Bluesfest – A preview of Australia’s best
Blind Boys of Alabama, 2006
I woke up this mornin’, people … and realised Bluesfest is less than a week away.
Dunno about death and taxes – the certainty in my life is that the five days of the Byron Bay Bluesfest will be the best five days of the year, rain or shine.
No matter how you slice it, Bluesfest is Australia’s premier music festival. Now in its 21st year, the erstwhile blues festival has long been re-branded as ‘blues and roots’ but that doesn’t tell the whole story. It takes in world music, some mainstream rock and pop, and jazz in a good year. It also includes a good spread of veterans and newcomers – novelty and nostalgia in equal doses.
The festival celebrates its coming of age by moving to a new home on a farm at Tyagarah, some 12 kilometres (7 .5 miles) from Byron Bay. While the new, privately-owned venue ends some logistical headaches for the promoters, it remains to be seen what the punters think. The festival is no longer walking distance from Byron and its gorgeous beaches, which will disappoint many. The real challenges, however, are getting people in and out via a busy highway and (especially for the thousands of on-site campers) how the venue holds up in wet weather.
Fine weather is always a bonus at Australia’s most easterly point, and memories of last year’s mudfest remain fresh in mind. But if rain is the norm, so is warmth. Sitting on the 28th parallel south, Byron is about the same distance from the equator as central Florida. Most years, the rain arrives as brief tropical storms, followed by blue skies. If you get wet, you dry out pretty quick. (The stages, it should be mentioned, are all under cover.)
I’ve been a regular since at Bluesfest 1998, when a virtual unknown called Ben Harper made a name for himself Down Under. My only regret from that first trip is that it revealed what I’d been missing in previous years, and since then it’s been an annual pilgrimage.
Highlights? Many and varied, from superstar headliners to laid back afternoon shows. A few that come to mind – Buddy Guy’s stunning return to form in 2006, the triumphant full-house shows by the Blind Boys of Alabama the same year, Pharaoh Sanders’ powerhouse jazz quartet in 2004 (still the festival’s most inspired booking), Robert Randolph totally rocking the house in 2003, Iris deMent playing to a small but spellbound afternoon audience, ditto Terry Callier, Tuck & Patti …
The absolute stinkers have been few and far between. ZZ Top, anyone?
A hallmark of Bluesfest is the friendly vibe. It’s A communal atmosphere; diverse, welcoming. At some recent music events in Australia (a small number, thankfully) there have been hints of ugly nationalism (for which, read racism). Not here. African and Asian acts, for example, are always greeted warmly. Indigenous Australia is conspicuously celebrated.
(And despite the long lines at the booze stands, I’ve never witnessed a fight or any serious aggravation in the years I’ve been going.)
The lineup this year is stunning. If not quite up to 2008’s highpoint in terms of headliners, it’s one of the more wide-ranging and musically adventurous rosters ever assembled for an Australian festival.
If one were to make a criticism, it would be the emphasis on veterans, particularly amongst the Brits. John Mayall, Peter Green, Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson, Jeff Beck, 10cc , Brian Auger- all had their heyday more than 30 years ago. Will this worry the hordes of baby boomers who make the annual trek? Not likely. And, in any case, there are six stages. If you don’t want to watch the old guys, you’re still spoilt for choice.
In fact, it’s helpful to think of the Bluesfest as several festivals in one, and it’s increasingly arranged that way. The main stage (Mojo) accommodates acts most popular with the 20’s-30’s audience. The third stage (Jambalaya) concentrates on acts for the older audience (the ‘chair people’). Crossroads, the second stage, is somewhere in between. This is a generalisation, but there’s more than a grain of truth. Back at Red Devils Park, where the festival ran for many years, the tiny Juke Joint (in fact, the local football clubhouse) attracted some who lingered all weekend for their dose of boogie’n’blues and never went near the main stages.
I confess I’m one of the Boomer horde. I bought my first vinyl by Jeff Beck , John Mayall and the original Fleetwood Mac as a teenager in the 60’s, and I’ll be paying due homage. But I’ll be stage-hopping like crazy. “Must sees” include Bela Fleck’s African Project (with the wonderful Malian singer, Oumou Sangare), the ageless Jeff Beck (“Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” is on my bucket list), The Swell Season, Crowded House, Gogol Bordello, Umphrey’s McGee and The Dynamites.
The country/Americana lineup alone is worth the price of admission – Lyle Lovett, The Flatlanders, The Greencards, Justin Townes Earle, Old Crow Medicine Show and Australia’s Wilson Pickers. Does Patty Larkin fit in that category? Either way, I’ll be catching her show.
Did I mention Taj Mahal, Dr John, Ozomatli, Jon Cleary, Blue King Brown, Chris Smither … all have played Bluesfest before, and they seem like old friends.
Next Wednesday, 6am, I’ll be in the car and headed north. I can’t wait.
Buddy Guy, 2006
Sonny Landreth in 2009