The tent was bigger. Better. Sexy, even, with its sleek lines and undulating silver curves. But it was the Sound System – four towering, strategically placed speakers, packing a combined 135,000-watt wallop – that made this WOMAD stage the place to be.
The audience was intrigued from the get-go: hi-fi quality sound in the middle of a muddy field in rural Wiltshire? I watched them from the stage before the programme kicked off. Everywhere, people standing, sitting, milling around, transfixed by the music flowing through those speaker stacks. By the detail and clarity in that glorious, wrap-around sound.
The first event at 2pm on Friday blew everybody’s hair back. Before the bank of analogue synths known as the Moog Sound Lab, one of only two such set-ups in the world, Brighton-based electronica wizard Richard Norris and his tech-savvy sidekick Finlay Shakespeare conjured a set of sonic delights that got a capacity crowd punching the air. With the bar duly raised, the question on everyone’s lips was, could Bowers & Wilkins Sound System keep up the standard across the weekend? As each day’s programme of talks and interactive events, acoustic and electronic sessions, live music and late night DJ sets rolled out, it was obvious that they could. And they did.
Highlights were many. The Mercury Prize-nominated East India Youth, aka William Doyle, a one-man electronica band who mixed up wistful lyrics with ambient soundscapes and techno bangers, and nearly collided with me as he lurched off, spent, at the finish. Composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist and sound manipulator John Metcalfe, playing tracks from his current Real World album The Appearance of Colour with a band that helped animate his inspired mix of orchestral/chamber music and electronica.
On Saturday came the wonky folk pop of Northern Ireland’s Hannah Peel, a chestnut-haired singer and composer with a thing for analogue synths, home-made music boxes and, set over, for jumping onto her boyfriend’s back and being whisked away in leftfield style. At night, two dons of sound system culture: the DJs Don Letts and Jazzie B of Soul II Soul. Back to back, (to life, to reality) in the sort of A-list double bill that clubland can only dream of. ‘It’s not just top and bottom, it’s textures and tones,’ said Letts of the Sound System.
Is Moog pronounced mewg, or mowg? Debate raged good-naturedly over the weekend, with Will Gregory – composer, keyboardist, woodwind player and one half of Goldfrapp – opting for the former as he delivered a History Of lecture that revisited the golden age of invention about before playing a set with his Moog Ensemble – which featured Adrian Utley of Portishead and jazz, classical and punk musicians on an array of vintage analogue instruments – and redefining what an ensemble can be.
“It is every singer’s dream to sing through that system,’ said Cara Dillon, a traditional Irish artist whose clarion-like vocals were lent added intimacy and resonance by the ever-flexible Sound System. Just as the eclecticism of other acts – sprawling Tel Aviv funk collective The Apples, say, or Sunderland singer/songwriter The Lake Poets – saw this precedent-setting Bowers & Wilkins showcase prove itself again and again.
Jane Cornwell, Journalist, writer and critic.