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Rhythm and Vines Music Festival Ushers in the New Year

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No one knew normal from abnormal.

Music festivals are out of this world. At least, while you are at them, you feel that they are. While festivals date back to the Ancient Greeks, their purpose has always remained the same: celebration. Most festivals revolve around music, food, and culture. The 3-night Rhythm and Vines Music Festival in Gisborne, New Zealand not only celebrates all of the above, but is also one of the biggest celebratory parties shared by everyone around the world: New Year's Eve.

As a travel writer and photographer, one seems to always stumble onto happenings that had never been planned. This results in two things: absolutely loving your job and showing up at the most random places on earth. I can remember how direct and sincere my answer was to my cubicle neighbor and good friend Sam (epitome of your late 20's New Zealander in Auckland - genuine, hilarious, kind, and witty) at work was when he asked me if I wanted to go to "the largest music festival and biggest New Year's Eve party in New Zealand of all time." To me this was an absolute no brainer. Beam me up, Kiwi.

About 30,000 people showed up to Rhythm & Vines this year. Let me put this into perspective: The population of New Zealand is about 4.4 million. Doing the math, almost 1% of the entire country's population showed up to this music festival. If the United States had a music festival that .0068 of its population showed up to, it would need to accommodate 2,113,636 people. Good luck checking wristbands at that one. I guess you could say that to the people of New Zealand (especially the ones who are passionate about music, people, and culture), a festival like this is something they are extremely proud of and thoroughly enjoy attending.

It isn't the ratio of size to population that makes R&V special, it is the story behind it.  Nine years ago in a small and cold dive bar in Dunedin, New Zealand, two university students (who were drinking beers after just ending exams) were planning an in-between Christmas and New Year's holiday get-together for friends and family. After realizing that the party should involve the outdoors, music, people, etc., Hamish Pinkham and Tom Gibson conspired with Andrew Witters, whose family had the perfect spot for the occasion – their winery in Gisborne. The rest is history.

My part of this history started with an absolutely stunning seven hour-drive from Auckland to Gisborne. Curling under the immaculate Coromandel Peninsula, dropping down along the small and cozy East Coast beach towns of New Zealand's North Island, to then wind through the highly green and vegetative Waioeka Gorge, the vehicular mission down ended in a lush green grass mountain area. Filled with sheep and sleepy woolsheds, it reminded me of Ireland mixed with Napa Valley and Jurassic Park. Beers cracked a few kilometers outside of town, the excitement levels of the car were elevated as we knew we were approaching the largest annual party in New Zealand. Go time means go.

We arranged to rent a big house near downtown Gisborne (the human population of this little gem is around 34,000), and the six of us dropped our bags in our rooms with a large sigh of relief. As some of you may or may not know, having anything clean, new, fresh, warm, or soft at a music festival is like gold. While camping sounded like fun and an "experience," we all took the seasoned festival veteran route of smartness = HOUSE. A lot of you in your late 20s and early 30s know exactly what I am talking about. 


The morning of the festival (or maybe it was the afternoon?) I went on a run through Gizzy (nickname of the town) to get cash, explore, see the downtown area, etc. Downtown was about 7 blocks by 1 street long. Not tiny, not big, perfect for a festival. Feeling like the only one exercising that day, I was swarmed by the likes of ATM machines with lines to the street curb, young girls putting on sun tan lotion like it was their first time, singlet tank tops, frayed jean shorts, and jandals (sandals to a Northern Hemisphere goer) galore. Festival buzz was starting to radiate on the warm and dry sidewalks of Gisborne, New Zealand.

The first day of the Rhythm and Vines Music Festival showed over 24,000 festival goers the likes of Grandmaster Flash and Pendulum ripping up a couple of the main stages. While the main stage (Rhythm Stage) was the large attraction that features the biggest artists and headline acts, the Vines Stage (2nd largest at R&V of 5 total stages) was my personal favorite. Perched at the bottom of a Roman amphitheater-style hill looking out over the entire venue, I watched this stage, at times, grow from 3,000 to 13,000 people in a matter of minutes.  

Day 2 of the festival finally exposed me to the true uniqueness, character, and beauty of this international New Year's Eve event. Looking beyond as I walked around taking pictures of people, sponsors, vendors, and moments, I vividly remember being fascinated by the security guards riding on horseback, lining the surrounding rolling green vineyard hills. This place is so remote, so in the middle of nowhere, that it would not have been that hard to just walk down a grassy decline and sneak into the festival. I spoke with one of these mounted guards and he explained to me that with the use of horses, spotlights, walky talkies, and a bit of luck, they are able to thwart illegal R&V Festival muppets (as a Kiwi would call them). I think they succeeded, as even toward midnight I could still see up the mountains to the crossing strobe beams of their high-powered flashlights. Like we didn't have enough strobe lights in our face already to Calvin Harris, Cut Copy, and A-Skills on the Rhythm/Vines Stages?? Happy days to say the least, my friends.  Thieves, please go home.

