Every festival has its own personality and vibe. If the Mona’s big summer festival Mona Foma (Mofo) was a person it would be a rich, eccentric uncle who leaves his house open for a big party and wanders around the grounds looking amused while guests try to dance with peacocks.
So it will be sad to see Mona’s very own rich uncle, the Museum of Old and New Art’s owner, David Walsh, retire this particular party, which has been going in Hobart since 2009. The festival is relocating to Launceston for the next four years so Walsh can build a hotel on the museum site and the north of the state can reap some of its economic benefits.
At Mona Foma’s final Hobart festival the lineup was eclectic, and the loose theme this year was protest music. So-called “world music” featured strongly – as did heavier, darker stuff including Saturday night’s headliner, Mayhem – Scandinavia’s masked black metal band.
But first, to the 11-day festival’s final gig – the Violent Femmes with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.
The TSO has been in talks with Mona Foma’s curator, Brian Ritchie – also the Violent Femmes’ bass player and a Tasmania resident – for some years about a potential collaboration. It would be the Milwaukee acoustic-punk trio’s first with an orchestra. They agreed, and the orchestra’s tuba player Tim Jones committed a year to arranging the Femmes’ music.
Over two nights the band and the TSO played Hobart’s Federation Concert Hall, much to the delight of locals who, on the night I went, gave the performance a long, rapturous standing ovation.
They jumped straight into it at the start with a fast and furious Add it Up, probably the weakest song of the set – with sound jarring. Would the orchestra’s sound be too big for the songs and wash them out? Thankfully, on other numbers the band and orchestra complemented rather than competed with one another.
The concert included some of the Femmes’ best-known pop-punk songs including Blister in the Sun, American Music, Please Do Not Go and Gone Daddy gone.
The final song – Good Feeling – may as well have been written for the TSO’s string section. It was slowed right down, full of yearning. It was the arrangement with the lightest touch – and the most affecting.
Some of the Femmes’ lyrics – reminiscent of teenage parties and wild crushes – sound slightly weird coming from middle-aged mouths and accompanied by a full orchestra (“I need a date to the prom, would you like to come along? But nobody would go to the prom with me, baby”), but you could sing Good Feeling when you’re 90 and it would still sound so right.
The Femmes themselves look as if they could keep going into their 90s. At the start of the night, Ritchie led the band into the concert hall like a piped piper, playing a bamboo flute. He carved up the bass acoustic guitar and then, with Confessions, started blowing on an instrument like looked like a shell. Could it be a conch?!
And Gordon Gano’s voice hasn’t aged – in fact it sounds richer than it did on the band’s 1983 debut album. John Sparrow on drums kept an infectious rhythm that had many in the concert hall wriggle-dancing in their seats.
In addition to the two shows with the TSO, the Violent Femmes played a free concert during Mona Foma’s first weekend in Launceston at a free community block party.
The three-day event in Tasmania’s second city kicked off on 11 January and featured performances by Gotye and the Canadian contemporary dance troupe Monumental.
Ritchie, wearing his Mona Foma curator hat, says the festival was a great success. As well as 6,000 people attending the block party, “our farewell to Hobart saw our usual 3,000 per day onsite at Mona over three days, plus two sold-out performances of Violent Femmes with the TSO”.
He said more than 5,000 people had partied over three nights at the festival’s afterparty, Faux Mo, “with plenty more enjoying free events across the city”.
Highlights were many. Brian Jackson and the local Southern Gospel Choir delivered a powerful set, with Mona’s operations manager, Maria Lurighi, also on vocals. Jackson – who has collaborated with Nina Simone and Gil Scott-Heron – delivered The Revolution Will Not Be Televised less as a song and more as a wake-up call.
Over on the Turrell stage the eclectic Breadwoman drew a curious crowd. The performance artist Lilian Steiner played with a loaf of bread on her face and wielded a breadstick as if it was a lightsaber.
It was music without borders, with some of the best sets of the weekend coming from far away, including the Iraqi oud player Rahim AlHaj and cellist Karim Wasfi, the Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi, the Argentinian folk hip-hop trio Femina and the Indonesian/Catalan combo Filastine & Nova.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor finished off the first night of the festival with a set that lacked energy at the start but built to a beautiful crescendo. The backdrop to the concert – looming, brutalist tower blocks on a large screen – added to the end-of-days vibe.
The Faux Mo parties – held after the festival each night in a large warehouse on the pier – were lots of fun, although older hands were nostalgic for parties of yore, which were held in abandoned office towers or at the old Odeon.
The festival organisation was, again, very smooth. There were plenty of buses and ferries to get people to and from the festival site and – with Mona sharing its site with a winery – there was loads of high-quality booze and food for sale (although some of the food I had at the weekend was not well-cooked).
You could also suck on a sauvignon blanc icy pole in the shape of Donald Trump’s head. Seeing a Trump head melt in the sun is quite captivating. It was almost too good to lick.