Notes from Australia’s Bluesfest
Bluesfest, Tyagarah NSW Australia
April 21-26, 2011
There were bigger names at the top of the bill – including Dylan and BB King, no less – but for me Bluesfest 2011 was always about the Tedeschi Trucks Band.
Although Susan Tedechi and Derek Trucks are yet to release an album together, I’m a longtime fan of both, and I’d been keenly anticipating their appearance since the lineup was announced. Their inclusion on the Crossroads 2010 DVD gave a good taste of what to expect.
In truth, I’d been looking forward to seeing Trucks, in particular, for several years. (I kicked myself when I discovered too late he was touring Australia with Eric Clapton a few years back.)
Briefly, Derek is the nephew of drummer Butch Trucks, an original and current member of the Allman Brothers Band. He is named for Derek and and Dominoes – the band/album which included Duane Allman, and led by Clapton. He played with the Allman Brothers as a pre-teen and joined them officially at age 20. Trucks has also led his own band for half of his thirty-one years. For about ten of those years he has been married to Susan Tedeschi.
He has morphed seamlessly from child prodigy to virtuoso.
(Thirty-one years? Jeez, I wore out my first copy of The Allman Brothers Band Live at Fillmore East before he was born!)
I think of Tedeschi, as I think of Trucks, as the keeper of a flame. She sounds a lot like Bonnie Raitt (and that’s meant as the highest of compliments), but with more raw power to her voice. She also straddles that same territory of blues, roots and torchy ballads. And, like Raitt, she tends to drop jaws with her guitar work.
I saw both sets by the band, on days three and four of this mammoth six day festival. Although there was considerable overlap of material, I would have gladly pay to see them play the same songs every night for a month.
The highlight of both nights was achingly beautiful “Midnight In Harlem”, written by one of the band’s vocalists, Michael Mattison. Lush arrangement, perfectly delivered by Tedeschi, and a stunning solo from Trucks.
And what a band. Neatly, the Tedeschi Trucks Band features two drummers, a signature of the Allmans (and Trucks’ own band). Brothers Oteil and Kofi Burbridge (bass and keys, respectively) make up another family connection within the group. Oteil (another Allman Brothers Band alumnus) was clearly a crowd favourite.
Elvis Costello and Trombone Shorty filled out my top three.
Costello was in great voice, and played two warm-hearted, energetic sets, with a generous serving of greatest hits (all the early stuff), and a few surprises (e.g., Hank Williams’ “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used To Do?” with the Secret Sisters.) This is the way to see Costello – with a drum-tight rock band. The Imposters (Steve Nieve on keyboards, Pete Thomas on drums and Davey Faragher on bass and vocals) were brilliant, gift-wrapping every song in joie de musique.
There’s always one surprise packet at Byron, and this year it was Troy ‘Trombone Shorty’ Andrews (vocals, trombone, trumpet) with Orleans Avenue – Mike Ballard on bass, Pete Murano on guitar, Joey Peebles on drums, and Tim McFatter on sax. Surpreme musicians and, in the case of Andrews in particular, a supreme entertainer. For the most part it was an up-tempo storm of jazz and rock, with some traditional New Orleans for good measure. The first show featured an aptly cheerful “Sunny Side of the Street” as a sing-along. The second saw the band swap instruments and kick butt. (When was the last time you saw a bass player pick up a trumpet and play?)
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is an Indigenous Australian, a tribal man from Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhem Land in the far north. Blind since birth, 40-year-old Gurrumul sings gentle songs in a mesmerising high voice, mostly in the Yonlgu language. With sympathetic accompaniment, led by bassist Michael Hohnen, it comes across as ethereal chamber folk – beyond race, culture and language. Gurrumul is immensely respected and his 2008 album made top ten on Australia’s iTunes chart. His Tuesday slot was on the main stage, after Paul Kelly and before Bob Dylan. He deserved it. Each song was received in awed silence, and followed by thunderous applause.
Of the veterans, two were outstanding, and both made their mark almost 50 years ago.
Mavis Staples, 71, is well into the autumn of her career, but she was a joy. I never got to see the Staple Singers and it was great to make to make a connection at last. The songs ranged from Staples’ staples (“Freedom Highway”) to some more widely known songs , always with that gospel sound at the core.
Elvis Costello joined Mavis for The Weight at her second show. It was a great festival moment, both singers obviously happy to be in the company of the other, on a song passed from The Band to The Staples at The Last Waltz.
At 70, Irma Thomas looks and sounds fabulous. Indeed, I was taken aback by the strength of her voice and the purity of her tone. Ruler of My Heart, Time is On My Side and You Can Have My Husband – all first recorded by Thomas in the early 1960s – sounded great. I doubted the audience would go for ‘(Simply) The Best’ – very strongly associated with Tina Turner in Australia – but it was a show stopper. On the back of an excellent horn section, she absolutely nailed it.
