Bluesfest – whatever you want it to be
Bluesfest, Byron Bay, NSW Australia
5th-9th April 2012
On paper, the top of this year’s Bluesfest bill looked tired by its own remarkable standards, all baby boomer and Gen X acts – Earth Wind and Fire, Crosby Stills and Nash, John Fogerty, Yes, Donovan, The Pogues, The Specials and Aussie rock veterans, Cold Chisel. Of the big names in big letters, My Morning Jacket and John Butler stood out as artists of the new millennium, and Butler is a Bluesfest regular. That left the festival looking skinny in terms of the new and now.
Further down the bill, however, it was a who’s who. There was more depth to the bill than I can remember, with artists the calibre of Steve Earle and guitar heroes G3 doing early afternoon shows, and some very fine players unable to get room on the main stages. It was this depth that got me excited about this Bluesfest. John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Justin, Eilen Jewell? I’m there.
It was a very good festival indeed, with top talent right across each day, and the considerable bonus of perfect weather – a constant 75°F, not a drop of rain. It wasn’t my best Bluesfest – nothing reached the sublime heights of last year’s sets by the Tedeschi Trucks Band and Elvis Costello, nor Lyle Lovett and Jeff Beck the previous year – but it was mighty good fun.
There were plenty of new faces and, by and large, the 70’s and 80’s acts were very well received. John Fogerty was superb. CS&N were very good. Yes, without Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman – well, I couldn’t buy it, but I saw them at their peak, in the 70s.
Thursday – one of the best opening nights
Thursday night at Bluesfest is a treat. There’s that frisson of a big event, but it’s less crowded than at the weekend. And this year’s opening night included a dream lineup – on various stages there were Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, the David Bromberg Quartet, Eilen Jewell, Nick Lowe, My Morning Jacket, John Hiatt and Lucinda Williams.
Trombone Shorty, returning after last year’s triumphant debut, is musician and showman in equal measure, and he’ll be a favourite as long as he keeps coming back. I love his group’s dynamic, with Pete Murano’s rock guitar wedged against the jazz funk of his band mates.
Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue
David Bromberg was his laid-back self, plying that blend of wry humour and low key blues via his silky Telecaster. Young fiddler Nate Grower made an impression.
Her show on the Jambalaya stage was Eilen Jewell’s Bluesfest debut, and she played a superb set, based around her latest CD, Queen of the Minor Key. There are few groups I’d rather see right now than this one, with Jerry Miller playing his trademark twangy Gretsch, Johnny Sciascia on bass, and (Eilen’s husband) Jason Beek on drums. In some fairer world, Eilen Jewell would be superstar. I just can’t think of a better singer-songwriter in her broad genre at present. And she connects immediatelywith an audience, selling her songs with a lot of soul, a little theatre, no histrionics.
Eilen Jewell and Johnny Sciascia
I’d never seen Nick Lowe solo, and caught the second half of his set after Eilen. He did the show I wanted and expected, soft-selling old and new songs with his pipe-and-slippers voice, and acting his age in the best possible way.
Next I faced one of those inevitable festival dilemmas – John Hiatt or My Morning Jacket? I’d been a fan of Hiatt since his breakthrough Bring the Family album in the late 80’s and seen him only once previously, playing support to Robert Cray some 20 years ago. John Hiatt it was. It wasn’t the full concert set (no piano) but what he played was brilliant. His Combo, including Doug Lancio on guitar, provided perfect support (“a Rolls Royce American band”, as my friend put it) on a way-too-short list of killer songs. (The new and now had to wait.)
John Hiatt – great songs, great voice, bad shirt
Lucinda Williams finished the night on the same stage, but she never got into top gear. Lucinda is one of my favourite artists, but she seems an awkward and reluctant performer, and was struggling with her voice on the night. No matter. I drove home satisfied that my trip to Bluesfest was already worth the time and effort. (I’m told Lucinda’s Saturday night show – scheduled at the same time as John Fogarty – was the one to see.)
