King Rodney Park/Ityamai-itpina, Fri 5 Mar.
Like so many things in the 2021 Adelaide Festival season, WOMADelaide this year is a very different creature to a ‘regular’ one. I say ‘regular’ because WOMADelaide is never any kind of ‘regular’. There are hundreds of artists big and small from all over the world performing on (and off) multiple stages across the sprawling Botanic Park. Whole families roam the site exploring workshops, market stalls, attending spoken word events, learning how to drum, being astounded by all manner of extracurricular activities, art and culture. The pandemic slammed borders shut all over the world and when organisers were planning the event they had to proceed like if there was an event at all (who knew), the line-up had to be attainable.
The decision was made to make it a completely Australian line-up so at least then they would have a (fighting chance) of proceeding. With COVID restrictions it meant strict COVID safety protocols to adhere to, and a format change was initiated. Rather than four or five full days with tens of thousands of people (last year was a new record of 97,000 people over the weekend) free to roam and sample things on many stages, this year the format is four ‘sunset’ concerts in a different part of the parklands. It’s mostly seated (safely distanced) and two of the nights are headlined by the legendary Midnight Oil.
The changes have meant a few things to different people. I have heard people complaining this year ‘‘isn’t a proper WOMADelaide,’’ and a few ‘Oils’ people complaining that their nights ‘‘aren’t a proper Oils gig,’’. So in many ways organisers were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t; the other option was to not do anything at all. The line-up is pretty stellar for the whole weekend, but with three acts on opening night, the ‘limited menu options’ were clearly of less interest to those used to the ‘usual’ WOMAD smorgasbord, as attendance was ‘modest’.
That said the venue was terrific, new, and still had a lot of the atmosphere and WOMADelaide vibe. The seats were nicely spaced so no strangers would be rubbing their legs up against yours. There is hand sanitiser everywhere and regular reminders to stay COVID safe. After a moving Welcome to Country the first act of the night was legendary First Nation artist Archie Roach.
Archie is 65 years old and has health issues for many years. Shortly after the passing of his soul mate Ruby Hunter in 2010, he was diagnosed with cancer and had half a lung removed. For the last few years Archie has struggled with chronic pulmonary disease, and gets around in a wheelchair and uses oxygen on stage. So this incredible performance is all the more remarkable. His voice is wonderful, full of tone and bluesy gravel and his band is sublime, and the set list is heavy on songs from his best known album Charcoal Lane.
When that album was released in 1990 I did an interview with Mr Roach, and that album and our conversation was the first time I had ever heard about the Stolen Generation – a shameful part of this country’s history which they don’t teach you in school (but should). Took The Children Away is a beautiful and heart-breaking song about small children being wrenched from the parents and placed with white families which they were told it was ‘for the best’. The shock and pain of this story is still loud and clear decades later.
Archie is joined by some guests through the set Emma Donovan (sister of Casey) joins him for Down City Streets, Leah Flannigan sings and plays uke on The Old Days, and Trent Laughton adds vocals and rap to Free. Sister And Brother featured glorious harmonies. Roach is a story man too so the songs are introduced with fascinating and moving prologues, but given his limited stage time he seemed frustrated at it being a bit of a rush. Took The Children Away is devastating and the pain in his voice real and deep. After he finishes with The Summer Of My Life, the entire crowd is on its feet presenting this great and significant Australian legend the standing ovation he truly deserves.
A ‘typical’ WOMADelaide would have another stage to go to, but as there is only one stage, people hit the bar and food stalls as the stage is reset for Lior. Tonight he along with conductor Nigel Westlake and The 54-piece Adelaide Symphony Orchestra perform their song cycle Compassion. Performed in Hebrew and Arabic, it is a powerful and moving collection of pieces; I often forget the power of a full symphony orchestra, which catches me off guard. The majestic force and skill is emotive and kind of astounding. It’s also interesting that as I am (surprisingly) a little rusty on my Arabic so the lyrical content is somewhat lost my ears, but Lior’s voice becomes another instrument in the ensemble, albeit a very beautiful one. The seven-piece Compassion comes to an end with rapturous applause, and they finish with a few of Lior’s own songs including This Old Love and Safety Of Distance.
The temperature has now dropped significantly and there is a rush for coffee and hot donuts and WOMADelaide hoodies to fend off the cold. Finishing up opening night is Sarah Blasko performing a 10(ish) year Anniversary of her third album As Day Follows Night. Released in 2009 (so technically this is an twelfth anniversary) won Album Of The Year at the J Awards, Best Female Artist at the ARIA’s and is listed at #19 in the 100 Best Australian Albums book. Her excellent band isn’t a standard ‘rock/pop’ line up either. Piano, upright bass and drums and not a guitar in sight, but they are exceptional at creating a perfect bed for Blasko’s powerful and emotional vocals to shine. She has a two mic stand, the one on the right for the main vocal and the one on the left is what I decide is called the ‘Wooooh’ mic, because she is often using the effects on that to do the Woooooh bits!
I do love it when somebody is playing their ‘classic album’ and they do it in the sequential order of the original release, which is what they do tonight. Opening with Down on Love, All I Want and Bird On A Wire, Sarah dressed in a rainbow glitter tassel outfit, which shimmers and shines, is doing a great job and thankful to be both back on stage and at WOMADelaide. Hold On My Heart is haunting and atmospheric. We Won’t Run was the other single from this record (All I Want was the first) and is very enthusiastically welcomed. It was (and is) a great record and was quite unlike anything else coming out at time. Lost And Defeated, a tale of sadness and lost turning to anger and rage, is a highlight tonight, as is Over And Over featuring some line borrowed from The Talking Heads song Road To Nowhere.
The cold is bitter by the last track on the album Night And Day and the second they finish there is a mass bolt for the gates and the search for some warmth – which is a shame because when Blasko returns for an encore huge parts of the audience are vacant. “Oh everybody is leaving? Byeee!”. It only takes a moment or two before those vacated seats are refilled by people repositioning themselves for the last couple of songs. Between Seems Like Old Times and the powerful Not Yet, she thanks us for being ‘enthusiastic and encouraging’, which is not hard to do when such a talent is on the stage.
Yes, WOMADelaide is different this year, but it’s still a terrific and cracking night.
And in these COVID times, we are fortunate to live in one of the very few places on this planet who can actually have festivals and gatherings – and that’s something for us all to be very grateful for! – Ed.]
WOMADelaide continues at King Rodney Park/Ityamai-itpina, at various times, until Mon 8 Mar.
Bookings at adelaidefestival.com.au. Click HERE to purchase your tickets.