Photos by Michael Mackenzie
Bluesfest, Tyagarah: Friday March 30 – Monday April 1, 2018
By Monday, the start of Bluesfest’s fifth day, it had become something of an endurance test. Luckily, the final day’s crowd seemed the lowest of all and it was easy to get around so any residual tiredness is not a major problem. I think I have figured out a method that suits me: don’t try to do too much and make sure you leave a bit earlier to avoid getting stuck in the car park (the record was two hours a couple of years ago).
I keep telling people that there are more hours of music at the five days of Bluesfest than there are during the seven days of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. So, it is no wonder that you might feel a little exhausted at the end of the holiday weekend.
Most people are already talking about the line-up for next year’s 30th anniversary and the queue for early bird tickets during the final two days of the festival was huge. On that basis alone it should sell out early!
At the end of five days I realise that I have had just a taste of Bluesfest and that I could have seen an entirely different group of acts and had just as good a time!
Friday March 30
Friday now seems an eternity away but it did produce two of the undoubted highlight of the festival for me: Robert Plant and Youssou N’Dour. It is a pretty amazing day when you can add the names of legendary acts such as The Wailers, Jimmy Cliff, Canned Heat, Bobby Rush, and Joe Louis Walker and then throw in a huge contemporary hit maker in Ms Lauryn Hill, plus Prince’s Band the New Power Generation, Gomez, Gov’t Mule and one of South America’s biggest acts in Juanes. You wonder at the enormous logistical task in putting all this together.
My day was spent mainly at the Crossroads Stage where I nabbed a seat and watched all of three acts and most of another two. In between times, I wandered across to a couple of other stages.
As we set up at the Crossroads, the duo Little Georgia – Ashleigh Mannix and Justin Carter – were playing and made an immediate impression. They recorded their 2016 debut album, Bootleg, in Portland, Victoria. I am not sure how this escaped me but I will make sure I follow them from now on.
One of the great things about music festivals, apart from the many on stage collaborations among artists, is the discovery of new acts. Based on this one viewing, I think Little Georgia is destined for something much bigger.
Kerrie Hickin wrote about the Teskey Brothers but I will just add that I liked the sound of the new songs they have been performing, which augurs well for the next album to be recorded later this year. The addition of the horn section is also welcome and fleshes out the songs. The fact that their bass player Brendan Love was missing due to illness didn’t seem to worry them too much.
When I interviewed the members of All Our Exes Live In Texas I told them that their shows reminded me of Steve Martin, in as much as the comedian, who is also an excellent banjo player, is unable to go for a full set without letting his comedic side emerge. He will play great bluegrass and then have you in fits of laughter with his repartee. The All Our Exes harmonies are superb but they just can’t stop talking about themselves in their own inimitable fashion. It seems to work because the audience at the Crossroads loved them.
Hurray For The Riff were on The Delta Stage (maybe they can think of renaming the stages with Australian names for the 30th) and were as impressive as I recall from seeing them last year in New Orleans.
Alynda Lee Segarra has become a compelling performer as lead singer, fronting an impressive band, and you would hardly recognise her from the relatively shy person she seemed to be when she first came here a few years ago. Not only is Segarra’s back story fascinating but she brings that to the show in songs such as ‘Rican Beach’ and ‘Living In The City.’ There were some new songs thrown into the set too, dealing with the political situation in the USA but Segarra has decided that preaching is best done through the message of the songs.
I had never heard of Colombian singer Juanes but the PR kept referring to the fact that he had won two Grammys and 22 Latin Grammy Awards. Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez has released 7 solo albums since 2000 and to date all of them have escaped my attention. However, he is yet another discovery. The music is like a muscular version of Ricky Martin and the ruggedly handsome Juanes delivers the songs a little more grittily than Martin.
I would have been prepared to make an early call that Youssou N’Dour was the best thing I would see at Bluesfest but that was before Robert Plant and Jackson Browne! The Senegalese singer has an absolutely fantastic voice, a mighty band and powerful stage presence. It is easy to understand how he is one of Africa’s most successful singers ever. Most people recognised the Peter Gabriel collaboration ‘Shakin’ The Tree,’ along with ‘7 Seconds,’ which he recorded with Neneh Cherry.’ But there was also a brand new song about the African situation, along with ‘New Africa.’ All in all, it was a stunning show.
