By Steve Ford.
Byron Bay Bluesfest, Tyagarah NSW, April 2-6, 2015
Everyone is asking how Bluesfest was, and I’m telling them this: It was way more fun than you had at Easter. You should have been there.
With three headliners pulling out and the prospect of a wet and muddy Easter, it would have been no surprise if this was a subdued Bluesfest. As it turned out, Tyagarah was singalong central for five days, and the vibe was upbeat to go to whoa. The naysayers must have stayed home.
In terms of headliners, it was not the best ever Bluesfest lineup, but it was solid from top to bottom. The bill was mercifully free of has-beens (never to be confused with ageless veterans like Mavis Staples and John Mayall) and there were many new faces along with the festival favourites. Over five days, there was rarely a wasted moment, and there were still acts I didn’t get to see.
The missing headliners didn’t make a significant difference, to me at least.
Apart from a downpour on Saturday night, there wasn’t much rain and mud wasn’t really a big factor, unless you were careless where you walked (or parked your car). I packed three pairs of sneakers and only used one.
My only gripe was with sound. The three main stages seemed to have issues at various times. At the edges of each tent, the mix was poor by Bluesfest standards, and it seemed each stage had a smaller sweet spot.
First impressions were favorable. The substandard Cavanbah and Juke Joint stages were replaced by a much larger Juke Joint , and the Delta Stage was also considerably extended. Five stages seem plenty. Otherwise, the layout was much the same as last year. It’s a bit of a trek from the Juke Joint to Jambalaya, but without that sort of space, there’s too much bleed from stage to stage.
My festival started with one of my young heroes, Justin Townes Earle, who’s become one of the most proficient and prolific singer-songwriters on the Americana scene. I’ve seen him more times than I can count (I think this is his fourth Bluesfest) but every time is a pleasure. (Solo acoustic acts still suffer from sound bleed at times. “I think I can hear Henry Wagons,” said Earle in mid-set. “That’s OK. He’s a very sexy man.”)
The undoubted highlight of the festival for me was the Alabama Shakes. Brittany Howard – a superstar in the making – is now front and centre of the band. As my friend Niall put it, and Niall is the poster boy for grumpy old men, “She was simply magnificent. It reminded me why I love music in the first place. And that band – they can go from retro soul to The Stooges.” That sums it up. The Alabama Shakes have absorbed their influences, they add something new, and they are led by one of the best young singers in the business. And they write memorable, melodic songs.
Can there be a greater indicator of the depth of Bluesfest than seeing Keb’ Mo’ play an early afternoon show? To my delight, his Saturday show of one of the best of the festival. He is singing and playing better than ever. I prefer the current trio, with Keb’ on electric guitar, to his solo acoustic shows. The melodic pop of Just Like You blends well with the laid back blues making up most of the list.
Of the Aussies, veteran Paul Kelly stood out. His Merri Soul Sessions brought together five other singers and a crack band to interpret his songs. All five vocalists – Vicka and Linda, Kira Puru, Clairey Browne and Dan Sultan – got a solo. Kelly’s How To Make Gravy brought a tear to the eye, as always, but was outdone by Vika’s stunning version of Sweet Guy.
The Waterboys were high on my ‘must see’ list. I expected Mike Scott and a band of crack session players, not knowing that Dublin fiddler Steve Wickham – who did much to inspire the great Fisherman’s Blues album – had rejoined the band. In the event, they played mostly songs with a harder rock edge from the new Modern Blues album, but ended with the anthemic Whole of the Moon and the title track from Fisherman’s Blues. I was ecstatic. (The band was, indeed, made up of exceptional players, including Muscle Shoals legend David Hood on bass.)
Young Irishman Hozier lived up to the hype. Apart from the ubiquitous Take Me To Church (179 million views on Youtube!) I was unfamiliar with his music, but this is a genuinely talented guy with a ton of charisma. Angel of Death and From Eden stayed with me for days.
At the other end of the age scale, Jimmy Cliff turned 67 a day before Bluesfest. You’d never know it. Along with Bob Marley, Cliff put Jamaica on the musical map and is a deserved Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. He jumps around like a kid and is an absolute crowd pleaser. (John Mayall is 81, and still playing demanding harp solos, God bless him.)
Frank Turner was completely unknown to me, and was revelation. He’s fairly described as ‘punk folk’, like Billy Bragg on speed. Nikki Hill was another revelation. I missed her last year, but she was sure hard to miss this time, doing a show every one of the five days. Hill is an old fashioned rock’n’roller and blues shouter who is equally adept with a ballad. Long may she return.
Although he was at Byron just last year, I was happy to see Gary Clark Jr back at Byron. I caught at least part of all three of his shows, and my Bluesfest ended as it did last year, with Clark playing incendiary blues guitar at Jambalaya.
As I said in last year’s review, it’s awkward judging a sprawling event like Bluesfest, where every punter brings their own set of likes, dislikes, prejudices and expectations, and your festival experience is coloured by the choices you make. (The best show you never saw may have been a hundred metres away.)
This was my sixteenth Bluesfest, and my experience is obviously going to be very different to a first timer who could be younger than my own kids.
There were any number of acts I enjoyed in small doses, no disrespect intended. It’s simply a matter of taste. Sticky Fingers’ take on rock and dirty reggae was engaging and Dylan Frost immediately owned the stage, encouraged by a young and supportive audience. The vibe put me in mind of Wolfmother a decade ago. Jurassic 5 put on a hell of a show, but I don’t really get undiluted hip-hop. Paulo Nutini is clearly a major talent – great soul voice! – but I didn’t love his songs.
It was a thrill to see George Clinton in the flesh. I’ve never been a real devotee of P-Funk, but their Monday night aural assault was pretty damn cool.
A large part of the joy of Bluesfest is simply being part of a crazy happy, upbeat community for five days. Ultimately, the punters contribute as much as the artists, generously welcoming bands of all ages, cultures, and musical styles.
If you weren’t at Bluesfest, my Easter was way better than yours.