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Last train to Smashville

by Mark Peters

I’ve been everywhere man, sang Johnny Cash in 1996, and so has Kiwi band The Warratahs — except back to Gisborne for about 20 years. The country pop-rock band last played here at the Sandown Park Motor Hotel at about the time the man in black was singing about crossing the deserts bare, man, and breathing the mountain air, man.

“We’ve been all around the country but not to Gisborne for many years,” says lead singer Barry Saunders.

That all changes in two week’s time when The Warratahs perform at Smash Palace’s country music festival Welcome to Smashville where the band will perform songs from more than 30 years on the road. It goes without saying that road has been sometimes rocky, sometimes smooth and sometimes not even a road at all. Even for those who have never been there, The Warratahs’ catchy, Kiwi-country hit Cruisin’ On The Interislander, a tip-top sing-along song to sailing across Cook Strait — takes us along for the sail.

The song was composed by a jingle writer, says Saunders.

“I ran into a guy who was out walking his dog at Oriental Bay. He said ‘I want you to sing this demo’. Then they wanted the whole band. I was off the booze so it was the right hit at the right time. We did it and had no idea how big it would be.”

The same could be said of The Warratahs. Saunders (vocals and guitar), Nik Brown (fiddle and mandolin) and Michael Knapp (drums) are the originals from what began as a jamming band that got a gig at inner city Wellington tavern The Cricketers Arms in the 1980s.

At the height of new wave and Kiwi pub rock this seemed an unlikely time to form a country band, a New Zealand Herald reporter observed.

“Paying little or no attention as the band counted in their first number were dancers from the nearby ballet school; wide boy, brick-phone toting admen, a fair contingent from Wellington’s nascent film industry, and the same hardened drinkers who lined the bar every night. It was the height of the 80s, when music was all glitz and hair and synthesizers.”

But Saunders and co were asked to come back. Bass player John Donaghue came up with the name The Warratahs.

Attracted by the mix of covers and originals in the style of Hank Williams, Jimmy Rogers and Hank Snow played in an acoustic style The Warratahs’ two-year residency at The Cricketer’s Arms drew increasingly large crowds. The band began touring and in 1987 turned up in Gore, at the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island, for the legendary Gold Guitars country music awards. Three days later, they walked away with the title of Best Group.

“We’ve been going for 30 years this year,” says Saunders.

“It’s been the same core three people all along. Other band members have come in and dropped off for various reasons. For a band that was going to be together for two weeks to sing Jimmy Rogers and Hank Snow songs — as soon as we started playing we knew the band had an enduring life.

“The are other edges to our sound but the basis is country. A lot of our music is lyric driven. It has a 50s rock edge but not rock and roll.”

Having carved a niche into the New Zealand landscape — from North Cape to Bluff — including return trips on the Interislander, The Warratahs have been celebrating their double CD Drivin Wheel with, appropriately enough, a tour.

Drivin Wheel is the first song the band played at The Cricketers Arms.

The last stop on that long and winding road — and strait, yes — is Smashville, the country music festival in Gisborne’s industrial subdivision where, supported by local act Honey Jam, the band will perform songs from more than 30 years on the road.

The tour will end but The Warratahs will go on, says Saunders.

“This is far from a farewell. The band has a life of its own. We always try to keep it interesting. We always have something new.”

The Warratahs with support act Honey Jam, perform at the Smashville country festival, Smash Palace, February 2 (9pm). Tickets $30 from http://www.undertheradar.co.nz or the bar, man.

COUNTRY ROAD: Gisborne is the last stop on The Warratahs’ Drivin Wheel tour when the country pop-rock band, made up of (from left) Nick Theobald (vocals bass), Michael Knapp (drums), Barry Saunders (vocal guitar) and Nik Brown (fiddle and mandolin) play at Smash Palace’s country festival, Smashville. Picture supplied