Reggae superstar Jimmy Cliff has a great catalogue of hits and he ran through just about all of them in his one hour spot preceding Robert Plant. ‘Many Rivers To Cross,’ ‘Wonderful World,’ ‘Reggae Night,’ ‘Hakuna Matata,’ ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’ and ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ were all rolled out ad had the audience dancing. (The only song of his that I really wanted to hear but didn’t was ‘The Harder They Come’). Cliff’s voice is not quite what it was but a crack band and some very good backing singers compensated in what was an entertaining hour and a half.
Robert Plant’s latest album Carry Fire is yet another excellent example of how the singer has retained his artistic creativity without rehashing the past. Having noted that, he did start the set with ‘The Lemon Song,’ which was a bonus, and he included ‘Gallows Pole’ and ‘That’s The Way’; but I was a little annoyed to find out that I missed him doing ‘Whole Lotta Love’ as part of a closing medley with Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring It On Home,’ because I had to leave early. (I had a radio show to do the next morning). Would it have been worth waiting and being stuck for two hours as others were? Possibly.
Still, we got a great version of ‘Please Read The Letter,’ Bukka White’s ‘Fixin’ To Die’ and a cover of Joan Baez’s ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.’ The more recent songs such as ‘Carry Fire’ and ‘The May Queen’ did not sound out of place at all.
Plant’s band was the aptly named Sensational Space Shifters and they were……sensational. Justin Adams is an extraordinary guitarist and with multi-instrumentalist Seth Lakeman now also in the band Plant can do just about anything. (The sound was also one of the best ever heard in the Crossroads tent).
Robert Plant’s voice also remains a potent instrument and he knows how to use it to best effect. The vocal gymnastics may have been tempered but that voice is still awesome. It makes you wonder – and appreciate – how he has kept it so good for so long.
Ms Lauryn Hill was on the Mojo Stage and as we headed for the car we caught a glimpse of what looked like a spectacular show because she had gone on late. But I cannot imagine it would have been better (for me) than Robert Plant and The Sensational Spaceshifters!
Saturday March 31
We arrived later today due to radio commitments and I was really looking forward to seeing Jackson Browne on Crossroads at 8.00pm. Surprisingly, it was his only show at the festival which is a bit odd given the fact that he spends a lot of time in Byron and owns land up the road in Federal. B
But there were still at least five hours before we got to that, so first off it was the Jambalaya stage for Harry Manx, who I had seen a few weeks ago at Port Fairy when he had guitarist Jeff Lang and keyboard player Clayton Doley as guests for a wonderful, loping set. It was almost the highlight of the festival for me. Lang and Doley were with Manx again here and the music was just as enjoyable. Starting with just Doley for ‘Working On A Railroad’ and ‘Coat of Mail’ (maybe his best song), Manx then invited Lang on stage for another delightful performance. Speaking to Manx earlier in the day I was amazed to learn that they had not rehearsed before the Port Fairy show, nor had they here. ‘That’s how good Jeff is,” said Harry, in admiration. Indeed!
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit are just about the hottest thing on the Americana scene. The Americana Music Association seems to be smitten with Isbell and have jammed his trophy cabinet full over the past five years. When he first appeared at Bluesfest at least ten years ago with Justin Townes Earle, Isbell was a chubby twenty-something who enjoyed a drink. Now he is a lean, fit teetotaller with the most powerful band this side of the Drive By Truckers, with whom he started. All credit to the Truckers too, who helped Isbell find the template that has been so successful for him. In fact, Isbell launched into ‘Decoration Day,’ that he wrote for the Truckers early in his set. Songs from the last couple of albums, Something More Than Free and The Nashville Sound featured heavily and the catalogue of songs is now substantial. Isbell sounds great and his band is fiery at times but I reckon a bit more light and shade could have been valuable in this 90-minute festival set. Others said he was the best thing at the festival.
