But there’s still room for joy, discovery and experimentation across a weekend marked by artists whose work explores themes of intersecting cultures, race, gender and the end of the world.
Houston power trio Khruangbin take a deep dive into the world of psych rock, carefully synchronised from the matching sheen of their Cher-in-1967 wigs to their hypnotically doubled riffing. Mark Speer’s squalls of guitar, layered in an appropriately lysergic shimmer of effects pedals are showy, but it’s the nimble bass tones of Laura Lee that are the core of the band. Opening night mixes in an outdoor festival as large and diverse as WOMAD can be a bit touch and go, but tonight’s mix puts the bass front and centre and, intentionally or not, is all the better for it.
The performance is largely instrumental save for the occasional vocal harmony or, to add to the feeling of detached if carefully curated cool, a spoken word section from Lee imitating an automated telephone menu (“Your menu options have changed,” she chimes crisply). Despite the occasionally abstract moments, the trio also understand that like Cream some of the most thrilling moments are when the bass and guitar lock in on the same riff and bring it home.
Friday, Stage Three
Christine & The Queens
Héloïse Adelaide Letissier struts onto the Foundation Stage backed by a troupe of young, lean backing dancers. Dressed in jeans and coloured tees to match Letissier, the group look like they’ve walked straight from their last shift at American Apparel onto the set of a mid-80s Madonna clip. The choreography and music is also firmly rooted in the 80s and early 90s (“Yeah, I’m French,” she says early in the set, “Some French, on top of a G Funk track, that’s how we do!” before the slap bass and rich synth chords start up again.)
Personal liberation and a healthy rejection of the gender binary are recurring themes of the set, and it’s a note that clearly resonates with the crowd as Letissier explains that tonight is a safe space, where everyone is “free to reinvent yourself to change your mind to change your name” as she has done. “You can call me Chris if you want,” she says.
The sentiment drives home as she opens her 2015 track Tilted. “I’d been trying so hard for year to fit in. It was exhausting. At 18 I was dragging my feet like an old lady, I was tired trying to understand those narrow norms, I was suffocating. After years and years I decided to stop trying – best decision ever.”
Along with Madonna, the Queens’ choreography and musical style owes a lot to Michael Jackson, complete with vocal tics, hand flourishes and crotch thrusts. In, it must be said, a difficult week for Jackson’s legacy, to witness both his style of dance and the liberating effect his music has had is surreal, and raises the question: when we cancel the work and influence of such pervasive cultural figures, what’s left?
Friday, Foundation Stage
The first slot of the evening can be a difficult task. Tasked with stirring up the crowd’s energy levels from pleasant-day-in-the-park to after dark dance party, Congo-born Belgian MC Baloji brings an exceptional energy – and works bloody hard. “I know it’s quite early for you guys, but it’s crazy early for us,” he says, before leading the crowd in a hand clapping chant.
Baloji (Photo: Sia Duff)
High life guitar melodies duck and weave around programmed and live beats as Baloji’s band blur genres. His vocal delivery, in French and English, plays with Afrobeat format, but occasionally hints at the faster paced and modern flow of grime. Peppering his songs with wisecracks that are at times NSFW (“how do you make love to a black man without getting tired?” he asks) and, at others, applicable to both warzone and dance floor (“if you want to stay alive, stay low!”), by his final song the sun is low in the sky and his job is, unquestionably, done. “Are you ready to party with us?” he shouts earlier in the set, the microphone left somewhere on stage as he lobs his request un-amplified into the crowd, shirt soaked and brow dripping with sweat. The answer by this point is yes.
Saturday, Foundation Stage
Liz Phair appears backed by a single guitarist, and to hear big alt-rock songs stripped back in such a not-at-all intimate setting is, at first, a little deflating. But without the bombast of a rhythm section it puts greater emphasis on Phair’s songwriting and voice, the bright, churning sound of two clean electric guitars a callback to the bare and incendiary DIY recordings that launched Phair’s career under the name GirlySound. While a new song God Loves Baseball has Phair looking forward, perhaps unsurprisingly tracks from her 1993 breakthrough Exile From Guyville are the most eagerly received among a curiously male-skewing Gen X crowd.
