It seems most had recieved the same memo which instructed us to arrive at Amphitheater Backpackers on the 28th of December, even though the 29th was the official starting date. On Saturday the grounds were already filled with a large contingent mostly from Johannesburg – of which most decided to follow their GPS exclusively, which led them through the most treachourous “road” on their way to the lodge. When a local says take the R616 they really mean it, Sheila on the Garmin does not know better.
Once arrived and set up the journey there was long forgotten. Not even a little bit of water from the sky could halt festivities. We were surrounded by a panorama fit for a J.R.R. Tolkien novel and people who were there for the same reasons – to lay to rest the horrors and errors of the year in a festive cocktail of strangers, music, stranger substances and no consequences. New Years Eve is a release and the rain on Saturday suppressed much of that release with the forecasters predicting much of the same until the last day of the year.
The rude awakening on Sunday was coupled with a mistrust of weather forecast systems as the sun was shining bright forcing most inhabitants to spring from their cocoons prematurely. Derek Van Dam was wrong again, except it was all to our benefit. We could marvel at our surrounds in their true light. The great weather and a production delay allowed many to take full advantage of the surroundings – hiking to the big tree, visiting the mountain or taking some time out at the pier with loved ones. Full of romance and Nashville filters on Instagram.
The delay in running times was testament to the fact that these were lodge managers and still grappling with the logistics of organising a music festival. Eskom cutting the power out did not help matters, however, this was not a festival of complainers – the majority were patient and relaxed. This was their biggest turnout and production to date and we’re sure that contingency plans will be in place at the next festival to avoid such problems.
The main attraction for Smoking Dragon Festival was the cultured line-up. The billing was exclusively local showcasing an encyclopaedic range of artists including those we’ve learnt to love and those we should get to love. With only one stage for all performances it meant that you had no issues with deciding what to catch and what to miss. The team achieved a great balance between essential festival billings and artists that are deserving of the platform.
Notable performances on the first day included those by Naftali of the Royal family, Rooi Krokodil, Half n Half, Shortstraw and The Moths.
Naftali of the Royal Family was the ideal tonic to commence the festival. Naftali’s music is social commentary on Africa and what is wrong and right with it. Incorporating this content with an acoustic guitar, djembe drums and trombone created a unique reggae infusion which borrowed sounds from all corners of Africa. The crowd received the performance well in a picnic type of setting. How can one not admire a white guy singing in vernacular with such emotion? This was music to the soul.
Rooi krokodil was started a couple of months ago around a campfire and we have to thank them for bringing the fire to us during their performance at Smoking Dragon. If there was such a thing as acoustic psytrance, Rooi Krokodil would be its parent. The duo created hypnotic rhythms with only a didgeridoo and percussion entrancing some of the audience to stomp their feet. For some it was one of the most tribal experiences ever, and for most, it was the most original discovery at Smoking Dragon festival.
Half n Half over the past year has established himself as a Nudisco demigod in Joburg. The picnic blankets took a back seat and asses were removed from the floor as Captain Half n Half piloted the fun train. There could not have been a better train master to guide us to the next stop which was Shortstraw.
Shortstraw did everything but draw the shortest straw during 2013. The band has locked into the summer of 99′ psyche accumulating some of the biggest crowds in the process. In hip hop terms they absolutely killed the game. The indie starlets performed in pretty much every single major alternative music festival last year and Smoking Dragon was just another check on the list. The only pity was not seeing Shane of Ali & the G’s join them on stage for the Wedding Blues. Shortstraw gets the unofficial award for being the safest recreational drug of 2013 – Gimme My Fix.
Like a moth to light, all the punks were drawn from the nooks to the front of the stage for a quick serving of surf-rock prepared by The Moths. With rock n roll going through something of a revival there are many rock n roll acts all over the place, but not so many in the niche of surf-rock. The band doesn’t say much, but their performance struck all the right chords. It was like a guitar-driven whammy bar cry to the universe to move the Drakensberg range right next to the sea so we could all catch a wave right after their performance. Thank you for the energetic lesson in surf-rock.
The following day represented another colourful blend of styles with great performance by Inkonjane no Bheseni, Nick Pitman & Ant Cawthorne-Blazeby, Beach Party, MXO & the Peppercorns, Desmond & the Tutus and Dr Khumalo.
In our Smoking Dragon preview we said this was the most local line-up of 2013 and it doesn’t get anymore local than Inkonjane no Bheseni (loosely translated : The Swallow and the Basin). The group played Maskandi with energetic dancers performing a celebratory Zulu dance called Gida throughout their set. It was great that the organisers allowed a local Drakensberg musician an opportunity to share the stage with other recognised artists. We were all tourists in our own country for a moment.
A taste of the South was shortly followed by a taste of the North with Ant Cawthorn-Blazeby and Nic Pitman enlightening the crowd with a compelling melange of Celtic blues. The two expertly traversed a variety of influences with Nick playing the acoustic guitar and Ant playing the fiddle. The highlight was when they played a traditional Irish song which got two gentleman in the crowd on to their feet and to the front of the stage to perform a highland dance. The crowd ruptured with applause after this.