I must admit that I am a huge fan of Jackson Browne, whose music has been a close companion for most of my life. One of the major figures in the Southern California rock scene of the ‘70’s Browne’s recorded output has slowed in recent years but he still tours with a fantastic band, sounds as good as ever, knows how to communicate with an audience and always constructs an interesting set list.
I was worried that I had missed seeing Browne at a concert venue such as The Palais in St Kilda because I came here but it turned out that the Bluesfest show was only 5 songs shy of most of his concert sets. Happy days!
Sure, we want to hear the hits – and we got plenty of those – but we also want to hear the full gamut of what Browne can do and we certainly get that. The fact that the two new songs (Some Bridges’ and ‘The Dreamer’) were standouts, suggests that Browne has been taking it a little too easy in recent years and that a new album might (and should) be on the horizon.
Of course, Browne always tours with great musicians and, as on his last visit here a few years ago, he brought lap and pedal steel maestro Greg Leisz (who also played acoustic guitar at times). Leisz plays the part that David Lindley played for so many years, though he is no mere fill in as he is a superlative musician in his own right. Bassist Bob Glaub can also claim hall of fame status. Val McCallum on guitar, Jeff Young on keyboards and Mauricio Lewak in drums were augmented by vocalists Alethea Mills and Chavonne Stewart. The engine room of the band just grooves along like a cruising V8 Mustang behind Browne, eating up the musical miles without ever misfiring. It’s heaven if you are a fan of the SoCal oevre!
Starting with the prophetic ‘Before The Deluge’ from Late For The Sky (1974), Browne then, perhaps surprisingly, played ‘Some Bridges’ confident that it could stand up next to some of the classics. After ‘You Love The Thunder’ he threw in ‘The Long Way Round,’ from his most recent album Standing In The Breach. ‘Doctor My Eyes’ and ‘Rock Me On The Water,’ where he sat at the piano, then preceded ‘The Dreamer.’ You get the picture: something old then something new for the first part of the show. Then it was pretty much classics. There was a beautiful version of ‘These Days’ prior to which Browne reminded us of the late Glenn Frey who co-wrote it. (It also reminded me of the late Gregg Allman who recorded it too). This was followed by ‘Take It Easy,’ which every recognised from the first chord and sang along to for the whole time until it segued into a gorgeous ‘Our Lady of The Well’ (one of the great segues of all time on record when they first appeared on For Everyman). ‘Barricades of Heaven’ was followed by ‘The Pretender’ and ‘For A Dancer’ (another from Late For The Sky).
Browne concluded the 17 song, 90-minute show with ‘Running On Empty’ and ‘The Load Out/Stay.’ (Though it has always seemed odd that the audience sings ‘stay,’ the show ends and the band leaves. Surely there should be another song?).
Sentimentally, this had to be the show of the festival for me. There was no way I was going to stay later that night after such an inspiring performance.
Sunday April 1
The day started with the best practical joke when a friend texted me that Nile Rodgers had been cancelled and replaced by an Easter Sunday service with the right-wing fundamentalist preacher Reverend Fred Nile. (At least I thought it was amusing).
William Crighton was on the Delta Stage early and he is a really compelling performer. Challenging the audience, involving them and strutting the stage like some sort of hot gospeller. He also does a fabulous version of Eric Bogle’s ‘ The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,’ which introduces a young audience to one of Australia’s great songwriters. Frankly, I thought Crighton would be enjoying ‘mainstream’ success by now. His presence is so large that one would think he should be on one of the main stages. Maybe next year.
I could hear the audience response to First Aid Kit on the Mojo Stage from a long way off and when I arrived they were just finishing ‘Rebel Heart,’ the first of a 15-song set that included 7 songs from the latest album, Ruins. Still, ‘Emmylou,’ from the second album The Lion’s Roar (2012) got just about the biggest ovation. The harmonies of the sisters Soderberg are luminous and they held the audience pretty much transfixed, especially when Joanna Soderberg made a speech condemning the perpetrators of sexual harassment.
This is when I decided to stake my position at the Delta stage for three acts. The Hanlon Brothers are said to ‘fuse hip hop, r&b, soul and jazz,’ which is a neat encapsulation. They also claim to be the Gold Coast’s favourite band. It could be added that they are immensely entertaining once you get over the impression that these are the guys who just did not fit in at school and had to form a group! Led by Saia and Omar Hanlon were joined by New Zealand Voice winner Matt Saunoa and guests from The Strides, the Kiwi reggae band that played on the Boomerang Stage.
