versions to the words, so I chose the ones I liked best and then added a verse or two of my own, as I felt there were some flaws in the storytelling of the original that could be improved with some embellishment…

Is this acceptable? I’m not really sure it matters – some quick research at the NZ Folk Song site revealed that the song in its original form took quite a few liberties with the truth and so I didn’t feel it was wrong to add a few verses, especially since they in no way changed the essence of the story.

Here’s what really happened: in 1809 a group of sealers under the leadership of David Lowrieston were set down on the Open Bay Islands off the coast of Haast by the ship Active. The ship returned to Sydney  leaving promises to return, but disappeared, believed sunk in a gale.

The men soon ran out of supplies and were forced to subsist on seal and bird meat, along with such edible roots as they were able to gather. During the four years they were marooned they tried to reach help at least once, by building a boat and sailing for the mainland, then attempting to climb across the mountains to the East coast. However in a weakened state, their efforts came to nothing and they were forced to return to their dismal island prison.

Hugh Best - Open Bay Islands

The fortuitous arrival of the ship Governor Bligh in 1813 must have seemed like a miracle to these wretched men, who were returned to Sydney where their story doubtlessly attracted plenty of attention. Among those taking an interest in the tale was a songwriter or poet who constructed the handful of verses that make up the song Davy Lowrieston.

The original song describes the death of a number of the sealers, which is not know to have happened. No doubt it made the song more dramatic and appealing to an audience hungry for a gripping yarn and may have contributed to its enduring popularity.

According to research done by Frank Fyffe in 1970, the song seems to have become popular the among sea-faring folk who frequented Australian and New Zealand ports at the time – whalers, sealers and merchants who probably carried it around the world with them.

The song would quite probably have been lost to history were it not for a whaleman in the 1830’s who took a collection of songs back to America, where they passed into the hands of his daughter. The American song collector and composer John Leebrick came upon these songs and resurrected them in his collection of sea shanties. The song was collected by Neil Colquhoun who along with people like Phil Garland was leading the push to dig out and archive New Zealand’s musical heritage during the folk revival of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Davy Lowston has since been memorably performed by British folk music legend Martin Carthy, among others.

New Zealand’s folk music heritage is woefully slim – unlike Australia and America, the old traditional songs were rarely gathered and archived and it was left to people like Phil and others who have done a huge service to New Zealand by collecting these songs and bringing them to a modern audience. It’s a real thrill to stand in front of an audience and present a song that is over two centuries old and comes from New Zealand’s own rich historical heritage.

I plan to do some more research into this song and its history…I’ll keep you posted as I dig information up.


Lessons from Bruce Springsteen – Matamoros Banks

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I had the pleasure of teaching a songwriting seminar with Dr Graeme Downes in Gore last Thursday as part of the 2013 New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards . Graeme, who is lead singer of legendary Dunedin indie rock band The Verlaines and a professor of music at the University of Otago, comes from quite a different part of the musical spectrum from me, so I was really interested to hear what he had to say. The big surprise for me was to discover on arrival that we had both brought Bruce Springsteen songs to play to the students.


I was approaching the seminar from a storytelling perspective and to this end had chosen Springsteen’s “Matamoros Banks,” off the Devils and Dust album, as an example of how narrative structure can be played with for increased effect. In this song, Springsteen tells the story of an illegal Mexican immigrant’s doomed attempt to cross the Rio Grande river and start a new life in America with his sweetheart.

Springsteen starts the story at the end, describing in gruesome detail the demise of his character…

For two days the river keeps you down
Then you rise to the light without a sound
Past the playgrounds and empty switching yards
The turtles eat the skin from your eyes, so they lay open to the stars

Your clothes give way to the current and river stone
‘Till every trace of who you ever were is gone
And the things of the earth they make their claim
That the things of heaven may do the same

He then goes back to the start of the story and in two verses describes the migrant’s journey across the desert at night to stand on the banks of the Rio Grande, before diving in to meet his fate…
Over rivers of stone and ancient ocean beds
I walk on sandals of twine and tire tread
My pockets full of dust, my mouth filled with cool stone
The pale moon opens the earth to its bones

Your sweet memory comes on the evenin’ wind
I sleep and dream of holding you in my arms again
The lights of Brownsville, across the river shine
A shout rings out and into the silty red river I dive

By changing around the structure of the story, Springsteen has given himself a couple of very powerful weapons. Firstly, it means he can start his song with the confrontingly visceral image of his protagonist’s body being eaten by turtles as it floats down the river. Secondly, because we have already seen the tragic end of the story in the first couple of stanzas, the third and fouth verses now carry profound pathos….we know that we are witnessing this person’s last journey in life.

The chorus therefore carries a weight that becomes more tragic as the song progresses….
I long, my darling, for your kiss, for your sweet love I give God thanks
The touch of your loving fingertips
Meet me on the Matamoros
Meet me on the Matamoros
Meet me on the Matamoros banks

Graeme had brought the song “Walk Like a Man,” from Tunnel of Love – another of my personal favourite Springsteen songs (from, in my opinion, one of his finest albums.) Graeme showed us how Springsteen uses chord patterns for impact in this song – mapping out where each chord will best fit the lyric. According to Graeme, Springsteen has mastered the use of quite basic chord progressions and gives his lyrics musical power simply by knowing exactly where to put the minor chord, when to go to the IV chord, or the V and so on…

I found it interesting that two songwriters with very different approaches would both be drawn to this particular artist – even if only from an academic point of view. As Graeme noted in the seminar, with as big a following as he has, Bruce must be doing something right!