By BRUCE DENNILL
Parklife Gourmet Food And Music Festival / Emmarentia Botanical Garden, Johannesburg
There’s a pleasing trend in South African music festivals that is seeing stronger line-ups curated for specific audiences – rather than the hit-and-miss strategy of piling a bunch of artists onto a schedule and hoping that at least a few will hit the mark – and also charging ticket prices that feel appropriate rather than apologetic.
Parklife 2019 featured a mostly guitar-driven collective, bar the lone house and pop inclusion of Lady Zamar, who was both popular and confident enough to ensure that her set didn’t feel like an anomaly sound-wise. Sandwiched between festivals celebrating Afrikaans and urban music respectively, it also featured artists performing exclusively, or at least predominantly, in English.
Setting the bar unreasonably high at the outset, a relaxed, genial Werner Bekker showcased the range of techniques – percussive lap slide (if that is a thing…) among them – and superb songwriting that is rapidly making him one of the artists to watch at the moment. Janie Bay’s slick pop followed, with some Afrikaans singles and cover versions adding variety to what is a clean, polished approach.
The punchiness of Charlie Finch’s power trio (the singer-songwriter on guitar, with Louis Malherbe on drums and Kieran Woolmington on base) was almost as impressive as Finch’s outstanding songs, with the dynamics provided by his sidemen making the tunes a powerful proposition live.
Desmond & The Tutus, as enjoyable as a trio (in this instance) as they are as a quartet, began their set with their trademark quirkiness (guitarist Douglas Bower playing a lengthy, er, shaker solo) before settling into the effortless cool that augments their enduring catalogue. They remain one of the most entertaining live prospects on South African stages.
AKing have not had as high a profile in recent times as they’ve enjoyed before (there’s been no new album in five years), but that was clearly of no importance to the crowd who pogoed to their muscular rock hits. Singer Laudo Liebenberg’s voice remains a standout instrument and the band were tight and self-assured.
An acoustic guitar-toting Ross Learmonth, replacing Prime Circle with Denholm Harding (also on an acoustic) delivered stripped-down arrangements of his main band’s big hits, along with some tasteful cover versions (Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees, for one), confirming his strengths – his voice, his writing – and underlining his potential as a potent solo artist.
Closing off affairs was Matthew Mole, the once idiosyncratic indie kid now a persuasive, engaging headliner with hit songs and layers to his performance that are as interesting to watch as the entire package is to observe.
All of this standalone distinction was backed up by good sound and generally sound event organisation. Here’s hoping that this festival, in this format, will continue to grow.