By Kerrie Hickin.
Photos by Christina Jasmine.
Bluesfest 2017 Day 5 – Monday
“Lovely day,” commented Billy Bragg as he took the stage with Joe Henry. It was a pairing that held plenty of potential, two sharp-eyed social witnesses bouncing off each other.
As it turns out, they presented songs – and the stories behind them – from a recently recorded album themed on North America’s railroads. In the early days, rail travel and trains symbolised freedom, escape, a means of homecoming, a source of prospective bottom-rung employment to stay just a step ahead of dustbowl poverty, or in rarer cases making an immense fortune.
Recording the album took place on a train itself and at stops along the way: from now-privatised station ticket offices to plausibly haunted hotel rooms. Bragg and Henry mined a rich seam of folk, country and blues songs for material and inspiration, referencing Leadbelly and Gordon Lightfoot to Lonnie Donegan (a major influence on The Beatles) and took vocal cues from The Louvin Brothers. While rail is still widely used for freight across the States, the last century has seen inter-city passenger travel decline markedly to the point that it has actually ceased in some areas. Bragg and Henry mark this transition and the passing of an era with song, the sadness of rusting engines a metaphor for other societal changes. This was a pretty special performance of an emotion-stirring project.
One can sometimes overlook the importance of Booker T Jones in the evolution of soul music in the 1960s. A musical prodigy who wrote his first hit, the slinky ‘Green Onions’, while still at high school, Booker T and his band, The MGs (Memphis Group), were effectively the ‘house band’ at the Stax Records recording studio, sculpting the ‘sound’ of the label and the musicians they underpinned. If anyone has a right to ‘revue’ the Stax music canon it’s Jones. Two vocalists make a good stab at recreating the originals, though the charisma and personality of Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam and Dave, or Otis Redding is an impossible intangible to replicate. To my ears the instrumentals work best, Jones’s Hammond keyboards sounding as elegant and evocative as ever, particularly on the set opener, the cinematic spaghetti western theme ‘Hang ‘Em High’. Switching to guitar, he trades riffs with son Ted Jones, a stand-out being the distinguished landmark ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’, co-written with William Bell just the night before Albert King recorded it for Stax. The set concluded with cheery versions of party anthems ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’,’ and ‘Knock On Wood’.
When Neil Finn plays the opening chords to ‘Fall At Your Feet’, a group of twenty-somethings near me are visibly in rapture, singing along heartily, waving their arms in the air like those experiencing a spiritual visitation. Such is the enduring appeal of Finn, and his songs from Crowded House, Split Enz, those released under his own name and collaborations.
As a frontman he is humble and endearing, the estimable band assembled for this occasion containing dapper Crowded House bassist Nick Seymour, and guitarist and musician-in-his-own right Dan Kelly (Finn slyly mentions “Dan has a pretty good family”). The songs arrangements are sumptuous and atmospheric, the harmonies flawless – recurrent oblique themes of the elements perfect fare for a warm night near the conclusion of an event such as this festival.
BLUESFEST 2017 WRAP UP
With the final chords still ringing in the ears, let’s take the opportunity to look back on Bluesfest 2017, the experience, from a personal point of view. As expected, there was a snowflake’s chance in hell of seeing everything on the list, so some viewing casualties were inevitable. (I had a vision of the festival director in his mobile mansion parked out the back with a wall of television feeds like Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth observing everything – maybe I shouldn’t have eaten the brown… rice!) Sometimes set viewing had to be cut short to enable bolting to the next stage, and sometimes there was the impression that time telescoped and the musician located at the apex seemed to just go on and on for hours and hours… I would have loved to see more of St Paul And The Broken Bones, Kasey Chambers, Jeff Lang, Mary J Blige, Experience Jimi Hendrix and the impressive Dumpstaphunk. I missed Rhiannon Giddens and Tony Joe White altogether which was a shame. Michael Kiwanuka, Gregory Porter, Melody Angel and Davy Knowles impressed, and witnessing Patti Smith in her charismatic glory was a gift from God(dess). Perhaps surprisingly, The Doobie Brothers provided my personal highlight, a combination of good vibes, outstanding musicianship and spot-on vocal harmonies from the ‘vintage’ act.
On the facilities and services side, toilets were plentiful and reasonably clean (though still recommended to take a stash of TP to counter the inevitable case of the one you find yourself in having run out), time spent in the food queues could be cut down with a bit of reconnaissance to less-patronised stalls (eggplant parma sandwich… mmmmm!), and the inexorable car park exit logjam a metaphoric pain in the posterior when fatigued and hankering for a lie-down after a day on one’s feet. Having said that, it’s still the chillest most respectful festival doing the rounds, and a tip-the-hat to the organisers who have done a sterling job of getting and keeping it together while maintaining such a high-quality lineup and site.