There is no festival quite like WOMAD. It attracts a varied audience, is dedicated to bringing the best in world music and it’s a relatively large festival that never feels overcrowded. There’s also something for every kind of festivalgoer. Dance classes, all manner of meditation workshops, talks, awesome food and of course great music. WOMAD’’s big appeal for me is just how relaxing it is; the atmosphere is always chilled out and the site is well organised without feeling restrictive.
Arriving late on the Thursday we missed the musical offerings, which allowed us to wander around and get our bearings. This year there was a new stage in the shape of the Society of Sound stage, which promised some awesome music with sets from the likes of Gruff Rhys and Beardy Man.
When Friday eventually arrived, the weather was burning hot, the type of day where I was glad that the festival had an arboretum. I wasn’t the only person thinking that; every patch of shade had a rug underneath, so after spending the morning melting I headed to the Siam Tent where Dave Okumu and The Invisible had just started. They were without guest vocalist Shingai Shoniwa (lead singer of the Noisettes) but their deep funky basslines and silky guitar riffs were perfect to enjoy the first foot shuffle of the day to.
The ethereal Linnea Olsson brought her atmospheric cello playing to the Ecotricity Stage but a tropical downpour interrupted her third song and caused everyone to seek shelter. Linnea continued to do an amazingly moving set that included a couple of beautiful covers in the shape of Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy and Sex Object by Kraftwork.
Moving into the evening, the aptly named Melt Yourself Down were the must see act in the Big Red Tent. They provided the enthusiasm and energy needed to get the evening started with their jazz/punk/funk fusion and horns that rose into the close atmosphere.
Tunng played on the Charlie Gillette Stage with an impressive set; their delicate melodies overlapping clinky beats and noises as they played some much loved tunes. Then it was to the Red Tent again for some hard-core dancing to jungle legend Congo Natty. The dancing continued with Goran Bregovic and his Wedding & Funeral Orchestra, with their Balkan beats driving through the crowd in front of the main stage. They’re a band that are constantly in flux but the set felt lively and fresh.
After that energetic experience the acoustic folk beauty of Richard Thompson felt doubly intense. The Fairport Convention guitarist has legendary status and the crowd were completely enraptured in his expert guitar playing.
The sun was high in the sky and shining intensely on Saturday morning, with Siyaya kicking off the afternoon’s music in the Siam Tent. The drum and dance troupe from Zimbabwe played hypnotic beats that were impossible not to dance to.
Aside from the music, WOMAD is great for shopping with stalls selling everything from artwork to the usual festival supplies of flower garlands and stupid hats. I spent the early afternoon trawling the plethora of stalls before heading over to the Big Red Tent for the much-hyped Snarky Puppy. With all the buzz in the press tent that morning they fell completely short of my expectation. Described as a ‘cerebral experience’, I found their set edging on pretentious. A friend described their sound perfectly: “The musical equivalent of a Michael Bay film”, so take from that what you will!
Afrikan Boy, however, blew me away with a set that showcased his debut album. Since his catchy tune One Day I Went To Lidl found its way online, he’s been on tour with M.I.A and worked with DJ Shadow. His mix of grime rhythms and traditional Nigerian sound make him a unique feature on the grime scene, and his complete unadulterated enthusiasm on stage is infectious. After seeing him come on stage with Spoek Mathambo last year at WOMAD, it was great seeing him back on his own and doing it in such style. His current single Hit Em Up showed some great lyrical wit and got the whole tent moving. I left the tent completely drenched in sweat with a huge smile on my face.
After all that dancing I was ready for something a little more relaxed. Yaaba Funk was on the Charlie Gillett stage and they served as a great funk laden come down before the highly anticipated Fat Freddy’s Drop – who were the second let down of the day for me. I’ve seen FFD a few times before and loved them, but this set left me cold. The atmosphere didn’t seem as lively as I was expecting, which is a shame.
Sunday had a lazier atmosphere and Batch Gueye Band got the sleepy morning crowd moving with their Senegalese rhythms. It was the perfect way to ease myself into the last day of the festival, ending with a lot of dancing and smiling people.
The main act I was looking forward to on Sunday was Gruff Rhys. His concept album, American Interior, has had rave reviews and his brand of alternative psychedelica has been an obsession of mine since my teens when I first heard Radiator by Super Furry Animals. Gruff didn’t disappoint. With his shambolic charm he played through the set despite some hiccups. He delivered a superb multimedia experience of an album that was inspired by the 18th-century explorer John Evans, who mapped the Missouri River in a vain search for a lost, Welsh-speaking American tribe.
After that bizarre and fascinating set, it was time to have the final dance of the WOMAD weekend with Alice Russell. Her belting voice and soulful choruses were just what the Sunday crowd needed before winding down into the small hours.
Sinead O’Connor was the big name for the day and although her set took a while to warm up, she was a powerhouse of angst and religion. Though the newer material lacked oomph, Sinead’s voice is so incredible that audiences would be rapt even if she were singing the contents of the phone book. In fact, it was an entirely acapella piece that took the whole set up a notch into the stunning second half. Sinead didn’t let the crowd down, performing Nothing Compares 2 U near the end of her set. Nowadays it feels like more of an anthem than a sad love song, but she still had me crying into my chips.
So that was WOMAD 2014. It was beautiful, tiring and emotional. It’s a festival that stands on it’s own and is unlike any other out there. I already can’t wait till next year.