WOMADelaide @ Botanic Park, Adelaide 6/3/2020

WOMADelaide (World Of Music And Dance) is a highly anticipated event on the festival calendar. It is always guaranteed to come through with the goods (to use a cliché) but that doesn’t mean it is not fraught with issues for festival goers. There are the performers that you know that you want to see, those that you don’t know but you want to see, and those that you don’t know that you don’t know you want to see. This is why this weekend carries with it a fair degree of fear of missing out especially with so much going on concurrently and some performers only playing one show. For some, planning is crucial while for others not so much and for them the weekend is more an exercise in spontaneity.

Friday evening begins at the main Foundation stage with the Blind Boys of Alabama and their religious tinged set that includes covers as diverse as Norman Greebaum’s Spirit In The Sky and originals such as I Can See as well as The Wire theme song Down In The Hole. Their endearing defacto spokesman gives amusing, touching in-between song banter (“There’s one thing I haven’t told you yet… The Blind Boys love you”). Amazing Grace is sung over an arrangement recognisable as the music from House Of The Rising Son and ends with a closing avant-garde vocalisation and a repeated, “Can I get a witness?” Towards the end of the set is the first appearance of the giant puppet figures of Company Archibald Caramantran appropriately weaving their way through the audience now dancing with religious fervour.

With Kate Miller-Heidke only performing one show, the audience moves to the nearby Stage 2. In the early portion of her set, her porcelain-visage is at risk in the direct light of the still bright setting sun as she performs her trademark pop operatic vocalisations. I consider that her vocal acrobatics are well suited for a festival that encompasses a variety of singing styles from around the world. You’ve Underestimated Me, Dude is a somewhat low-key, bass-heavy blues-like number with the occasional vocal histrionics. Company Archibald Caramantran makes another welcome appearance among the crowd and Kate thanks them “for making it seem like you can dance to my music”. She comments that her son Ernie doesn’t like her music and says “it makes my ears cry” before a lullaby-like Rock This Baby To Sleep performed with just her keyboardist Jess Hitchcock (“remember that name” she tells us). Kate’s partner Keir Nuttall returns to play U2’s Edge-styled guitar acoustically and when Kate falls back into her operatic vocals you realise how avant-garde this pop star really is. She provides percussive slaps to and sings into his guitar that he subsequently loops to solo over and the song starts to sound like Pink Floyd’s Run Like Hell. Words has the rest of the band and the audience join in by the end. She finishes with Zero Gravity, inviting the audience to participate and sing along.

At this point there is significant division of the Friday night crowd and I make my way to the Zoo Stage for another one-off performance by Stellie who has a promisingly fair sized crowd for a local performer with a predominantly seated audience. Her set is nearly all new songs that have we are informed have only been performed once before.

Having stayed the course for the duration of the first two major acts, I choose to explore the Womadelaide site after briefly visiting the Foundation stage to witness the jazz-infused latin-styled ensemble Orquestra Akokan getting their audience grooving. At the Frome Park Pavilion Super Rats performance has the feel of a clockwork gypsy band playing at a birthday or wedding to a mostly seated audience with a group up the front dancing with a friendly and inviting vibe. I visit the Tasting The World stage to see Tuuletar preparing Finnish Karelian pies along with a capella performances while attempting to teach some traditional dancing that we are told is going out of popularity. There is a bizarre Q and A during which someone asks about the Finnish school system (there is laughter among the audience at this random inquiry) and a question about Finnish girls throwing knives that has the girls amusingly perplexed.

On the nearby Stage 7, Kikagaku Moyo’s single performance starts with the band in a huddle and strum jamming for a few minutes before breaking into a psychedelic mood piece with androgynous vocals. Their set is influenced by Krautrock, or more precisely Japrock with some catchy riffs and hooks thrown in for measure. I note the smell of an illicit “tobacco” in the air that usually goes hand-in-hand with this kind of stoner noodling. The laidback easy-listening psychedelia becomes searing and prog-like and there are definite echoes of artists such as Tangerine Dream and Popol Vuh. One extended piece is a Take 5 like song with time changes, included screaming guitar wah wah solos and the body movements of the guitarists progressively become more violent. A short Doors-like interlude precedes their final piece that could effectively soundtrack a 70s heist movie which progresses at a pace that gets the audience moving and anticipating until the band suddenly pull back to something more mood-based and there is a sigh of disappointment among the crowd that this didn’t lead where they though it was going. In terms of genre, this fluid final piece places them alongside and on par with Khruangbin, from last year who similarly surprised and caught the attention of Womadelaideans.

In an attempt to maximise my coverage, I decide to return to the Frome Park Pavilion to see some of General Levy’s set as both he and the Cat Empire are only performing once over the weekend. Upon his arrival, the former immediately drives his eagerly anticipating audience into a frenzy with his jungle and grime set of incredibly rapid-fire rapping and interactive call and response.

Returning to the Foundation stage, I catch the tail end of the Cat Empire’s headlining set as charismatic front man Felix Riebl takes over lead vocals following trumpeter Harry James Angus’s excursion to the front of stage. The audience love every moment and there is a mosh that consists of three quarters of the huge crowd assembled. The encore starts with Bulls and ends with The Chariot, the crowd singing along to every word, between these Hello is a surprising addition late in the set.

As night one comes to a close, I note the creepy holographic faces of visual artist Craig Walsh’s Monumentsprojected onto trees above that seem to decay and evaporate as I walk closer, the perspective changes analogous with and almost a reflection or echo of the movement of festival goers vacating the Botanic Park site…

WOMAD Review By Jason Leigh