From Aural Innovations #4 (October 1998)
Founded by Peter Gabriel in 1982, the 'World of Music, Arts and Dance' (WOMAD for short) endeavors "to bring together and to celebrate many forms of music, arts and dance drawn from countries and cultures all over the world." This year, WOMAD USA started a new venture separate from the touring shows of years past...an annual three-day event in suburban Seattle, organized in part by the same folks who run the very successful Bumbershoot festivals in late summer. The venue, Marymoor Park (northeast of Seattle in Redmond, WA), is a sprawling place with natural boundaries (i.e., groves of trees and shrubbery) between open grassy areas of various dimensions. Accordingly, multiple stages both large and small were scattered about the complex, amidst the obligatory corporate-sponsored areas (Starbucks anyone?) and food/vendor booths. Schedules were kept pretty tight so that minimal conflict and interference between performances occurred. A very professional operation, especially for an inaugural event.
The weather on this August afternoon was unusually hot and sunny for the PacNW, mid- to upper-80s, and for once I didn't feel alone in my lack of comfort under these 'moderate' conditions (humid 90s are a summertime norm in my native Ohio). The warm weather seemed to bring out the crowds en force, as all the performances were well-attended. Having arrived in the early afternoon, I made the rounds just to scope out the neighborhood. I found the 'Big Top' stage (where Sky Cries Mary would later perform), a large circus-type canvas structure covering a few hundred folding chairs. There I caught a large portion of the set by Russia's Terem Quartet playing various peculiar-looking stringed instruments in spirited fashion. (You really had to know your balalaikas from your bouzoukis on this day!) I don't know if it was because the band knew they were being paid in dollars rather than rubles, or what, but they seemed to have as good a time up there as all of us in the audience. I'm mainly a rock 'n' roll kind of guy, but their brand of ethnic folk (a condescending label no doubt) is the kind of thing that certainly inspires a great deal of the progressive rock that I regularly enjoy.
Later, while things were generally quiet elsewhere, I checked out Joan Osborne's set on the main stage. Other than that single radio hit ('One Of Us'), I knew next to nothing about Ms. Osborne, but I expected very little (my cynical attitude towards American pop culture showing). Actually, I found her band to be quite strong, playing soulful blues in perhaps a dated fashion, but nonetheless enjoyable in this outdoor setting. Osborne did her best Janis Joplin impression throughout the performance, though whereas Joplin was a truly ground-breaking, Joan sounded like your everyday wannabe. With no difficulty, I could just close my eyes and imagine that it was Alannah Myles or Sheryl Crow up there singing instead. So, in the end, it was the star attraction herself that was the weak link in an otherwise decent performance.
After catching a few snippets of other offerings both musical and visual, including the largest (and loudest) drum circle I've ever come across, I gravitated back over to the Big Top to see how transcendent spacerockers (according to the program) Sky Cries Mary were coming along in preparation for their show. While chatting with drummer Ben Ireland's wife Lisa (aka the 'Fongster'), I began to notice that the chairs were being removed from the venue and that more than a few folks had started to gather at the front of the stage. I looked at my watch and saw that 20 minutes still remained until showtime, and wondered if something was happening other than SCM's performance. After all, where I come from, no one has ever heard of this band before! By the time I'd wiggled my way into a crowded spot near the right front of the stage, I had discovered that a tremendous number of fans had showed up specifically to see this band and the place was buzzing with anticipation. So the removal of chairs turned out to be a necessity and as it were, there still wasn't quite enough room for everyone to pack themselves into the tent. So instead of the hundred or so that I thought might be loosely hanging around, there were 'lots of hundreds' in attendance. That alone means Seattle is cool, if they support great hometown bands like Sky Cries Mary.
Well, I can only say that high expectations were not only met, but surpassed during this performance. Sky Cries Mary has undergone quite an evolution over the past decade, from early days of industrial music and bizarre stage antics to the present multi-faceted cosmic orchestral stylings. I had a number of tracks in mind that I expected to hear, based on what I thought would transfer well from the studio to the stage. Some of these ('Moonbathing,' 'Gone,' 'Every Iceberg is Afire') did appear in the set, the kind of tunes that are upbeat and danceable. But especially later on, they really shocked me with some choices that in the end turned out to be the actual standouts on this day.
