Time for the last album review of the year, one final CD in a year of fewer Tauranga CDs than any this millennium.
I must say, I've come to regard pretty much any CD release as an historical moment these days, a defiant cannon shot over a lost battlefield where the corpses are musicians and the general public blithely carry on as normal not realising they are the ones responsible for the dead bodies. For the simple fact is with the impending death of the CD, the imminent disappearance of most music made in New Zealand is here. That's it guys. Here's how it works – you all prefer to stream free music on Spotify so bands can no longer make money from recorded music. And recording music costs money. Musicians can't afford to simply spend money on something they then give away; it's as simple as that. This particularly impacts unsigned and independent bands which, in New Zealand, is 95 per cent of the scene, including pretty much every band and musician you know in Tauranga.
Hats off to Mike
So hats off to Mike Garner, and the other outfits I've been reviewing during the last few weeks –which you can find online at SunLive – for swimming against the tide and leaving a lasting record of the music that we hear live in our community, the music that is the soundtrack to our lives. If you cast your eyes back only a few decades, most Tauranga music was unrecorded and is lost forever. That's what we're returning to. It's actually been a pretty big year for Mike. He's gigged throughout New Zealand and been overseas to play in both Japan – his third tour there – and Norfolk Island. In amongst that he released a new album, an evocatively-named and beautifully-recorded collection of mainly old blues songs. It's called ‘40 Below Blues' which sounds like a Muddy Waters title but is actually a reference to New Zealand's latitudinal place in the world, sitting as we do on the 40 degrees south line. It's actually a bit of departure for Mike. But not a musical departure particularly. For those who know Mike's excellent slide guitar playing and authentically lived-in blues voice, this is exactly what you hear when he plays live. But it's the first time for some years he's recorded in such a stripped-down setting, with just the intricate blues harp of Neil Billington on three songs and old-timey fiddle from the Bay's own Robbie Laven on another two.
Exploring old blues
The choice of material is also different. Mike has long enjoyed a reputation as a fine blues songwriter but this set is primarily dedicated to some delightfully obscure old blues songs. I say “delightfully obscure” because as a blues aficionado I do get tired of repeated recordings of the same Robert Johnson songs and other popular contenders. Every genre has its standards but there are only so many times you can hear them without the onset of creeping boredom. No such problem here. Mike has unearthed a bunch of great, largely unknown songs from two great Charlie Patton numbers – known as the grandfather of Delta blues, he was a man idolised by Robert Johnson and famous for playing guitar behind his head decades before it became “a thing” – to the traditional “John Hardy”, a Sleepy John Estes tune, and two from the wonderful Bo Carter, one in Carter's typical “dirty blues” style laden with food-inspired double entendres. It's called ‘Your Biscuits are Good Enough For Me', one a rare serious moment complete with lovely fiddle. There's also a song from American singer-mandolin player Tim O'Brien whom some might remember from his visit to the Tauranga Arts Festival. It was all recorded at The Colourfield in Welcome Bay and has a lovely sound. In case you can't tell, I like it. The physical CD is only available at Mike's live gigs (or possibly his Facebook page if you ask). But you can download the album through iTunes and the usual suspects.