Liz Phair (Photo: Sia Duff)
Like Baloji, Phair is also not used to the sunlight. “It’s nice to be out in the daytime,” she says, hinting that back home the lyrical content of some of her songs mean its only safe for her to perform after dark. “I guess you guys don’t care? America’s a bit prudish – violence is fine, but sex is bad,” she says before launching into 6’1. With lyrics like “I lock my door at night, I keep my lips shut tight, I practice my moves,” are, depressingly, as potent today as they were in the early 90s – especially when performed in a large public park.
Saturday, Stage Three
An Adelaide success story, Maidza bursts onto the stage as a reggae inspired guitar line creeps in through the PA. The song, Big Things from her 2018 EP Last Year Was Weird Vol. 1, features a bassline played by her father, a migrant and FIFO worker who performs in reggae bands when back home, which makes it a particularly appropriate opener both for a homecoming like this and a setting like WOMAD.
Tkay Maidza (Photo: Sia Duff)
Maidza has built a career on winning over festival crowds, from her first appearance at St Jerome’s Laneway Festival to the international festival circuit. Backed by a DJ and live drummer, Maidza bounds across the stage, quickly energising the crowd that grows larger and larger with each song, and with good reason – Maidza is clearly as seasoned a performer as any of the global acts assembled over the weekend.
Sunday, Stage Three
As the Sunday sun wanes, Blue Mountains singer/songwriter Julia Jacklin’s Australian Americana is backed by a discordant greek chorus of screeching bats. Half-time country numbers like Pool Party and Leadlight from Jacklin’s first album remain pleasantly listenable, but it’s the cathartic slow burns of Jacklin’s very new Crushing LP that are the most compelling, with Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You (“The bats were joining in,” She says. ‘Off-key, but they seem pumped.”) a highlight on record and onstage.
The band let loose on some of Crushing’s more upbeat tracks, which giddily crash and skid under Jacklin and guitarist Georgia Cunningham’s vocal harmonies. The album’s breakup narrative peaks with Head Alone, where she asserts her need for personal space, and You Were Right, a song about breaking free of a partner’s dictating – if annoyingly on the money – taste in food and music. It’s a very specific kind of relationship gripe to air, but judging by the young crowd that stands enthralled and singing along in front of the stage, it’s all the more relatable for it.
Sunday, Novatech Stage
First Dog On The Moon
“We do it on an industrial scale, and by ‘we’ I mean probably not anyone here,” author, Guardian cartoonist and animal-scribbling national conscience First Dog On The Moon says of the effect of pesticide on bee populations. Such ecosystem-shattering events are probably inevitable, he explains, but “the question is, will it come before all the others”.
First Dog On The Moon uses such sobering facts to preface a hilarious and deeply depressing guide to doomsday prepping, and the practical and moral considerations of surviving a climate or pandemic-induced apocalypse. One, he acknowledges, that the assembled crowd of “arts administrators, app developers and content creators” are hopelessly ill-equipped for.
First Dog On The Moon (Photo: Sia Duff)
First Dog’s observations and amusing cartoons are as deeply empathetic and sharp in person as they are on a computer screen, but gain an even greater sense of realism and, at times futility, set against the nearby stalls protesting oil exploration in the Great Australian Bight, development on park lands or raising money for habitat preservation. It’s all particularly poignant at a ‘zero waste’ festival with forward-thinking bottle and cup refund schemes, volunteers stationed by bins to point out what recycling goes where and an attendance base which at $400 a ticket has at least some of the economic flexibility to make individual lifestyle changes.
Such changes, of course, pale in comparison to the consequences of governments allowing new coal mines and deep sea oil projects, which does leave us in a bind. After all, just as Monstanto shareholders are unlikely to be milling about among the under-vaccinated children of John Butler fans, it’s unlikely that many of WOMAD attendees have been voting such governments into power in the first place.
