Australian Guitar - - Axes In Action -

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.



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