Music can shape our lives, whether it’s your first musical obsession, the album your parents listened to on repeat or the song that will be forever connected to your first crush or kiss. It’s the soundtrack to life’s moments, big and small, and reflects our changing state of mind, tastes and age. But nothing quite beats the thrill of a live performance: watching a band or musician alongside a heaving crowd (or an intimate one), and being in the moment surrounded by sound.
It’s why our first concerts or gigs can be such seminal moments in our adolescent lives, whether it’s a mimed performance from a teenybopper favourite or an iconic act in a stadium. With that in mind, we asked an array of people to share their memories of their first time seeing live music - and the results were, unsurprisingly, deeply varied and personal.
What was surprising? That so few people had photographic evidence of their first gig. Many of these were in a pre or early smartphone era – not a cell phone in sight. Just people living in the moment – or perhaps some were simply too embarrassed to share that much.
Beyonce at Vector Arena
Attended by Chris Parker, comedian who is currently on tour with his show Lots Of Love as part of the NZ International Comedy Festival with Best Foods Mayo
Humiliated to admit actually that I didn't go to many concerts as a child. Honestly because I spent my childhood not listening to pop music and instead putting on one man shows to Mum and Dad's classic CD collection. I clocked a lot of hours dancing to Vivaldi's Four Seasons. I do remember when a big Irish dancing show came to town (piggybacking on the success of Riverdance) and Mum and Dad took me to that. Not so much rock 'n' roll as it was, high kicks and curly wigs.
So my first actual concert was the Beyonce Mrs Carter World Tour in 2013? It was the most money I had ever spent on anything, but that's what you do when it's Beyonce. Considering she doesn't show any signs of touring her Renaissance Tour here, it retrospectively was money well spent.
It was a real formative moment for me in terms of my love affair with the city of Auckland. I had just moved up from Wellington and had a real moment of clarity of thinking "Yes! This is why I moved to a big city" I couldn't believe how loud the concert was, I left not being able to hear anything out of my ears but again, totally worth it. Since attending my first concert at the belated age of 24 I've done some major catching up. Notable highlights include: dancing my ass off at Dua Lipa, singing my heart out at Adele and losing my goddamn mind at P!nk. Yes you heard me, P!nk.
Poison at Mount Smart
Attended by Rebecca Wadey, Ensemble co-founder
My first concert was Icehouse at Founders Theatre in Hamilton with my dad, in 1988 when I was in form 2. But my first GIG? That was Poison at Mount Smart the following year. I had just turned 13 and I thought there was no way my parents would let me go. So I wrote a speech addressing all the pain points, wrote it on cue cards and presented it to them over the dinner table. My arguments were sound and they had no choice but to agree. And so it was that my dad drove a couple of friends and I to Auckland.
He dropped us off at the concert and had dinner with my grandparents who lived nearby then came and picked us up and drove us home to Hamilton. Thanks dad! In hindsight it was pretty epic of him. It was a formative experience and one that set the scene for a lifetime love of long-haired rock. And rockers! Ugh I’ll never forget getting the lighters out for Every Rose Has A Thorn. Those vapers could never! I absolutely love the spirit and culture of big gigs like this and have made a point of dragging my kids along to shows like Taylor Swift (2013 and 2018) Lorde (2014) and Paul McCartney (2017) since they were old enough to sit on seats.
Alexander O’Neal at the Brixton Academy
Attended by Duncan Greive, senior writer and founder of The Spinoff
My first gig happened, to the best of my knowledge, at the Brixton Academy in 1987. I went to Rosendale Primary and was classmates with someone who had a link to a promoter working on a show by Alexander O'Neal, who was riding a wave of popularity in the UK at the time. They weren't just giving away tickets – they needed us for the show itself.
