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March 14, 2011 | by  | in Music |
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Newtown Street Fair, Riddiford Street and surrounds, Sunday 6 March

We haven’t had many opportunities recently to get together, have a bit of a boogie and come over all starry eyed about Wellington—not since the Cuba Street Carnival got shifted from annual to biannual and denied the extra funding it desperately needed before being canned this year altogether. So the Newtown Festival has a bit of a gap to fill, as one of the only remaining free street festivals that doesn’t involve rugby and guys from Taihape grabbing girls’ breasts on Courtenay Place. It’s been stepping up to the challenge admirably. This year’s festival has included a smorgasboard of gigs and events either side of the actual street fair, which had also expanded since last year.

As fate would have it, fair day awoke to the cruellest southerly that’s blown through all year. I felt sorry not just for the cold drinks and ice slushy stalls, but also those unfortunate bands who ended up playing to clumps of people huddled underneath trees and umbrellas. However the Sendam Orchestra, a percussion group of Newtownians overcoming mental illness, attracted a large crowd at the community stage. Led by musicians including the intriguing Kieran Monaghan of Mr Sterile Assembly, they turned out to be an unexpected highlight with some unique vocalists and a fantastically warped version of ‘Riders on the Storm’.

Mara and the Bushkas on the main stage failed to captivate my interest, despite the obvious skill of the individual musicians and some nice moments with three-part female vocal harmonies. Undoubtedly ‘nice-sounding’, but so smooth they just slipped in one ear and out the other. Sufferers from the epidemic of ‘good musicians doing boring things to try and get radio play’, perhaps?

The benefit of having a festival in your own suburb is that you can pop back home for a quick cup of tea and an outfit change in the middle of the day and still not miss any of the bands on your list – which I did, then returned to see Pyramid Scheme on the smaller Wilson Street stage. The last time I saw this band they had about ten people, lots of percussion, fifteen minute songs and next to no singing. Since they’ve stripped back to a five piece with several new members, and they now play actual songs – which will no doubt please some people and disappoint others. I revelled in their endlessly inventive approach to rhythm, melody and structure, and with the sun starting to make an intermittent appearance, I had my first dance of the day.

Second dance of the day went to Sam Manzanza and his Afrobeat Band on the main stage. Sam is father to the darling child of Wellington jazz, Myele Manzanza, and it’s not hard to see where Myele got his chops and passion from. The elder Manzanza and his percussion-heavy line up played us some fast, funky and infectiously enthusiastic afrobeat dance music. You probably already know if you like this kind of stuff – I certainly do, and so did the crowd, many of whom rose to shake a tailfeather or two. It’s refreshing once in a while to come across a musician like Manzanza who, after decades in the game, really knows what he’s doing.

I didn’t catch Olmecha Supreme or The Barons of Tang at the Newtown street fair, but saw them later on at the after party at San Francisco Bathhouse. Continue, dear reader, for more details…

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