As we know by now, the Canterbury port town of Lyttelton has proven to be quite the creative incubator. There's something about that combination of cheap rent, a working port, the old buildings, and the enveloping bays of the volcanic hillsides that nurtures its residents.
Adam McGrath thinks so, anyway, and he's best placed to tell. Lead singer of gritty country-folk band The Eastern, which formed six years ago, he's helped put together one of the country's most memorable musical collectives, born out of old friendships developed in the port town.
Often said to be New Zealand's hardest-working band, The Eastern have supported and toured with the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Steve Earle, Old Crow Medicine Show, Jimmy Barnes, Trinity Roots, The Warratahs and Louisiana's own Lil' Band O' Gold.
They've spent four months this year touring around New Zealand and Australia, last hitting Nelson in May. Their third album, the 20-song Hope & Wire, was released in February and reached No 2 in the New Zealand charts and No 1 on iTunes.
Hope & Wire has put them back on a track that the Christchurch earthquake completely derailed last year. About the same time the quakes toppled their beloved home town, a medley of travelling Lyttelton musicians and mates - The Eastern, Lindon Puffin, Delaney Davidson, The Unfaithful Ways, The Tiny Lies, Al Park, and Runaround Sue - found themselves all at home at once. They created The Harbour Union, which led to a charity album - which The Press labelled Album of the Year - in which they traded new and re-imagined songs for donations to Christchurch.
"It was kind of providential in a way that after the earthquake we all finished our own tours and just happened to find ourselves in the same place at the same time," McGrath says. "It was really great being able to be together at that point, and also to be able to play music."
All the members of The Harbour Union grew up or now live in Lyttelton, which boasts artists Stephanie Crisp and Bill Hammond, writer Joe Bennett, and violinist Fiona Pears among its notable residents.
"It used to be a place that you didn't really choose to live here, you came here cos even though it's a really beautiful place - the views are great - houses were cheap," McGrath says. "That always draws musicians and people who don't make heaps of money. But then it became a really great creative kind of place. It's really welcoming to people who do artistic stuff for a living. It's a real community [with] an interesting aesthetic to it. Even though it's quite close to Christchurch it still has a small-town feel."
But now the troubadours are hoping to put those shaky memories behind them and move on. McGrath says The Lyttelton Rough House Revival Tour, which brings his band, Puffin, and Davidson together with The Unfaithful Ways' singer-songwriter Marlon Williams, is taking that harbour union in a new direction.
This spring, they're on a 14-date tour - both islands, both coasts. Rolling out, as the publicity says, like an old-time tent show, the tour will bring three hours of music to Nelson's Theatre Royal next Thursday night.
"We figured out pretty early on this year that we're all going to be together again, all our touring cycles are bringing us back to Lyttelton. We thought let's take the opportunity and get together, not as The Harbour Union - just to be able to move on from the quake a little bit.
"The Eastern come to Nelson a lot and we have a really good relationship with people there; Nelson's always been good to The Eastern. We're really excited to be able to bring some of our friends up as well."
It's an accomplished lineup. McGrath's song State Houses By The River is on the shortlist for the 2012 Apra Silver Scroll Award, New Zealand's most prestigious songwriting prize. Puffin, who recently performed in Nelson with Luckless and Bond Street Bridge, has 15 years touring behind him, becoming known as an engaging, anarchic, and heartfelt performer. His third album Hope Holiday has been critically well-received, and he was also a Silver Scroll finalist this year. His roadie documentary Figure 8000 is a cult classic.
Delaney Davidson and Marlon Williams will be playing together, singing songs from their upcoming collaborative album. Davidson has spent most of the last year on the international touring circuit around Europe and the Americas, and this year won the Apra Best Country Song, topping last year's effort of making the final five nominees for the Silver Scrolls. Reviews for his album Bad Luck Man included five stars from the Britain's Guardian newspaper.
Marlon Williams' debut album with The Unfaithful Ways, Free Rein, made every critic's 2011 highlights list, and the band were finalists in the 2011 Vodafone Critics' Choice Awards. Williams' song Ghost of this Town was nominated for the Apra Best Country Song 2012, and the album made the finals for this year's Rianz Best Country Music Album.
Next week's show will feature full acts from all, plus a big singalong - or "throwdown", in The Eastern's parlance - at the end. Though they haven't yet sorted out the songs for that final number, it will have the feel of a group of friends singing together - just for the joy of it, really.
"We do a lot of singing - whether it's out on the deck of [Lyttelton's] Wunderbar, or on a street corner, or whatever," McGrath says. "We just sing, and the kind of music we all play lends itself to that as well; we all just barrel in together. It may not be the slickest, but we all have a lot of fun. It's spirit-raising of the highest level, to be sure."
- The Lyttelton Rough House Revival Tour, Theatre Royal, August 23, 8pm. Tickets $20 from ticketdirect.co.nz. Visit facebook.com/roughhouserevival for more info.
GIVEAWAY The Nelson Mail has three double passes to The Lyttelton Rough House Revival Tour to give away. To enter, email your name and daytime phone number to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Rough House Revival Competition" in the subject line, to reach us by 5pm, Monday, August 20. -
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