Bluesfest 25 at Byron Bay – Too Late To Stop Now. By Steve Ford.
Back in 325AD, the First Council of Nicaea white-boarded Easter and fixed the date as the first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox. A millennium and a half later, Keven Oxford thought Byron Bay was a good place for a Blues Festival, at Easter. Great idea. Peter Noble joined him to co-promote the festival and eventually took it over. And kept it going.
So it’s down to the early Christians, Mr Oxford and Mr Noble that I found myself driving from Grafton to Ballina last Wednesday evening, a big fat blues moon hanging low over the Pacific. It was the last leg of my annual drive from the Sydney rat race to Bluesfest. I fucking love that drive.
The first ‘East Coast Blues Festival’ happened in 1990, the year Nelson Mandela was freed and the Berlin Wall came down. Bob Hawke was PM. The first episode of The Simpsons aired. John Butler was 15 years old.
By the time I made it to Bluesfest, in 1998, the template was well and truly set. More than a ‘blues festival’, it was a sprawling celebration of roots music, equally devoted to innovation and tradition. Over the next 15 years, Bluesfest has got bigger, mostly better, and moved house a couple of times, but the essence is unchanged.
Since that first trip, I doubt a week has passed when Bluesfest hasn’t come up in my conversation somewhere. It’s simply a great music festival, always a highlight of the year. The location, the weather, the crowd, the relaxed vibe – they all contribute. You learn to love it all – Mojo, Crossroads, Jambalaya, the CD tent, the merch tent, the pies and curries, the passing parade of hippies, straights, old and young. Even the gumboots, if not the mud.
There’s that magic time at dusk when the lights come on, there’s street theatre and bustle, and the anticipation of the night’s headliners.
I’m sure devotees of Woodford, Tamworth and Port Fairy feel much of the same magic. What they don’t have is the music mix. Bluesfest normally presents, for me, a near perfect music palette. There is so much to see, and such a pool of talent, it feels like there’s not a moment to waste.
The pool is deep and wide– so wide it’s handy to think of Bluesfest as several festivals in one. It’s whatever you want it to be – a blues festival and much more.
Some fans show up just for the big shows, maybe just for one night. Others hang around the smaller stages for five days. I like to arrive early each day, leave late, mix it up, and take in as much as I can.
(To be frank, there’s a perpetual asterisk against the line-up. There are always acts you don’t want to see – because they are not to your taste, you think them has-beens or just second rate. There are all subjective judgements, of course, and mostly they don’t matter. After all, if you wanted to see everyone appearing at the festival, you’d go nuts making choices. Popular acts that don’t appeal to you draw audience away from your preferred stage. Cool. More than that, the acts that sell tickets in large numbers are not necessarily the acts you want to see. I have no interest in seeing Jack Johnson, say, but I thank him for the dollars in the Bluesfest bank to pay for a Tedeschi-Trucks Band.)
I’ve now been to fifteen Bluesfests. My back-of-a-coaster maths says that’s about 70 days and more than 500 performances. Many are just dim memories, others indelible.
So how did 2014 compare? Did Bluesfest 25 live up to the hype?
It’s awkward passing judgement on such a multi-layered event as Bluesfest. Each punter brings their own set of likes and dislikes, prejudices and expectations. Each person’s festival experience is coloured by their knowledge of the music on offer and the choices they make as the fest progresses. (I could name a long list of legendary Bluesfest shows I’ve missed while off watching something else.)
“Yeah, well that’s just your opinion man.” Jeff Lebowski
OK, again – did Bluesfest 25 live up to the hype?
For me, not quite.
There were simply not enough high quality new acts, and there were too many veterans and ‘festival favourites’. There were also a few acts that just didn’t bring their A game.
My highlights were clear.
Boz Scaggs (Crossroads, Friday), looking all of his 69 years, was a standout. It’s a shame he had only 75 minutes, resulting in a concentration on Silk Degrees and nothing from strong albums like Some Change. He clearly gave the people what they wanted, however, with ‘Lido Shuffle’ inducing a deafening sing-along – much to the band’s surprise and delight. Unlike many Bluesfest veterans, Boz is still making great recordings. An excellent cover of Willy DeVille’s ‘Mixed Up Shook Up Girl’ was drawn from his latest Memphis album, which is his best in years. ‘Loan Me a Dime’ sent shivers down the spine, with guitarist Drew Zingg sharing the spotlight on the Duane Allman part.
