26 Feb 2024

Review: Splore still grooving after 25 years

2:02 pm on 26 February 2024

By Sigrid Yiakmis

The moon shining over Greentea Peng's main stage set

Greentea Peng takes to the stage at Splore. Photo: Sigrid Yiakmis

"This is probably the most beautiful festival I've ever played at," Greentea Peng told the crowd on Friday night at Splore. "Give thanks."

Descending the famous goat track for the first time during the weekend - relieved it was actually dry this year - it's easy to remember why Splore is one of the best festivals in Aotearoa, if not the world. The view from the top of the park, out across the sparkling Firth of Thames, peppered with yachts, stops you in your tracks. Splorers perch at the lookout point to capture FOMO-inciting festie Instagrams. It's impossible to take Tāpapakanga Regional Park for granted.

A stage at Splore Festival

Splore's location at Tāpapakanga Regional Park is an important point of difference. Photo: Abigail Dell'Avo

Now in its 25th year, Splore's point of difference in the highly saturated festival circuit is its freedom to be truly experimental in its line-up, design and art. Fringe acts from Aotearoa and abroad are platformed and put on equal footing with Mercury Prize and Grammy-winning performers. Stages aren't hired, they're designed and built. Lighting is not an afterthought, it's as integral as the act on stage. Sound, and how the natural curvatures of Tāpapakanga's landscape can enhance it, has been given deep care. It's a festival clearly designed by music lovers. Every moment of the attendees' experience has been very thoughtfully scrutinised in order to achieve a final product that should gratify all five senses. And since the tickets range from $320 to an eyewatering $420 per person, you would expect so.

A little girl gets a better view at Splore

A little girl gets a better view at Splore Photo: Nico Penny

Partygoers making the most of Saturday's perfect weather at Splore

Partygoers making the most of Saturday's perfect weather at Splore Photo: Sigrid Yiakmis

Hula hoopers on the beach at Splore

Hula hoopers on the beach at Splore Photo: Sigrid Yiakmis

On Friday afternoon the powerful double-kick from South Auckland metal band Shepherds Reign reverberated up from the Naked Eye stage. Seeing heavy metal on a beachfront at golden hour is a bucket list-tier experience for me. Shepherds Reign, who perform mainly in Samoan, were the first metal band ever to tour Samoa after the release of their second album Ala Mai last year. Vocalist Filiva'a James checks in with the crowd as two punks in anarchy-patched leather jackets wrestle each other in the front row. I can't tell if they're in costume or if Splore is fostering a bourgeois neo-anarchist movement. "Not bored yet? Sweet as."

Shepherds Reign playing the Naked Eye stage at Splore

Shepherds Reign playing the Naked Eye stage at Splore Photo: Dylan Martin

South London R&B/soul artist Greentea Peng headlined the main stage on Friday night with a silky, sharp and effortlessly cool performance that was a stand-out of the weekend. Beginning with a call to "Free Palestine", her sultry and scathing rhymes paired with her live band's guitar licks and the weighty dub of the rhythm section controlled and subdued the anticipating crowd who hung on her every move. Reading the room, or maybe just eyeballing the plumes of smoke rising from the crowd, she announced she was switching up her usual setlist - "let's get dubby now" - before rolling into 'Three Eyes Open'. Her set crescendo'd with the 2019 song 'Mr. Sun'' which she arranged into a sublime medley of Bob Marley's 'Sun is Shining'.

Greentea Peng

Greentea Peng Photo: Nico Penny

The far end of the beachfront hosted the Crystal Palace stage where many of Aotearoa's best DJs hold it down over the three days. The stage was reimagined as an art deco jukebox/church. Nestled beneath a giant pōhutukawa that pulses with lasers and smoke, it was one of the most visually stunning spots in the festival. I caught AJHONEYSUCKLE and Dylan Biscuit of Kanikani Company here playing to a blissed-out crowd.

