Review by Rob Harbers, historic feature photograph by Doug Peters.
Providing further vindication, if it was needed, of the organisers’ determination to press ahead in the face of adversity, negativity and Covidity, Thomas Oliver has set the bar for this, the sixth iteration of the Harcourts Hawkes Bay Arts Festival, with a homecoming performance of truly world-class standard.
Opening act, singer Isobelle Walker, held the crowd in her hands from the first minute, delivering a strong set of original material imbued with a refreshing streak of lyrical cynicism, marking her down as one to watch in future.
Second support was provided by frequent collaborator Dan Sharp, with a rootsy sound and a voice at times reminiscent of Steve Earle, performing almost all original songs – with a notable diversion into a rendition of “I’m On Fire” coming out somewhere in the middle ground between the original and the Head Like A Hole cover version.
Then it was time for the main man (but not Telegram Sam), setting the tone with the high-energy sound of opener “Alive Again”, waking the grande dame of ToiToi up ready for a big night. Following up was a soulful version of “She’s Mine”, with Thomas finishing off in Jesus Christ pose, before launching into international favourite “Bulgarian Mountains”. The Weissenborn made its first appearance for “Tenderly”, and new song “Gugaf” (it’s an acronym, you can try and work it out for yourself), which for me was a highlight, with its funky sound and incisive lyrics.
“See The Sky” took things into more reflective territory, with its lyrics telling of loss and grief, leading in to a quieter section of the night, with “The Time in Tokyo” and new single “Roses”. This song was inspired by a recent online encounter, with a mystery person, and the tales told by them, which touched Thomas somewhat (before the disbelief of others shattered the illusion), and allowed backing vocalist Bella Florence to shine.
Thomas has an audience in the DnB sphere also, and this side of his repertoire was given an airing for a brief segment – not my thing so much to be honest, but it got the younger demographic on their feet. Skilfully done and all, though. Then it was on to “Bad Talkin’ Man”, with its hard-driving riff seguing into Rage Against The Machine’s “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”, ironically forming the basis of a call-and-response chant (when a more apt reaction to such lyrics might be to not follow along, perhaps). This also allowed drummer Sam Notman and bassist Johnny Lawrence to show their individual skills with extended solos, and drew the main set to a close.
Encore material took the shape of “Jet Stream” and “Move To Mars”, before sending a satisfied crowd out into a rainy night, carrying inside them the warmth of a bravura performance by an act at the top of their game, and leaving subsequent performers in the unenviable position of having to try and equal, or exceed, what occurred on this night. And this was only day four of the festival, with another ten to come – we’re in it for the long haul, and what a ride it’s going to be!