“It’s been a wild ride,” Woody McDonald says, chuckling grimly. Since 2020, the music curator (RRR, Meredith, Golden Plains) has put together three full line-ups for the ambitious arts festival – and so far, only one performance has actually gone ahead.

Now, after two years in and out of lockdown, Melbourne audiences are hungry for new experiences. For someone in McDonald’s position, the upside is clear: “We’re two years without any real touring acts,” he says, “so everything’s fresh again.” He’s responded to the demand with a cathartic mix of pioneering international acts, immersive dance parties and one-off improvisational events at Max Watts and the Forum.

Seattle-based Afrofuturists Shabazz Palaces, Japanese noise-rock giants Boris and Ghanaian-American pop experimentalist Moses Sumney are among the main draws. Grimy Scottish art-rockers Arab Strap are returning for the first time in more than 20 years, armed with last year’s formidable comeback album, As Days Get Dark.

Among the internationals are some more familiar faces, too. But as McDonald points out, most of the local headliners have also been absent lately. “[Indie-pop trio] Goon Sax are from Brisbane but relocated to the UK; [rapper] Tkay [Maidza] has been living in America for a few years but grew up in Adelaide.”

Zambian rapper – and former Melburnian – Sampa The Great makes an anticipated return, opening the festival with her new project, An Afro Future. In 2020 the pandemic precipitated an early homecoming for the artist, who had spent the best part of a decade building a reputation abroad. Back in Zambia, she surrounded herself with fresh collaborators (including sister Mwanjé, who will play a supporting slot at Rising). Her latest work exhibits a renewed ease, exploring family ties as well as musical touchstones from across southern Africa.

“I’m pretty excited about Sampa’s new band,” McDonald says. “It’s a new era for her, I feel.”

Above all, though, McDonald is excited for the debutantes.

“I think that’s something festivals, particularly arts festivals, need to do – present things that otherwise might not be on the circuit.”

England’s Baxter Dury (the relatively unsung progeny of rock star Ian Dury) is making his first trip out here at age 51, with six studio LPs under his belt. When he was invited to Rising, McDonald recounts, Dury wrote to his agent and said, “This is the most exciting thing you’ve asked me to do in years.”

Dirty Three drummer Jim White, this year’s artist in residence, brings a series of singular experiences to the festival. An absurdly prolific session and touring musician, White will stage no less than four major collaborations – each an intuitive, shifting connection best suited to a live setting.

“He has so many projects at the moment, I thought it’d be funny to have four duos with Jim,” McDonald says, giggling.

One of those four collaborations, Xylouris White, will see White team up with old friend George Xylouris, a Greek singer and player of the laouto (a stringed, lute-like instrument). Together they’ll support Arab Strap with a turbulent take on Cretan folk music.

White is also reprising his fortuitous 2021 opening night appearance with post-punk legend Ed Kuepper. And on June 9, gifted finger-style guitarist Marisa Anderson joins White from Ontario, recreating the roiling improvisational language they developed on 2020 album The Quickening. Finally, Bang Stop, a strenuous 45-minute rendition of the caustic “new beat” White devised with guitarist Emmett Kelly (the Cairo Gang, Ty Segall), is sure to be one of the festival’s strangest, most hypnotic shows. Local dancer Jo Lloyd and her troupe will help spark the new dance craze, shaking the famous Bo Diddley beat right off its orbit.

The sublime all-day closing party, presented by local veteran promoter Animals Dancing, pairs Melbourne club stalwarts with legends of the Japanese underground. DJ Nobu’s raw, abstract techno combines with selector Kenji Takimi’s boundary-erasing interrogation of Japanese electronica, winding up Rising’s eclectic Japan in Focus showcase.

“Kenji and Nobu are two of the greatest DJs I’ve seen,” McDonald says. “That’ll be essential attendance for anyone who likes that kind of experience.”