Bluesfest at Byron Bay – Still the best five days of the year
Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, Byron Bay NSW Australia
28 March to 1 April 2013
Each year Peter Noble, the 60-something co-founder and supremo of the 23-year-old event, promises the ‘best Bluesfest ever’. I’m never sure who’s talking – the hard headed promoter or the besotted fan. He’s both, which goes some way to explaining Bluesfest’s success.
The thing is, the Bluesfest brand is so strong there seems no need for Noble to compete with himself. Bluesfest is always good. It’s Australia’s best music festival, has been for years. There is nowhere else on the planet I’d choose spend Easter.
By international standards, it’s a compact and relatively comfortable event, hosting about 20,000 fans daily, with artists rostered across five stages, all under cover. The biggest stages are the cavernous Mojo and Crossroads tents, where punters are packed shoulder to shoulder for the big names. (Those cramming for a spot to see Robert Plant or Paul Simon this year might scoff at ‘comfortable’, but Byron has nothing like the numbers of ACL or New Orleans or Hardly Strictly.)
The sub-tropical weather is warm to hot, and the festival setting is in one of most picturesque parts of Australia’s east coast. Artists keep telling us they love the location and the vibe.
Best ever festival? That’s so subjective. One person’s living legend is another’s tired old has-been.
On paper, the top of this year’s bill continued the trend to veterans (a quest for the grey dollar?). I thought it a mixed bag – Paul Simon, Robert Plant, Ben Harper, Santana, Iggy and the Stooges, the Steve Miller Band, Counting Crows and Wilco.
But, as always, there was a seriously deep well of talent. Acts I had penciled in as ‘must sees’, including Glen Hansard, Ruthie Foster and JD McPherson, were listed way down the bill.
There is so much talent, in so many genres, that you can create your own festival within the festival. Some fans avoid the main stages and opt for a relaxed time with the folkies, up-and-comers and local heroes.
So how did 2013 shape up for me?
Not the best Bluesfest, but on the back of a brilliant final day, it was right up there. I went home with a buzz that hasn’t quite faded.
Here’s my Top Ten.
1. Paul Simon, Mojo Stage, Monday
I didn’t expect Paul Simon to top my list, but his emotion-charged set, following the passing of his friend Phil Ramone by less than two days, was as memorable as anything I’ve seen at Bluesfest.
(Ramone was engineer on Simon’s solo debut back in 1972, produced a number of other Simon albums, and co-produced 2011’s So Beautiful or So What.)
In ninety minutes, Simon perfectly distilled his career with the aid of a dazzling band and a willing audience.
There was a palpable sense of anticipation before Simon’s show. The place was packed; the atmosphere celebratory. Baby boomers dominated, but there were many younger people. All were primed for a good time. I was right at the front, stage left, chatting with an older woman who looked like a kid at Christmas. “I just want to hear him sing ‘The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar,” she said. “It’s the best line in any song ever.” She got her wish.
The songs from Graceland (a third of the set) came with all the bells and whistles. “Sounds of Silence” was just Simon and his acoustic guitar.
Most of the arrangements didn’t stray far from the originals, and those that did worked well, including a jazzier take on “Still Crazy After All These Years”. The applause after each song ranged from deafening to off-the-scale.
Musically, “You Can Call Me Al”, “Diamonds” and the other songs from Gracelands provided the strongest moments. Emotionally, “Sounds of Silence” and “The Boxer” topped them. There simply wasn’t a wasted moment in the show.
Simon’s voice is not strong, and he strained to reach notes at times, but it didn’t really matter. He still sounds like Paul Simon, and on each chorus, and many of the verses, he had a choir of thousands to support him.
My brother, who was elsewhere in the tent, later remarked that “grown men were bawling their eyes out”, and hinted he was one of them.
2. Bonnie Raitt, Mojo Stage, Monday
I’ve loved Bonnie Raitt since forever. By the time she released seven albums, I had bought eleven of them. (An old girlfriend kept the first four and I had to replace them.) This was Bonnie Raitt at her best.
By the time she hit the stage she’d already done cameo spots with her long-time friend Mavis Staples (which I missed, dammit) and the Zac Brown Band. She came to play, and the huge closing night crowd came to listen.
