If you’re in the states you might never have heard of Sam Bartells, Albi and the Wolves, or Mema Wilda. That should change.
Turns out the country that brought you Lorde has a whole lot to offer the music world in genres as varied as pop, reggae, house, and even Americana. Since New Zealand has managed to keep COVID at bay, this small, beautiful island nation finds itself at the forefront of the entertainment industry. Actors, musicians, producers, and directors of all nationalities and ilks find themselves taking refuge and making art in this place and time, discovering the wealth of talent that resides at the end of the world. As a musician thankfully caught here since the start of the pandemic, it’s been my pleasure to bear witness to these events.
The Tuning Fork is one of the only mid-sized all ages venues in Auckland. Located in Spark Arena, it’s the kind of place where you could see early Justin Townes Earle – R.I.P. – or 15 year old up-and-comer Billie Eilish before she became a household name. In other words, it’s a freaking cool spot. It’s all about the best new music before most people even know what’s up, and I can recommend the jalapeño poppers, so…
Mema Wilda opened the show, and if it had ended there I would have had plenty to write about. The acoustic set featuring Mema accompanied by Sam Stretch, alternating between guitar, bass, and cajon – and featuring apt use of a TC vocal harmonizer – was atmospheric and sultry. A stark contrast from their combined stage presence which was awkward, humorous, and ultimately endearing. Mema’s thematic content is reminiscent of a Hozier-style fusion of sexual and religious themes, delivered to great affect. Perhaps the best word for the affect Mema has on her audience is titillating. She’s raw and sensual without a hint of affectation. It’s early days in Mema’s career and it’s exciting to think where she will go. Her six-piece band has played Seeport, Earthbeat, NYE Reslution, and is presently recording and booking their first headlining tour.
Sam Bartells and Albi and the Wolves co-headlined the night, flipping a coin to determine who would play first. It was a neat trick, according to Chris, aka “Albi” of Albi and the Wolves, intended to bring both artists’ audiences together and set the tone for the evening. As one might expect from Americana, that tone was wholesome and playful.
Sam Bartells is a soft rock/heartland rock/country rock/singer-songwriter who was shaking things up in Nashville just prior to COVID. And no wonder. He’s a striking baritone with Darius Rucker meets Eddie Vedder vibes singing about loss and addiction through a hopeful, loving lens. Sam took the stage first with a five-piece band – guitar, drums, bass, keys, and violin – and immediately experienced some tech issues which he and the sound crew were skillfully able to trouble shoot without pause, but which appeared to shake the band’s confidence for the duration of the first mid-tempo and the second downtempo numbers. The third song, “Queen of Hurt,” a headbanger on regret and bad decisions released earlier this year, saw Sam get into his rock roots and the crowd going. This was followed by Sam’s new release, a country flavored single called “Where We’ll Go” featuring Mema Wilda. Unlike the huskier tone Mema summoned in her solo set, ”Where We’ll Go” saw Mema balancing Sam’s baritone with a stylistically appropriate clarity in her upper register. For both artists it seems this song is a natural evolution and an expansion of their stylistic and thematic range. “Where We’ll Go” is about “being okay” in the present whilst juggling anxiety over future unknowns. Produced by Sam Bartells and Mitch French in New Zealand and DR Ford in Nashville, Mema was added on when it was decided that the track “needed something more.” Mema joined Sam on stage for the inaugural performance of “Where We’ll Go” prior to the song’s official release this week.
By this point Sam’s band was really shining, and his set became decidedly more rock-influenced as the night progressed. Sam’s music is anthemic when the broad dynamic range is handled with nuance, and this crew – featuring Shimna Higgins on fiddle/vocals, Mitch French on drums/vocals, Maia Huia on bass/vocals, Stallone D Souza on keys – was suitable to the task. The audience sang along with Sam’s better known songs, such as his 2019 single “Mistaken,” and were physically bound by the masterful build and decay of the music. “Wite Wolf” featured some particularly adept, emotive belting by Sam, and several songs featured well crafted violin solos. They closed their set with a version of “Closing Time” by Albi and the Wolves, which featured the most virtuosic of Shimna’s solos and – finally! – a tasty little keyboard solo. They did a single encore with “Blessed and Broken,” a singable crowd pleaser with a great bass line and a rock and roll ending.
Albi and the Wolves is a three-piece featuring Chris Dent, aka “Albi”, Pascal Roggen, and Michael Young. They’ve performed together as Albi and the Wolves since 2014, and it shows. They’re an indie folk rock trio with two of the most charismatic front men – Chris on guitar/vocals and Pascal on violin/vocals – balanced by Michael on bass who never gives more than a toothy grin (but does throw in a solid harmony!). They’re as entertaining comedically as musically, and that’s saying something. The puns fly as fast as their virtuosic fingers – Pascal joking that he’s payed by the note – and the audience can’t get enough of their rapport. They were joined this particular evening by what appeared to be a random person lounging on an armchair in the back right corner of the stage. This turned out to be Nat Torkington, a banjo enthusiast and right awesome player who alternated between joining the band and being part of the aesthetic.
Albi and the Wolves started by borrowing Shimna from Sam’s band for a bittersweet, baroque style violin duet between her and Pascal which evolved into a mid tempo shuffle with a satisfyingly simple scalular melody called “Giants in the Sky.” They resolved this the same way they began, leaving the door open for Albi and the Wolves to move into their signature up-tempo style punctuated with sudden dynamic shifts and breaks. They can grow from nearly a whisper to a veritable wall of sound, as in “Story”, and hold an audience fast with full body music that demands participation and leaves the audience out of breath, as in “I Will Not Be Broken.” Albi and the Wolves also detour briefly into tangential genres like gypsy folk, as in “One Eye Open,” and Pogues-style Irish punk, in “Who I Am.” Mirroring Sam Bartells’ cover of “Closing Time,” Albi and the Wolves covered Sam’s original, “Alone No More.” As with Sam’s cover, I could have been convinced it was an Albi original. They ended their set with an unexpected indie folk cover of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” featuring a killer banjo solo by Nat and audience sing along, of course. If you like quirk and ample moments to shout “Hey!” over your music, check them out. They’re in studio recording their next single and planning an Australian tour for the coming year.
Sam Bartells and Albi and the Wolves are far enough apart on the spectrum of Americana to share an audience and keep it interesting. They put a lot of thought and care into curating their shows, and it pays off. The evening ended on a high with both headlining bands jamming an energizing rendition of Kings of Leon’s “Sex On Fire.” Highlight: Mema belting it at the top of her lungs behind me in the audience.
If you’ve the opportunity to see these phenomenal musicians from the end of the world, do. Like many others who tune in to the Tuning Fork, you’ll be able to say “I saw them when…”