WOMADelaide 2021 – Opening night review

Opening night was always going to be an emotionally-charged event. Archie Roach came on stage for his 7th and final WOMADelaide show – more repeat performances at WOMADelaide than any other artist – and the crowd responded with a standing ovation before he’d sung a note.

And he did it – as he has at recent concerts – accompanied by an oxygen cylinder, to boost his airways as he copes with obstructive pulmonary disease. Ten years ago he’d recovered from a stroke and also having half a cancerous lung removed. Last year – just before his induction to the ARIA Hall of Fame – Archie was in ICU for treatment and then performed with a medical team on hand backstage.

But Archie’s big heart and yearning to bring people together through storytelling in his unmistakeable voice is as powerful as ever.

Archie Roach – bringing people together through storytelling. Photo: Stephen Trutwin

On stage his all-star backing included Emma Donovan and Leah Flanagan, singer-songwriters with whom Archie has often collaborated previously, including in Black Arm Band. The mutual love and respect was palpable. Archie rightfully introduced Emma as that “amazing lady of soul“.

Emma Donovan and Sam Anning – mutual love and respect. Photo: Stephen Trutwin

Together they created a sense of hope for the future of reconciliation despite the closure of Archie’s public career. It’s there in the final verse of Archie’s unforgettable song Took The Children Away:

One sweet day all the children came back
The children come back
The children come back
Back where their hearts grow strong
Back where they all belong
The children came back

Yes I came back.

The WOMADelaide sound crew did a wonderful job of mixing the voices and instruments, so every note from the exceptional musicians working with Archie could be enjoyed fully, including the superb Sam Anning on double bass and Stephen Magnusson on guitar. Together they exemplified the best of accompanying musicianship; beautifully crafted and sympathetic but never overshadowing the star.

Archie with impeccable accompaniment. Photo: Stephen Trutwin

Compassion – Lior and Nigel Westlake with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra

The emotional charge of Archie’s finale was always going to be a very hard act to follow, but the choice of Lior and Westlake’s song cycle was a continuation of the brilliant programming that we’ve come to expect from Arts Projects Australia co-founder Ian Scobie, who was joined last year by arts producer Lee Cumberlidge as co-director.

I’d had the privilege of hearing Compassion performed in Adelaide’s Festival Theatre back in 2014, the same year that Compassion won the ARIA Award for Best Classical Recording.

Lior was no stranger to recording success. His superb debut release Autumn Flow in 2005 achieved critical acclaim and Platinum sales, an enormous achievement for a fully independent release. It’s still one of my favourite albums.

I was a little nervous about hearing Compassion again, this time in the open air, competing with ambient noise and with occasional audience members on the move to food and drink stalls.

WOMADelaide 2021 - the stage is set for Compassion
The stage is set for Lior/Westlake’s Compassion. Photo: Brian Loffler

But I needn’t have worried. Lior’s extended range – from deep bass up to his crystal-clear upper register – soared effortlessly around the park. Compassion is rich with poetic references and melodic styles, drawn from both Islamic and Judaic traditions, the Hebrew and Arabic texts merged with great depth and variation in Westlake’s modern orchestrations.

Lior with Nigel Westlake in Compassion. Photo: Stephen Trutwin

The “wisdom of compassion” shone through in this WOMADelaide performance of Lior and Westlake’s unique collaboration. It’s no surprise that in 2019 Lior was awarded a Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship, given to artists who “display exceptional talent and outstanding courage in their field”.

Lior – exceptional talent and outstanding courage. Photo: Stephen Trutwin

The spark for this collaboration emerged when Westlake first heard Lior perform Avinu Malkeinu, the haunting final piece that completes this powerful and elegant seven-song cycle for solo voice and orchestra. It was a stunning conclusion to a memorable performance under the stars.

It speaks to all of us that such a deeply evocative call for compassion – not revenge – could be an outcome of Westlake’s grief over the senseless killing of his son Eli. Bravo indeed.

Their performance spanned that magical time of crepuscule. Hundreds of bats flew overhead – somewhat ominously in these COVID times – giving a sobering reminder of our need to reconcile with nature, as well as with all our planetary neighbours, no matter what their religion or political stance.

The only downside of the performance was that for those of us in the cheaper seats far from the stage, the relatively small booster speaker array tower was inadequate for the huge range and power of a symphony orchestra in full flight of Westlake’s dynamic arrangements, particular for the deeper resonance of cello and double bass. My musician-friend sitting closer to the magnificent main front-of-house speakers reported it was brilliantly balanced for him there, so that’s a tribute to the sound crew who had only 45 minutes to reset the stage for the 54-piece orchestra.

The crew had only 45 minutes to reset for a 54-piece orchestra. Photo: Stephen Trutwin

I’ve found at previous WOMADelaides there are two sweet-spots for sound; either pressed right up against the fence next to the stage, or else a third of the way back towards the sound desk. But given the COVID restrictions this year we were required to stay in our allotted seats instead of being free to roam. Bring on the vaccines so there’s some hope of a full-blown free-range WOMADelaide for 2022.

Sarah Blasko

One of the great advantages of a long musical career – such as Sarah Blasko‘s – is that you have plenty of time to rethink, reinvent and innovate. Three ARIA Awards under her belt have given her the confidence to try new styles and different song-writing techniques, but never losing her unique genre-defying music and smart lyrics.

All of that shone through in her performance that closed the first night of WOMADelaide 2021.

Sarah Blasko – hopeful heartbreak. Photo: Stephen Trutwin

It was a fine celebration of her recently re-issued 2009 album As Day Follows Night, widely regarded as the peak of her output. She refers to it as “hopeful heartbreak”. Not exactly a U-turn, but somewhat more hopeful than her earlier darker works, such as her second album in 2006 What the Sea Wants, the Sea Will Have.

Stripping back As Day Follows Night to just piano, bass and drums accompaniment – even though I’m a fan of the traditional jazz piano trio – was always going to be limiting. And as Blasko’s performance rolled on, the songs began to merge into same-same, despite the best efforts of all four musicians. It’s a reminder that only the very finest songs of all time can shine through the fully-stripped back treatment; other more mainstream music needs artful production to make it truly shine.

Read the WOMADelaide 2021 Day 2 review here.

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