The Mississippi-born R&B singer had a lithe, highly romantic approach, with the gorgeous textured production of Jam & Lewis underneath. I didn't know any of this in 87 – I just remember it being really exciting to be going to be at a big pop show with my classmates (we would've been around seven). The time came and we were ushered through the backstage area, and told to go and sit on a giant prop bed, while O'Neal sang to us, one which was maybe about the importance of children? I remember him taking oxygen backstage, and being incredibly sweaty inside a boxy suit. We were paid a bag of sweets afterwards. It was utterly incredible, a glimpse into the belly of the arena music machine which would years later become an abiding fascination.
5ive at the North Shore Events Centre
Attended by Tyson Beckett, Stuff and Ensemble style reporter
Many of my formative concert experiences took place in Glenfield. For some inexplicable reason for a spell in the late 90s / early 00s, the North Shore Events Centre was a quasi mecca for musical gatherings considered to be the peak of culture in the eyes of pre-teen girls from Auckland's Eastern Suburbs. To this day I do not think I've anticipated an event as hotly as I did my first concert: the boy band 5ive.
My Dad had won tickets through the CD store Sounds, and when he told me I screamed and burst into delirious tears. I wore Pumpkin Patch dungarees and spent the entire night perched up on Dad’s shoulders so I could maintain a direct line of sight on Abz’s every move. When I saw young fans losing their minds at the Harry Styles concert earlier this year, I knew exactly what they (and their bemused adult chaperones) were going through.
Cliff Richard’s 40th Anniversary tour in 1998 at North Harbour Stadium
Attended by Anthony Metcalf, agent/promoter/tour manager at 100% GOOD
My first concert experience was the least cool thing imaginable. Like think of the least edgy show of all time and add a religious undertone to it. I am of course talking about Cliff Richard’s 40th Anniversary tour in 1998 – I was 8-years-old with my parents (thanks Mum and Dad!) shaking my money maker to such hits as Do You Wanna Dance, Butterfly Kisses and Devil Woman. To his credit, Cliff did some banging duets with Olivia Newton-John, which I almost certainly didn’t appreciate at the time – but it was the 90s and I wasn’t allowed to watch Grease yet.
Four Letter Word at Zeal
Attended by Lara, Ensemble publishing coordinator
My friend Flora was the drummer in a band called Four Letter Word, along with my friend Sonja on keyboards and the singer/guitarist Ruby Moyes who had really long blonde hair and wore eyeliner. I was 13, I had just left an all-girls school where I was miserable to come to Wellington High, a co-ed, mufti school. Watching my new friends play shows at Zeal was really magical. As was watching the cute boys from uniform schools play 'Teenage Kicks' in their bands (swoon).
Zeal - an all-ages venue run by Christian rockers - had a wholesome vibe, that we tainted by drinking warm cans of Woodstock on the sly, and smoking crumpled Benson & Hedges cigs I stole from my dad's hiding place above the fridge.
It was skinny jeans galore – Junk Food or Tripp jeans from Spacesuit were my favourite. This was a hard pivot for me in terms of style – I had gone from Supré hip hop dancer girl to writing 'hate' in masking tape on the back of my leather jacket like Ian Curtis from Joy Division LOL. Everyone had heavy fringes, myself included, and I thought I looked like Cat Power until some old punk told me I looked "like The Ramones" (all of them? I’m still confused!).
Going to these early gigs introduced me to so much punk and alternative music, and inspired my friends and I to form a band later in high school, called GaolB8 (Jailbait. We were reclaiming the name, ok??). Vera Ellen, our lead singer/guitarist has gone on to become a legit rockstar.
The Gathering Festival
Attended by MC Tali
As someone who is now a bonafide festival attendee (and performer) and a 20 year deep raver - attending The Gathering for the first time in 1996 had a very profound affect on me - and was where I created lasting friendships and a love of certain music that has prevailed all these years.
The Gathering site was on the top of a hill above Motueka. As we approached the bottom of the hill in our friends rumbling VW Beetle, we could already see the sun glinting off the bonnets of cars that were queuing to enter. “Woah… is that the line to get in?” We shaded our eyes from the hot afternoon sun to get a better look, and before long we too were sitting in a long line of cars – a narrow, winding, gravel road that stretched for about 12 km. People stood on the side of the road sharing beers and cigarettes, playing hacky sack and pumping tunes from car speakers.
