By BRUCE DENNILL
Angus & Julia Stone / Parklife Festival, Marks Park, Johannesburg 5
For a number of reasons, I was only able to make it to the 2018 edition of the Johannesburg Parklife Festival in time for the last couple of acts. One of these was scheduled to be Desmond & The Tutus, the South African punk-pop band with reliably kooky stage antics to go with their excellent songwriting and top-notch musicianship – a formula that has kept them popular locally and gained them a considerable following abroad as well.
The line-up had been tweaked, though, to allow for the late arrival of Alice Phoebe Lou, a young singer-songwriter who grew up in Cape Town but who is now based in Berlin, and whose plane had been delayed. This meant a notable change in dynamics as the festival moved towards its climax, with the pogo-inspiring rhythms of the Tutu’s tunes exchanged being followed by Lou’s rather more meandering indie-folk. Also, while Lou’s work has achieved critical success in Germany and elsewhere abroad, she’s not a particularly well-known entity in her own country.
This inspired some musing from someone standing near me.
“What does it take for a South African artist to do really well?” he mused. “I can understand the situation where local guys sound more or less the same as international acts, so they become a good alternative option, but it seems there’s also an element of randomness. I don’t understand what it is, but every now and then an artist that doesn’t really crack it here suddenly takes off because a song just fits somewhere else. It’s weird.”
He had a point. Lou’s music was largely devoid of obvious hooks – well enough fitted to a festival context where hipsters and hippies made up the bulk of the mellow, gently swaying audience, but difficult to imagine as any sort of ear-worm or radio hit.
When the Australian duo Angus & Julia Stone and their band took to the stage the better part of an hour after Lou departed – more curiously subdued dynamics, given that many in the crowd had spent the previous seven or so hours in the sun leading up to the headline slot – the man’s comments remained appropriate. On record, siblings, Angus & Julia Stone specialise in fairly ethereal, delicate folk-pop, but their touring sound is bolstered by an extra guitarist, a bassist, a synth/keyboard player and a muscular drummer. They like their gear, too, swopping instruments between every song in a manner that had guitar fetishists twitching and leering lecherously. Their song structures, however, were as challenging to get into as Lou’s had been, with verses suddenly veering off into synth or trumpet (courtesy of multi-tasker Julia) interludes with completely different time signatures that would themselves simply end in unexpected places.
“These guys are big; they’re touring the world,” continued the man. “But I can’t see exactly what it is that makes them work. Are they better then any of the decent South African bands around?”
I didn’t know if he was expecting an answer, which was just as well, as I didn’t have one for him. Julia’s – she did most of the talking between songs – connection with the crowd seemed genuine, and there were certainly heartfelt cheers as each song ended, but between an iffy mix in the first half of their set and a lack of a big, attention-seizing hit throughout, the Stones’ status as headliners seemed incidental rather than undeniable.
The undecided onlooker had left by the time the set ended, but those who remained seemed happy enough to linger as the last note faded. Perhaps there is, with such events, an element of the festival atmosphere (chilled, trendy, non-judgemental people; artisanal food trucks; a slow, relaxed afternoon) being worth the price of the entrance ticket, with the impact of the artists on display – whatever their reputation and quality – of secondary importance.
That’s not a bad thing, but it does suggest that the formula for success is harder to define than it used to be.