AJHONEYSUCKLE playing at Splore's Crystal Palace stage

AJHONEYSUCKLE DJing at the Crystal Palace. Photo: Nico Penny

Later that night, London-via-Tāmaki Makaurau DJ Lady Shaka made her main stage debut. Poised behind 3 CDJS and a tino rangatiratanga flag, Lady Shaka opened with her debut single E Tu (released that day). Taonga pūoro practitioner Salvador Brown stood side of stage and played pūkāea over the top like a karanga. In an ode to her multicultural whakapapa (she is Māori, Samoan, Tokelauan, Tahitian and Cape Verdean) and to island excellence in general, she was joined on stage by an all-star cast of Māori, Samoan and Cook Island dancers, log drummers, and performers, including Te KuraHuia, Rubi Du and House of Coven - cementing her set into legend status. It was a flawless set of high energy bass music from across the dance continuum from pop to baile funk, trance to chopped and screwed cumbia. Venga Boys 'We Like To Party' was a clear crowd favourite, but her inclusion of the NZ TikTok viral hit 'Rukudukudu', a local cover of Darude's 'Sandstorm', was the cherry on top. Shaka first performed at Splore as a dancer in 2016, and Friday's main stage performance rivalled those of the weekend's international guests. This was a full circle moment for Lady Shaka, who acknowledged it was an honour to be on the main stage as an indigenous Māori Pasifika wahine and asked the crowd to "Toitu te Tiriti."

Lady Shaka and friends on stage at Splore

Lady Shaka and friends on stage at Splore Photo: Abigail Dell'Avo

Te KuraHuia waves the Palestinian flag on stage with Lady Shaka at Splore

Te KuraHuia waves the Palestinian flag on stage with Lady Shaka at Splore Photo: Abigail Dell'Avo

House of Coven performing on stage with Lady Shaka at Splore

House of Coven performing on stage with Lady Shaka at Splore Photo: Abigail Dell'Avo

After touting a line-up of all female or gender diverse acts on the main stage in 2021, Saturday's main stage line-up was noticeably skewed in a different direction.

South London writer, producer and singer Sampha headlined the Saturday dinner-time slot with a family friendly and ballad-filled set. This set was for the lovers, and many were seen cuddling and brought to tears as he sang '(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano', the lights dimmed on his live band with only a spotlight illuminating him as he played.

The Pharcyde then came on at 9pm, called to the stage by a pre-recorded message from crunk superstar Lil Jon. Their DJ got the crowd warmed up with Dawn Penn and Here Comes The Hotstepper. They ran through their hits like 1995 was just yesterday, moving with an energy, stage presence and tightness that was surprising for an act of their age, cleverly replacing outdated lyrics with 'I don't want to get cancelled'.

A young child wearing earmuffs gets a shoulder ride at Splore

Splore caters to music lovers of all ages. Photo: Abigail Dell'Avo

Later that night I checked out Mr. Bruce, who I had heard claiming to be famous-at-Splore in a panel discussion earlier in the day. I had absolutely zero cultural reference for what I saw and it left me speechless. "It'd be pretty hard to have a miserable time at Splore, wouldn't it?" Mr. Bruce asked the crowd. Mr. Bruce played what I can only try to describe as an amalgamation of ska/new wave/electro swing/bro step/and rap (question mark?). My confusion aside, he had a large, happy crowd that danced and sang along the lyrics to his songs.

Outside of the music programming, I was intrigued by the ASMR Bar, a little haven away from the crowds where people could sit down in a miniature circus big top with a woman named Amy Grace Laura Atkins and listen to her caress a microphone with walnuts, tap books and swallow corn chips. At Wendy's Wellness Tent men got to express their innermost feelings by shouting and walking around in circles determinedly to the banging of a medicine drum at BROS Masculinity Experience.

Letitia Lickkit crunches corn chips at the ASMR Bar at Splore

Photo: Sigrid Yiakmis

On Sunday morning, the rain finally arrived, sending some Splorers home first thing (me), while others stayed on with gumboots and ponchos for Strawpeople. Rain or shine, this 25-year-old festival really does offer something for everyone.

A festival attendee at Splore

A festival goer at Splore. Photo: Glenn McLelland