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Gig Review - Into the Grotto at The Wine Cellar

Into the Grotto (Songwriter's Special) at The Wine Cellar 

Wednesday 29 May 2024

Full feature by Liam Hansen 

Photography by Zoë Larsen Cumming and Tuva'a Clifton


The final week of New Zealand Music Month was a non-stop barrage of chaos. Well, really the entire month was full on, but considering the mixture of fancy industry events, free gigs, workshops, and block parties, it’s a wonder anyone had the energy to face the last few days of May without pulling off a ‘Weekend at Bernies’ style scheme to keep themselves moving. 

Thankfully, the occasion is worth all of the chaotic energy Tāmaki Makaurau has to offer and then some, with The Wine Cellar hosting their 20th anniversary festival across the week and seeing a miniature history of the biggest little venue in the city played out through a variety of brilliant gigs. This kicked off with Cellar’s regular ‘Vitamin S’ improv night, a Tuesday blues rent party, and a Wednesday songwriters night affectionately titled ‘Into the Grotto’ before the return of Triogloddyte on Thursday and hitting full swing with the anniversary parties on Friday and Saturday. 

The Rāapa gig showcased the core soul of The Wine Cellar - a stripped back, intimate showcase of the best songwriting talent of Tāmaki Makaurau. Each of the acts - Kraus, Samara Alofa, Louisa Nicklin, Babe Martin, and Motte - showcased completely different sides of the tenderness and vulnerability acts that gravitate toward Cellar have to offer. The venue had been set up in a seated fashion, encouraging the crowd to digest the artists work fully and, more importantly, rest their legs a bit before the full showcase took place. 

Ambient electronic legend Kraus kicked the night off, showcasing mahi from his recently released record ‘Crystal Motors’ interspersed with cuts from his decades-long discography. This was the most sonically driven and intense artist from the night, which says something considering the fact that many of the tracks were drumless and sparse beyond the orchestra of eclectic synths. The soundtracks felt like they had come straight out of a video game: lush, Legend of Zelda like chords were played through snappy arcade-like synths and chopped back and forth like the programme running the sounds was corrupted. Faces around the room weren’t necessarily dancing or bopping their heads (trying to do so would have been borderline impossible considering the insanity of the beats), but rather grinning ear to ear while being hypnotised by the electronic music box working its way into the brain. 

Samara Alofa was up next, taking the stage with Ruby Walsh and AJ Honeysuckle to bring the audience into their universe. The trio set themselves up on The Wine Cellars' raised drum platform, facing each other with their synths and drum machines huddled between them. “We’re sitting across from each other at a table. You aren’t even here!” Samara said on stage. “We’re actually having a board meeting.” If this is what Samara Alofa’s board meetings are like, then I’m applying to be a member. Her live demonstrations of her angelic vocals, layered with samples and drum beats designed to make their way into your soul is entrancing. Hearing her tracks live were akin to being hugged and lifted out of a cave, wrapped up in a warm blanket but still feeling the uncertainty of what the future holds. Naturally, the set finished with a track inspired by ‘One Piece’ - yeah, makes sense. 

Louisa Nicklin’s solo showcase of her latest work was possibly the most stripped back performance of the night. Armed with nothing but a Rickenbacker and a tuning pedal, Nicklin’s sulking indie rock tunes don’t require too many layers of reverb, distortion, or delay: It’s all here, right in front of you. There’s a level of uncertainty present in all of her music - especially considering the warm and cosy atmosphere of the night, her tunes were like someone telling you ghost stories by the campfire. The dissonant melodies, combined with Nicklins deep and borderline operatic vocals leaves the listeners in limbo, perfectly encapsulating the feelings of being lost and unsure of where you’re going.

Babe Martin curated the nights lineup, and squeezed in a penultimate performance of her own to drown the audiences in her beloved, reverb laden dreamscapes. Playing in her trio line-up, alongside Kat Tomacruz on cello and Harry Thompson-Cook on guitar, Babe Martin was in her prime - showcasing SRN chart-topping tracks from last year’s ‘The Versoix’ EP and newer songs including tracks from last year's Tautoko Gaza compilation. While her recorded mahi is fantastic, Babe Martin is an act you really must see live - the textures the live band bring to her sound, with Tomacruz’s atmospheric tones and Thompson-Cook essentially turning his guitar into a synth are irreplaceable. That isn’t to discredit the work of the star, though - Her vocal control and style is impeccable, varying between hard and soft styles and allowing the audience to ascend with her into the night. 

Lastly on the bill, violin virtuoso Motte continued to bring everyone further into the clouds with her ethereal combinations of atmospheric guitar and bringing her violin to the edge of what it can do as an instrument. A variety of calming nature recordings were slipped into the performances, beginning with the implementation of birdsong in the first few tracks and developing into the crashing of ocean waves into the sand. Both perfectly reflected the tone Motte produced with her vocals and instruments. The audience may as well have been sitting on a beach or in the forest, listening to an angel or fairy of some kind tell her tales. I physically said ‘oh my god’ when the violin sounds were run through distortion, creating a Brian Eno-esque synth that sounds like it could have come straight out of ‘Music for Airports’. 

This was the perfect middle point for a series of increasingly chaotic gigs to celebrate The Wine Cellar’s 20th anniversary. The mixture of impeccably curated acts, beautiful music, and cosy seated atmosphere is exactly where The Wine Cellar thrives - and honestly, could use a bit more of. These midweek acoustic gigs are a brilliant addition to the Tāmaki Makaurau music scene, especially in established spaces like this. The combination of a flat gig-like atmosphere with the professionalism and integrity of Cellar were absolutely brilliant - it may not be New Zealand Music Month anymore, but hopefully events like this aren’t going anywhere any time soon.