Botannic Park Adelaide – Friday March 6 – Monday March 9, 2015
It is difficult to imagine a better setting for a music festival than Adelaide’s Botanic Park, home to Australia’s Womad event since 1992. This year the record number of 90,000 people passed through the gates and enjoyed perfect weather to go with the perfect location.
Festival Director Ian Scobie noted that, “each of the four days of the WOMADelaide weekend has seen the scenic Botanic Park festival site reach capacity, with Monday having the strongest turnout since the festival extended its platform to the four day model.”
The scale of the achievement can further be put into context when you realise how much is happening in Adelaide during the week: the Adelaide Festival, Fringe Festival, Writers Week and even an international cricket match across the park on the Monday.
All that was needed to add to the mix was a great line-up – and that is something that is generally assured every year.
“A major contributor to the success is the stunning line-up we were able to bring to Adelaide,” continued Scobie, “with highlights such as Youssou N’Dour, Fanfare Ciocarlia, Orquesta Buena Vista Social club Sinead O’Connor……”
Scobie was spot on in his assessment but could have added numerous other highlights to his list. The weekend not only featured some of the superstars of ‘world music’ but also had a treasure trove of obscure artists worth discovering.
During his main stage performance on Friday evening Rufus Wainwright questioned the meaning of the term ‘world music,’ came to the conclusion that ‘everything is world music’ and proceeded to play a ‘country’ song! The same debate over definition exists for Americana, which no one can quite accurately describe either, but in the end it is a moot point. Womad presents an array of artists in a variety of genres to an appreciative audience.
Friday kicked off for me at Stage 3 with a superb set from Charlie Musselwhite, one of the few American blues artists to ever appear at Womadelaide. This prompted the obvious question as to why this should be the case and why, given the burgeoning Americana scene, there are not more ‘roots’ music acts from the USA. Womad does have a slight un-Americana tilt, maybe because organisers feel that culture gets enough publicity elsewhere. Still, there were suggestions that ‘country’ artists such as Emmylou Harris or Lucinda Williams could easily fit into the line-up. Mavis Staples should have been a certainty (she is at Bluesfest next month).
Musselwhite, who toured here with Ben Harper two years ago to great acclaim, chose material from across his career and concluded with a great reading of ‘Christo Redemptor,’ from his very first album in 1967 (when he was still known as ‘Charley’).
The Buena Vista Sessions with Omara Portuondo on the main stage offered one of the last chances to see these musicians before they retire and this was a glimpse of what was to come with the full Buena Vista outfit the next evening.
Sharon Van Etten did fly the flag for America on Stage 3 and her set was compelling, even for those not familiar with her material. Rufus Wainwright closed the evening on the main stage in his usual dramatic fashion, occasionally ruminating on the meaning of world music and then Madonna but impressing yet again with the power of his voice.
Saturday March 7
Robert Forster with bass guitarist/composer Jherek Bischoff & The Zephyr Quartet on the Moreton Bay stage were an intriguing combination: Forster with his elegance and gentle patter and Bischoff leading an ensemble that provided appropriate backdrops for Forster’s more recent songs and some from the Go Betweens back catalogue. It was an inspired combination.
Andean singer Luzmila Carpio was on centre stage while Youssou N’Dour was in conversation across the park with Peter Garrett. Realising that session would be packed out I opted for the former and was puzzled as to why the language in the songs sounded almost Chinese until it was pointed out that Carpio was singing in an ancient dialect.
CW Stoneking on the other hand sings in a dialect that might have come somewhere from Mississippi in the 1920s. Playing electric guitar and augmented by the backing vocals of Vika and Linda Bull, his show on the second stage was one of the main highlights of the entire event.
Stoneking has somehow assimilated a whole range of old time styles into his own intriguing blend. (CW is definitely not an imitator or copyist in the way that someone like Pokey LaFarge could be considered). Many of his songs are originals and stylistically it is difficult to think of anyone else doing anywhere near the same sort of thing these days. The word idiosyncratic might have been coined just to describe him. I reckon Bob Dylan would love him!
As the MC said, Stoneking makes old songs sound new and new songs sound old. Drawing heavily from his latest album Gon’ Boogaloo, CW skittered across the songs, with the Bull sisters singing like they have never been required to before and meeting the challenge superbly.
The Painted Ladies were another festival discovery that are worth noting. Put together by Brisbane musician/ songwriter (from the band Halfway), this collaboration pays tribute to The Loner, the first Australian black protest album, recorded by inmate Vic Simms in Bathurst Gaol in 1973. The appearance of Simms and the commentary and interview with Clinton Walker added an extra dimension to the show which I hope gets wider exposure elsewhere because it certainly deserves it.
Later in the afternoon, father and son kora maestros Toumani and Sidiki Diabate charmed the audience at stage 3 with a brilliant display that made time fly and was reminiscent of some of the great late night performances at this festival, dating back to the unforgettable and greatest of them all, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club was the evening’s closer and rewarded everyone’s expectations with a joyous performance. On their farewell tour the orchestra was thoroughly entertaining and even offered a version of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ but the whole evening was taken to another level with the appearance of 84-year-old diva Omara Portuondo and her reading of ‘Perhaps.’
Sunday March 8
The Malawi Mouse Boys and their African gospel harmonies were so powerful and energetic they got an immediately enthusiastic response. Balkan Beat Box were equally energetic on the main stage with their thumping gypsy rhythms. Mista Savona with Prince Alla and Randy Valentine were the reggae component this year and also got the audience dancing. Local singer/songwriter Julia Henning, a discovery of Triple J’s Unearthed series, was impressive enough to suggest that this might be her year. The Tjintu Desert Band played some delightfully loose rhythms combining rock and country in a way that has been so distinctive with many indigenous outfits.
