WOMADELAIDE 2023: DAY 1 at Botanic Park
A mild Autumn day greeted the many headed as we all shuffled into WOMADelaide 2023, the familiar queues to have our bags checked and our wristbands scanned stretching into the distance, trolleys full of children, people pushing bicycles, backpacks threatening to flatten those behind as the wearer turns suddenly, a milling stockyard of the stoic, desperate to enter the venue so that they could shuffle and queue some more, but this time with a soundtrack.
After three years of COVID-19 instability, the festival was back in full force and welcomed a capacity crowd to Botanic Park for four days of multicultural music, dance, food, shopping, workshops, installations, performance art, discussion, and a chance to practice patience and tolerance as tens of thousands of people try to navigate their way to one of the seven stages, the myriad of food stalls, the countless craft and clothing stalls, the crowded bars, or the ever distant toilets.
I was a little late for the Taikurtinna Welcome to Country, having underestimating the length of the queues entering the park from the Frome Road entrance, so I headed straight for Stage 7 to secure myself a good vantage point from which to watch Bėla Fleck and Abigail Washburn at their seated performance.
I managed to hear a little of Mindy Meng Wang playing her guzheng, which I am told is a Chinese horizontal harp, on the Zoo Stage and while I was intrigued by the unique sound of the instrument and by the player’s obvious skill, I was on a mission to find a good position near Stage 7, and was not going to be distracted from it.
I had only ever seen Bėla Fleck play live once before, with the Flecktones at the Byron Bay Blues Festival many years ago, and, while I am not a huge fan of the 5 string banjo, Fleck’s playing of the instrument is in a league of its own, and he has pushed the imagined boundaries of banjo completely off the map, as his 16 Grammy Awards testify to.
He has made some brilliant decisions in his decades long musical career, but undoubtedly the best one he has ever made was to team up with Abigail Washburn. Washburn is a very fine player in her own right, and it was fascinating to watch Fleck take a back seat while his partner in music and life, demonstrated her brilliant instrumental skills, her superb voice, and her easy, comfortable relationship with her audience.
Washburn took up a cello banjo for her rendition of Blooming Rose, which she dedicated to Australian First Nation folk, followed by a set of Appalachian tunes and the song Little Birdie, in which she softened the insistent edge of the two banjos with her breathy voice.
Fleck surrendered the stage to Abigail and their two sons, Juno and Theodore, and, while Juno sang Bright Morning Star with his mother, four year old Theodore covered his ears with his hands, as the fold back speaker was directly in front of him and Washburn’s once breathy voice suddenly took on a more resonant quality. It was utterly charming, and very, very human.
Fleck took the stage back for a solo medley that started with Johann Sebastian Bach and morphed through a virtuosic performance into the Beverly Hillbillies theme, and the full Earl Scruggs. The couple ended their stunning performance with some Appalachian tunes and some ‘flat footing’ and ‘clogging’ performed by Washburn while she was singing. It was a brilliant show.
It was time for some food, so I trekked back to the Global Village to grab a quick bite before heading back to Stage 7 for a performance by the Canadian and Ukrainian outfit, Balaklava Blues, but my careful planning was stymied. The queue for my favourite food stall was very long, very, very long and it was matched by queues at all the other food stalls as several thousand people had decided to eat, just as I had. The queues moved very slowly and, when I finally reached my destination and paid for my meal, I was directed to another queue where I was to wait for my food to be served. By the time that queue had progressed to the point where I was handed my plate, the curry that I had ordered was little more than a dhal stain on some rice, the stall having run out of almost everything. I was assured by the very stressed stallholders, that if I went back the next day they would provide me with the curry that I had been denied, but the curry was not the only thing that I had missed out on, for it was now too late to hike back to Stage 7 to see Balaklava Blues. After a rather disappointing meal of stained rice, I decided to find myself a good spot in front of Stage 3 to see Billy Bragg’s show.
I found a good position under a tree in front of the stage to unfold my little canvas chair, and settled down to wait for the show, several hundreds of people sitting down on the ground in front of me. Bragg came on, solo, and after a personal acknowledgement of the Kaurna people and the country that we were meeting on, launched into the Leon Rosselson song, The World Turned Upside Down, a working class ditty about rampant capitalism in the 17th century, that Dick Gaughan made famous many years ago.
Bragg was joined by Neil Anderson on keyboards, and the hundreds of people sitting down in front of me turned into thousands of people standing up in front of me, and I was treated to a close up view of a lot of backs of knees. I decided to retreat further up the hill in order, as a vertically challenged person, to get a view of the stage over the heads of those nearest to it. The crowd, however, did not diminish until I was approaching the Foundation Stage, about 200 metres away from Mr. Bragg and Mr. Anderson, so I gave up and went to a more central position to await Bon Iver’s appearance on the main stage.
WOMADelaide is not a festival for the faint of heart.