Each Summer, Auckland Council put on a series of free outdoor concerts in different places around the city, and today was the second this year, and definitely had a country flavour with Keith Pereira, Louis Jarlov and Sam Bartells. Not only are the shows free, but they all take place in the afternoon, so this gig was set to take place between 1 and 4! I got here early and was made very welcome by the Council events team, and soon set myself up at the sound desk.

Keith was the first of the acts to arrive, and told me he had loads of illness issues in the band, so he arranged some new musicians and then yesterday one of those became ill as well and he had to replace him, which meant today was going to have way more covers in the set than usual as they needed to pull material together. After a short announcement from Keith, he started with some staccato riffs on his electric, the band (drums, acoustic guitar/backing vocals, bass) kicked in and we were off into alt-rock with bite and a sense of humour. It was hard to understand there had been issues getting a line-up together as although there were music stands on stage everyone was tight. They commenced with the Brooks & Dunn classic, Play Something Country, which was a perfect start to the afternoon and looking around there were people already dancing and having fun. They upped the tempo with Midland’s Mr. Lonely, which has some nice biting electric melodies and allowed Keith to give himself a solo. What makes his music work so well is not only his wonderful relationship with the genre but the way his voice sounds so right for this style of music.

We now had an original, Help Me Remember, which saw Keith move to acoustic, so we now had two on the stage, and soon we were into something which had more of an Eagles feeling to it. This led into Jake Owens’ Down To The Honkytonk, and their humour really came shining through. As the set progressed there was no doubt that Keith was making many friends with his style of American country which never takes itself too seriously, bringing in some rock elements when the time is right. There were more people coming in all the time, intrigued by the wonderful sounds in the air, and Auckland had definitely moved away from being in mid-Summer Winter and was wonderfully sunny, suntan lotion was definitely required. One of the fill-in musicians was James Ray, and he then took the lead on his Tui Award-winning number Chasing The Dream, which had Keith back on electric and the band just rocking along. 

We were told that the next song would be the last slow one, as from here on they were going to pick it up and it was hard not to move as the sound was so infectious. In fact, I thought there was a high probability that the person doing sound was going to get up and boogie as she was dancing so much in her chair. The Dierks Bentley number, Am I The Only One, felt the perfect song for the afternoon, buoyant and loads of fun. Even though he was playing a load of covers due to the line-up issues, with the next one being Vince Gill’s What The Cowgirls Do, Keith was making them all his own and anyone not familiar with the material would not have released they were not originals as there was a real continuity within them. I must admit I did find it funny that not only were people dancing but some were still keeping their umbrellas up, not a sight you see very often. They followed this with another song by Gill, One More Last Chance, keeping the rocking going, and it allowed James to play his harmonica for the first time this afternoon as well. It was all bouncy country fun, and looking around there were young children and pensioners all enjoying a cultural afternoon in the afternoon thanks to the council. They had been playing for 45 minutes now, so a nice lengthy set, and they weren’t slowing down as they blasted through Garth Brooks’ Papa Loved Mama.

The set ended with the song which is planned to be his next single, the singalong Yeehaw, where the band slowed it down and got the crowd singing. It has a wonderful groove, with some lovely bass, and everyone was more than happy to join on the chorus. What a lovely start to the afternoon. 

Now it was time for Sam Bartells, with a stripped-down line-up of him on vocals and acoustic, a bassist and a percussionist on cajon and cymbal, both of whom were providing backing vocals. Whereas the last set, due to circumstances, was mostly covers, Sam’s would be mostly originals and he kicked off with the emotional Our Love May Go Away. Sam approaches his music from more of a folk style, and it was very different indeed to what had gone before, more personal and with depth. This is the third time I have seen Sam play, and each time he has undertaken it with a different band setup (last time, Mitch who was on bass today was on keyboards last time) so he is certainly versatile, and this one really allowed for his vocals to shine through. He followed this with a song which made it into my Top 10 Lists for 2022, Good Intentions, where he allows himself plenty of room to show off his voice and passion. He provides an edge when the time is right, always singing from the heart, and consequently we were being moved emotionally in different directions.