Friday – stage hopping
I flitted from stage to stage on Friday, taking in most of Steve Earle’s early set, some of G3 (Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Steve Lukather), a little more of David Bromberg, and a couple of songs by Sublime , a reformed version of a 90’s LA band who had either escaped my attention or been erased from my memory. I was really biding time until Eilen Jewell’s next show, inexplicably relegated to the fourth stage. Again, she was brilliant. She strikes an immediate chord with an audience, though a combination of quirky girl-next-door personality and great song craft. It was Jewell’s 33rd birthday, and she fielded constant birthday wishes (and a few proposals of marriage) though her set.
Buddy Guy was next, and I watched the start of his show, but I’ve seen him many times, and bailed out early for a second helping of John Hiatt. Good choice. Hiatt and the band were in fine form in front of a very responsive audience. Doug Lancio’s extended solo on the encore, Riding with the King, was a high point of my day.
Doug Lancio – John Hiatt and the Combo
I stage-hopped for the rest of the evening. The Specials delighted a devoted audience of ska freaks, while Earth Wind and Fire and Crosby Stills and Nash divided the boomer audience on the main stages. I wasn’t hugely exited about either band, so I was happy to take in a little of each and make it an early night.
Saturday – Father and Son
Again I arrived early for a top line act, with Keb’ Mo’ and his band playing a satisfying 1pm set, followed by New Zealand born Sydney-sider Ray Beadle. There had been a buzz around Beadle last year, and I was determined not to miss him. He plays blues guitar with a sense of swing and no small amount of stage presence. His jazz sensibility sets him apart from more rock-oriented players. He’s one to watch.
The little I caught of Ireland’s James Vincent McMorrow (who had to battle bleed from a louder act on another stage) got me interested in exploring his music. McMorrow sings introspective songs in a high tenor, reminiscent of Antony Hegarty (Antony and the Johnsons).
I’d seen Justin Townes Earle in each of the two previous years and had a good idea of what to expect, or so I thought. He was stunningly good. Having extended accompaniment (guitar and bass) helped, but mostly it was an increased assurance in both his singing and his playing. Justin carries the names of two rolled gold legends. At one time I thought that may be a greater burden than he could handle. Not now.
Steve Earle followed, and was in excellent form, suffering a little in comparison by playing solo, although he gave the show variety by switching from guitar to mandolin and bouzouki.
It was interesting to see father and son play back to back. Justin has a long way to go to match his dad as a songwriter, but as a performer, he’s well and truly there.
Justin Townes Earle
Joanne Shaw Taylor hails from Birmingham, England; an unlikely origin, perhaps, for a hot blues guitarist. (She’s now based in Detroit.) She’s great to watch, constantly flicking her mane of blonde hair, all smiles one minute, grimacing in concentration the next. Discovered by the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart at 16, she already a stage veteran in her mid-20s. Last time she was here, Taylor played a Telecaster. This time she was using a Les Paul, lent by Gibson. Her playing style is muscular and aggressive, given to big solos. I liked the singing tone of the Les Paul, which may have softened her sound just a little.
Joanne Shaw Taylor
John Fogerty ended the night on the main Mojo stage, playing the whole of the Cosmo’s Factory album, plus a selection of Creedence Clearwater songs. The huge Mojo tent was full, but we stayed within earshot for all of Cosmo’s Factory – all killer, no filler – before calling it a night.
I made it out early for the first shows on the Jambalaya stage – local guy, Mason Rack, whose blues rock trio improves in leaps and bounds, more of Joanne Shaw Taylor, and the zydeco of festival first timer, Rosie Ledet. All three, in their own way, had the place jumping.
Maceo Parker at Crossroads was my next ‘must see’ and I confess to being just a little disappointed. It was a thrill to see Parker – and the great Skeet Curtis on bass, who stole the show – but the band never seemed to really warm up. I’d prefer to see them play a longer set in a smaller venue. (I’m told Maceo’s Monday night set, in front of a relatively small audience of diehards, was longer and much better.)
Seasick Steve is very popular at Bluesfest, as he is in the UK. He’s likable, and his is a great story – breaking though to stardom well into his 60’s. Nonetheless, I’ve found him a limited performer. So who shows up, unheralded, to play bass with Steve? John Paul Jones! The crowd, as you’d expect, went apeshit.
By now I was just about done but my companions were determined to see The Pogues. To my surprise, Shane McGowan actually made it to the stage, apparently drunk as a lord, and standing in total darkness. I drove home and let my friends catch the bus. Sometime before 1.30am they made it back, in total agreement that it was one of the best gigs ever.
