Saturday, 5 March 2011

Bluesfest, 2010

Published in Rolling Stone (Aust), June Issue, 2010

East Coast Blues & Roots Festival 2010
Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, Byron Bay

A limp, toasted ham and cheese sandwich outside the Tiger terminal at Melbourne airport is a poor way to begin proceedings I feel, waiting for a plane which is already half an hour late on a grey morning where everything seems as far away from Byron Bay as is physically possible.  Cut to five days later however, standing ragged and raw with dust through my hair and a wild look in my eye, and the airport scene is naught but a distant memory.  Since then Bluesfest, this year in it’s 21st incarnation, has seduced me with her siren song, goaded me into trying her wares, caressed me aurally and held me close prior to leaving me destitute before I’ve really had a chance to fully indulge – so much to see in so little time. 

Dr. John lays it on thick, playing two pianos at once, his New Orleans groove writhing like a serpent hell bent on it’s own funky demise.  The Blues Preachers transport people back to a time of depression and pre-war, sweet harmonies and harmonica laid bare on a bed of simplicity, no less powerful than a ten-piece band.  Jen Cloher injects some kick into her set and has people embracing her for what she is – a songwriter of the highest order.  Hat Fitz gets dirty, rubbing his sounds in the dirt and shooting them every which way to Sunday.

I amble from interview to stage and back again, meeting up periodically with photographer, Paul; comparing notes and drinking cold cans of beer whilst all around us people of all ages, races and denominations ingest the sounds of a planet, all set to music at the Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, 12 clicks out of Bryon Bay.  “I think everything is running really well,” muses festival director, Peter Noble, when I’m briefly introduced to him in the artist’s enclosure on Saturday night.  Noble is, to an extent, correct, for behind the scenes is an army working with a fervour to ensure everything runs smoothly.

However, this being the first time Bluesfest has been held out at Tyagarah, there are bound to be some wrinkles that warrant ironing out – the sound bleed between stages for one; having six stages in a space really only fit for five – the First Nation stage being essentially pointless, being as close as it was to Crossroads and Jambalaya.  Regardless of the kinks however, Bluesfest is at it’s glorious best this year – out here in the swamp with the ocean over the way and the pounding of sounds from all around, it feels like home. 

“We’ve been wanting to come here since we started the band around two and a half years ago, and so to finally be here is a real privilege,” notes Johnny Wishbone, tattooed and enigmatic frontman of the Sydney-based Snowdroppers when I corner them in the media tent.  Their set on Sunday afternoon reflects this, a bombastic explosion of old time bluegrass injected straight into the modern day rock n’ roll vein – a throbbing powerhouse so happy to be playing a part; a band to watch to be sure.

Buddy Guy whips the full Crossroads stage into a frenzy with a power and fervour common to players half his age – he’s 76, and Buddy Guy is showing no signs of slowing down.  By contrast, John Mayall seems a little slower in action these days.  He still has what it takes, but it saddens me somewhat to see his first set on the Saturday afternoon, a set which is big and powerful, but a set so far removed from the rawness and desperation of the early Bluesbreakers, it seems lacklustre and boring.

“Well, that’s just technology, it’s the power in the set-ups they have at festivals like these,” Mayall explains to me a few hours later.  “But I can tell you that the attitude and the approach is just the same now as it was when we were in our 20s in 1964.”  I see him play again on Monday afternoon and catch a much freer, more improvisational set, the standout being the 15 minute rendition of ‘Room To Move’ – redeemed in my eyes to be sure.

On Saturday afternoon I sit under the trees outside the artists enclosure with four members of Louisiana supergroup, Lil’ Band O’ Gold – founding members, CC Adcock and Steve Riley, along with living legends Warren Storm and Dickie Landry – a group whose infectious party attitude and downright virtuosity has already become the stuff of Bluesfest legend, after only one set.  “It’s a wonderful thing to be here,” mentions Adcock, not only referring to Bluesfest, but also Australia, given this is the LBOG’s first trip over here.  “Also, if you didn’t grow up in the 50s, this is as close as you’re gonna get,” adds Landry.  “Yeah,” agrees Adcock, “it feels like America in the 50s.  That’s a good thing.” 

Local guitar slinger, Ray Beadle, is phenomenal, on a par with any other six-string virtuoso you care to name.  Crowded House are ecstatic, a bigger sing-along this festival has never seen, although their new material serves as naught but an interlude between the classics.  Jack Johnson plays a few new tracks off his forthcoming record, the rest of his set made up of old favourites.  Gogol Bordello blow rooves off stages with the sheer enthusiasm they exude while Jeff Beck transcends this mortal world with guitar wrangling, the likes of which are rarely seen.  There are tears and laughter and beer is swilled with reckless abandon, the Break pound people with their surf grooves and Bela Fleck mesmerises with Oumou Sangare on vocals and African percussion behind, truly an odd mix which satisfies all senses.

And then it’s all over and you’re left standing there, ragged and raw, not really sure what just happened but secure in the knowledge that it was epic – Bluesfest lived up to expectations this year, and then some, a time not many of the thousands who attended, are likely to forget.

Samuel J. Fell

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