Neneh Cherry appeared with Rocketnumbernine on the small Speakers Corner Stage 7 and drew a large and appreciative crowd. After an absence of some years from music Cherry is obviously relishing her return. As she pointed out, she appeared at the very first WOMAD in the UK with Rip Rig & panic and her father, the late Don Cherry also appeared there. The fact that Youssou N’Dour dropped by to watch hinted at what was to come in the evening.
Swedish duo First Aid Kit (Klara and Johanna Soderberg) might be their country’s biggest musical export since ABBA and they have certainly developed a very large and devoted following for their lovely harmonies. Song’s such as ‘Lion’s Roar,’ ‘Stay Gold’ and ‘Blue’ are gorgeous. The surprises were versions of Paul Simon’s ‘America’ (which they have released as a single) and Jack White’s ‘Love Interruption.’ They did not do ‘Universal Soldier,’ which was perhaps even more surprising given the fact that its composer Buffy Saint-Marie was on the same stage the next day. The set ended with the beautiful ‘Emmylou,’ which pretty much sums up everything about their music.
Spanish singer/songwriter/guitarist Depedro – who has performed with Calexico – drew a large audience to Stage 3 amongst the trees and with his small ensemble played folk, flamenco and rock – not necessarily in that order and sometimes all in the one song.
The undoubted star of Sunday and probably the whole festival was the Senegalese musical giant Youssou N’Dour who was first at this event twenty years ago. Introduced as The King of African Pop, the singer brought an element of superstardom to the main stage. The band was a step above everything else I had seen so far with a fantastic bass player and en equally impressive percussionist. Yet for all of his brilliant songs, such as ‘Set,’ the highlight arrived when Neneh Cherry joined him on stage for ‘7 Seconds.’ It was another brilliant display from a man who wears his crown with ease.
Monday March 9
As for that treasure trove of music I mentioned earlier, the best example on the weekend might have been Bärra from the Birrtjimi community in North East Arnhem Land (the band’s name means ‘the West Wind’). Yolgnu elder Djalu Gurruwiwi and his son Larrtjanŋa are the group’s leaders and they invited Wally de Backer (of Gotye and The Basics) to join them for this performance, which was absolutely riveting on Monday afternoon. Perhaps the name Gotye assured a large audience at the small Zoo stage but the results of the collaboration indicated that this collaboration could certainly be as successful as Gurrumul on the international stage. This was easily the best new thing I heard all weekend.
The project is documented in the upcoming film Baywara by UK-based filmmaker Ben Strunin who explores the life and heritage of Djalu. (The film’s title is from the Yolgnu word for ‘lightning power’). You would have to think there should be performances for Bärra at the other Womad events.
I started with two of my favourite stages with the tight white soul of Nick Waterhouse at Speakers Corner and quickly moved on to Australian Emma Swift teamed with Brit Robyn Hitchcock on the Moreton Bay stage. Swift has released a very impressive mini-album of what some call ‘sadcore’ (a label I dislike almost as intensely as Americana). When I arrived, the duo were singing the classic ‘Love Hurts,’ a la Emmylou and Gram. Sadcore?
This was followed by The Everly’s ‘The Price of Love.’ Those two songs would be a better barometer of the music than any label. Swift performed two of her own recent songs ‘Bittersweet’ and ‘Woodland Street.’ Hitchcock provided some rambling and surreal musings a propos of nothing in particular with references to Piscean musicians and the ancient Romans! They closed with Lou Reed’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes.’ Swift is about to finish her regular gig with Double J and head off touring with Hitchcock and back to Nashville. By all indications bigger success is on the way.
Buffy Saint-Marie is not short of energy for a 74-year old and has a deep catalogue from which she can draw. Her hour on the main stage late in the afternoon contained the ‘hits’ – ‘Universal Soldier,’ ‘Up Where We Belong’ and ‘Until It’s Time For You To Go’ – but also some interesting songs that had her Native American influences.
South African legend Abdullah Ibrahim took to Stage 3 solo for the first part of his performance and gently improvised as the sun began to set. It was a lovely interlude; however, I had to leave before he was joined by his ensemble. I wanted to see Boston four-piece Lake Street Dive on Stage 2 and they did not disappoint but are probably much better suited to smaller venues than the large festival stage.
From Niger, Bombino’s breakthrough came when he recorded the album Nomad with Dan Auerbach of The Black keys in Nashville. Apparently, the sound at his show on Friday had been a little shaky but here under the trees at Speakers Corner it was crystal clear and the music was mesmerising. It recalled the great Tinariwen in its impact – blues in its purest form.
I was going to say that Sinead O’Connor’s performance was a surprise but why should it be? The singer has been around for more than 25 years and 10 albums and knows the crafts of writing and performing. It was more a revelation because I had not expected it to be so powerful. O’Connor was dressed in semi-religious garb – and there are probably some deeper meanings there that I do not want to speculate on – but her voice was amazing. Backed by a band that included two women on guitar the music was at times inspiring. While there was a large selection of songs from her latest album I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss the biggest ovation was, of course, reserved for ‘Nothing Compares 2 U.’ How true!
WOMADelaide 2016 will be held from 11 – 14 March, Adelaide Botanic Park.