The first night of WOMADelaide 2020 delivered a spectacular line-up of talent in a big opening to the four day music festival, culminating in a terrific headliner performance from The Cat Empire.

This is a band that feels made for an event like this, having delivered many memorable past performances on the Botanic Park stages. And last night was no different.

Over the years the outfit has lost none of its energy, with an ability really work a crowd who really get its music. Their musicianship is also still first rate, with excellent song construction and searing solos. What is different from their first outing here, though, is the rich back catalogue to draw on, afforded by two decades of crafting quality music.

womad_fri_night-19The setlist made full use of this, mixing in older favourites with songs from their two most recent records. But for all the technical expertise up on the stage, it’s the simple sing-along choruses that really draw us all in.

They are also a band who sit well with the general outlook of this kind of festival. When frontman Felix Riebl dedicated a song to tackling climate change, the audience cheered – beccause a bunch of musicians are prepared to confront something our political leaders will not.

Most acts don’t get an encore here, but in the main Friday night slot, The Cat Empire delivered a three song finale that proved to be the highlight of the set. Beginning with the more recent ‘Bulls’, one of the best moments of the show, the band finished by paying homage to their roots with ‘Hello’ and ‘The Chariot’. It was the perfect way to kick the festival into gear.

womad_fri_night-5Earlier in the night there were more riches on offer, starting with Grammy Award winners, The Blind Boys of Alabama on the Foundation Stage. With age-defying energy, this act is a real crowd pleaser, who delighted the early evening audience with powerful renditions like ‘People Get Ready’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ (which they cleverly put to the music of ‘House of the Rising Sun’). And for anyone who missed out on the fun or wants to catch it all again, the Blind Boys will play again today at 3pm on Stage 2.

Kate Miller-Heidke is another performer who is well suited to WOMAD. She mentioned during her 7pm slot on Stage 2 that musician friends have been telling her for years she should play here and was glad she finally did. Miller-Heidke is a warm and engaging performer who chats easily with the crowd in between songs, making an effort to connect with us, talking humorously about life, family and her Eurovision experience. Acknowledging International Women’s Day and the excellent line-up of female artists on the festival, she delivered the wry and delightfully acerbic ‘You’ve Underestimated Me Dude’.

womad_fri_night-10The most arresting aspect of her performance is the way she is able to use her voice as an instrument to add to the texture of the songs.

The set included well known songs alongside new material and culminated in her Eurovision entry, ‘Zero Gravity’. It was good to see Miller-Heidke performing the song comfortably behind her keyboard instead of suspended swinging from a pole.

womad_fri_night-11Other highlights of the evening included the Latin beats of Orquesta Akokan on the Foundation Stage at 8pm that really got feet moving in the post-dinner slot. Meanwhile the giant sized puppetry of Company Archibald Caramantran is a roving performance that will occur daily throughout the weekend and is sure to be a hit of the festival.

Day one of WOMADelaide has set the bar high, but with the promise of a great program to follow in the remaining three days, it looks like we are once again in for a real treat!

Reviewed by Matthew Trainor

Photos by Tessa Manning