Apr 23, 2023 City Life
Midwinter is always a hard time for those who live for the nightlife, and this one felt particularly spirit-dampening. Even if you made plans to see Splendour in the Grass sideshows, or hit up the burst of free local shows at the end of June, you were at the mercy of all your friends getting sick, or just being too damn tired to muster the energy to leave the house. But there were some nights when it just worked out, and your dark mood lift ed, and you found yourself sticky from dancing in a basement, with the lights off and everyone packed in close.
On a recent cold night out, all eyes are fixed on the stage where Grecco Romank is rarking up the crowd. Grecco Romank is a trio of luxury weirdos, including a hooded snarler, a Trent Reznor lookalike and an opera singer. Together they perform thumping, sinister club music. I had a spot near the speakers to watch them in their gold-suited glory, curtain bangs swinging back and forth as the beat reverbed in my skull. Grecco Romank wouldn’t be out of place in an empty industrial warehouse in Penrose, or a tiled basement in Berlin, but we’re at Whammy Bar, the city’s petri dish of star power.
You could consider Whammy our Mercury Lounge — a kind of residency for local bands and musicians to figure out how to perform and connect with an audience. It serves this function for bands like Grecco Romank, out of necessity, or scarcity; beyond a few key spaces like it, people in this scene have to be pretty self-reliant.
But there was a sweet spot of about three weeks in June when there was something on in different places each weekend. Raves at the Hollywood cinema in Avondale. Raves at a cabaret. Too many DJ nights to count. A full festival out in Henderson. All with big-hitter line-ups, quality sound and all free.
Last year, the government created a kind of slush fund for this season of free live culture and entertainment, a ‘thank you to Auckland’ for enduring repeated lockdowns and the resulting loss of nightlife for so many months. The funding had to be spent by the end of the financial year, and events had also been pushed out until Auckland’s traffic-light status was eased to Orange, giving organisers a nightmarishly strict deadline in which to pull it all off.
As it happened, the new Matariki public holiday season coincided with this subsidised flash in the pan of Auckland nightlife. But while flooding this arid landscape with things to do at night sounds like an amazing initiative, a local promoter commented to me that free shows oft en devalue the work that goes into them. Their tickets were fully subscribed, but not one of the shows was full.
This was echoed by Save Our Venues, an advocacy group that was started during the 2020 lockdown, which said that due to the large fund’s requirement that entry should be free, ultimately the city was swamped with events that people didn’t feel committed to attending. Venues competed with one another for audiences. The sector had been crying out for targeted support for two years, but the opportunity fell victim to bad design — and, likely, a lack of reflection (or experience) on the part of those who hold the purse strings.
In contrast to this come-one-come-all approach, new venues in Auckland are opening as ‘private members’ clubs — such as Shy Guy in Victoria Park, though it seems like in reality there’s nothing private about it. If your dress is clingy and sandals strappy enough, you can visit its velvet booths and Moët-vending machine from 8pm Thursday to Sunday. The space is effectively a backdrop for Instagram stories — like a bloodless ‘brand experience’ with no vibe, no open bar, and shit bathrooms.
Nearby, in a space-age Albert St building, a recently renovated, mysterious co-working space that screams grifter-core is open to the public via its new bar, Palmer. The decor is gorgeous, but last call is at 10pm, and on a recent visit my whisky cost me $35.
So I tried to return to the old faithful of Auckland nightlife, visiting the Viaduct on a night when The Sports had happened at Eden Park and The Team had won. The bars were full, unmasked carnage, replaying The Game on big screens over tightly packed crowds.
Being at the Viaduct again reminded me of the one time I went clubbing in Hamilton, which also happened to be on a night when The Team had won. I watched someone throw up as she ordered at the bar and then walk away grasping handfuls of shots, and a scout in the bathroom told my friend that if she went into one of the stalls, a member of The Team would be waiting.
Pashing someone on the dance floor in a place playing Miley hits that were trashy when I was a teenager, crammed in with people wearing sports paraphernalia, seemed to still be the go for a stacked night out in our somehow still fledgling city.
By accident, the free shows had given me room to dance in a place not crammed with those handsy hordes, or fanboys who swarm the front by the DJ. Other people seemed to be enjoying it, too — I’d even seen a middle-aged woman still getting down as I was exhaustedly getting ready to leave. If you keep paying for the same things you’ll always get the same experience — one that you can get literally anywhere else. It seems like bad budgeting for Aucklanders to sow the seeds of variety, without noticing where they grow.