The Puma Happy Holiday alumni ensured that Smoking Dragon Festival got higher points in the hip category with performances by 7 of the trendiest acts of 2013, namely, Shortstraw, Half n Half, Beach Party, Desmond & The Tutus, The Dollfins, Gateway Drugs and Dr Khumalo.
Beach Party took the opportunity to introduce us to some of the material they had been working on over the summer alongside a few tracks from their previous releases. The cool kids from the Cape make quirky music that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The crowd duly participated taking cues from Big Daddy Dolphins stage persona. The birthday boy shared a special moment with the crowd during his performance for Gateway Drugs, whereby the audience was invited onto stage to join the festivities. Only at Smoking Dragon.
MXO and the Peppercorns followed after Beach Party with the best performance of the entire festival. Most in the audience waited patiently during the bands set-up recalling that one song they recognised which received airplay on our major commercial radio stations, while others had no idea who MXO was. Here was this dude wearing all black everything including an afro, one glove on his left hand and aviator shades – the guise was well supported by his robust voice and demanding presence on stage. MXO was the real deal guiding his band as well as the audience through an afropop journey with music that addressed socio-political issues of our nation whilst celebrating it. MXO is the history teacher we all wish we had. Here’s to hoping that 2014 is the year we get to see MXO & The Peppercorns and The Brother Moves On on the same bill.
Desmond and The Tutus was next on the bill for a bit of something the cool kids from Joburg are familiar with. The group has solidified a niche in the local industry as that kwela influenced band that make you want to laugh at yourself and your suburban issues. With a witty take on what we can only call first world problems, Desmond and the Tutus would not be out of place on a Comedy Central special. Their performances are famous for their antics on stage and this performance was no different. Shane Durrant wore a shirt two sizes too small which was thrown from the crowd, he also learnt and played a single chord of guitar during the set. There was even a Saggy Bottom Speedo streaker who ran across the stage during their performance. Only at Smoking Dragon.
The resident doctor of the Puma Happy Holiday Tour, Dr. Khumalo saw to it that we were all healthy before the carnage of the last day of 2013. His prescription included a medical dosage of trap and big room house.
The final day was testament of the renaissance of rock & roll with the majority of the acts billed for the 31st fitting under the umbrella that is rock & roll.
One of these rock & roll bands was Black Math. It’s difficult to believe that just a month before this performance the members were busy navigating through matric exams. Watching them perform felt like you were a fly on the wall in their garage on some street in Durban. Channelling the White Stripes, the three piece put on an electric show that terrorised senses – ‘We need to play now, and we need to play loud’. What is more Rock n Roll than bleeding from the nose and blood on the strings? Maybe shoving some tissue up your nostril and carrying on with the show. Only at Smoking Dragon.
Another helping of Durbans finest was prescribed for the 31st in the form of Fruits & Veggies. The group are one of the most exciting live bands in South Africa, powered by Purity’s commanding vocals, an afrocentric take on ska and a rowdy stage presence. There really is no better way to bid adieu to the mistakes of 2013 than a Fruits & Veggies gig. These rebels are fully committed to the rock & roll lifestyle and this was apparent in their performance. At one stage Purity spurred the crowd to kiss whoever was to their left. She went on to demonstrate exactly what she meant locking lips with Loopy the bassist. Only at Smoking Dragon.
Vagina Champions, Cortina Whiplash followed shortly after Fruits & Veggies as the theme remained centred around rock & roll. The female trio gave the organisors a bit of headache having been banned and then unbanned due to their risque antics. If Femen was a rock & roll band, that band would be Cortina Whiplash. The sextremists are championing the female cause in local rock & roll and it helps that they make good music. Another highlight of the entire festival, second only to MXOs performance, was when they were joined on stage by Portia Sibiya and Nozipho Mnguni for a impressive rendition of Brenda Fassies Weekend Special. Only at Smoking Dragon.
Billed to take us through to the bitter end of 2013 was Bittereinder. “Three afrikaans guys doing rap is just not meant to work”, but the group went against the grain and with 3 MK Award nomiations and a SAMA nomination, it is clear that it works. Last time there was such a topical issue around an afrikaans group was with Fokofpolisiekar. Bittereinder are doing the same except using electro and rap as their chosen mediums. There is not many better ways to do a NYE countdown than with a dirty electro drop. Bittereinder prepared a convenient edit of Hartklop (Die Dansmasjien), which build up during the last minute of 2013 into the first filthy drop of 2014. Once again, in hip-hop terms, Bittereinder killed it.
You can be sure that we will be back at Smoking Dragon Festival this year, even if only for the anything-can-happen vibe of the event. When anything can happen, more often than not, the best things happen.
Only at Smoking Dragon