And suddenly it’s day five.
Again, I made an early start, determined to watch Newfoundland’s Great Big Sea, whose folk rock I’ve long enjoyed on CD. They killed, and leader Alan Doyle almost had to be dragged from the stage. It’s safe to say their first trip to Australia won’t be the last.
Alan Doyle, Great Big Sea
I opted for second helpings of Ray Beadle and Joanne Shaw Taylor, then a little of LA’s Dawes, led by Taylor Goldsmith. A friend had told me I’d be into their West Coast sound, and she was right. If you’re a fan of Jackson Browne, you’ll like Dawes. Then it was the second half of Justin Earle, before finding a good spot for John Fogerty. Fogerty’s Monday show began with the c0mplete Green River album, and continued though a swag of (mostly) Creedence songs. Fogerty was simply superb, in great voice and jumping around like a kid. It was a highly produced, immaculately rehearsed and presented stadium-type concert, with the audience singing along at every opportunity. (With the possible exception of Crowded House, I don’t think I’ve ever heard an audience sing so much.)
From there, the evening ended with a whimper, but that probably had as much to do with my tiredness than what was on offer. I’d been lugging around about 15lbs of camera gear for five days, and been on my feet for more than two hours for Fogerty.)
Zappa Plays Zappa started late, due to lighting and PA problems. The lighting rig didn’t recover, and the set had the feel of a rehearsal. (I had to admire Dweezil’s calm and unassuming demeanor. Whatever the opposite of prima donna is, that’s him.) Prog rockers Yes were the final act on the main stage. Let’s just say I didn’t want to spoil my memories of having seen them at their peak, back in the 70s. A little after 10.30, I called it night and that was my Bluesfest for another year.
The 23rd Bluesfest wasn’t exactly the one I would have scheduled, but you can only play the hand you are dealt.
My problem with the “big” names was not that they were past the bloom of youth. It more that, collectively, their appeal was nostalgia more than timelessness or continued creativity. Lucinda Williams and John Hiatt both turn 60 on their next birthday, but neither is a “nostalgia” act. Both have made great records in their 40s and 50s.
I must admit that I’m ambivalent (if not hypocritical) about yesterday’s heroes.
I love it that Bluesfest brings out veterans who Australians might never get another chance to see. In gospel and soul, here’s a top-of-the-head list: Mavis Staples (twice), Irma Thomas, Solomon Burke (twice), Bettye LaVette, Marva Wright, Candi Staton, the Blind Boys of Alabama (at least three times).
I also love that Bluesfest books so many emerging artists. Indeed, it’s possible to track the career arc of many, just by going through the festival poster for each year. (I still wear a year 2000 T-shirt that lists an unknown John Butler Trio as one of the minor acts.)
Second guessing the organizers is a favorite parlor game of festival devotees, a little like criticizing the management of your favorite sports team. You complain endlessly about their choices, but you buy the shirt and the bumper sticker, and you show up for the game. I know several Bluesfest regulars who moan every year about how it’s not really a blues festival anymore, but they keep coming back, year after year.
Bluesfest is so big, so comprehensive, that the lineup can be peppered with names that don’t impress , but it doesn’t make too much difference. By my count, the wonderful Eilen Jewell was about the 50th name on the 2012 poster. That suggests a seriously deep well of talent.
If you wanted an alt country/roots music festival (whatever that is), it was there – Eilen, John Hiatt, Lucinda, Steve and Justin Earle, My Morning Jacket, David Bromberg and many more.
If you wanted a blues festival, how about Buddy Guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Johnny Lang, Keb’ Mo’, Canned Heat, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges, Joanne Shaw Taylor, and Ray Beadle?
If you wanted variety, there was ska, punk folk, country rock, jazz funk, alternative rock, prog rock, electronica – a little of everything under the roots banner, and then some.
(It’s impossible to see everything you want to see. Apart from My Morning Jacket, I entirely missed Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang, and – curse me -Candi Staton. Just the way it is.)
So that was the 23rd Bluesfest -whatever you wanted it to be, whatever you made it.
I wouldn’t have been anywhere else.