It doesn’t get much better than My Baby. Like a dance party where absolutely everyone is invited, It’s hard to believe this group from Amsterdam is only a trio. Their sound is huge, exciting and energetic. My Baby plays roots driven dance music without samples or computers and it’s virtually impossible to stand still for, even in the belting midday sun.

A Melbourne based bunch of artists from Australia, Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Venezuela, Amaru Tribe set the tone for the afternoon with a scorching set of songs belonging to a new genre they have dubbed ‘Oceanic Cumbia’. With powerful drums, harmonies and melodies, Amaru Tribe were lively and fun, yet gave powerful messages through their songs.

A brass band with a slightly punk approach and a very tongue-in-cheek attitude, LaBrassBanda were great fun in the mid afternoon sunshine at the main stage. The German outfit performed in bare feet and lederhosen in a very animated set, punctuated by hilariously self deprecating humour between songs. With a real charm, they got the crowd involved in the performance with plenty in interaction and wild dancing.

Set in the centre of the park, theatrical performance 5AngryMen – The Bells is charming, clever and really very funny. Five men ride over on bicycles to ropes fixed to a structure and proceed to perform a tightly choreographed piece where they ‘ring the bells’ (pull on the ‘bungee ropes’) to pre-recorded bell sounds. The 5AngryMen are, indeed, angry (and it’s little wonder when they are performing in full tailored winter coats in the Adelaide sun), as they interact with each other, the audience and the ‘bells’.

Dona Onete may be nearly 80 years old, but she puts on a lively show. Singing from her lounge chair, she showed that you don’t have to be dancing around the stage to engage your audience. The performance was characterised by Latin rhythms and Onete’s beautifully clear voice, capable of evoking a by-gone era. Chatting away in between songs in Portuguese without translation, it didn’t matter that most of the audience couldn’t understand. She conveyed such a generous spirit you couldn’t help but connect – another reminder that this is a festival where it’s possible to transcend any language barrier.

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Jamie Smith’s MABON are a Welsh folk band who are celebrating their twentieth year together in 2019. Their Stage 2 late-afternoon performance was a summery set of Celtic jigs and reels based primarily around Smith’s accordion riffs. The “five pasty skinned Welshmen” defied the Australian sun and delivered a set full of passion and energy, showing they have evolved from the amateur family band they started out as many years ago, playing local pubs and twmpath dances in South Wales, to being an internationally acclaimed ensemble who headline folk festivals around the world.

Jamie Smith is the main composer in the band and some of the gentler tunes showed his flair for composing beautiful pastoral airs as well as emotionally joyous pieces such as ‘Kingfisher & Magnet’, inspired by a shopping trip on a bus with his young son and his toy purchases. Perfect sunny afternoon fare!

Atonik have returned to WOMADelaide after four years of touring to perform The Colour of Time. A joyous celebration of colour and dance, the performance traverses the park with a grand set up of musicians (followed by massive speakers wheeled by WOMAD crew) playing modern and more traditional instruments as a troupe of dancers perform a choreographed narrative. While hard to follow the storyline of the performance due to the roving nature of the performance, it was clear that the story starts with tragedy and ends in peace, happiness and an enormous explosion of colour. WOMADelaide volunteers handed out colour sachets to punters to join in the parade, and while this is a fun way to engage in the performance, it was absolutely shocking and appalling to see grown ups crowding and grabbing at the volunteers trying to get packets out of their hands. Children were pushed out of the way, volunteers were rushed and harassed. It’s really not what the production is about. Chill out please, people.

Liz Phair was once championed as the leading voice of feminist rock. And whilst she has taken some softer, poppier turns in her career since releasing her assertively unapologetic and eviscerating manifesto Exile In Guyville in 1993, she was at WOMADelaide primarily to showcase this historically important record. The crowd who gathered to hear her play seemed to be a knowledgeable lot and not just curious casual listeners. They recognised and cheered the album’s better known tracks such as ‘6’1”’ and the closer that everyone had been waiting for, ‘Fuck & Run’.

Phair also sang a couple of her poppier singles lifted from her self-titled 2003 album; ‘Why Can’t I?’ and ‘Extraordinary’ were amongst the better songs in the set. Sadly, Phair was not in great voice, and she looked sheepish at times, as if she knew it. Maybe the long journey had worn her out, but her voice was weak and often off pitch, with the twin guitar sound she conjured up with her touring partner, Connor, often overpowering her vocals.

Performing at regular intervals across the days, Arrived is a beautiful, short theatre piece created by Spanish street theatre artist Adrian Schvarzstein and Lithuanian dancer-actor Jūratė Širvytė-Rukštelė. Carrying suitcases, the pair ‘arrive’ and set about making their new home using the audience to help them settle in. Funny, heartwarming, playful and downright adorable, Arrived is certainly worth a look on your travels.

It’s hard to believe it’s been eleven years since John Butler last graced Botanic Park for WOMADelaide. And some things have changed since then. The ‘Trio’ now has five members on stage, representing an evolution in the artist’s sound that now includes keyboards, samples and more diverse percussion. It hasn’t been a complete revolution though, with Butler’s signature guitar sound still at the centre and plenty of extended solos (including an all in drum solo near the end). While the focus of the set was on latest album Home, there were older numbers threaded through including ‘Better Than’, ‘Funky Tonight’ and even going right back to his very early material with ‘Pickapart’.

Still the activist, Butler’s sublime live show standard ‘Ocean’ was dedicated to the effort to stop drilling in the Great Australian Bight. It was a high-energy, entertaining 95 minute set from a talented group of musicians who were in high spirits on the closing night of an extensive tour. The performance finished fittingly with a rousing sing-along to Butler’s 2004 breakthrough hit ‘Zebra’. Let’s hope it’s not another eleven year wait!

Another WOMADelaide veteran, Fat Freddy’s Drop provided a perfect soundtrack to close out Saturday night. At 11 pm, it was a late start – made slightly later as the John Butler Trio had, in their enthusiasm, gone a little over time in the previous Foundation Stage set. But it was fitting music for that time of night. The reggae rhythms, cool brass and soulful vocals could be enjoyed just as well with front of stage energy or chilling at the back the back of the park letting the fresh, inviting  strains wash over you. It’s the kind of mix that’s completely at home at WOMAD and makes you thankful that we have such a festival here.

With some excellent performances so far, WOMADelaide 2019 is now half over. But there’s still a lot more to come – stay tuned!

Reviewed by Matthew Trainor, Libby Parker and Ken Grady

Photos by Tessa Manning