Les Thomas reports on five days of perfect weather and fine music at the 25th Annual Byron Bay Bluesfest.
Photos by David Harris
In 1990, Byron Bay Bluesfest’s started as a fairly small weekend of music close to the town’s centre. Twenty five years on, it’s grown to be one of the most highly regarded music festivals in the world, now held outside of town at Tyagarah Tea Farm and drawing tens of thousands of music lovers every year. And this year, some who took part in the first event in 1990 — including Charlie Musselwhite, The Paladins and The Backsliders — were back to celebrate with the best party festival director Peter Nobel could put together.
Over the full five days, it would be easy to get carried away with such a huge line up, but one of the great things about the festival is the ease in finding something for just about every taste, regardless of age. If something isn’t working for you, it’s very easy to pick up and move to another stage or grab some tasty food, which is as diverse as the music.
Arriving on the Thursday, Dyson Stringer Cloher [that’s Mia Dyson, Liz Stringer and Jen Cloher in band mode] kicked things off in stunning fashion on the Jamabalaya Stage. With heartbreakingly poignant songs like Stringer’s ‘Love Ain’t No Healer’ and
Cloher’s ‘Hold My Hand’ and rocking tunes like Dyson’s ‘The Moment’, this was already a festival highlight showing off the phenomenal songwriting and performance skills of all three, with help from Danny McKenna playing his Kangaroo hide drum kit and Tim Keegan on bass.
Next up on the same stage was Steve Earle and the Dukes (Chris Masterson on guitar, Kelly Looney on bass, Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle, mandolin, backing vocals, keys and Will Rigby on drums) featuring songs from the current Low Road Album which paint a picture of present day America in much the same way that Woody Guthrie saw it during the 1930s. The early part of the set was a little hampered by a muddy sounding mix, but the band warmed up as the sound improved, playing a great batch of songs Earle wrote especially for Treme with a nod to the many New Orleans artists in attendance. Earle confirms the sad news that he and Alison Moorer are parting ways before performing his breakup song ‘I Thought You Should Know’ sans guitar. Of course, a good chunk of the crowd are hanging out for the full version of ‘Copperhead Road’ which is followed by ‘Taney Town’ and ‘Ben McCulloch’ to top things off beautifully.
Over at Crossroads, one of two main stages, Charlie Musselwhite exuded cool, trading harmonica solos with guitar licks in front of a great band. It’s very impressive to hear a band that can stay within traditional forms like the twelve bar blues but still make it riveting to listen to. Interestingly, when he first started out in the 1960s, Charlie Musselwhite had to be coaxed into playing with the blues men he spent time with. Before long, his beautiful tone found him a place playing alongside the greats such as John Lee Hooker. So many years later, he still sounds amazing and the massive, humble smile on his shows how much he loves performing live.
Soon after on the same stage Dr John started working his magic with his version of ‘Iko Iko’. Sarah Morrow, his music director on Trombone, was the life of the party steering the band and audience in energetic fashion throughout a brilliant set.
While John Mayer, the major drawcard to a good portion of the festival crowd, did his thing on the Mojo stage, Buddy Guy, delivered a searing fun-filled set with all of the humour and showmanship he’s legendary for. In the early 1960s, Buddy Guy would back the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf at Chess Records, but the label founder Leonard Chess had no time for his style, describing it as “noise”. But it worked out alright because Buddy went on to pretty much define the sound of modern rock guitar. He is a trueinnovator who helped inspire the likes of Hendrix, Clapton and Jimmy Ray Vaughn countless others. “My whole life has been a struggle,” he says at one point, with a wink and a nod “but I’m having the time of my life playing for you”. We already felt thoroughly spoilt and that was only the first night.
On day two, Trixie Whitely, daughter of the late great Chris Whitley, put in an especially powerful performance belting out massive songs and alternating between guitar and keyboard. On the Mojo stage Nahko & Medicine for the People were one of the more surprising overseas bands, bringing a strong message of environmental and Indigenous justice. Earlier on they had visited the nearby Bentley Blockade as a gesture of solidarity with locals taking a stand against fracking.
Later on, Eric Bibb charmed thousands in the Jambalaya tent with an ear-refreshing acoustic performance. As guitarists go, he keeps things relatively simple, but always close to the melody. The crowd shouted out a long list of requests and it’s a good thing he had more sets over the weekend to play them.
New Orleans legend Aaron Neville and band played their way through a brilliant set of songs like ‘Change is Gonna Come’ and ‘Bird on a Wire’ all interpreted in Neville’s soulful, inimitable style with his older brother Charles on saxophone providing spectacular highlights.
The Doobie Brothers and Jack Johnson capped off Friday night on the main stages, but Clairy Brown and th’ Bangin Raquettes stole our hearts with grooving tunes, close harmonies, costumes including capes and fully choreographed moves.
As great as it is to see visiting artists like, the quality of homegrown acts was very reassuring with excellent sets from Saskwatch, Daniel Champagne, Kim Churchill among the newer folks. And no one has played Bluesfest more often than the wonderful Hat Fitz, who scratched up his twenty-third year this time with partner Cara Robinson on vocals, fife and drums. The pair first met at the Castlebar Blues Festival in Ireland where Cara was performing. Their 2013 album ‘Wiley Ways’, which is an absolute cracker by the way, set out their sound, which they’ve developed further on another Jeff Lang produced album expected for release near the end of September. Between Hat’s slide guitar and low gruff delivery and Cara’s awe-inspiring voice, the sounds are magnificent and the humour delightfully wicked.
C.W. Stoneking has been fairly quiet for a few years since his Jungle Blues album, but going by his Bluesfest sets, the inspiration has clearly returned and we’ll be hearing a lot more by way of a new album. Stoneking’s‘Brave Son of America’ is a highlight: a song that sounds like it could have been Louise Armstrong’s musical contribution to the WWII effort praising General Macarthur’s heroism in the Pacific. I doubt anyone could have seen that coming.
Playing for her first time in Australia, Valerie June put in three solo sets. Unfortunately the set I caught in the Juke Joint was mixed badly with far too much treble on the vocals. Hopefully the other sets were more forgiving, because she deserves a decent go. Jake Bugg and Foy Vance both put in superb performances to sizable crowds, but it was unfortunate to see Suzanne Vega allocated to the tiny Cavanbagh Stage.
Everything was sounding good back at Jambalaya for Kasey Chambers, who by now has played ten Bluesfests. With her father Bill on guitar and longtime friends playing along, the set felt like a family get together with guest appearances from Harry Hookey (playing Justin Townes Earle’s ‘They Killed John Henry’) and Bernard Fanning (singing a duet recently written with Chambers).
The party atmosphere continued on Monday with Round Mountain Girls absolutely killing it on the Delta stage. As locals, they were familiar to many in the audience who had the good sense to front up early.
Possibly the tightest band set of the entire festival went to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Perhaps because a lot of bands on the bill tended toward extended solos and jams, it was thrilling to see a band that knew exactly what it was going to do and when to serve Isbell’s songs perfectly.
“How ridiculously lucky are we to be here?” asks one punter towards the end of the night. Too true. What other festival is going to deliver Booker T playing ‘Green Onions’ and Greg Allman playing ‘Whipping Post’? You have to pinch yourself at moments like that to make sure it’s really happening.
Director Peter Noble and his thousands of helpers and volunteers have created something unique and enduring that’s up there with the best of them in a part of the world to die for. At a time when so many festivals are struggling or dropping off the map, it’s most heartening to know that Bluesfest is getting it right in a so many ways.
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