Notes from Bluesfest 21 – Byron Bay
Byron Bay is 800 kilometers (500 miles) north of my home near Sydney. You can fly to nearby Ballina or Coolangatta, but I prefer to drive, taking the Pacific Highway along the east coast. The all-day trip is a kind of cleansing ritual – tiring, but there’s sense of exhilaration as you leave the city behind and absorb the changing landscape. The rivers get wider and more frequent, the vegetation is green and lush. Beyond Coffs Harbour there are banana plantations and fields of sugar cane. Avocados and bananas sell from roadside stalls. It’s another country.
On this trip, my friend Jane joins me in Newcastle and shares the driving. It’s Wednesday and the plan is to get up there early, and relax until opening night on Thursday. We take turns picking tunes on the iPod and share “must sees” for the festival. The weather is lousy, but we are happy to be on our way to Bluesfest.
Thursday – Opening Night –
Opening night is relaxed. Punters have the choice of five, three or single day tickets, and Thursday night tends to be for hardcore festival goers. It’s a chance to acclimatise and check some artists off your list. (There’s an added incentive this year. Jools Holland is only playing on Thursday.) Having dropped Jane with friends at Brunswick Heads, I arrive at the festival site right on 2pm, just as the gates open, and just in time for a rain shower. Thankfully, it’s brief and there is very little rain through the festival. The new site… well, it doesn’t look much different to last year’s venue in town. It’s dead flat. Not so good on the eye, but great for the legs. The trek between the two main stages (Mojo and Crossroads) seems unnecessarily long, but that’s the only obvious drawback. There’s more open space, a huge undercover eating area and, it seems, more concession stands than ever. Apart from the three main stages (Jambalaya is the third) , there are three smaller ones – First Nations, APRA and Caba Caba Ray.
One of the enduring joys of music festivals is discovering new favourites. Count Ireland’s Imelda May as one of mine. She opens Crossroads to a smallish afternoon crowd, but hits the stage like she’s playing to a late night full house. She looks great, and despite the 50’s look and sound, there’s nothing stale about her. She lights a fuse for the evening.
I catch the first few numbers by the Avett Brothers at Mojo (the main stage) but hurry back to Crossroads for Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express. Although Oblivion Express is now 40 years old, albeit through countless lineups, I best recall Brian for his earlier Trinity recordings with the much-loved Julie Driscoll on vocals. The current incarnation of the Express is a family affair, with daughter Savannah Grace out front, and son Karma on drums. There’s nothing quite like that Hammond organ sound, and it’s great to see Brian Auger for the first time.
Dr John follows at Crossroads and I watch the first few songs before bolting for the Jambalaya stage. I’ve seen the Doctor many times and I’ve heard good things about his fellow Louisianans, Lil’ Band O’ Gold. Led by guitarist/singer CC Adcock, LBOG is touted as a ‘swamp rock supergroup’. Hard to argue, with a lineup that includes Adcock, Steve Riley and veteran Warren Strong. (They are joined by pedal steel player Lucky Oceans on this tour. Oceans, who played with Asleep at the Wheel though the 70s, moved to Australia some 30 years ago. ) Lil’ Band O’ Gold live up to the considerable hype surrounding their Australian tour.
I catch the end of Orquestra Buena Vista Social Club, and they sound (and look) great. I’d seen them play a set at Bluesfest before, but bedeviled by rare (for Bluesfest) sound problems. I hope to catch them later in the festival. (But I don’t. Bluesfest is such an embarrassment of riches, you’re bound to miss some great acts.)
The evening ends sensationally with Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. It’s a rare treat to see a genuine big band – which this is. I count 12 horns and up to 20 people on stage. The marvelous Ruby Turner appears for a bracket of songs. She is matched by the younger Louise Marshall (pictured), who has a stunning soul voice. Jools is in great form and the band takes off like a 747 with him at the piano. He is a absolute master of boogie woogie.
I have a 40 minute drive to my friend’s house in Alstonville, and I’m hoping there’s not too much of a jam in the car park. I’m out of the festival grounds in 20 minutes, then it’s plain sailing.
Friday – Day 2
Friday promises to be an almighty treat for guitar fans, despite the late cancellation of Al de Meola. At Crossroads the last three acts are Joe Bonamassa, Buddy Guy and Jeff Beck! My day starts with ALO, who I’ve seen before, and I move on to Tribali, a group from Malta doing percussion-led tribal fusion. They have an obvious affinity with Aboriginal Australia and include didgeridoo in their music. Their leader wears tribal body paint and the effect is mildly disconcerting. The enthusiastic audience could care less.
Guitar Friday begins with Joanne Shaw Taylor, a young English woman with a big voice and a blazing blues guitar style. She’s a real find.