Three members of her excellent band have been with her for years – bass player Hutch Hutchinson for 30, drummer Ricky Fataar and guitarist George Marinelli for 20. Mike Finnigan is the new “kid” on the block, joining the band in mid-2012, although he and Bonnie have been friends for decades.
Bonnie played some blistering slide guitar – as good as I’ve seen her – but it was on the ballads she really shone.
She must have sung “Angel From Montgomery” literally thousands of times, but it never gets old. The applause for that song was loud and long, to the point where Bonnie appeared appeared overwhelmed. It was a stadium-sized audience, and they were on her side. It lifted her.
“I Can’t Make You Love Me”, with gorgeous piano by Mike Finnigan, was even better.
The songs from her most recent (Grammy winning) album Slipstream, including ‘Take My Love With You’ and Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Right Down The Line’, slotted seamlessly into the set list. Bonus points for that.
3. The Tedeschi Trucks Band, Crossroads Stage, Thursday
My favourite band. Had I not seen them a number of times – most recently last September at New York’s Beacon Theatre – the Tedeschi Trucks Band may have topped my list. They owned the 2011 Bluesfest, even without the horn section.
This time it was the full band, albeit without their extraordinary bassist Oteil Burbridge, who has quit the road.
Husband and wife Derek and Susan are inspirational. She has one of the best voices in roots music, sounding like a younger Bonnie Raitt, crossed with a Southern blues and gospel shouter.
Derek Trucks is simply my favourite slide guitarist, one of the best guitarists, period. He gets the sweetest sound from his Gibson SG, using a glass slide. His solos are invariably miniature masterpieces, moving from a whisper to a scream in untraceable increments.
They began the set with the exquisite “Midnight In Harlem’, first released on the 2010 Crossroads Festival DVD, and subsequently on both their live and studio albums. Written by band member Mike Mattison, it was an instant classic.
Most of the set was drawn from their two albums, although they did play a couple of covers debuted on their US summer tour – George Harrison’s ‘Isn’t It A Pity’, and the blues standard ‘Key to the Highway’, on which Susan played some sizzling guitar. (Their Friday show included Sly Stone’s ‘Sing A Simple Song’ as well as a new original.)
Mattison, who was the featured vocalist in the Derek Trucks Band before TTB was formed, took over lead vocals on ‘Get What You Deserve’ (from the Derek Trucks Band’s ‘Already Free’ album.) When you can keep a singer like Mattison on the bench, that’s a strong team.
4. Wilco, Mojo Stage, Saturday and Crossroads Stage, Monday
I had never seen Wilco live and they were even better than I anticipated. The Neil Young influence in their music is obvious, but live it was even more apparent. With just 75 minutes to play, there was less room for light and shade, and the first half hour was pure sonic assault. From memory they went straight from the dissonance of ‘Art of Almost’ into the sublime ‘Impossible Germany’. Tension and release, as good as it gets.
About a third of the set was from The Whole Love, the remainder spread over their back catalog. Jeff Tweedy was in great voice, guitarist Nels Cline a revelation – I didn’t realise how damn good he is. Glenn Kotche is just the perfect drummer for this band. Sometimes it’s a subtle timekeeper’s role (more than a little like Charlie Watts), and sometimes it’s rhythmically complex, depending on the song.
I only saw the first forty minutes or so of the Sunday set, when they were ‘last band standing’ – by then I’d been on my feet for about five hours straight. By all accounts it was a very different show to Saturday’s, and even better, but I’d run out of steam. The last song I heard was a reprise of ‘Impossible Germany’, and it was a satisfying way to end my festival. All up I’d seen about two hours of Wilco, not nearly enough.
5. Zac Brown Band, Mojo Stage, Monday
In 1976 I was living in a remote part of my home state of New South Wales, and did a lot of driving in my job. There was no good music on local radio, and I relied on a handful of cassettes. One of them was The Marshall Tucker Band’s Long Hard Ride.
The Zac Brown Band immediately put me in mind of Marshall Tucker and the Charlie Daniels Band, with their blend country music and Allmans-style Southern rock.
Among the best moments of this show for me were when Berklee-schooled guitarist Clay Cook was let loose. So it turns out Cook is the nephew of Doug Gray, the Marshall Tucker Band’s lead singer. I get a thrill from that sense of continuity and tradition. (I was listening to Clay’s uncle before Clay was born, and Derek Trucks’ uncle – Butch Trucks of the Allman Brothers – before Derek was born. Who’da thought?)