Former Drive-by Trucker, Jason Isbell (Delta, Monday), had just one hour on the final night, and he made the most of it. The majority of the set came from Southeastern, my favourite album of 2013. There were quite a few hard-core fans there – all yelling for songs from Southeastern rather than Truckers’ songs or covers. For the past eight or nine months I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen that this is Jason Isbell’s time. Sober, married to the lovely Amanda Shires (who plays fiddle in his band), and writing some of the best songs by anyone in the broad alt-country genre, Isbell is in a good place. I wondered how songs like ‘Elephant’ – about death from cancer – would go down at the less-than-intimate Delta stage, but the crowd was remarkably attentive and tuned in. I left on a major high.
The third standout for me was Gary Clark Jnr (Crossroads, Monday). He played the final set on the third stage (up against Dave Matthews and Elvis Costello) and just smashed it. After five days of crazy-good guitar solos, Clark brought enough individuality and pure class to leave his audience wanting more. (They didn’t get it. The load-out began within seconds of Clark leaving the stage.)
Gregg Allman (Crossroads, Saturday) was disappointing. I have loved the Allmans since I was a teenager, and Gregg was their singer and principal songwriter. Remarkably, this was his first trip Down Under. He looked and sounded frail, particularly towards the end of the set, and his voice just didn’t go the distance. It’s little wonder, on the evidence of this show, that Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes recently called time on the Allman Brothers Band. (Editor’s note: Latest reports are that Gregg Allman broke his wrist in the USA at the Wahnee Festival when he fell off a gold cart and flew home immediately after Bluesfest, not appearing at his scheduled sideshows in Melbourne and Sydney).
Haynes’ own band, Government Mule (Crossroads, Saturday), who preceded Allman, blazed through their 90 minute set. For me, they concentrated too much on the heavy rock of their early albums and too little on the variety of the Deepest End era, but the core of the show was scintillating improvised instrumental music, tinged with jazz. The show ended with perennial audience favourites ‘Soulshine’ and ‘Mule’.
The single best moment of my festival came late on Saturday night when Haynes joined the Dave Matthews Band (Mojo) for ‘All Along The Watchtower’. The guitar interplay between Haynes and Tim Reynolds was just stunning. I only saw about forty minutes of Matthews and got a little of what makes them live circuit favourites. Matthews has some fine, fine players – including former Flecktone Jeff Coffin on sax. It’s the jazzy, jam band side that appeals to me. I’ve never been attracted to Matthews’ vocal style, however, and his basic folky songs have never moved me. I doubt I’ll be a convert.
The Doobie Brothers (Crossroads, Friday) were in fine form, their performance let down somewhat by the patchiness of their material. I remarked to someone that the Doobies could play everything I wanted to hear in about 45 minutes, and so it was. They started with a bang (‘Jesus is Just Alright’), faded in the middle, and came home strong.
Buddy Guy (Crossroads, Friday and Saturday) played Bluesfest for the fifth time and did essentially the same ‘blues vaudeville’ show he has performed for several years. It’s heavy on showmanship and light on subtlety, but at 77 Guy has lost none of his touch or tone.
I wish I’d seen more of Seun Kuti (Jambalaya, Saturday), in my opinion a much more gifted successor to Fela Kuti than older brother Femi, who appeared previously at Bluesfest. (Kuti’s Sydney show got a very positive review from the Herald’s Bernard Zuel.)
As always, there is so much on offer that you can’t see everything you want. It’s subjective of course, and no one envies the juggling act promoters face, but I found some of the scheduling baffling. For example, popular acts like Ray Beadle and Joanne Shaw-Taylor were relegated to the tiny Juke Joint – the sixth stage. Even the perennial favourite Eric Bibb had a show there.
The Juke Joint and Cavanbah were packed most of the time, and only those at the front had any sort of view. Those stages are simply sub-standard.
The 25th Bluesfest was, for me, something of a mixed bag, but (for the second year running) an excellent Monday night sent me home buzzing.
The weather gods had a sense of occasion, and turned on five days of perfect sunshine.
Did I wish I was somewhere else? No way.
Is Bluesfest good value for money? Absolutely.
Will I be back next year? You bet.