When the festival Rising kicked off in chilly Melbourne on June 1, it was with an outsize sense of anticipation. After all, this was a brand-new festival making a delayed debut after the pandemic hobbled it two years in a row: Rising was postponed in 2020, and then cancelled after two days in 2021 after the extension of a city-wide lockdown – one of many that Melbourne famously suffered through the pandemic.
So when Sampa the Great took to the stage at Forum Melbourne that Wednesday night for the festival’s opening performance, and international artists (sans Moses Sumney, who sadly axed all his global tour dates a week out from the festival) began to jet in for their own gigs, Rising’s organisers – and funders, in the government of the state of Victoria – must have breathed a long, deep sigh of relief.
NME was in attendance for half of the 12-day festival, which not only brought music into its scope but also art exhibitions, dance, theatre, visual art, installations, light shows, performance art and much more – taking place in elegant venues like the National Gallery Victoria but also more humble ones like a carpark in the CBD.
In that way, Rising felt more sprawling and free-floating than your typical festival, where the fun and festivities are concentrated in one location for one or a few intense days, all the artists and punters experiencing the same conditions, whether good or bad. Rising sometimes felt atomised, more like a series of indoor headline concerts rather than a cohesive festival; not every artist NME saw perform mentioned Rising onstage.
But the headline concert format allowed artists to invite punters into their own immersive, bespoke worlds in ways that a typical festival would not have allowed for. Rapper Sampa the Great has in recent years become a festival favourite, taking her all-Zambian band to make history at the likes of Coachella and lining up appearances this year at Glastonbury, Lollapalooza and Roskilde.
But given free rein of the stately Forum, Sampa Tembo could bring her show An Afro Future to life with striking stage sets and dance choreography. Taking the same stage days later, Tkay Maidza seized the same opportunity, filling the space with blooms in a gorgeous setup she later pithily described as “’Yeezus’ but with flowers”.
That perennial festival sound problem – wanting to vibe out to your indie folk fave but hearing the punk rock bleed over from a neighbouring stage – all but vanishes when the entertainment is dispersed into separate venues. And just because the music happens in established indoor venues doesn’t mean that things get stuffy. For Melbourne producer Harvey Sutherland’s two ‘Neurotic Funk’ shows – the genre he coined to describe the sound of his recently released debut album ‘Boy’ – the Melbourne Recital Centre removed its seats from the venue, allowing punters to form heaving, dancing circles around Sutherland and his live band.
It was impossible to see everything at Rising, but that’s not to say there was filler. The gigs were judiciously booked – there was often only one music event per night, sometimes two – and those NME saw indicated a thoughtful and varied approach to programming. There were hip-hop artists, jazz musos, indie rockers, experimentalists and improvisers. Main acts and supports were well-paired – deadpan Melbourne post-punks EXEK made a good match for Brisbane indie trio The Goon Sax, while the lush piano compositions of Sweet Whirl set a lovely tone for the novelistic folk of Andy Shauf.
By booking critically acclaimed artists on their maiden outings in Australia, Rising made their shows irresistible prospects: Welsh producer Kelly Lee Owens played her first gig in Melbourne while south London drummer Yussef Dayes and Andy Shauf were both on their debut tours of the country.
All three were well worth the wait. Singing and twiddling dials before a flashing screen, Owens was a one-woman show who made a seamless transition from hypnotic ambient into an eardrum-pulverising techno rave. The cool-as-you-like Dayes – whose sold-out show at Max Watts doubtless had Melbourne’s thriving jazz scene to thank – put on a masterclass on the kit and, thrillingly, aired songs from his short-lived but thoroughly influential Yussef Kamaal project. Shauf delivered devastating lyrical one-liners to an adoring audience whose boisterous vibe warmed the soft-spoken Canadian up some.
When Rising ends in two days’ time, it’ll have brought a wealth of smartly curated music and art to Melbourne, including a Japan In Focus programme featuring bona fide legends from the country in Midori Takada and Boris, more hip-hop world-building via Shabazz Palaces and more emotive indie rock from Lucy Dacus and Snowy Band. The festival is in its first year, which means that it has time yet to grow and find its identity. But the 2022 edition was a nevertheless thoroughly warming way to start a cold, rainy winter in the city.