AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Singer Matiu Walters grinned as he gazed out over 50,000 damp but delirious fans and said those magic words: “So, what’s up Eden Park?”
While much of the world remains hunkered down, the band Six60 has been playing to huge crowds in New Zealand, where social distancing isn’t required after the nation stamped out the coronavirus. The band’s tour finale on Saturday night was billed as the largest concert in the world since the pandemic began.
Equally momentous for a band which met while playing rugby at university was getting to play the first concert ever held at the storied Eden Park rugby stadium. And finding themselves at the apex of world music came as a twist for Six60, which has enjoyed unparalleled success in New Zealand but whose forays abroad have ended without the breakthroughs they sought.
Saturday’s set by the five-piece band included powerful cameos by military musicians ahead of the nation honoring its war dead on Sunday, and Maori performers who stretched across the stage while the band switched to singing in the Indigenous language.
One fan, Lucy Clumpas, found it a surreal experience to be surrounded by so many people after she spent last year living through endless lockdowns in Britain.
“It’s very important for us as humans to be able to get together and sing the same songs together,” she said. “It makes us feel like we’re part of something,”
Walters, the lead singer, said they desperately want their musician friends around the world to be able to play live shows again.
“We know what it’s like to be in lockdown. It sucked. And we didn’t know if we’d be able to play gigs again,” he said in an interview before the show. “But we are fortunate, for a few reasons, here in New Zealand.”
Guitarist Ji Fraser said the reception they received while on the road for their summer tour had been incredible.
“It was amazing to see how fanatical people were, and excited about being out and seeing live music, and seeing something to drag them out of a long, brutal year,” he said. “It was very special.”
Walters said they did worry that something could have gone wrong — that their gigs could have turned into super-spreader events. But he said there was not much to do other than play by the rules and follow the government guidelines.
The band formed thirteen years ago after they started jamming in their rugby changing rooms, making their concert at the hallowed ground of the nation’s All Blacks rugby team feel like completing a circle.
The band had pushed for changes to civic rules to allow concerts at Eden Park, but not all the neighbors were happy.
One who objected was former Prime Minister Helen Clark, who said at the time that the concerts would represent a “home invasion” of noise.
“But the people wanted it. And the people spoke,” Walters said. The singer added that Clark would have been welcomed at the concert. “Six60 is for everyone. And maybe if she came and enjoyed herself, she’d have a change of heart.”
Promoter Brent Eccles said they got permission to use the venue only at the last moment.
“And we thought to ourselves, well, how crazy are we?” he said. “And the answer was, well, pretty crazy. So let’s do it.”
It’s been a heady rise for a group which began as a hard-partying student covers band. Their style has evolved and remains difficult to define, blending elements of reggae, pop, rock and soul.
Bass guitarist Chris Mac said their fans now span rich and poor, young and old.
“We’re pretty lucky to have become the soundtrack of people’s lives. Weddings, funerals, birthdays, engagements,” he said, before breaking into laughter. “You know, gender-reveal parties, which are all the rage.”
As the band’s popularity grew in New Zealand, it became a kind of sport for critics to knock them for being too bland. Walters said criticism of success remains a problem in New Zealand, and was something that annoyed him at the time. But he said it also energized the band.
“We are very serious about the music,” he said. “It’s important for us to express an emotion and tell a story, and for our songs to be healing and magnetic for people. Because, it’s not a fluke that we’re playing to 50,000 people.”
The band has been trying to get more recognition abroad, although six months spent in Germany and a U.S. record deal both ended in disaster, as recounted in a behind-the-scenes documentary about the band “Six60: Till The Lights Go Out.”
But the band is ready to give it another shot, with a tour of Europe and the U.K. planned for November. They hope that by then, there will be many more places around the world where huge crowds can gather in song.