The band might be called Unsung Heroes, but most of the subjects of their storytelling performances are anything but heroic.
It’s the stories of villains, vagabonds and ghosts — as well as the odd hero and heroine — from Aotearoa’s rich colonial past the five-piece will bring to life during their ‘World Tour of the South Island Part 2’, that includes two gigs in the Whakatipu.
Singing and song-writing NZ history buff Chris Priestley formed the group that comprises musos, a celebrated journo and an award-winning actor, to tell the story of the nation’s settler past via some of its most colourful characters.
Priestley shares the song-writing duties with one of NZ’s most experienced investigative journalists and foreign correspondents Cameron Bennett.
Having swapped his bullet-proof vest and notepad for a lap-steel guitar, Bennett performs some of the songs about the notorious newsmakers of old.
Another ‘‘TV dude’’, acclaimed actor and presenter Peter Elliott, narrates the show, introducing the songs’ characters by reading old newspaper clippings.
Multi award-winning instrumentalist Nigel Gavin, a native New Yorker, brings some serious muso chops to the mix, while ‘‘French chanteuse’’ Sonia Wilson pulls it all together via her ‘‘sweet harmonies’’.
Slideshows of photos from Priestley’s large pre-1900 collection, accompany the songs.
Priestley, who has been a mainstay of the Auckland folk music scene for decades, co-founded Groovy Records and started up a series of cafes, including Java Jive and Atomic Cafe and Roasters.
He tells Mountain Scene a blindspot in the nation’s musical rear vision mirror led to Unsung Heroes.
‘‘When I turned 50, I started realising there weren’t many songs about a lot of these characters, so I started writing them and realised that actually I wasn’t bad at it.’’
Now 67, Priestley likes to localise shows by including history-makers from the area in the set list.
The two Basin gigs will feature a ditty about Captain ‘Bully’ Hayes, a real ‘‘nasty bugger’’, blackbirder and pirate who set up a pub called the Prince of Wales in Arrowtown around the 1860s until he got run out of town.
‘‘He used to steal ships and in the Fiji Islands he’d invite the chief and his daughters on board, then throw the chief overboard and sail off with the daughters and sell them as slaves.’’
Lake Hayes was originally named Lake Hays in 1859 after an Australian sheep farmer, but later had the ‘e’ added when its discovery was wrongly credited to the nasty pirate.
Tunes about a couple of villainous women from Southland’s past might also get a run: baby murderer Minnie Dean — the first and only woman to be hanged in NZ — and Mary McRae, the Hokonui Moonshiner.
Priestley says the crew ‘‘can’t wait’’ to play the Queenstown and Arrowtown shows after Covid scuppered their plans to get here during their
previous World Tour of the South Island in early 2022.
Unsung Heroes, Lakes District Museum, Arrowtown, September 22, Te Atamira, September 23, doors 7pm. Tickets, $25 via the venues