Tuesday, 5 July 2011

22nd Byron Bay Bluesfest - Easter Weekend, 2011

Published in May issue of Rhythms Magazine
All photography by Paul Smith @ Paul Smith Images (pics not published in Rhythms Mag)

The view from above

Bluesfest 2011
Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, Byron Bay

There was a moment this year at Bluesfest, where I literally feared for my life.  If I’d known I was walking into a potentially fatal situation, I would never have done so, I’d have run for the hills, via the bar, and gone to find something soothing, like Trombone Shorty or Mavis Staples.  Instead, I sat on the stage in the Rhythms Q&A tent and co-interviewed Michelle Shocked with Brian Wise.

Indeed, I should have read the signs as Shocked walked up onstage and sat down, eating her ice-cream and scowling.  I should have realised when she began giving one-word answers that we were in trouble.  I should have realised, as she stared at me with her cold, dead eyes, that my days were numbered.  Her subsequent rant to the audience, sparked by what I thought was quite an innocent question, about how corporations were raping the world (I think she may have been referring to Rhythms there) certainly brought it home and when she stormed off stage mid-interview, I realised how close to death I had been –methinks, retrospectively, that Michelle Shocked may have missed the point.  Brian and I, on the other hand, were happy to escape with our lives.

George Clinton sees the light
There was another moment at Bluesfest this year where I wondered if perhaps I’d stumbled across another dimension, one so damn funky and hazy, that its mere existence is enough to warp minds and explode brains.  Sitting in a tiny room with George Clinton, he of Parliament Funkadelic, talking about fishing as two of his band members massaged various parts of his body (knees and shoulders folks, get your minds out of the gutter).  Indeed, as I walked out of his dressing room four and a half minutes later, I couldn’t be sure if it had actually happened.

There was another moment at Bluesfest this year where I raised my arms to the heavens and asked (no one in particular) if I could get a witness.  A witness to the slithering, slinky groove being laid down by Robert Randolph and the Family Band who didn’t stop for a single second of their Sunday night set, swapping instruments and laying it on thick – I’d been waiting for this since 2003 and I was not disappointed.  They’ve gotten bigger and better, but have still kept that spark that so endeared them to me, and many others, those eight years ago.

There was yet another moment at Bluesfest this year where we wedged ourselves as deep into the crowd as we could and watched the Blind Boys of Alabama sing their way into the hearts of one of the biggest crowds of the weekend, their age doing little to dampen their enthusiasm, their vocal range, their stamina.  And with Aaron Neville stepping out to lay down a few numbers, this was the vocal-infused set of the festival, hands down.

There were also lots of little moments at Bluesfest that combined to paint a picture of grandeur, because that is of course, what Bluesfest was this year.  Kim Churchill first up on the Thursday night, putting his all into it, he’s come a long way since he began, not that long ago.  Bobby Long, quite nervous, but winning people over with his new school Dylan-esque songs, one to watch for sure.  Louis King kick-starting the festival early on Friday, his Liars Klub backing him up and then some, the resulting fuzzed-out rockabilly blues doing wonders for early morning hangovers.  And Mavis Staples, where did she find those pipes?  Still winning after all these years, watching her was certainly special, particularly when she launched into ‘The Weight’ and invited one Elvis Costello, up to help her out.

Elvis Costello has never left the building
I talked to Tony Joe White about fishing too, then interviewed him on the Rhythms Q&A stage, then went and watched him play and as always, was lured into the swamp on fuzzed-out wings, impressive.  Jeff Lang, always engaging, engaged me yet again, this is a man who in my book can do no wrong, and on the Sunday evening, he did just that.  I saw Bob Dylan too, he was playing this year, he was a lot better than when I saw him last and his band were great.  Having said that, I’m not much of an aficionado, so I’ll leave it at that.

Oh BB King, you goddamn legend, what a sight that was.  But BB is an old man now, his voice is going, his guitar (whilst still sugary-sweet) is fading and even a band of that calibre couldn’t make this a set you’d honestly call mind-blowing.  Still, to have seen the man in concert, to have been within 20 metres of him and Lucille, was good for me, and was almost enough to overcome what was, truly, unfortunately, a lacklustre set.  I surely had the blues after seeing that.
His Bobness 
And so an amazing line-up, odd moments mixed with fantastic, a true Bluesfest in every sense of the word and the meaning.  The question remains though – given the line-up this year, who can they possibly get to top it?  I know not the answer to that question my friends, suffice to say, this year was a winner.

Samuel J. Fell

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