When we heard that Graeme James was in town this weekend his gig was firmly put in the diary. All week we had been looking forward to the road-trip out to the wild west of Kumeu, which is fast building up its reputation as Auckland’s folk capital having hosted New Zealand's largest folk music and dance festival (Auckland Folk Festival) for the last 25 years.
We arrived just after 7.30pm in the unique surroundings of Kumeu Arts Centre, home to beautiful artwork and jewellery by day, but tonight the masterpiece on show was Mr Graeme James. Thankfully, we had been informed ahead of time that the gig would be BYO, so we arrived with ample wine provisions, as did the rest of this bijoux crowd who were just warming up to Fables.
Thinking we were suitably on schedule I was somewhat surprised to see this cosy venue had nearly filled up and the ‘no door sales/sold out’ sign meant that our seating option was to either stand towards the back (which would have facilitated our dancing efforts later) or make our way up to the very front within two feet of the artists, almost like being in your own living-room. We chose the latter and did not regret our decision as the velveteen voice of – Jess Bailey and duo accomplice Laurence Diack on cello and accordion found us forgetting that we were nearly sitting on top of them! Jess was having fun, peppering her quirky humour in between her wistful lyrics and authentic songs. She was most excited to finish with the accompaniment of Graeme and his electric fiddle and the voices of a supportive crowd who wilfully sang the chorus of ‘Where are you going now?’ much to her delight and appreciation.
We were definitely going nowhere... as the wine was flowing and with a short interlude Graeme was good to go. Highways Tour sees Graeme playing across the country showcasing his debut original album News from Nowhere which was a finalist for the NZ Folk Album of The Year. Having seen him live a few times it is normally his command of his electric fiddle that mesmerises especially when he lets rip during Alive, the lead single that gained second place in the Folk Category of the acclaimed international Unsigned Only Songwriting Competition. This time, given our strategic vantage point up front it was his mastery of the loop pedal that hypnotised as we watched him methodically create a formidable backing track that would rival any live band. This one man band needs no support as his musical talents span fiddle, guitar, bass, baritone ukulele, beat boxing, harmonica and mandolin – never mind his rich vocals and poetic lyrics.
One + One saw the audience toe-tapping and shoulder swaying, given the mostly seated gig. However, this wasn’t to last long as a bunch of merry Lions fans cajoled James from the crowd. It is often at this point that I find myself cringing or feeling sorry for a performer at these intimate gigs. I did not have to worry here as Graeme was well able to handle the raucous Brits both having the banter but at the same time not appeasing their demands for upbeat numbers that would stimulate their partying and Dad-dancing. Instead, he confidently played a couple of his new numbers and even introduced the audience to a song that brought me back to my folk-singing days in Northern Ireland, Wild Mountain Thyme (aka Go Lassie Go). This Scottish folk song has a heart-warming chorus that would bring any divided crowd together and I found myself closing my eyes and my mind had joined another session back home for just a few minutes.
Later, holding his own again he politely asked the crowd for some hush as he played his title track of the tour Highways. One of my favourites from this album because of the honest lyrics that immediately ring true with me. With the crowd hooked, there was no way Graeme would be allowed to go quietly and once again he riled up the audience who this time jumped to their feet, clapping and squealing with one Lions chap keen to join him on stage at one point. He finished by leading the now merry crowd with his own rendition of ‘You are my Sunshine’. I turned around to see everyone on their feet, old and young, crooning in unison to the timeless classic – Graeme you definitely brought sunshine to Kumeu – thank you!
Highways Tour finishes next weekend in Wellington (Friday 7th July, San Fran). If you’re in the capital go check him out, you won’t be disappointed!
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