Live Review: Wanderlust 'True North' @ The Plaza, Melbourne

6 April 2023 | 4:55 pm | Cyclone Wehner

"At points, roaming Wanderlust felt like being at Gwyneth Paltrow's infamous 2017 Goop summit or acting as an extra in the upcoming The White Lotus series."

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Imagine a festival that combines music, storytelling, meditation, yoga and psychic healing that isn't a bush doof, and you have Wanderlust True North.

The innovative event is a grassroots phenomenon in a new New Age – the evergreen Californian musician Michael Franti bringing his Yoga Jam to the latest edition. If Wanderlust hasn't courted wider media coverage, that's because its success is word-of-mouth. The Sydney Wanderlust this weekend is already sold out. 

Wanderlust events have been running in various ideations in North America since 2009 when the inaugural yoga summer festival was held in California's now Palisades Tahoe ski resort with predominantly indie acts like Broken Social Scene and, randomly, the mash-up DJ Girl Talk (surely the 2000s Fred again..). 

Latterly, Wanderlust has expanded into a digital platform – and has a range of supplements. Melbourne's last instalment of Wanderlust True North – which is promoted as 'a half day of mindful movement, music, stories and community' – happened at the Royal Exhibition Building in September 2022 with musical identities Emmanuel Jal and PNAU's Nick Littlemore (who DJed a yoga session) plus Adam Goodes as speaker. But The Plaza, beneath the Regent Theatre, was an alluring alternative. Usually hired out for functions, especially weddings, the 1920s ballroom has an otherworldly atmosphere with fairytale architecture – a Juliet balcony, chandeliers and water features. For Wanderlust, it was filled with fresh flowers. Ambient and drone music aired as attendees explored market stalls at the magical Wanderlust Wellness Hub, sipped tonic elixirs created by celebrity chef Sarah Todd from a pop-up bar, and unrolled their yoga mats. It's an influencers fantasy world. 

It is easy to be cynical about the wellness movement – and curated living. At points roaming Wanderlust felt like being at Gwyneth Paltrow's infamous 2017 Goop summit or acting as an extra in the upcoming The White Lotus series, reportedly set in Thailand, with the prevalence of (co-opted) Eastern philosophies. But, in contrast to Goop, Wanderlust is accessible. In many ways, Wanderlust events are today about branding, which inevitably contradicts any anti-capitalist messaging. Indeed, the Western wellness 'space' has long been criticised for its appropriation, commodification and whitewashing of South Asian cultural traditions. Some, in particularly diasporic circles, talk of decolonisation.

It's also tricky to reconcile the Wanderlust emphasis on community with the hyper-individualism inherent in wellness chronicles about aspiration, 'self-care' and the notion of an internal compass. Yet, again, Wanderlust was inclusive, with First Nations guests Jarmbi – a Northern Rivers custodian, teacher and healer – and Emily Wurramara. (There was also a panel with Jane Vadiveloo from Children's Ground.) Certainly, Wanderlust couldn't be more different to the rave Rainbow Serpent with its often unquestioning (psy-trance) counterculture. In fact, Wanderlust presented a quality and thoughtful afternoon program with live performers and wellness practitioners – the overall themes inspiration, empowerment and change. Welcoming and surprisingly intimate, it attracted a cross-generational demographic, including young families. Hosting Wanderlust was Sarah Wilson, the Sydney-based author of 2012's bestseller I Quit Sugar. Proclaiming herself a "renegade", Wilson was engaging in her own right, facetiously referencing her past as a columnist for the Herald Sun, a progressive providing 'balance'; to the conservative Andrew Bolt, as she related her journey from journalist to health coach (and climate activist). Wilson mentioned how, when initially writing about the gut/brain connection, she was mocked – but it's now mainstream science. (I am hardened to trolling) At one stage, she quoted Marianne Williamson, the eccentric author-turned-US Presidential candidate. 

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The first music star was Wurramara. The Warnindhilyagwa singer/songwriter debuted with 2018's Milyakburra, receiving an ARIA nomination for Best Blues And Roots Album. She recently toured with Jack Johnson and, Wilson informed us in her preface, has a follow-up album arriving in 2023. Wurramara, in floaty orange attire, performed five songs on mostly acoustic guitar, launching with the tuneful Carry Me Home from Milyakburra. As absorbing were her stories, the softly-spoken artist offered insight into her lyrics – many in language. Wurramara sang Ngarrikwujeyinama (aka The Seabed Mining Song) a cappella, sharing how she penned it when her ancestral island home of Groote Eylandt was threatened with mining expansion. 

Later in the afternoon, Gary Gorrow guided a Vedic transcendental meditation, with Jarmbi generating sound vibrations by way of yidaki (didgeridoo) and bilma. Wanderlust True North climaxed with Franti's Yoga Jam – the American playing groovy instrumentals on acoustic guitar alongside two other musicians as Vinyasa instructor Simone Callahan led a flow class; those asanas definitely orientated towards the familiar. Franti broke out as an MC in the early 90s with his group The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy – the hard-hitting track Television The Drug Of The Nation evoking Gil Scott-Heron but rivalling Public Enemy's incisive political rap. He subsequently started Spearhead, veering into blues, funk and reggae- fusion – and embraced humanitarian causes. These days Franti is a folkie; his compositions brimming with positivity and not far from Jack Johnson's surf rock. In recent years Franti, a longtime yogi, has also developed an interest in 'conscious living', down to a barefoot lifestyle. He's holistically united music and yoga with his touring Soulshine concept and, relocating to Bali, opened a retreat, Soulshine Bali (described online as Bali's first resort rooted in barefoot luxury, the joy of wellness and rock & roll) in 2011. Franti was booked for that formative US Wanderlust. A regular visitor to Australia, he's back for the first time in five years. In addition to taking his Yoga Jam around the country, the busy Franti is returning to Bluesfest and co-headlining sideshows with Trombone Shorty

During an interlude in the yoga sesh, Franti performed a rousing rendition of The Sound Of Sunshine, his 2010 hit with Spearhead. And, closing, he played more acoustic numbers – among them, 2008's Say Hey (I Love You) from his Sly & Robbie- helmed album All Rebel Rockers. Franti spoke candidly about the emotional realities of life as a travelling musician during the COVID-19 pandemic. Effectively "unemployed" (though staging virtual shows), he endured depression – compounded by the heartbreaking loss of his father to the virus. Franti then introduced an upbeat new number he wrote about that time with the lyrics, "Should I die, I know love was here tonight." Finally, he had the crowd participate in a do-si-do. 

Conceptually, Wanderlust True North is closer to a convention than a festival, but it might be extended into a larger outdoor arena – becoming a boho Laneway. Still, in its current incarnation, Wanderlust is a worthwhile experience, even for the wellness sceptic.