It rained on New Year's Eve. And when I say rained, it absolutely RAINED like Poseidon had moved his home and hobbies to the heavens. Ponchos were insufficient. For this holiday season,  New Zealand was seeing one of the wettest New Year's on record. I got texts from friends in other parts of the country that woke up floating in their tents. We turned the news on and sure enough people were knee deep at campgrounds laughing and crying it all off. Smiles in Gisborne, cries everywhere else. Smiles and cries. 

I felt blessed in that my daytime activities involved interviewing artists and not floating around in a tent. Jack Beats, who later closed out the Rhythm Stage after the stroke of midnight, met with me in their hotel lobby a few hours after touching down from Heathrow. As old DJ rivals in England for the past 10 years, these blokes are two smooth criminals that have fine-tuned the wobbly/dub/electro banger era that the UK and Hollywood are just now beginning to take to the next level.

The second interview I had was with David Dallas, a hip hop artist that has done what most young male New Zealanders can only dream of: making it out of the land of flightless birds by rapping. Being that this was the second time meeting with him (I'd previous met him at his CD release party in Ponsonby, New Zealand), I was able to ask more fun and insightful questions that didn't waste his backstage time of 40 minutes, before he killed it on the Vines Stage. When asked his desert island choice of one double disc album - 2pac's "All Eyez On Me" or Notorious' "Life After Death?"...he responded "2pac, because it has the song 'Picture Me Rollin,' which I can completely relate to." D. Dallas my friend, seeing as you just signed with Duckdown Records in New York City, many MANY of your old Kiwi mates are going to be doing just that: PICTURE YOU ROLLIN.' Start looking around and good luck in the States. 

New Year's Eve was amazing because of the rain. While we Rhythm and Viners were blessed with partially sunny days and light rain sprinkles in days past, December 30th, 2011 was a music festival experience that even the Woodstock goers of 1969 would have respected. Shoes and socks become a "brown-looking thing," people had the ability to skate over the earth in mud, and humans realized that they can dance so hard they can be painted from head to toe in the earth's wet dirt. Mudslides down hills were cheered on in some areas, shoes and sandals were abandoned everywhere. No one knew normal from abnormal. It was awesome in such a dirty way.

At one point while meeting friends 30 minutes before the ball dropped at the notorious "giant water slide" just adjacent to the main stage, I fumbled into a girl that was soaking wet and crying her eyes out. Being the festival master that this travel photographer is, I reached into my side camouflage cargo short pocket and ripped out a massive New Zealand flag I had found at a thrift store days before departing. I had planned on rocking the flag as a cloak on New Year's Eve but it never seemed to fit my get up for the night as the Club Stolen (much love to Stolen Rum for an amazing atmosphere overlooking the main stage!) VIP photographer for the event. 

The flag at this moment found its time to shine. I took my sunglasses off (yes it was nighttime) and my captain's hat (yes, we were on land) and began to completely make this girl's frown turn upside down. I used it to dry her off completely, gave her water, wrapped her in the flag, and finally re-poncho-ed her so that she would stay dry while we headed to the midnight firework display at the main stage. By the time the fireworks hit and some dancing began, my new "hand and hand" partner for the night was smiling and thanking me for taking care of her. Funny how too much gin on day 3 of a festival can make a woman cranky while drenched wet? Huh.

In all, onsite campers totaled 5,000. Over 29,000 tickets were sold. The 9-year anniversary produced a record sellout crowd with over 13,000 tickets snatched up before the line-up was even released. Even Zeus would have been proud of these young New Zealand festival gods (directors) because at the end of it all, they have turned a conversation at a university pub table into an internationally-recognized music festival. 

I am proud to say I have had the privilege of becoming friends with one of the directors of the R&V family and I will tell you I have never met a more grounded, personable, and genuine director in my entire life. After seeing their new successful ventures this year unfold with Rhythm and Alps in Christchurch and Rhythm and Sands in Thailand, I can only vicariously join in their excitement as their initial idea of a holiday get-together is now becoming an ambitious Southern Hemisphere vision. 

You aren't living an American Dream (as we would relate to such a successful startup in my country), you aren't living a New Zealand Dream, a Spanish dream, nor an English Dream, R&V Titan fighters, Beat Communications, family, and friends: you are living a human's dream. Please continue to share your gift with your guests from all around the world; your exceptional knack of creating one kick-ass celebration.


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