All Photographs courtesy of Arcade Photo
In recent years Womadelaide has given folkies as much to be excited about as just about any other festival, barring the likes of Bluesfest or Woodford Folk. In previous years we’ve seen high profile acts like First Aid Kit, Luka Bloom, Joanna Newsom, Archie Roach & Angus and Julia Stone but a surprising list of fantastic, relatively unknown international artists which gives the festival a distinct appeal to anyone who approaches the event with an open mind, ready to discover something exotic and amazing.
One of the great things about Womadelaide to me as an Adelaidian is that it’s a constant. I can rely on it, which sounds trivial but it’s something that almost every other festival can’t live up to. I can rely on the music programming to be insightful, contrasting and varied and the quality of sound to be to the highest standard. I can rely on there being great food, enough water, and adequate toilets. I can rely on the fact that I won’t be abused or harassed by drunken bullies and I won’t get into a situation where I’m going to be cramped or trampled. I can rely on having a good, relaxing weekend shared with friends and for that reason I think it has become sacred to a lot of people. Womadelaide has been running for 21 years now and I suppose they’ve essentially perfected it because for as long as I’ve been attending the festival it’s kept the same site layout, precincts, stages and amenities, which definitely contributes to the comfort levels of repeat attendees.
For the last 3 years (at least) the festival has spanned 4 days to include the Friday night before the weekend and the Adelaide Cup public holiday on the Monday following. The great thing about this is that it’s quite commonplace for artists to have more than one performance during the festival, which allows the flexibility to get around clashing set-times or prior engagements (which is a very real danger during the peak of Adelaide’s mad march festival season).
The Friday night was the major event of my Womadelaide. Undoubtedly the atmosphere was at its most electrifying and everybody I spoke to was restless with anticipation for The Tallest Man On Earth, aka Swedish folk singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson. The Tallest Man On Earth has been one of my favorite artists ever since I first discovered his debut album Shallow Graves in 2009. That was an exciting time in this generation’s indie-folk revival, and Matsson has been contributing increasingly jaw-dropping works since. I had the enormous pleasure of seeing The Tallest Man On Earth perform last year at Womadelaide’s spin-off festival Earth Station that was held in the Belair National Park. Since that time he’s released a brand new album There’s No Leaving Now, which was largely the focus of his Womadelaide 2013 performance. Here’s what Timber & Steel contributor JDX had to say about the album;
“I was more than just a coward. I was handsome too”. One of the best opening lyrics I’ve ever heard. I was in a doctors’ waiting room; the venue for many of my musical discoveries. Kristian Matsson’s intricate chords, his sweeping melodies, his metaphors, sharp, yet brittle, stole me from the moment, as my favourite folk music always does. Matsson said There’s No Leaving Now was about wanting to deal with your own weaknesses. I felt weak. This album made me feel stronger. I could write reams about imagery, or interpretation, about how “Bright Lanterns” is the world’s best post-colonial protest song, about how this isn’t The Wild Hunt and whether that matters. But then I’d be saying too much.
Powerful right? I think that testimonial is representative of the command Matsson has on an audience. When I turned around to survey behind me from the front of Stage 3 during the set I saw a sea of affected faces- it stole us all for the better part of an hour.
Matsson enters the stage and starts to play without a hint of ado, without a moment to feed his ego with the applause of an adoring mass as if to break the audience’s shackles with reality, their awareness of their surroundings and prepare them to experience the music and only the music. That’s not to say that his performance lacks humanity. Matsson is constantly, unashamedly, physically affected by his music during his performance, which can appear quite unique and peculiar at first but also allows the audience to feel uninhibited. Sometimes he assumes the famous one-legged stance of Jethro Tull flautist/front man Ian Anderson, and at other times he briskly whips back and forth the front of stage like a flamboyant magician showing the audience his empty hands before performing a trick. As per usual, The Tallest Man On Earth performed all by his lonesome until he was joined by a female vocalist (unknown to me) for a song towards the end of his set. Matsson’s trademark open-tuning, quick finger-picking guitar technique never ceases to amaze me. Among the songs from his latest album such as “1904”, “Wind and Walls”, “Leading Me Now”, and “Revelation Blues”, Matsson delved back into his back catalogue for some of his most moving tunes like “Love Is All”, “King of Spain” and “Like The Wheel” and even further back to tracks like “The Gardener”, “Where Do My Bluebirds Fly” and “I Won’t Be Found” from his debut. Below is a live version of one of my favorite tracks from his latest album for anyone who wants on the bandwagon.
