Review by Rob Harbers
On day 6 of the Harcourts Hawkes Bay Arts Festival, a venture away from home base saw the venerable Cabana, in Napier, hosting Dunedin band Soaked Oats. This is a venue redolent in history – if it’s walls could tell of what they’ve seen, it’d be a very long, and occasionally sordid, tale indeed! That’s what comes of being New Zealand’s oldest pure live music venue – right here in the Bay.
As a large proportion of the country was seeing red, to a historic degree, Napier was hosting Nuit Blanche, or White Night – a collection of events, installations and exhibitions dotted around the CBD. This allowed a sizeable number of people to experience, for free, the atmosphere of the Festival and to see art up close and personal to a greater extent than they might in the usual course of life. Due to my peregrinations around the sites involved, I unfortunately missed the opening act, locals Hot Janola, but one way or another there was whitening happening! Second support was provided by Arlo Mac, 2019 Smokefree Rockquest winners, and, it seemed, the reason that a portion of the crowd were there given both the average age (there weren’t that many with grey hair, put it that way!) and the fact of how many cleared out after their appearance. A reflection of parochial support, good for them, but maybe not so much when it comes to welcoming acts from outside of the community?
Soaked Oats took to the stage with an instrumental number, kicking off a set that betrayed a direct lineage back to the “Dunedin Sound” of the early 80s, while also harking back a little further to the forebears of that sound, particularly in the form of the Velvet Underground. A comparison made more overt by the voice of guitarist and lead singer Oscar Mein, strongly reminiscent of Lou Reed with elements of Dylan, Lennon and early Bowie – all worthy company indeed. There was also a touch of mid 80’s U2, in the “Unforgettable Fire” era when Brian Eno taught them that what gets left out can be just as important as what goes in, resulting in a more reflective and contemplative sound.
The band displays a strong unity, with their dynamic interplay particularly between Mein and lead guitarist Henry Francis, with Max Holmes (on bass, or Blue Whale) and Conor Feehly (drums, aka gorilla sticks) rounding out the combo – suggestive of a far longer period of time together than they in fact have had. Guess there’s not much else to do in Dunedin but practice (practice, practice)!
There wasn’t, it must be said, a huge turnout for this gig – something of a disappointment given their abilities. Election night, perhaps? It was also apparent that a large section of the audience seemed to regard the night as an opportunity for a lengthy chatter, rather than paying much attention to the performance – no reflection on the band in any way, but a sad commentary on people’s priorities. Or maybe I’m just old?
For those who were there for the show, there was an obvious enjoyment – leading to an encore during which, professing to have run out of songs, a cover of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down”, bringing the Lennon element right to the fore. Closing number “Houdini” (hey, had they really run out of songs??) slowed things down, while displaying a nice touch of grunge-style quiet-loud-quiet dynamic, a vibe suggestive of a less frenetic Pixies.
In summary then, a great performance, marred, through no fault of their own by a disrespectful element of the audience. Perhaps, given the pastoral basis of the local economy, Dorothy Parker spoke truth when declaring “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think…”