I really like Benjamin Booker’s latest album, Witness, and when he did some of the tracks from that record, including the title track, ‘Motivation’ and ‘Believe,’ they were definitely the stand outs. For the rest of the set, Booker is almost frenetic in his pace and it felt like a bit more variety would enhance the show. But he does have a gritty delivery, can play furious guitar and has already written some great songs.
Dumpstaphunk are led by Ivan Neville, son of the great Aaron Neville, and it is just about the funkiest band out of New Orleans this side of Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentlemen. Having two former members of the Neville Brothers band in guitarist/vocalist Tony Hall and bassist Nick Daniels sure helps. As soon as Hall plays you can hear echoes of the Nevilles, so imagine that group mixed with The Meters and you have an idea of the Dumpstaphunk sound.
John Butler closed the evening on the Mojo Stage and enlisted the help of Michael Franti, William Crighton and others for a protest against the Adani Mine. Admirable. But by that stage we were back in the car heading for some sleep and the final day.
Monday April 2
By Monday it has become an endurance test. We have hardly spent any time at the beach. The pool where we are staying has only been visited twice and we haven’t had a proper sit down meal for five days! The beer price of $10 a can at the festival has almost turned me into a teetotaller! Today we need to swim and eat first.
Walking into the festival again at 3.00pm we caught a little of Irish singer Ryan McMullan on the Juke Joint Stage and made a note to make sure we follow him up: he sounded great.
Then it was off to see Mia Dyson on the Jambalaya Stage at three o’clock. Dyson’s latest album, If I Said Only So Far, I Take It Back was recorded in Muscle Shoals so there are big expectations as she is here with an American band. I have to say it is one of the more impressive shows I have seen from Dyson as she ran through the new songs. Towards the end of the show Dyson invited her father Jim (guitarist and former luthier) on stage for a couple of numbers. Jim has obviously been a big influence on Mia and he lives up this way now and is apparently playing in a local band. The most enthusiastic spectator was Dyson’s sound guy, whose name is apparently Mikey and who could hardly restrain himself from pumping his fists after every number. Justifiably so.
Next it was The Wailers at the Crossroads for a dose of reggae. With one remaining original member in bassist Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett the group might nowadays be unkindly described as a covers band. Except that the catalogue of Bob Marley songs is marvellous and they perform them rather well. ‘Rastaman Vibration.’ ‘Is This Love?,’ ‘I Shot The Sheriff,’ ‘Three Little Birds,’ ‘One Love,’ ‘Jammin’,’ ‘Get Up Stand Up’ and ‘Exodus’ were all rolled out and sounded great.
Speaking of covers band, Nile Rodgers was at pains to point out several times that his appearance with Chic was not as ‘covers act’ because he actually had a hand in writing or producing the songs, even if other artists had hits with them. One might quibble with this except that the classics ‘I’m Coming Out’ (Diana Ross), ‘We Are Family’ (Sister Sledge), ‘Like A Virgin’ (Madonna), ‘Let’s Dance’ (Bowie), ‘Get Lucky’ (Daft Punk), ‘Le Freak’….the hits just kept coming with Rodgers providing the memorable guitar riffs. (Maybe he is the dance equivalent of Keith Richards?) The audience loved it.
Apparently, they also loved Lionel Richie who came on after Nile Rodgers on the Mojo stage but we finished off with another dose of Lukas Nelson & Promise of The Real on the Jambalaya Stage and then Chain on the Delta Stage. Matt Taylor must have one of the most distinctive voices of any blues player anywhere and he still sounds in fine form.
Then we called an early night. Exhaustion had set in!
Conclusion: I don’t think anyone would say that this year had a classic Bluesfest line-up. (I wish I had been there last year to see Patti Smith). In some ways it is a watershed year before the big 30th birthday. However, it did have enough big name acts to please just about everyone and it remains far and away the nation’s premier ‘roots music’ festival, on a par with with similar events in America and Europe, if not eclipsing many of them.