Bluesfest in Australia Shines for its 25th Birthday

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Grace Potter and the Nocturnals at the Byron Bay Bluesfest
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals (Photo by Chris Dornan)

At the most easterly point on the Australian continent along famously beautiful coastline lies the town of Byron Bay: a hub for sunshine lovers, surfers, earth-loving hippies and naturally, great musicians. Over the long Easter weekend of 2014, a collection of talented blues and roots musicians from around the world descended upon this beachside town for the 25th Silver Jubilee anniversary of Byron Bay Bluesfest, and they pulled out all the stops to celebrate.

As if a jam-packed and stellar lineup ranging from Buddy Guy to Grace Potter wasn’t enough, the 5-day festival also delivered food to please all palates, roaming performers, markets and, unexpectedly, great weather. Typically hounded by onslaughts of torrential rain, this was “the first dry Easter festival in 10 years” according to locals, boasting constant sunshine and perfect 84° days.

To officially open the anniversary festival, director Peter Noble said a few words to celebrate before thanking and introducing the Arakwal People: the original inhabitants of the Byron area. They performed a ceremony that included elements of traditional dreamtime dance and song. Honoring the Indigenous people of the land is an important part of any public event in Australia, but its impact felt heightened by the gathering of many cultures, with the love of music as their common tie.

Steve Earle and The Dukes drew a huge crowd at the enormous Jambalaya stage tent, but the mood was rather mellow. Earle’s a solemn looking man, but his humor and soul emanated through his deep, growling vocals. Standout Dukes member Eleanor Whitmore shone on fiddle and vocals and, along with Kelly Looney on upright bass, fueled their alt country vibe; the crowd’s excitement peaking with their recognition of infamous hit of ’88: “Copperhead Road”.

Rock goddess Grace Potter and her band The Nocturnals took to the Mojo stage to perform a captivating hour of classic, hard rock. Equipped with signature miniskirt, wild blonde mane, and electric guitar with plenty of overdrive, Potter belted her potent pipes with just the right amount of flirtacious sweetness. A highlight was her lively cover of “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones, and that miniskirt.

Bluesfest was spoilt rotten in regard to powerhouse females. Beth Hart demonstrated her ballsy style and deep, husky voice; fluctuating between take-no-prisoners powerful, and heart-wrenchingly raw, sending waves of goosebumps through the audience in “Caught Out in the Rain”. Her fluttery vibrato and measured timing were bang on the mark; her band also.

The younger crowd was packed tighter than a tin of sardines when Los Angeles’s Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros filed on stage in their countless numbers. They gave a joyful performance full of genuinely touching moments as lead singer Alex Ebert interacted with his admiring audience during a pause in their breakout hit “Home”. A few gushing, on-mic dedications from members of the crowd were unexpectedly moving and Ebert’s chemistry with vocalist Jade Castrinos was decidedly adorable. This set seemed to have a stronger gospel influence than previously, but they effortlessly blended this into their infectious, hippie/psyche/folk brand, supported by fantastic instrumentation and arrangements.

Several other large groups from around the World made their way to the stages in Bluesfest’s most diverse lineup to date. Public Opinion Afro Orchestra gave one of the most animated performances of the weekend, with a lively injection of brass and percussion-driven afro-funk, accompanied by some trend-setting dance moves. Also representing Africa, Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 sent a provoking socio-political message through their captivating set. They were lead by frontman, saxophonist (and wild dancer) Kuti, son of Egypt 80’s original band leader Fela Kuti, who was also a musician and activist. The sounds and stories offered by these performers had the audience in a fit of revelry, and they didn’t stop there. Nahko & Medicine for the People brought a beautiful message and unique style of tribal funk-rock to their show, combining sung and spoken word, Native American-influenced melodies and harmonies and an impressive array of percussion into a totally danceable, upbeat format.