At about a quarter after 6 PM, guitarist Michael Cozzi started things off with some unearthly echoed statements that turned out to be the intro to 'Nowhere.' [Sadly, Cozzi has since announced his decision to leave the band.] As the full band kicked into gear, Roderick and Anisa Romero finally made their way into view donning full regalia. Anisa was absolutely radiant in a long white silk robe and jewelled tiara and the barefoot Roderick was similarly dressed in a long white robe, which accentuated his waist-long braids. By the time they reached the chorus with Roderick belting out 'We've got nowhere to go!,' I'd come to realize how well this synergistic duo works; Anisa providing the elegance and grace, Roderick the manic energy and unbridled passion (evident in the frequent pogo-sticking that he performed gleefully). That doesn't always come through on the albums, but seeing it in person gives one a different perspective.
From there, Sky Cries Mary plowed right into the opening track ('Shipwrecked') from their 1994 CD "This Timeless Turning," and already the audience was fully entranced. The energy level stayed high right through a rousing cover of the Stones' '2000 Light Years from Home,' a crowd favorite, and the aforementioned 'Moonbathing,' with its catchy phase-happy bassline provided by Juano. At some point between songs, Roderick told the crowd that "it is our greatest honor to be here at this festival." So it wasn't just me that was surprised with the rabid support...the band themselves seemed a little overwhelmed at the response.
Like performing an operatic aria, Anisa then delighted us with ethereal singing during their two-part rendition of the traditional piece 'Back to the Sea.' The prominence of music from the rarer EP recording "Exit at the Axis" continued with the band toning things down a little with 'Cornerman,' Juano again shining on a fretless bass this time. It was at about this point that a few 'colorful' audience members, frustrated with the lack of space on the floor, jumped up on the stage to dance in more spacious surroundings. In the end, it was just one more part of the amazing spectacle. 'Deep Sunless Sea' appeared next, one of those tracks that never made much of an impression upon me on disc ("This Timeless Turning" in this case), but this rendition just took off and smoked! Both Anisa and Roderick ended up singing while on their knees...but perhaps that was only because of the heat? Cozzi's glissando guitar, Todd Robbins' samples and scratches, and Ben Ireland's tribal drum soloing all contributed to making this the highlight of the show. However, this wasn't quite the end, as 'Elephant Song' (another one from the "Axis" EP) finished things up, consistently building in volume and energy that really got Roderick going full-steam by the end. It seemed almost like a signature piece for him.
After a full 70 minutes of sweat and toil by band members and audience alike, Sky Cries Mary exited the stage thinking their work was done. But the incessant racket and exuberance from the crowd eventually convinced them to come back for one more impromptu piece (they hadn't planned on an encore). It was a good thing, as I didn't think the cheering was going to stop anytime soon, and it was sure to become a nuisance to those over at the main stage where the next performer was just going on. After five minutes of space jamming on some unconsolidated new material, they graciously thanked the audience for the strong support and then asked us all to go away. You see, they themselves wanted to get over to the main stage to check out Ravi Shankar, the inimitable master of the sitar.
It was just about nightfall when I found a comfortable spot on the main lawn, where I could let my stirred emotions gradually ease and allow the delicate eastern music from Ravi Shankar to enter my mind. When I was very young, I remember my parents taking me to one of his performances, but I don't think I quite appreciated what it was all about then. I admit that the subtleties of Indian music are still lost on me, but nonetheless I found that the music grew on me over the next hour and felt that I had experienced something quite rare.
Some time later, as a festival wrap-up, we were treated to an 'all-star' jam session featuring many artists from the weekend's festivities. This was one of those moments when the Earth just seems like a smaller place than it really is, with music as the universal language through which people of different cultures are brought together. OK, so perhaps it was a little thick in feelgood symbolism, but not very many folks (myself included) were quick to head for the parking lots. Finally, though, a very fulfilling day-long celebration of music and art came to an end and I made the journey back to my awaiting hotel bed for some much needed sleep (the jetlag had kicked in). I'm thankful that NASA (a space agency, after all) provided free airfare for me (I was in Seattle on 'business,' luckily) so that I could check out one of my favorite space rock bands in such an idyllic setting. WOMAD USA has gotten off to a very strong start.
Click here to visit the Sky Cries Mary web page.
Click here to visit the WOMAD web page.