Botanic Park, Adelaide, Saturday March 9, 2014 – Adelaide might be referred to as the City of Churches but that description obviously does not apply during this part of the year.
The energetic and inventive Adelaide Festival and its associated activities such as Writers Week (just finished) and the burgeoning Fringe also contributing are in full swing. There was even V8 car race through the streets last weekend and the Rolling Stones are here in a fortnight to officially open the renovated Adelaide Oval.
Add to that mix Australia’s best music festival, Womadelaide, which kicked off on Friday evening in Botannic Park under clear skies and has enjoyed perfect weather. This is obviously the place to be.
Womadelaide began back in 1992 and its benefits – music and otherwise were noted by the State’s Premier Jay Weatherill when he launched the event on Friday morning. (With an election just a week away the festival is likely to outlast his leadership).
Possibly the best thing the State government did for music fans was to allow Womad the use of the marvellous Botanic Park, located next door to the Zoo. It has to be one of the best locations of any festival and the shade offered by the canopies of grand old trees is a bonus in the hot weather – and it can be hot (on Sunday it is tipped to be 35C, that’s nearly 100F).
This year’s Womadelaide line-up is the strongest for a while. Not only is there the big name African headliner in Femi Kuti but popular Algerian singer Rachid Taha returns and rising Cuban star Roberto Fonseca makes his debut amongst a plethora of world music artists. As well as that there are some well-chosen ‘alternative’ rock acts such as Billy Bragg, Neko Case (recently nominated for a Grammy) and Spanish surf rock band Los Coronas. (The latter two acts also appearing at Golden Plains). The Saturday night headliner was hip-hop act Arrested Development from Atlanta, Georgia.
After the traditional welcome ceremony from the Kaurma people, Zimbabwean band Mokoomba kicked things into gear on the main stage with a lively and colourful hour that highlighted why they are hailed as one of the leading lights of the new Afrosound.
Jon Cleary & The Monster Gentlemen arrived without their guitarist Big D, who had been hospitalised in Florida with pneumonia. Nevertheless, the abbreviated outfit gave a great display of New Orleans funk on the smaller Stage 3, roaming from Cleary’s own songs to some classics such as Professor Longhair’s ‘Tipitina,’ The Meter’s ‘Just Kissed My Baby’ and the standard ‘Hey Pocky Way.’ (Unfortunately, there was no Louisiana cuisine amongst the food stalls).
Neko Case and her band were also on Stage 3 which afforded the opportunity to get much closer than the main stage. With Eric Bachman (Archers of Loaf et al) on guitar and Kelly Hogan on backing vocals it was an impressive line-up and the resultant sound was excellent. Case enthused about Adelaide and gave ain inspiring performance that range through songs of her latest album The Worse Things Get to older material. It has been Case’s biggest tour of Australia yet (including a show at the Sydney Opera House) and by now the band is finely honed. The pity is that we only got to enjoy an hour of her music.
Saturday warmed up considerably, hitting the 30C mark early in the afternoon. Everyone sought shelter under the trees and luckily there are plenty of them. Even if you get a vantage point a fair way from the stage the sound is still clear.
Jeff Lang was making a welcome return to Womadelaide and was at Speakers Corner (Stage 7) with an outfit that included legendary percussionist Greg Sheehan (ex-Mackenzie Theory), bassist Grant Comerford and drummer Danny McKenna. One of the highlights of the set was a selection from Dislocation Blues, the album Lang recorded with the late Chris Whitley in 2007.
Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouki , whose song ‘My Word Is Free’ became the anthem for the Arab spring showed that there were just as many Western influences in her music when she chose to cover Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah,’ much to the surprised delight of the audience at Stage 2.
Osaka Monorail play mainly instrumental versions of soul classics such as ‘The Theme From Shaft,’ ‘Get Ready,’ ‘Quicksand’ and their singer even tackles James Brown. But the fact that they are from Japan seems to be about the only reason they are on the bill here because there are plenty of Australian bands who do this sort of thing a lot better. Still, they did play with lots of energy and their interpretations were accurate and perfect for a warm afternoon.
Sam Lee & Friends tackle traditional UK folk songs with reverence and passion and their performance was spellbinding on Stage 3 late in the afternoon. Lee reminds me a little of Sam Amidon but the material here is much more traditional. While Lee outlines the story behind each song he does not labor the point. The closing song ‘Goodbye My Darling,’ originally written about transportation of convicts from England to Australia, was a highlight of the festival so far and rivals ‘Jim James’ (a song of a similar theme covered by Dylan) for its power.
Swedish singer Ane Brun was certainly dramatic on the main stage and her songs soared across the park, her voice accompanied by keyboards, drums and strings. The range of material is as eclectic as her albums and though she has been around for more than a decade her performance here suggest that a lot of people will make the effort to discover her music on record for the first time.
Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca first came to prominence with the Buena Vista Social Club and later Ibrahim Ferrer’s Orchestra and his appearance was widely anticipated. He certain lived up to expectations with a stunning set of Latin jazz that saw in the evening to perfection. Fonseca’s technique is impressive and his band is superb accompaniment. (He has some shows in Melbourne and Sydney coming up this week).
Jazz singer ‘Concha’ Buika hails from Spain (by way of parents from Guinea) which explains her take on music. She took to Stage 3 with just a guitarist as musical company. She started her career as a flamenco but has expanded her musical repertoire considerably and her husky voice was in fine form for an entertaining set.
Arrested Development closed the evening with a high-energy set that drew the weekend’s largest crowd so far. Speech prowled the stage with the sort of enthusiasm that belies the group’s lengthy history and it was a great end to the day’s entertainment. Apparently, it could also be heard several suburbs away!
Two days to go!