So it was a nice surprise, if not completely unexpected, when Neil offered to come to the rescue after the lead act at this year’s Womad had to cancel. The “barefoot diva” Cesaria Evora suffered a small stroke in Australia, and in her place Neil performed a solo set.
Since the first two Auckland Womads – which had disappointing sales – the festival has moved 200 miles south to New Plymouth, in the centre of the North Island. There is a strong folk tradition there, a hardcore of old hippies, veterans of the 1980s Sweetwaters rock festivals, and now their teenagers. Plus, Wellingtonians and Aucklanders of a similar ilk only have half the distance to travel.
The setting is sublime: Brooklands Park in the heart of New Plymouth, which is like a botanical gardens of native bush, set around a natural amphitheatre called the Bowl of Brooklands. In front of the stage is a pond between the performers and the audience, often breached in the past by drunks (or by Tim Finn, rowing a dinghy around during ‘Dirty Creature’ in a 1980s Enz show). It has also hosted huge events such as the Seekers at the height of their fame or, recently, a solo show by Elton John.
But the toe sandals are out at Womad, and among the stalwarts there’s a slight atmosphere of disinterest for mainstream pop. Nevertheless the organisers have programmed the festival brilliantly, with mainstream acts at the perfect ascendant moment of their career (Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Beirut) combined with soul veteran Mavis Staples and a top array of “world” music that has broken through to western audiences: Toumani Diabate, the Terem Quartet, Taraf de Haidouks, and the “Ray Charles of Cambodia”, Master Kong Nay. Also there is a strong contingent of New Zealand music at its best: old hands Midge Marsdan and Don McGlashan, plus the Phoenix Foundation, SJD, and the ubiquitous and always welcome Age Pryor.
Neil looked a little lonely standing on the dark, wide Bowl of Brooklands stage, dressed in a deconstructed navy pinstripe jacket, with a birds-nest hairdo. He opened with ‘She Will Have Her Way’, fleshed out with 12-string acoustic, and then he said, “I’ll now do a song as I actually wrote it”. Starting slowly, and singing Love can make you weep, it took me a moment to recognise ‘Something So Strong’ performed as a delicate demo, using just barre chords.
The thousands of people perched on the hill, snapping their mobile phone cameras or waving fluoro-lights made Neil say “I feel like I’m tripping”, and he responded with ‘Silent House’: All the flickering lights / had filled up this silent house ... His electric guitar provided a raga-like drone as a bed, to song that just gets more captivating.
In a set of favourites – this was a middle-New Zealand crowd, rather than a crowd of Crowdies – ‘Only Talking Sense’ sounded very fresh. A subtle ‘Private Universe’ and exquisite ‘Four Seasons in One Day’ would have coaxed a sing-along elsewhere; at the Bowl, it’s always a bit tricky trying to connect with the audience over the moat.
‘Anytime’ is a hidden gem off the One Nil record, but even more glorious performed live, with arpeggios from roadie John adding to its dramatic build. Don McGlashan emerged with his euphonium for ‘English Trees’, Time on Earth’s real stayer. Its mournful tones were just perfect to take the Hammond organ solo on a slow, careful ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’: it was like a Salvation Army band coming down the street, the very sound Neil was aiming for on ‘Together Alone’. The versatile McGlashan and whatever band he chose to perform with would be the perfect support act for the next Crowded House tour.
As the crowd melted into the trees and home to bed, on one of the smallest stages Age Pryor and his Suspicions were going off. Check out his 2007 album Shanks Pony: there are enough melodies and harmonies there to be sure that, whatever Crowded House is producing right now in the studio in Auckland, New Zealand’s songwriting is in good hands for the future. Thanks to Womad's smart system of having acts play more than once (to avoid clashes), Pryor was to have performed nine times during the weekend, including his own band, with Jess Chambers and the Firefly Orchestra, and the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra. A bug (a firefly?) prevented the latter; it would have been great to hear what he added to their spirited version of ‘Weather With You’.