Australia’s Premier Blues and Roots Music Festival
We began the year at the Celtic Connections in Scotland, then traveled to the Carrribean for the Cayamo Cruise. Last week, we hit SXSW in Austin, Texas, and now we head to another hotbed of Americana and roots music: Australia.
It’s festival season Down Under, with some of Australia’s best music events, including Womadelaide, Port Fairy Music Festival, and the National Folk Festival, having taken place over the past three weeks. For my money, Bluesfest is the best of the bunch. Held over Easter week on lush farmland outside the picturesque tourist mecca of Byron Bay, Bluesfest is now in its 27th year. The erstwhile blues festival is, these days, billed as presenting “blues and roots,” but the lineup is truly diverse. Acts this year ranged from veteran Brian Wilson — performing the complete Pet Sounds — to rap’s man of the moment, Kendrick Lamar.
Longtime ND photographer and contributor Steve Ford was there and filed this selection of his thoughts and stunning images for Through the Lens:
This was my 17th Bluesfest, and the best ever. I missed Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo, Mick Fleetwood’s Blues Band, Nathaniel Rateliff, and a whole lot of other worthy acts, but what I saw was just amazing. It’s hard to imagine five better days of music. These pictures – presented in chronological order – are just a sample of what was on offer.
Tweedy the band, including Jeff’s son Spencer on drums, is a low-key affair compared to Wilco, but it attracted a passionate audience to both its festival shows. A solo selection of Wilco tunes was a highlight.
Bluesfest has flirted with jazz in the past, most famously with Pharoah Sanders, who played a blazing set many years ago. I suspect Kamasi Washington was booked through his connection with Kendrick Lamar, but whatever the reason, it was bold choice. Washington and his band of L.A. buddies played two uncompromising sets of contemporary jazz, and provided one of the highlights of the festival. This shot of Washington was taken during the sound check. He is a big man with a leader’s bearing, and I thought this picture captured a little of that.
This is the third time at Bluesfest for the Tedeschi Trucks Band. With three studio albums behind them, TTB now has an extensive repertoire to choose from. This picture of Trucks is from their opening night show – a full two-hour set that ended at midnight. I like this picture. I think it captures a little of the Zen-like calm he exudes, even when he’s playing up a storm.
Willie Nelson’s son Lukas played multiple shows during the festival and won over a whole bunch of new fans. This picture is from his second show on the Jambalaya Stage, playing Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”
One of Australia’s most respected Indigenous musicians, Archie Roach was a member of the Stolen Generation – Indigenous children forcibly removed from their families to live in state care. In 1990, he released the album Charcoal Lane, produced by Paul Kelly, which included the classic song “Took the Children Away” – a remarkably optimistic song reflecting Roach’s own troubled youth and eventual redemption. Roach has been touring to mark the 25th anniversary of the album.
There can be few more likeable people in the music business than Graham Nash, who played a career-spanning set. He started with songs by the Hollies, through to his CSN/Y songs and solo work. This picture was taken during “Bus Stop” recorded with the Hollies some 50 years ago.
Robert Randolph and Charlie Starr
Festival-goers look forward to artists dropping in on each other’s shows. This picture shows Charlie Starr of Alabama’s Blackberry Smoke with Robert Randolph of The Word. The Word includes Randolph, organ whiz John Medeski, and brothers Cody and Luther Dickinson.
A festival army marches on its stomach. Apart from the food stalls, this picture shows the giant tent that encloses the Crossroads stage. If you look closely, you’ll see Tweedy on the screen in the tent. The two main stages have big screens on both sides of the stage.
She only played two hour-long shows on the fourth stage, but Rhiannon Giddens was one of the standouts of the festival. Word must have got around. On the second night, the audience spilled ten-deep outside the tent. This picture was taken during the opening number on the second night: Giddens’ arrangement of Dylan’s “Spanish Mary,” from The New Basement Tapes.
I’ve long lost count of the times I’ve seen Steve Earle play, but he is always good value. This show, concentrating on his take on the blues – the Terraplane album – found him in good humour and good form.
Matt Berninger, The National
The National played an exclusive show on the third night of Bluesfest. By the time they hit the stage I, unfortunately, had hit the wall. I told my friend I would hang in until they played “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” I got this shot of Matt Berninger during the fourth song. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” was next. One of my few regrets from this year is not being able to see this show out.
Ty Taylor, Vintage Trouble
L.A.’s high octane Vintage Trouble were one of the surprise hits of the festival, along with St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Ty Taylor is a superb showman, throwing in constant jumps and spins, as well as crowd surfing from the mixing desk to the stage. In this shot, he comes up for air.
This shot is from the second, 90-minute TTB show. They now have so much material that it didn’t feel at all like a repeat. TTB were the MVPs of a great festival for me.
It was so good to see the ageless Jackson Browne for the first time in a decade. Still got it? You bet. “Take it Easy,” co-written by Browne with the late Glenn Frey, was a highlight. “I didn’t sing it for a long time,” he said. “People would be saying I did an Eagles cover. But I don’t care. This is my Eagles cover.”
Colin Meloy, The Decemberists
This was the Decemberists’ first trip to Australia in six years. They haven’t been forgotten. I was a little surprised by the size of the hardcore fan base. I wasn’t too familiar with their music, but I’m a fan now.
Blind Boy Paxton
Paxton made the Juke Joint stage his own. At just 27 years of age, Jerron Paxton (who is not blind) plays mainly pre-war African-American music, finding just the right touch. He plays with affection for the music, without rote imitation. I think Paxton will be on the Oz festival circuit for years to come.
Mythen is a person, not a band. Born in Ireland, she now lives on Prince Edward Island, one of the Canada’s maritime provinces. I only caught the last 20 minutes of her show, but it was superb. The picture is from her closing number, “The Auld Triangle,” sung a capella with astonishing power. It was, she reminded us, the 28th of March – the 100th anniversary of the Irish Rebellion.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones
This group from Birmingham, Alabama, were the standout festival rookies. In Paul Janeway, this soul band has a frontman who put in and got back big time from the generous and savvy Bluesfest audience.
I’ve never been a big fan of Joe Bonamassa – until now. I used to find him technically adept, but a bit soulless. This show changed my mind. It was a brilliantly paced tour de force. And, man, what a band. The Late Show’s Anton Fig was on drums, and Double Trouble’s Reese Wynans played keys.
What a thrill to be this close to one of the true greats of popular music. Brian Wilson drew a jam-packed audience to the giant Mojo tent to hear Pet Sounds played in its entirety.
It was a great day for Alabama at Bluesfest. What better way to finish five days of fabulous music than with No Depression’s favourite singer-songwriter?