I was a little surprised at how familiar much of the audience was with the original material, particularly from the most recent Uncaged album, for which they won the 2013 Grammy for Best Country Album. They didn’t have to win the audience over – they were with the band from the get go.
Bonnie Raitt joined them for ‘I Shall Be Released’, to everyone’s delight, before they launched into Charlie Daniel’s ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’, and their country hit ‘Chicken Fried’. Real good fun.
6. Glen Hansard and the Frames, Mojo Stage, Friday
I had to work backwards from The Swell Season to discover the music of the The Frames, but I’ve become quite a fan of Hansard’s music in all its incarnations. (I would normally run a mile from musical theatre, but my wife and I even saw the Broadway version of ‘Once’ last year. Brilliant.)
For some reason, their only Bluesfest slot was early on Friday, from 3.30pm for just an hour. Although it was the full band, plus a horn section, it was very much Glen Hansard’s show, and he gave 110%, ending the show looking spent, and with three broken guitar strings.
On this Australian tour they had been playing three hour shows, and getting rave reviews. It was as if Hansard was trying to expend three hours’ energy in one.
Highlights included ‘Fitzcarraldo’, a frenetic version of Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’ and, of course, ‘Falling Slowly’, the encore, done as a duet with the audience.
Hansard’s previous Bluesfest appearance, with The Swell Season, was enjoyable, but low key. With The Frames he has a much wider musical palette, and a real headliner’s songbook. It’s a shame they didn’t have an evening timeslot.
7. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Mojo Stage, Thursday
Hands down, the surprise hit of the festival. Enough blues and roots for the purists, enough straight-ahead rock flair for more casual music fans.
Potter looks great, has an excellent voice and plays really well. What set her and this band apart is the energy and stagecraft of the performance. They were the proverbial breath of fresh air.
The core of the band (Potter, drummer Matt Burr and guitarist Scott Tournet) has been together since Potter – who turns 30 in June – was in her late teens. This feels like a band that is hitting a peak. They are seasoned players, but still have the fire in their belly.
They were the first band on the main stage on opening night, at 4pm, and played Saturday at 3.30pm. Peter Noble has, apparently, already booked them for next year. You can be sure they will be moved up the playing schedule.
8. Roger Hodgson, Crossroads Stage, Sunday
A Supertramp singalong par excellence.
It was pure nostalgia, perhaps, but thoroughly enjoyable. As with Paul Simon and Bonnie Raitt, a very enthusiastic audience did much to enhance the show.
Supertramp had two singer song-writers in Hodgson and Rick Davies, but it was Hodgson who wrote and sang the maj0rity of their most memorable songs – ‘Give a Little Bit’, ‘Dreamer’, ‘It’s Raining Again’ and ‘Take the Long Way Home’. The only glaring Supertramp omission, to this casual fan, was ‘Bloody Well Right’ – which was written and sung by Davies.
Davies tours with his own version of Supertramp, and die-hard fans must despair that the pair haven’t set aside their differences. I’m far from a rusted-on fan and I approached this show with an open mind. It reminded me of Graham Gouldman’s (Godley and Cremeless) version of 10cc a few years back – great musicians playing note perfect renditions of some great pop.
At 63, Hodgson’s voice hasn’t diminished at all.
He seemed truly humbled by the intense audience reaction. “At times like this,” he said, “I feel like the luckiest man in the world.” You could tell he meant it.
9. Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, Mojo Stage, Thursday
It’s likely Shorty will be back for a fourth consecutive Bluesfest in 2014 – a rare honor. Once again, had I not seem this band on their two previous visits (and if it hadn’t been essentially the same show) they would have been higher up my list. New Orleans jazz meets New York rock guitar. It’s a trip.
10. Jake Shimabukuro, Cavanbah Stage, Thursday and APRA Stage, Friday
I didn’t spend much time at the smaller stages, but I made an exception on for ukulele whiz, Jake Shimabukuro. Solo ukulele? It’s bordering on a novelty act, but saved from that by his virtuosity. I saw Shimabukuro at another festival several years ago, and jumped at the chance to reacquaint myself with him. (Look for his version of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, the clip that made his career, on YouTube. 11.6 million views and counting.)