Sunday, Frome Park Pavilion
Between David Byrne’s exemplary American Utopia tour late last year and Kidjo’s reinterpretation of their seminal album Remain In Light, Australian Talking Heads fans have been absolutely spoiled. In the weekend’s climax Kidjo takes to the stage to a new version of Born Under Punches, marked by knotted guitar textures, sprays of syncopated snare drums and some very good basslines.
As both Byrne and Kidjo have explained at length, the original Remain In Light was a knowing tribute to the complex rhythms and trance-like grooves of Afrobeat pioneers like Fela Kuti. For Kidjo, who first encountered Once In A Lifetime without realising it was made by New Yorkers, it is an opportunity to both celebrate and reintegrate Byrne’s influences with the sounds of her own homeland.
Angelique Kidjo (Photo: Sia Duff)
Stripped of its art school weirdness and the Byrne’s intense preacher persona, the album is more fluid, joyful, urgent and political, with lines like “the world moves on a woman’s hips” gaining an obvious new meaning when sung by Kidjo. Reflecting on the just-passed International Women’s Day, it’s clear that Kidjo, having left an oppresive regime in Benin to carve an international career through her art, probably understands the line better than Byrne ever did. Such moments are put into greater focus by selections from Kidjo’s own body of work, in particular Cauri, a poignant lament for children forced into marriage that rings loudly across Botanic Park.
But what is gravity without levity, and Kidjo keeps the crowd bouncing with her interpretation of Once In A Lifetime, before inviting a group of audience members and fellow WOMAD artist Fatoumata Diawara to the stage for her final rousing number, culminating in a dance off that, despite some noble competition from a member of the Central Australian Women’s Choir, would always belong to Kidjo who. Wisely, Kidjo never seeks to channel Byrne’s iconic dance moves – she has plenty of her own, after all.
Sunday, Foundation Stage
Maalem Hamid El Kasri
Accompanied by four singers and a drummer, Maalem Hamid El Kasri enchants a small but dedicated crowd at the Novatech Stage with traditional Gnawa music (ancient African Islamic spiritual songs and rhythms). El Kasri is a master of the guembri and his three-stringed bass lute drives a hypnotic set made all the more entrancing by the call and response vocals of El Kasri and his accompanying singers who clack their heavy iron castanets (krakebs) to add to the rhythmic spectacle. A WOMADelaide delight.
Monday, Novatech Stage
As one of the hype acts it is surprising to see Mojo Juju at one of WOMAD’s smaller stages (Frome Park Pavillion) for her only performance of the long weekend. Performing as a two-piece with her brother Steven Ruiz de Luzuriaga on drums, Mojo Juju slowly builds her set of blues-drenched contemporary pop and rock over the course of an hour, which is interlaced with pertinent personal and family anecdotes.
After acknowledging the traditional owners, and the fact we stand on stolen land, Mojo Juju delivers a powerful set closer: Native Tongue. Featuring three of Djuki Mala dancers (who are in Native Tongue’s celebrated video) dancing on stage, Australia’s defining track of 2018 becomes the WOMADelaide moment of 2019.
Monday, Frome Park Pavilion
Almost two decades deep onto their career and The Bamboos have still got it. The good time vibe of Lance Ferguson’s soul and deep funk outfit are the perfect closer for WOMAD’s spacious Stage Two. With Kylie Auldist on lead vocals for the majority of the set (aside from some Booker T and the MGs meets The Meters instrumentals), the singer captivatea the large crowd with her impressive vocals and stage presence. The highlights, surprisingly, are two covers: a soul rework of James Blake’s Wilhelm Scream (which they recorded with Megan Washington in 2012) and a powerful cover of The Isley Brothers’ Work to Do.
Monday, Foundation Stage
Friday, March 8 to Monday, March 11
Words: Walter Marsh and David Knight
Photography: Sia Duff
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