The next act I saw was the hyped Melbourne soul troupe Clairy Browne & The Bangin’ Rackettes, who I’d seen for the first time nearly exactly a year ago supporting Charles Bradley at Adelaide Festival’s Barrio club in 2012. The energetic horn section and spritely back-up singers gave a fantastic excitement to the show and provide the ideal backdrop for diva-queen Ms. Browne to stun the crowd with her powerful-as-all-hell vocals. You’d have all heard her tune “Love Letter” on the radio at some point, but if her Womadelaide 2013 performance proved anything to me it’s that Clairy’s not just a one trick pony.
Before calling it a night I caught the first part of The Cat Empire’s set. The enormous crowd that had gathered to the main stage was probably the biggest of the festival and really just goes to show that the Melbourne collective still has the pulling power to the “world-music” audience, even if their new tunes aren’t quite taking to “youth-radio” like they used to.
Unfortunately suffering from heat exhaustion brought on by an ill-fated attempt to play a Saturday morning soccer game in the high 30 degree, humid conditions, I missed out on much of the acts over Womadelaide’s Saturday and Sunday, although made it for at least a couple of hours on both days. If there’s one thing for certain, this Womadelaide was the hottest in recent years, being mid-to-high thirties for the whole weekend. All of the acts that I saw on Saturday I came across by complete accident. I delightfully observed indigenous Arnhem Land act East Journey for a few minutes before finding my way to the Morteton Bay Stage to catch a few tunes from contemporary Scottish folk group LAU. Despite being someone who is less inspired by the trad spectrum of folk music, I was incredibly impressed by the musicianship on display and could easily imagine their performance erupting into an unbridled ruckus in a smaller, enclosed venue.
Before calling it a day I stole a moment with both a genre defying group of Parisian-expats called Moriarty and a beautiful, sparse performance on an ancient discarded instrument, the viola da gamba, from viola guru Jordi Savall.
Despite lingering sickness I decided to head into botanic park on Sunday for two performances that I’d eagerly been anticipating, Mia Dyson and Abigail Washburn. Although Mia Dyson is a very well known Australian Rock/Blues & Roots artist, I think the height of her fame must have fallen slightly before my time. I was familiar with her name but not her work, despite her being widely touted by the Blues & Roots community in Adelaide and her being one of the intensely publicized headliners for last year’s Backwater Blues & Roots Festival in SA. To put it simply, I was stunned by Dyson’s Womadelaide performance. Her voice was just so intense and faultless. It made me wonder why I had never heard her music before? Perhaps her style falls on the “Adult Contemporary” side of blues/rock, rather than the “indie” side that’s considered fair game for mainstream radio… This reminded me of an interview article I read on Fasterlouder with Jen Cloher called “Why we need a Triple J for adults”- an Australian artist who’s probably been pigeonholed in the same way as Dyson. Well worth a read.
I caught Abigail Washburn’s second performance of Womadelaide with her current collaborator Kai Welch and found it equally as enlightening as it was entertaining. I had listened to Washburn’s most recent record only a couple of times. As an amateur banjo picker I’m always interested to listen to how the instrument is being used in new music and Washburn is renowned the world over for the use of that Scruggs-style clawhammer banjo in her music. What I didn’t realize was that Washburn’s obvious Appalachian/bluegrass influences are supplemented by strong ties with Chinese culture. Washburn has spent a lot of time in China writing and playing music, speaks the language fluently and draws from the culture in her music. The blend makes for an intriguing result, but is not at all gimmicky. Washburn and Welch had the crowd singing in Chinese and told stories of their shared time in the country following the ravaging earthquakes. In terms of performance, she and Welch played off each other wonderfully, hitting impossible harmonies without falter. Washburn even felt the energy to get up and clog along to a tune despite her obvious pregnancy. She did a TED talk that I found very interesting. Watch below.
On Monday I was joined by some old friends so I spent the day less intent on seeing performances and more dedicated to catching up. Throughout the day I managed to catch sets from hearty New Zealand blues duo Swamp Thing and UK fiddle prodigy/trad heart throb Seth Lakeman. I also had the Timber & Steel photographer playing paparazzi for an photo-article called “Beards of Womadelaide 2013”, which I would sternly urge you all to visit.