A performer close to the hearts of locals and one of the most explosive acts of the festival was John Butler Trio. Equipped with new drummer Grant Gerathy, they played one of their most convincing shows to date to a chock-full tent. Butler gave just as much airtime to his banjo picking and fervent slide acoustic skills in complex instrumentals like “Ocean” as he did to his more rootsy, folk-pop hits like “Zebra” and “Better Than”, making for a consistently exciting set.
Similarly, Dave Matthews Band – one of the biggest acts on the bill – delivered two marathon rock performances full of the kind of intensity and expertise they have built their worldwide success on, surely leaving all their enthusiasts satiated and in awe. 

With thick glasses and angelic blonde curls, Allen Stone came highly recommended and his soulful, sassy voice and sexy falsetto did not disappoint. His sound revealed a deep education and understanding of the blues, which he flourished with gospel pop, a style akin to English singer Jamie Lidell. With his groovy ensemble behind him, he swaggered and oozed his own brand of cool-as-hell during tracks like the feel-good “Celebrate Tonight”. He went on to tutor the enamored audience into a synchronized sidestep while crooning “Ain’t nobody too cool to party / Ain’t nobody too cool to f*** up / Ain’t nobody too cool to forget their lines”, followed by giggles.

Australians love humor with their music, and The Beards actually back it up with real musicianship and catchy choruses. It can be hard to see at first why a band full of bearded musicians who write songs only about beards could ever be popular. But they played a rocky and hilarious set to a dense crowd just about every day of the festival, keeping their audiences clutching their stomachs in stitches.

From stitches to staples –Bluesfest veteran Buddy Guy hit the stage and it was truly special to see blues royalty performing with such joy and charisma at 77 years old. The excitement and appreciation from the audience was palpable as he addressed his devotees, asking “are you ready?” before launching straight into his version of “Hoochie Coochie Man”. On tracks like “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues”, his showmanship was hard to match; with a cheeky expression he’d make the crowd laugh, then drop down to barely a whisper to reel everyone back in, ramping them back up to great heights with those note-bending, gut-busting solos he’s known for. His band was effortlessly impressive and he seemed to relish showing them off, particularly when dueling with skilful keys player Marty Sammon. At one stage Buddy and his guitar took a long stroll across the width of the crowd, just in front of the barriers, teasing the audience with his proximity before inviting one young boy to step out the front and assist with a solo, which was a real crowd pleaser.

The same day, another long-running Bluesfest favorite had drawn a large crowd into the overly crammed Juke Joint tent. Eric Bibb (“The Bibbs” as I overheard people affectionately referring to him) played a faultless and humble solo show, the masterful storyteller utilizing his clean fingerpicking acoustic style and soothing voice to his advantage. He debuted some brand new tracks, which brought a renewed attentiveness to a crowd trying to ignore the hot sun.

Honorable mentions should go to highly anticipated Jack Johnson, who, along with his band, played well and kept the crowd happy with his laid-back style; and Matt Corby, a mesmerizing young blues and gospel artist from Sydney. John Mayer, a deservedly admired blues guitarist with a smooth voice and reputation, delivered a solid set, though some instrumental sections were just a little too self-indulgent. Bob Marley’s original Wailers delivered a superbly executed set of the Rastafarian’s classic hits, and Michael Franti and Spearhead brought superb funk and personal warmth to their act.

It has to be said that Bluesfest’s attendees are a pretty extraordinary bunch. They were content, easy going and respectful which is in no small part the result of a meticulously and considerately planned event. The inevitable clashes caused by the tight schedule, however, made for some disappointing sacrifices. It would have been fantastic to have caught great acts like Booker T. Jones, The James Cotton Blues Band, Erykah Badu and seen more than the final minute of blues songstress Joss Stone. This year’s lineup – the most diverse so far – was carefully chosen to appeal to all age groups including young families and senior music lovers; enticing more attendees and maintaining a happy equilibrium. The location is faultless: Byron’s environment and its locals generate an infectious positive energy and warmth that even the artists were enjoying and commenting on. 
Overall, a huge success for Peter Noble and his Bluesfest team for the 25th anniversary of what has become one of the most enviable festivals in the Southern Hemisphere.

Byron Bay Bluesfest in Photos, by Chris Dornan Photography