BYRON BAY BLUESFEST
WHEN: THURSDAY, 29TH MARCH — MONDAY, 2ND APRIL WHERE: TYAGARAH TEA TREE FARM, BYRON BAY REVIEW BY REG BARBER • PHOTOS BY KIM RUDNER
This year marked the 29th annual Byron Bay Bluesfest. 29 years is a long time, but there’s no secret formula here. Bluesfest has consistently had one of the most varied lineups of any festival ever held in the country. It’s about much more than the latest triple j pop act or cashing in on the nostalgia card. Their strength lies in an ability to put together something for just about everyone, showcasing top-notch quality. This is evident in the wide range of ages of its patronage, from kids through to grandparents. Big name acts are what sell tickets, but Bluesfest always manages to balance out the headliners with new and varied acts from around the world – acts that are devoted to the genre they specialise in, or well known in their own country but nowhere else. This adds a whole new dimension to the Bluesfest experience – there’s nothing better than feeling like you have discovered something new.
It pays to do your homework; there was so much on offer that it was very easy to miss something new. So much of the lineup was outside my listening comfort zone that a bit of preparation helped get through the plethora of acts I had never heard of. This year, Bluesfest put together such an eclectic mix that it would be impossible to know what was good in every genre. Sorong Samarai from Papau New Guinea and Indonesia, Asgier from Iceland and Youssou Ndour from Senegal were all perfect examples.
With acts ranging from The Wailers (Bob Marley’s band) through to the New Power Generation (Prince’s band) and Robert Plant and his Sensational Space Shifters – who played mostly bluesgrass music, to the disappointment of one loud diehard Led Zeppelin fan in front of me – it was a musical smorgasbord; a feast for the ears. Tash Sultana, Asgeir and Rag And Bone Man brought in the younger crowd, while Lionel Richie, The Original Blues Brothers Band and Jackson Browne drew in some of the older audience. From the mix of ages watching each performance, it was impossible to tell that there were some original fans and some discovering their new favourite artist for the first time.
Homegrown talent is rife at Bluesfest, and we are always presented with an exquisite platter of Australian artists to indulge in. William Crighton and Hussy Hicks were respectively witnessed in owning their stages, audiences captivated. Steve Smyth performed a jaw-dropping show on the final day along with brass and string accompaniment. Having won hearts throughout the festival, he was presented with a bouquet of roses from an audience member. The true highlight of his set – and essentially one of the festival’s – was Smyth’s spontaneous acapella performance while his guitar was being restrung, channelling an Italian operatic master. The cliché stands: you had to be there.
Dan Sultan and the John Butler Trio packed out the main tent for their one-off performances, with the latter using his status to rouse festivalgoers about the pressing environmental cause that is the STOP ADANI coal mine protest. Halfway through the set, a
giant STOP ADANI banner was walked across the stage by a string of musicians including Lukas Nelson (yes, Willie’s son). Nelson and his rock band, Promise Of The Real, played four of the five festival days and are the only band already booked for next year’s Bluesfest. They were locked in for the festival’s 30th anniversary by director Peter Noble before this year’s run was even finished, which should tell you something about just how massive their sets were. It’s clear to say that Nelson and his band blew everyone away, and are one of the diamonds you anticipate discovering at the institution that is Bluesfest.
For me, that is the best part of Bluesfest: stumbling upon something that you knew nothing about. The California Honeydrops were mind-blowing, filling the void left by St. Paul And The Broken Bones this year. The level of musicianship within the band and the vocal prowess of their energetic frontman were a definite highlight. First Aid Kit brought their mix of country and alt-rock with an important social message in tow. They implored men in the audience to speak up against the culture in which mistreatment of women is acceptable, which was met with the loudest roar I heard throughout the entire festival. The energy didn’t stop for the duration of their set and, their harmonies were something only sisters could pull off.
Con Brio blew minds and lived up to their name, along with Harts, who performed an instrument for sacrifice. That particular incident had a few people scratching their heads, wondering if they were watching the last ever Harts show. Chic and Nile Rodgers were not names I was familiar with. During their performance, I saw many members of the audience looking at each other as if to say, “I know this song” – myself included. Hearing these versions, and in some cases, the original versions of these songs was an amazing experience. Melissa Etheridge was a force of nature; something only years of experience can produce. She was a master on the guitar too.
Every year, Bluesfest hosts some of the best musical acts from around the globe, with this year being no exception. The festival was an overall experience – the food stalls, the location, and the lack of inebriated punters all standing out along with the lack of queues for food, beer and toilets, and, dare I say it, the vibe. 2019 will mark the 30th year of Bluesfest – here’s to the next 30.
ERIC GALES FIRST AID KIT
LUKAS NELSON & PROMISE OF THE REAL NILE RODGERS