Womadelaide 2021: Archie Roach bids farewell in a 'festival' forced to redefine itself

Walter Marsh
·4-min read

A year after it became one of the world’s last music festivals before Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions swung in, Womadelaide is back in name and spirit – even if the “festival” part has been temporarily retired.

“I have a lot of fond memories of Adelaide,” Archie Roach says as he surveys the socially distanced crowd in Ityamai-itpina park. “It was here all those years ago that I met Ruby Hunter, and for that reason alone it’s why I love this place.”

Opening the first of four open-air concerts, the songwriter and self-described “story man” makes his seventh and final Womadelaide appearance as part of a string of farewell shows around the country.

Hunter isn’t the only reason he feels at home: “I love the space, I love the old trees, it’s good to be back here. And all the old friends through the years that I knew – some of them, a lot of them, are gone now. You see those old ghosts, my old mates.”

Related: Adelaide during festival season feels like a world still struggling with its new reality | Jane Howard

Gravelly voiced but undaunted by recent health battles, Roach plays an emotional but joyful set largely lifted from his 30-year-old debut, Charcoal Lane, much of which was born out of loss, love and community found on the streets and open spaces of Melbourne.

Hearing Roach in this place, performing songs such as Charcoal Lane, Hunter’s Down City Streets, and a more recent track inspired by his son’s brush with the police, I’m reminded of the words of Ngarrindjeri and Kaurna poet Dominic Guerrera onstage at Adelaide writers’ week a few days earlier: “When white people gather and drink in parklands it’s called a festival, when Black people do they call the cops.”

Few who have lived the many lives Roach has go on to record Aria-winning albums or publish memoirs that capture this experience with honesty and empathy. As he finishes with Took the Children Away and Summer of My Life, both songs he first recorded as a 35-year-old that hit even deeper now, we’re reminded how much he has given this country – and how far we have to go to return the favour.

Just how an event as globally-oriented as Womadelaide could adapt to ongoing international travel restrictions has been a pointy question all year. The solution has been to book an exclusively domestic program dominated by familiar faces: tonight’s lineup of Roach, Sarah Blasko and Lior, along with Saturday and Monday night headliners Midnight Oil, have all graced the Womad stage before.

Lior remarks that this is his first performance “since our world changed”, as he and composer Nigel Westlake embark on their 2013 song cycle, Compassion. Built around ancient Hebrew and Arabic texts and backed by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Compassion is a work that speaks across time and borders, and goes some way to evoking the festival’s usual atmosphere of cultural exchange.

He later describes an email he received from a fan who proposed to his now wife during the singer’s last Womadelaide set seven years ago, before dedicating his final and most famous song, This Old Love, to the couple. It’s testament to peoples’ love for the festival – and how releasing a wedding-friendly song early in your career can set you up for life.

Blasko closes the night with a simple ensemble of drums, double bass and piano performing her third album As Day Follows Night in full. Stripped of its layers of Scandi-pop strings, xylophone and singing saw, it’s a set that would work well in the town halls or theatres for which it was originally conceived.

After the sheer scale of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, however, it feels almost austere – the musical equivalent of jobkeeper being abruptly scaled back in March. Once the album is over, Blasko returns for an unexpected encore, noting but shrugging off the audience exodus that has already begun as she performs Seems Like Old Times from Annie Hall. It’s a fitting note to end on, precisely because things don’t quite seem the same.

Like much of Adelaide’s 2021 festival season, the fresh emphasis on Covid-safe counter-measures in a city that has all but abandoned most of them feels strange. We are allowed to dance, organisers tell us, but we must do it by our seats. In the cold night air few take up the offer – perhaps we all need more time to remember.

Still, taking in the familiar trappings of an outdoor music festival once again invites a renewed appreciation for the work that goes into even a pared-back version like this — not to mention the invisible army of roadies and crew around the country who were cut adrift when the industry shut down overnight.

It’s not the Womadelaide we remember – how could it be – but the fact it has happened at all is a gift.

Or, as Roach observed earlier in the night while reassuring audiences about the oxygen feed he now wears: “When your breathing is compromised because of one thing or another, you really find out how important each breath is. You breathe, I suppose, the way I should have breathed a long time ago.”