It's a lonely Thursday night in downtown Avarua. I am making my way down the main strip of town, which is virtually deserted, bar a few stray dogs roaming around. I turn into Trio’s carpark and spot the first signs of life I have seen since leaving home. A small crowd is lined up outside under some fairy lights, slowly making their way in to grab a seat and watch New Zealand folk artists Albi and The Wolves.
The stragglers, of which I am one, move into the bar only after being greeted by the warm smile of Glenda Tuaine at the door. Tuaine and partner Maurice ‘Mo’ Newport, under the banner of their company Motone Productions, are responsible for bringing the alternative New Zealand trio here to the Cook Islands for the first time.
“Soul-infused Americana folk” is how lead singer and guitarist Chris Denton, also known as Albi, tries to describe the band’s sound.
Double-bass player and Missouri native Michael Young says they are still trying to find the best way to describe what they do.
“We’ve been trying to figure this out ever since we’ve been together,” he laughs. “We don’t know, but if you listen to it, you’ll really like it. It doesn’t fit in any box.”
Following the band’s success at the 2018 New Zealand Music Awards, where they won the ‘best folk artist’ award, the band released a new album, This Is War, and is currently on tour promoting it. The band is composed of three members, Denton, Young, and violinist Pascal Roggen.
“You couldn’t have put three more different styles together. To have what we make, it’s quite odd really,” says Denton, who has sung his whole life and began playing guitar in his early teens.
“I started musical theatre actually and then I found that I liked the folk travellers that went to tell their stories and travel around and that inspired me to write songs and now here we are in a folk band.”
Young adds: “I got into performing because I realised that I would never lift my game if my music wasn’t up to performance standards. When you’re just playing for yourself, your timing's not always so good and you don’t worry about fluffy notes. When you perform, you really have to lift your game.”
I find a seat in a corner booth of the bar and settle in for the performance. Inside, the bar looks like something out of an early Tarantino film. Dim orange lighting sets the mood for the evening. A near-capacity crowd are seated around tables and in booths lining the walls, drinking liquor, smoking cigarettes, and chatting, waiting for the show to start.
Finally, Albi and The Wolves make their way on stage, no introduction needed. The crowd hardly notices the band – until they start playing, of course. Roggen, the violinist, captures the audience’s attention the second he starts playing. The murmuring quickly dies down as the band begins to take control of the evening.
Admittedly, I am not a huge folk music fan, and was unsure what to expect at the concert. However, Albi and the Wolves have an energy on stage that is unlike any other act I have seen live. They really do take you on a journey through their music.
“If music moves me, then I want to be able to move people in the same way that music moves me,” says Young.
From the skilful plucking and slapping of strings on the double-bass by Young, to the fast strumming and soulful vocals of guitarist Denton, the band are not only proficient at what they do, they are masterfully unique. However, what really separates Albi and The Wolves from any other act I have seen is Roggen’s playing of the electric violin.
Roggen has been performing for as long as he can remember. He began playing the violin at three years old and has had a hugely successful career as a violinist. To watch him perform alongside the equally skilled Denton and Young is something truly mesmerising.
“We all come from very different musical backgrounds,” Young says. “When you put all of that together and see what comes out, it’s pretty interesting.”
Cracking the tough New Zealand market was no easy feat for the band, who admit their style of music is not widely popular in the relatively small market, known mostly for its appreciation of rock, reggae and dub music.
“I think as a general society in New Zealand, the whole Americana thing is under-appreciated relative to other places. In all of New Zealand, there’s no Country music radio station, there’s no Americana radio station, it’s all pop-driven” says Young.
“A lot of our radio and television is privatised, so if you’re doing, you know, New Zealand content, it’s hard to cut through anyway,” Denton says. “Even if you get funding from New Zealand on Air, that doesn’t guarantee you airtime on television.
“We did win the Tui award for the best folk artist in 2018, so obviously our peers appreciate what we’re doing.”
Roughly an hour after they began, the band ends the first half of their show with a song that Denton wrote, encouraging the crowd to sing along to the chorus. The band then takes a quick break. They already have a room full of new fans. I am most certainly one of them.
“I think that’s something that this genre of music does really well – bring people together and unify them” says Denton.
The band makes their much-anticipated return to the stage as revellers rush to their seats, not wanting to miss a second of the high-energy performance. They pick up right where they left off and the crowd is once again taken on a soul-infused Americana folk journey.
The second set builds up towards the climax of the show, with the trio lifting their energy even more, wowing the crowd with their unique and skilful playing. The harmonies are near pitch-perfect and combine great with the unique string sounds. After almost two-and-a-half hours of high-octane, enthralling music, the band finally announces that the next song will be their last. The crowd doesn’t want them to stop.
The band is compelled to perform one more song by the crowd, before being met by a standing ovation from the audience. After taking their final bow, the band mixes in with the crowd, receiving praise from all in attendance.
Albi and the Wolves possess a truly unique and skilful sound. It is unlike anything I have ever heard before. Their energy and chemistry when performing takes you on a journey that you can’t help but tap your foot to.
· The band will be performing one more show in Rarotonga, at Charlie’s tonight, before departing the country on Tuesday.