This was followed by another single, Let’s Go, which had some nice harmony vocals. Sam is a consummate songwriter and performer, and whenever he is playing, I am transfixed as there is so much depth in his voice, and it is like he is opening his soul to us in the audience, leaving nothing hidden. White Wolf is a new song, so new that it is yet to be released, and it found Sam commencing it on his own, with the other guys only coming in sparingly as it builds, always with those vocals front and centre. The last time I saw Sam was in a tiny venue in Ponsonby, where his voice filled the room and transfixed everyone there, and I was amazed that in a field in Helensville he was having exactly the same effect.

We were now treated to an acoustic version of Bring You Down, which I gave 5*’s to when it was released back in 2021, and although there was no electric guitar it still felt like a rock number and I cannot be the only one looking forward to his new project with Nail from Blindspott, Beckoned, whose debut single is out next month. Even the sound person said to me that this was a wonderful song which would sound amazing with a full band (and we even got a small bass solo!). Hearing it in this format was interesting as it was bringing a rock element to an acoustic gig, but one can also imagine it working the other way in a rock gig, punchy and powerful. Sam gets a wonderful full-bodied sound from his acoustic, which is just what is needed when his vocals are as powerful as this, and while people were no longer dancing that was because they were so invested in the music and listening intently which each number being warmly received indeed. Blessed & Broken was written when he was at rock bottom, and again he was hiding nothing, putting it all out there for us to hear and understand; when he takes it down to something gentler and heartfelt, the emotion is palpable. It ended with some poignant notes on the guitar which was greeted with plenty of cheers from the crowd.

He then totally changed it up with a cover of The Black Key’s Lonely Boy, which was way more upbeat, and he was soon encouraging everyone to sing along which we all did. We were back in more traditional country with Morning Light, which slowed it down somewhat as we were coming to the end of what was another wonderful set from one of my favourite performers. They finished with a stonking version of CCR’s Have You Ever Seen The Rain, which was perfectly suited both to Sam’s voice and the afternoon. Another great set from a wonderful songwriter and musician.

The third act of the afternoon was Louis Jarlov, who was also performing with a pickup band as everyone was away, featuring two members of Daffodils in Louis Graham and Theo Spike Salmon. They kicked off with Burning Down, which warmed everyone up nicely – Louis has a voice which is lower in register than many, giving them a distinctive sound, which is traditional Americana. They followed this with 23, which is far more upbeat with some nice bluegrass touches, and I think it surprised everyone when it stopped as it appeared to be in full flight. It is eighteen months since I last saw Louis play, and his music is just how I remember it, full of passion and authenticity as if he is from the States and not Aotearoa. Tonight there were two guitars on stage, both electric, but they were combining to produce a sound which was trad country as opposed to country rock, continuing that theme through Gasoline

Three Towns Down, a story about someone Louis’s dad knew who literally had two families in different towns, was again more upbeat, with a powering rhythm section who are the heart of all of Louis’ material, keeping it tight and on point. It was another which seems to finish far more rapidly than one would expect, and we quickly went into Whiskey Breath, which was again very trad indeed with those lovely low baritone/bass tones from Louis’ vocals. Both Theo and Louis G appear born to play this style of music, and it was somewhat difficult to reconcile what I was seeing and hearing as opposed to when I saw Daffodils at The Others Way Festival.

When I saw him play before I was blown away by the totally different version of Tush he performed, and tonight it was the same again as it is so far removed from the blistering belting rock number recorded by ZZ Top almost 50 years ago, as if to be something quite different altogether. It was back to the originals and a driving number in Ellis May, which again got people moving until the bridge when it slowed right down, but soon it was off again. We were slowly coming to the end of the afternoon here in Helensville, but there were still a good few hundred people enjoying the sunshine and the music. Don’t Go Out Tonight was another which allowed everyone to catch their breath and for Louis’ vocals to shine and again we were getting a nice solid groove.

Back to upbeat and some nice guitar and driving rhythm section as we went into Billy Joe Shavers’ Georgia On A Fast Train which showed it is never too late in the set for people to have a dance, and even gave us the first (short) drum solo of the afternoon. They ended with Tom Petty’s Rebels and then it over, the final song from the final set.

Three very different performers, all in different styles but all with links to country in one way or another, and those who braved the sunshine all the way up to Helensville had a wonderful afternoon. There are still many more events to come, as the season has only just started so if you are in Auckland then visit http://www.musicinparks.co.nz/ to see what is coming up, and remember they are all free! 

Photo Credit: Chris Zwaagdyk / ZED Pics