The Blind Boys of Alabama were well received, as they always are, although they didn’t reach the breathtaking heights of their 2006 shows. They were greatly entertaining – last time they were inspiring. (Of course, back in 2006, the Blind Boys’ main man, Jimmy Carter, was a lad of 82. He’s now 87.)
Warren Haynes (Derek Trucks’ bandmate in the latter day Allmans, and leader of Gov’t Mule) made a welcome return to Bluesfest after 11 years. I’m a big fan of Haynes/Mule, particularly of Haynes’ deft choice of covers that challenge the originals (“Cortez The Killer”, “Since I’ve Been Loving You” etc etc). His own song-writing is patchy, but he did co-write “Beautifully Broken”, the outstanding ballad in his repertoire and the standout of his Sunday show. I was disappointed that Ruthie Foster wasn’t with him for Bluesfest, as she was for the sit-down concerts on the Australian tour, and the Monday show was only an hour. It passed all too quickly, and the All-stars didn’t get much soloing opportunity. (I missed the longer Tuesday show, when Haynes was scheduled at the same time as local hero Paul Kelly and Elvis Costello – surely the most difficult three-way choice in Bluesfest history.)
Ruthie Foster has been a very regular visitor to Australia for some years and has built a large and loyal following. I guess I’ve seen her six or sevn times, and she is always up. She played in her own trio and it seemed to me they rocked rocked much harder than last time they were our way. Ruthie was joined by Eric Bibb’s guitarist, Staffan Astner, for much of the second show, finishing with a killer version of The Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around”, complete with an Ernie Isley-like guitar solo from Astner.
Eric Bibb is also a very regular visitor and, again, he always delivers with his mix of blues, gospel and folk. Staffan Astner was a near perfect accompanist, tastefully embellishing without crowding.
Dylan and the King of the Blues
Nobody has the power to divide opinions like Bob Dylan. And so it was.
I couldn’t get close enough to the front on Monday, and I took in Jethro Tull instead. (Ian Anderson’s voice is gone, but they put on an otherwise solid show. Guitarist Martin Barre was the star, playing perhaps better than he did in 1973!)
On Tuesday I made the effort to get close – perhaps 70 feet from the stage. I’d seen Dylan in concert four years ago and the sound in the nosebleed seats was appalling. I wanted to see what he was really like at this stage of his long career. Truth is, I neither loved nor hated it, but I don’t feel I ever need to see Dylan again.
His voice was little more than a raspy growl, and his phrasing was sometimes bizarre. He sang a couple of verses of Desolation Row as if it were a nursery rhyme, and it crossed my mind that Dylan was having a joke with the band at the expense of the audience. The band was good, but many songs lost their individuality. The freewheeling melody of “Tangled Up In Blue”, for example, was reduced to a dirge.
I felt fortunate that I could actually see the show, being tall and near to the stage. The front screens were blacked out, and the screens to the rear showed only a static long shot of the band. Why? People paid good money and travelled a long way to see you, Bob.
But it was certainly fun to be in a Dylan crowd singing along to “Like A Rolling Stone”. The tipsy teenage girl who stood on tiptoes behind me for ninety minutes, said it was “totally worth it”. I wasn’t convinced.
BB King was relaxed, amiable, and seemingly adored by a packed crowd, but the truth is he barely played or sang.
Best of the rest …
How time passes. I think of The Mavericks as a relatively new band, but it was 20 years ago that they signed to MCA, and almost eight years since they broke up. Raul Malo’s solo work does not, for the most part, sound like The Mavericks – he has the freedom to sing what he wants – but that warm tenor voice is unmistakeable. Excellent.
Little Feat were considerably tighter than they were 10 years ago, with singer Shaun Murphy. They seemed more comfortable with who they are, and their legacy. Most of the soloing is from guitarists Fred Tackett and Paul Barerre, with Billy Payne taking a back seat. Very enjoyable.
Los Lobos are my all time favourite rock’n’roll band. They rock, but their taciturn demeanour and lack of engagement with their audience is a turnoff. Perhaps, 30 years ago, they made a pact that the first one to smile would be out of the band. They are still together.
The Funky Meters came across more as ace jam band than New Orleans funk. Brian Stolz (guitar) and George Porter Jnr (bass) stole the show. Art Neville cruised.
Peter Rowan’s Bluegrass Band brought a traditional take on the genre to the festival, and were very well received.
I’ve never been a big admirer of ZZ Top, even in their pre-MTV days, but they pleased their fans with a tight, professional set. (They had a point to prove. Their appearance in 2000 is widely regarded as the worst ever by a headline act.)
It’s the nature of festivals that you don’t see everything – through scheduling clashes or sheer exhaustion – and I missed Ben Harper (outstanding, by all accounts), the Indigo Girls, Leon Russell, and P-Funk (same time as Dylan). Oh, and John Legend, Michael Franti, Kasey Chambers, Bobby Long …
Maybe they’ll be back in 2012?