I take in a little of The Greencards in Jambalaya, before catching the start of Joe Bonamassa at Crossroads. Bonamassa is something of an enigma for me. He is a super technician and plays great blues, but I find his original material too heavy and rather soulless.
I enjoy what I see of Bonamassa, but head off to Mojo for The Swell Season. It’s a good choice, as the affable Glen Hansard and band do an excellent, good humoured set. There’s no Van Morrison covers, unfortunately, but there’s the achingly beautiful “Falling Slowly” and an unlikely (but well received) version of Empire of the Sun’s “Walking On A Dream”, an Australian dance hit.
I hang in Mojo at for the start of Blue King Brown, a big, crowd pleasing Australian band, led by the charismatic Natalie Pa’apa’a. But I have a date with Buddy Guy at Crossroads. I’ve seen Buddy four times over the years – first with Junior Wells in 1972, a mind blowing night for a teenage white boy from Sydney. The two subsequent shows were disappointing, but at Bluesfest in 2006 he was brilliant. His tone, attack, showmanship, the pace of the show were all superb. Could he reprise that? In a word, yes. Buddy hit the stage like a cyclone and didn’t let up. And what a band – second guitarist Ric Hall is a star in his own right.
I barely have time to catch my breath before Jeff Beck is on the same stage. The Beck group lineup changes constantly, but is always top shelf. This time he’s reunited with Narada Michael Walden (drummer from the “Wired” album), along with British keyboard wiz Jason Robello, and former Prince bassist, Rhonda Smith.
Although I’m thrilled to see beck for the first time, a little of his angular jazz fusion excursions has always gone a long way with me, and I’m pleasantly surprised by the variety, ranging from ballads, to funk, blues and jazz rock. His touch, control, and fluidity are amazing. “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” (the first encore) is, as I expect, the high point of an outstanding show. I bolt during the second encore, hoping to catch a little of Imelda May at Jambalaya. Bad move. I’m looking at an empty stage while Imelda May joins Beck for his third and fourth encores. D’oh!
Reluctantly, I pass on the John Butler Trio. I’ve seen him many times, I’m tired, and there are three days to go. I get out of the car park and onto the highway without any delays.
Saturday – Day 3
Super Saturday. This may have been the greatest Bluesfest day ever. (Friday and Saturday were certainly the best consecutive days.)
It begins quietly with Josh White Jnr, the son of the great blues man and a remarkably youthful 69. His style is smooth and relaxed, and puts me in mind of Eric Bibb.
Old Crow Medicine Show, led by Virginian Ketch Secor, are great fun. They look like a bluegrass band, but they play a grab bag of folk and old timey. The Mojo tent is a rocking hoedown for an hour and there’s a grin on every face. I’m holding out for “Wagon Wheel” and my friend Biff is waiting for “Take a Whiff On Me”. They finish with one, then the other.
I’ve only heard Umphrey’s McGee‘s contribution to a Talking Heads tribute album before I see them, but that’s enough to get me to their show. Take the Swiss watch precision of The Dregs, some of the jazz savvy of Steely Dan, a little Pink Floyd prog rock noodling, the syncopation of Little Feat, and put them in a blender. Let the music take you where it will. It doesn’t work if you can’t play. These guys can play. Jam bands aren’t for everyone, but I love this one.
I first saw John Mayall in 1973, with the Jazz Blues Fusion band, featuring the late Freddy Robinson on guitar, plus jazz horn men Blue Mitchell and Red Holloway. That’s just a sample of the roll call of top liners who went through Mayall’s bands in the 60’s and 70’s. By coincidence, Mayalls’ current band are another American lineup, all excellent players, if not household names. Chicago’s Jay Davenport is particularly impressive behind the drum kit. Although his voice (always limited) is nowhere near as strong as it was, Mayall puts on an excellent show.
Bela Fleck is the quintessential Bluesfest performer for me. He’s made the trip three times with the Flecktones and is never anything less than outstanding. His teaming with Oumou Sangare – one of my favourite African singers – sounds like a marriage made in heaven. They are brilliant. A feast for the eyes and ears. My only criticism is that the show is, with the exception of Bela’s long solo, relentlessly up tempo, and there is the little of the contemplative Oumou I know from the ‘Worotan’ album.
Lyle Lovett‘s set is the surprise of the festival for me. I have several of his albums and I’m a long time fan, but my only previous experience of Lyle live is his DVD from the Sound Stage series. That performance, concentrating on the jazz side, seems a little too studied, too cautious – like they are trying not to trip on the furniture. This show is different, and far superior. Suited up, Lyle and band look like classical musicians, and John Hagen’s cello adds to the effect. They play immaculately crafted country music, with reverence, but relaxed and without stumbling into earnestness. It’s a show designed for theatres, but it works perfectly in the big Crossroads tent. I don’t miss a note, and I don’t want it to end. But end it does, with White Freightliner Blues. Some songs just get you in the guts and, for me, this is one. (But you could probably substitute any Townes Van Zandt song.)
