Richard Swainson: Hamilton musos go full Circle Jerk and the crowd loves it
OPINION: It's the event that dare not speak its name. Leastways not on the national airwaves.
Last Friday, when I floated the possibility of some casual promotion of Hamilton culture on Radio New Zealand National, the city's favourite son, media-cum-"television personality" Jesse Mulligan, had his reservations. It was acceptable to talk up the night in question, just so long as we didn't let on what it was called. The 9th (semi) annual Hamilton Circle Jerk thus became the more user-friendly "CJ".
The Circle Jerk is all about self appreciation, not self abuse. Founded in 2005, it was born out of frustration. Hamilton musicians and their support base felt slighted during New Zealand Music Month. If we were not to invited to the national party, why not put on a show of our own?
A simple format was devised, designed to maximise both participation and diversity. Hamilton bands were invited to play three song sets. One song was required to be an original. The balance had to be covers of another local act's material. The idea was go beyond the limitations of each musical scene, to bring together bands that would not normally occupy the same bill, cross-fertilising and expanding their respective audiences.
The first gig, held in the back bar of Diggers, was a modest success. When May rolled around the following year things went underground, literally, to the cavernous Yellow Submarine, beneath Ward St. The year 2007 saw Circle Jerk's apotheosis, at the Ward Lane tavern, a hugely attended affair at which, ironically enough, it was impossible to hear the music. Of that night I later wrote how " … fresh-faced Christian girl Kimbra rubbed shoulders with hoary filth merchants the Mobile Stud Unit".
Both Kimbra and MSU were covered at this year's Circle Jerk, held last Saturday at the Meteor Theatre.
Revived in 2016 after a half-decade hiatus, the event finally enjoys a venue where sound and light can be controlled to maximum effect, with plenty of space for dancing and socialising as well. The result was magic: atmospheric, convivial and now steeped in the kind of tradition that only a 12-year history can afford.
Diversity was again the key. Everything from the post-hardcore, screaming minimalism of the ironically named Hedge Fund Trader to the slick yet warm, inclusiveness of dub and reggae icons Nights of the DUB Table. In between old hands like Rumpus Room, who have played every Circle Jerk, and polished professionals Date Month Year, mixed it up with musicians making their debut. Occasional G featured a lead singer of rare vocal beauty and range. Dick Heads, were a supergroup, with concert pianist Maria Mo on lead vocals and guitar, delivering a knowing rendition of The Shrugs' Let's Get Stoned and F....
Wink Wink Nudge Nudge had something to prove. Betraying their own talent in 2016, undone by an excess of alcohol, this year's modest imbibing saw Wairehu Grant at his considerable best, belting out the profanity-ridden MSU classic Tony Tourettes before paying homage to that one-time Hamilton hairdresser Richard O'Brien – as well as Tim Curry – with The Rocky Horror Show's Sweet Transvestite.
Experimental electronica was supplied by Glass Shards, Oliver Stewart's one-man band and very ambient and pleasing it was, too. Louder by a considerable margin was the "stoner, doom metal" trio known as Wolf Wizard, who benefited as much as anyone else from the excellent sound mixing and Meteor acoustics. Matt Osment, Wolf Wizard's drummer, has lost none of the skill he long exhibited on the world stage as a Datsun, robustly covering a two-decade-old song by The Nerve.
In some ways the bands that opened and closed proceedings said most about this year's show. Looking for Alaska, the beautifully harmonic double act of Aaron Gott and Amy Maynard, are an outfit on the rise, well-established nationally, commanding and entertaining an audience much larger than at any earlier Circle Jerk.
At the other end of the spectrum was Runt, a country music covers band rich with veteran talent, including Mark Tupuhi, the gentleman credited with inventing the CJ concept.
By the time they took the stage the night had well and truly peaked, yet the old troupers rallied, giving their all to the handful who remained, their set highlighted by the one song that's featured every single year. Hamilton, by Chris Thompson, the city's unofficial anthem, effectively brought the curtain down, whetting the appetite for 2018 and a tenth anniversary extravaganza.