Once we arrived we pitched up our tent and set about exploring the site: set over a dry dusty farm surrounded by Kauri, it was a beautiful area, but you had to be careful of the sinkholes. (The biggest sinkhole of all there is called Harwood’s Hole and is considered an abseilers’ paradise). There were several large tents positioned around the festival site decorated according to their different genre of music, with the Trance arena being an outdoor zone in the middle.
We had an awesome time checking out all the different zones, from Hardcore and Tribal to Early DnB, Breaks, Dub, Trance, Techno and House. During the day ambient tunes drifted across the camp ground, and into the evening when the sun went down, the fairy lights and glowing decorations hanging in ultraviolet light from the trees lit up the site.
When it came to celebrating the New Year with 4000 other revellers, we were beyond excited. There were fireworks - nowhere on the scale that big festivals have these days - but enough to make us ooh and ahh, necks craned towards the bursting lights.
The next day at the very end of the festival, when the sun beat down on us all, the music stopped and everyone came together in the Trance arena and danced while the festival promoters sprayed hoses of water into the hot and happy crowd. This would be the first of many 'Gatherings' that followed - cementing in me a love of festivals where not just music, but community and fellowship are celebrated.
Everything But The Girl at the Wellington Town Hall
Attended by James Dobson, founder and designer of Jimmy D
They’re probably considered more “easy listening” these days, but at the time (probably 1996/1997?), they were part of the trip-hop wave along with the likes of Portishead and Tricky. It was one of the dreamiest gigs I’ve ever been to and has fuelled many a collection of mine - singer Tracey Thorn’s style is peak 90s vibes - all fitted mesh shirts, simple shift dresses worn with trainers and choppy asymmetrical hair.
Having grown up in Upper Hutt, I think it was also the first time I remember seeing other gay men (not that I knew that I was gay at the time!) and I vividly remember seeing two gay gays in sleeveless tanks pinching each others nipples - that was definitely eye opening at the time lol.
The Living End at The Powerstation
Attended by Zoe Walker Ahwa, Ensemble co-founder
The late 90s were a time of diverse and changing musical tastes as I grasped at genres in an attempt to figure out who I was / fit in. In 1997 I was utterly obsessed with the Spice Girls and Hanson (1997 was truly a peak year for music and pop culture, imo!). A year later I had started high school with a new group of friends, and attended what I think was my first ‘proper’ concert: The Living End at The Powerstation.
I was 13 or 14 and thought this rockabilly Aussie band with a double bass was the pinnacle of edgy. I remember feeling quite terrified but liberated at being out late, amongst this crowd. I remember dancing a lot. I wish I could remember what I was wearing… The timing is all a bit blurry, but this was near the beginning of my Channel Z listening, wannabe skater girl, scratching the Pennywise logo onto my Bang on the Door ‘groovy chick’ pencil case era.
I have always swung between pop girlie and rock poser: a year or so later, 1999 or maybe 2000, I was giddy with excitement about the free performance from S Club 7 in the Viaduct, and also attending the Tadpole gig at the Henderson community centre.
NZ bands at the ‘botans’
Attended by Glenn McConnell, Stuff political reporter
In summer, musicians perform for free each night in the “Soundshell”, at the Botanic Gardens along Tinakori Rd. I don’t know if the Fat Freddy’s Drop we know today ever officially performed in that small pipi shaped stage, but I’m certain I saw musicians from those bands performing for free in the botans, and also at the brand new Waitangi Park.
My favourite song was Wandering Eye, and 18 years later I think it still holds its ground as one of New Zealand’s most iconic songs. By the time I moved to Auckland, at 19-years-old in 2017, I was strangely excited to stumble across the fish and chip shop that hosted FFD and the likes of Ladi6 and Carol Hirschfeld for the song’s award winning music video. It’s so easy to take free stuff for granted, but those gigs left a mark.