I was on a quest to see Robert Plant. Truth is, this latest ‘world music’ project didn’t do much for me. (It’s a real shame that Noble was unable to lure Band of Joy to Bluesfest last year. He tried.) Partly because it was super-crowded, I didn’t stay long but – and it’s a big but, I cannot lie – I HAVE NOW SEEN PAGE AND PLANT. I missed Led Zeppelin’s one and only Sydney Show, in 1972, but I’d seen Jimmy Page with The Yardbirds in January 1967, when I was 13. So I’ve now seen Page and Plant, just 46 years apart.)
Although I was only 16 when the Stooges made their first album, I was never a big fan. I basically missed the punk gene (don’t judge me) but I was curious to see Iggy Pop. I managed to catch ‘Raw Power’ from close range, and it was electrifying. But one song was enough. Close up, Iggy is an old bag of bones, but he still plays bare chested, wearing tight jeans. Gotta love him for that.
I was fortunate to see Santana a couple of times in the early 70s, with most of the guys who played at Woodstock and on the seminal early albums. Carlos Santana has the most instantly recognizable sound, and has written some of the sweetest instrumentals ever recorded, “Europa” and “Samba Pa Ti” among them. His version of Peter Green’s “Black Magic Woman” is hall-of-fame material. And there’s a pretty good argument that he helped kick-start John lee Hooker’s late career resurgence, with his remarkable contribution on “The Healer” in 1989. I’m a fan. But in this 2013 incarnation I thought the bass and drums way too loud, and the effect was overblown guitar hero stadium rock, like a Santana album given the Mutt Lange treatment. I left after fifteen minutes or so.
Ruthie Foster and Mavis Staples are missing from my top ten only because I saw just part of a set by each of them. Ruthie is a treasure, and a perennial crowd favourite. I only saw about 20 minutes of Mavis this time (she clashed with the Zac Brown Band) but she – along with her superb backing singers and guitarist Rick Holmstrom – is a class act. (They sang ‘The Weight’, after which Mavis called ‘Levon Helm!’ to loud applause. ‘Levon Helm!’ she repeated, to greater applause. ‘Levon Helm!’, once again, to a roar from the crowd. It brought a tear to my eye then, and another just now.)
Chris Isaak played on the first night. Perfect – I’d been trying to catch his show for years. (I once gave away tickets in a foolish/generous gesture. Another time I got a text half an hour before showtime saying it was cancelled due to illness.) So Isaak came on in an outrageous red suit with his long time partners in crime, Kenny Dale Johnson (drums), Rowland Sally (bass) and Hershel Yatovitz (guitar). There were what you expect – polished, upbeat and thoroughly entertaining. But a few songs into the set I realized I hadn’t stopped for lunch. It was now 10.45pm. So I went to the vast food hall and got a meat pie. From there I could hear Fred Wesley and the New JBs, and that’s where I ended up. Pass the Peas to go with that pie. (As I type, I’m listening to Isaak’s Sun Records tribute album Beyond the Sun, which made up much of the set. Maybe I should have eaten earlier.)
A Grammy nomination and the cheerful singalong ‘Ho Hey’ notwithstanding, The Lumineers were a disappointment. I tried hard to like them, but I thought their music limited and insubstantial. (In their defense, The Lumineers don’t pretend to be the band I wanted them to be. Jeremiah Fraites: “We’re not reinventing the wheel or doing anything that different, the songs are super simple. The ideas themselves are very simple ideas. Anyone who can play an instrument can play a Lumineers song.”)
I also wanted to like Rodriguez, who was backed by The Break, a band made up of Midnight Oil and The Violent Femmes alumni. As in 2007, I felt I was watching an ailing performer, and left after a few songs. (It’s in the eye and ear of the beholder. Several reviews of this Rodriguez tour have been very positive.)
I only managed to see JD McPherson play one song, which happened to be his best (‘Wolf Teeth’). Couldn’t get it out of my head, and I can’t wait to see him again.
Another to watch is Melbourne soul outfit Saskwatch. Again, I only saw part of their show, but enough to realise that singer Nkeche Anele (of Nigerian and Irish-Australian descent, pictured left) is a star in the making.
Next year will be Bluesfest #25. I suspect it will billed as the best ever, and probably will be. It’s too late to stop now.