Every Easter for the last 34 years the idyllic Northern Rivers of NSW, Australia awakens from its famously “chilled out” drowse to host one of the greatest blues & roots festivals in the world, Bluesfest Byron Bay.
This year the iconic, multi award-winning festival welcomed back a mostly international lineup for the first time since COVID, and it was packed to the brim with the world’s greatest blues guitarists including Buddy Guy, Eric Gales, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Bonamassa, Marcus King, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Joey Landreth, and more.
1. Buddy Guy letting a kid play his guitar
On Saturday night Buddy took to the Crossroads stage to play the first of his very last Australian shows as part of his Farewell 2023 Tour. Garnering quite possibly the largest audience of the whole festival, blues fans packed in tightly to see the last living blues guitar legend do his thing one last time. The entire show was brilliant and hilariously entertaining. One of the tightest bands in the business and some of the most gorgeous stage lighting adorning them as they played, there were so many highlights, but the most heartwarming and memorable was when Buddy took a detour into the crowd and stopped for a young blonde boy who was standing in the crowd with his parents.
The almost 87-year-old guitarist took the shy boy’s hand and got him to strum the guitar. The confidence that overtook the child and the look of sheer joy and disbelief on his face brought tears to mine and many other audience members’ eyes. Buddy is all about keeping the blues alive, and this little act of kindness on Monday night was incredible to see. I have never smiled so much during a performance. Buddy and his band are spreading joy one solo at a time!
2. Eric Gales, Marcus King, Joe Bonamassa, & Kingfish covering Hendrix’s “Redhouse“
During Eric Gales’ set on Saturday night Joe Bonamassa, Marcus King, and Kingfish made their way to the stage for what can only be described as one of those magic “only to be seen at Bluesfest” moments. The foursome took turns soulfully shredding a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Redhouse.” The audience could be heard roaring in excitement from across the festival, and Beth Hart could be seen enthusiastically enjoying the performance side of stage. A modern guitar hero orgy that left every blues lover in attendance bragging for days!
3. Bonnie Raitt performing her Grammy-winning single “Made Up Mind” with its writers The Bros Landreth
Arguably the most talked about female musician of the year, Bonnie Raitt performed two emotional sets over Easter weekend and one of the most delightful moments was when she opened her first show with a rendition of her Grammy award-winning single “Made Up Mind” and invited the songs writers The Bros Landreth to perform it alongside her.
For days there had been chatter across the festival about whether the Bros would join her for the song, so when she welcomed them to the stage it was met with a sea of cheers. Bonnie embraced the boys as they sang harmonies, and the mutual appreciation from musician to musician was a heartwarming display.
4. Lachy Doley’s backing singers stealing the show
World renowned keyboard virtuoso Lachy Doley’s late night Saturday set was one of the smallest crowds of the festival yet was without a doubt one of the highlights. The intoxicating high energy nature of his playing was elevated even further when he decided to let his four backing vocalists take turns leading on a song he wrote many years ago with a female co-writer. Consisting of Australian vocalists Bek Jensen, Jade MacRae, Mahalia Barnes and Karen Lee Andrews, each of whom are also solo artists, the singers encouraged one another as they each took turns turning the track into what felt like a gospel song.
While the song’s theme wasn’t one of faith, the sheer power and soul in each of their voices made the few minutes feel spiritual and had each of us audience members praising the incredible talent on stage. To stand out so boldly at a festival full of the biggest blues artists in the world is testament to the brilliance of not only Doley but his entire band. Some of the best Australia has to offer.
5. Marcus King covering BB King
Marcus King is no stranger to Bluesfest and he made his return to the Crossroads stage this year with a mostly new band in tow. The South Carolina native’s sound has matured majorly in recent years, since working alongside the Black Keys’ Dan Auberach on his solo albums, King’s approach is far more refined and his voice takes centerstage in a way it hadn’t previously. The newlywed seemed in the mood to share the love as he dedicated a cover of BB King’s “Guess Who” to the huge audience in front of him.
His rich, raspy vocals tore through the mic and were followed by some gorgeous BB King licks and a solo that only King could pull off, proving that while his voice is one in a million his way around six strings will always be his superpower. The horn section also took turns soloing and his guitarist Drew Smithers’ delicious slide solo topped off the cover perfectly. The new King of the blues covering the original King of the Blues and choosing a song that only the diehards would know was a true treat to witness.
6. Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt joining Mavis Staples onstage
The coolest grandma on earth Mavis Staples’ set was already a sassy, soul stirring winner but it took an even greater turn when she invited friends Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt onstage for a cover of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”
Word quickly spread of the surprise performance and people ran from across the festival site to see the special moment unfold. The trio embraced lovingly post-performance and left everyone feeling immensely moved.
7. The Bros Landreth’s drummer playing seamlessly with a broken foot
The Bros Landreth have been Bluesfest fan favorites for close to a decade yet as the Canadian band made their way to Aussie shores for this years festival they were met with some unfortunate setbacks. Firstly the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist Joey Landreth came down with an illness and then drummer Roman P Clarke broke his foot only hours into his Aus arrival after “shoredumping” at the local beach. Not wanting to give in and get a last-minute replacement Clarke took to the stage on Sunday and absolutely stole the show with his impeccable playing, without even so much as a practice before the performance.
The trio’s set was filled with stunning three-part harmonies, gorgeous Lowell George-esque slide solos and a perseverance that was unforgettable and showed the true depth of the band’s talent. Even with a multitude of setbacks they gave us a memorable and moving set, even bringing tears to a few audience members’ eyes at times. The true definition of “the show must go on!”
8. Southern Avenue’s first show down under
On Australian shores for the very first time, Southern Avenue left crowds talking for the entire week after their energetic and affecting Thursday show on the Juke Joint stage. While the entire band’s GRAMMY nominated musical prowess was remarkable to witness in person, it was frontwoman Tierinii Jackson’s striking powerhouse voice that had people reeling. The kind of voice that leaves a mark and has you craving more, soul food at its finest. Their two shows at Bluesfest were a gift for long-time fans and they were by far this year’s biggest discovery artist for festival goers who were unaware of the band prior.
9. The Doobie Brothers’ saxophonist stealing the show
The Doobie Brothers returned to Bluesfest this year with blue eyed soul great Michael Mcdonald along for the ride. Always a great time, the band’s harmonies, tightness, and all-around rock n roll energy was even better than anticipated as they ran through a set that chronicled all their greatest hits from both Mcdonald and Johnston’s eras.
However, unexpectedly it was saxophonist Marc Russo who stole the show. As he tore through solo after solo and played with an ease and virtuosity that shook me to my core, his passionate playing and long, flowing grey locks were hard to forget. The already enthused crowd perked up even more every time he took a moment to shine.
10. Roshani’s moving vocals
Sydney Australia based, Sri-Lankan born singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Roshani returned to Bluesfest for a second year and gave every world-renowned international artist a run for their money. Roshani’s music is authentic, raw and full of genuine passion. Her presence captivates, and her voice is the kind that instantly shuts up a rowdy audience and sends chills down your spine.
A deep, decadent, pretty tone and effortless runs that serve each song perfectly, her voice echoed across the crowd. Roshani has spent many years busking and it’s evident she knows how to turn a room full of strangers into fans. A small but mighty woman who’s lived the blues and now travels around singing them – she’s paving the way for a new generation of blues women in Aus and beyond. Inspirational and uplifting.