The Gypsy Kings are next at Crossroads (and, by all accounts, are brilliant) but I’ve had enough. Again, I escape the car park with ease. Those who stay till the end face long delays – as much as two hours to get back to Byron Bay.
Sunday – Day 4
After two days of knockout acts, Sunday is a mixed bag.
Neo-surfer band The Break (Midnight Oil without Peter Garrett, essentially) are disappointing at the main stage. None of their original material approaches the sublime Weddingcake Island, an early instrumental by the Oils.
I’m a big fan of Patty Larkin, but her set fails to engage. Part of the problem is sound bleed from another stage, a ongoing problem which apparently plagues solo and acoustic acts throughout the festival.
I sneak down to Caba Caba Ray for Rockwiz, a re-creation of the long-running music quiz show from Australia’s SBS network. It’s great theatre. The Flatlanders drop in to a heroes’ welcome and play ‘Dallas from a DC9’.
Back to Jambalaya for Eugene ‘Hideaway’ Bridges. By the end of his act there are as many people crammed outside the tent as there are inside, clamouring for more. He may lack originality, but his honeyed tenor voice and BB King-styled blues guitar are a winning combination.
Eugene Bridges is followed by Peter Green and Friends. It’s a profound disappointment. To put this in context, Fleetwood Mac’s debut album was one of the first I ever owned. My high school friends and I were besotted fans of the original Fleetwood Mac. I can remember precisely where I was when I first heard ‘Albatross ‘ on the radio, more than 40 years ago. Green disappeared from the scene for years, and his personal struggles are well documented. I watch the first two songs of this set, and have to leave, deeply saddened. (Not everyone, it should be said, had the same reaction. More than one fan has told me that seeing Green play ‘Oh Well’ and ‘Albatross’ were highlights of the Bluesfest.)
It’s on to Crossroads next for Taj Mahal. I’ve seen him numerous times since the mid-80’s and he’s playing as well as ever. In fact, ten years ago he seemed too relaxed, almost on autopilot. These days he works hard to entertain, and the effort pays off.
I enjoy Graham Gouldman’s 10cc, although 10cc without Godley and Creme is only, what, 5cc?. But Gouldman – can that guy on stage really be old enough to have written 60’s hits for the Yardbirds and the Hollies? – does an excellent job.
I’ve been looking forward to Crowded House, who I’ve never seen live, but it’s too, umm, crowded, and I opt for Gogol Bordello, who have a great live reputation. Punk-folk (The Pogues, Flogging Molly etc) has never been my thing, and Gogol’s gypsy punk has a similar effect. It’s splendid theatre but I’ve soon had enough and make another early escape, avoiding the traffic.
Monday – Day 5
The biggest names, for me, have come and gone, but I’m looking forward to the final day of Bluesfest and have decided most of my day will be spent at Jambalaya, the third stage.
Patty Larkin‘s show, despite a small crowd, is much better than Sunday’s (but she would be much better seen in a quiet, intimate space).
Justin Townes Earle is joined by Jason Isbell (Drive By Truckers) for his set and Earle is a revelation. He is not his father’s son in the way that, say, Jeff Buckley is, in that there are no eerie vocal similarities. And Justin, with his bow-tie and thick glasses, looks more wayward geek than outlaw. He is quirky personality plus, and with Isbell’s considerable help, he does a memorable show.
The Flatlanders are, frankly, flat. I can’t put my finger on why, but they never take off. There’s none of the frisson they generated the previous day at Rockwiz, or the star power of Joe Ely’s turn with Lyle the previous evening. It’s not that there’s anything wrong; more that the band seems less than the sum of its very considerable parts.
After making a brief excursion to the main stage for Aussie popsters Angus and Julia Stone, it’s back to Jambalaya for Lil’ Band O’ Gold. It’s the last set of their Australian tour, and they rock on old favourites including ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and ‘Promised Land’.
The late Sunday shows are mainly repeats, and I decided Umphrey’s McGee will be my last show for the festival. Like LBOG, they save their best till last. It helps that they are playing at night and have good lighting, and it’s an exhilarating jam. They finish up with Steely Dan’s ‘Reelin’ in the Years’, and nail it. It’s a perfect way for my Bluesfest to end.
This was one of the best Bluesfests ever. A week later I’m still buzzing from it.
As always, I’m a little sad it’s come and gone, and I can’t wait for the first artist announcement for 2011.