Thursday, 12 April 2012

Live Review - Bluesfest, Byron Bay, 2012

Published on The Music Network, April 12th, 2012.
For online version, click here.
All pics by the incredibly talented and hardworking Bluesfest photographic team.

Byron Bay Bluesfest – 2012
Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm

It’s hard to know where to begin when writing up a festival the size of Byron Bay’s Bluesfest, such is the length and breadth of a festival covering five days, as many stages and over 200 performances.

Of course, there are the obvious places to start – Cold Chisel on the opening night who showed no signs of age as they ripped through a two hour set of a mixture of classics, obscurities and new songs from latest record, No Plans.  John Fogerty who laid down Cosmo’s Factory on the Saturday night, then Green River (both in their entirety) on the Monday night, along with a string of Creedence hits, wowing crowds with his energy and passion.  Or John Butler who played a set-by-numbers, but whose energy made up for that and then some.

Then again, you could start in the less obvious places.  Eilen Jewell and her black-clad band, mixing scintillating surf guitar sounds perfectly with western swing, her sultry vocal melting hearts and minds, a true delight to see. Jewell celebrated her 33rd birthday on the day of the band’s second set, but it was her giving the gifts, a truly fantastic spectacle.

Eilen Jewell
And then there’s Justin Townes Earle, who at six foot five, skinny as a rake, perpetually wreathed in cigarette smoke, had the crowds spellbound as he told tales tall and true, this time around with an acoustic guitarist and upright bassist as his foils.  His guitar work has people straining to see a loop pedal, but there is none.  His lyrics have wannabe songwriters turning themselves inside out trying to replicate, but they can’t.  This man is the real deal, his sets highlights, his talent vividly apparent.

His father, Steve Earle, is obviously the well from where this talent flows, the elder Earle drawing you in with tales of his own, the man is a born storyteller.  Whilst his second set was drowned out somewhat by G3 on the Mojo Stage, there’s no escaping his innate ability to so simply convey a story through song.

Justin Townes Earle
For the more raucously inclined, there were the likes of Dallas Frasca, whose sets get bigger, heavier and rawer every time I see them, matched by Marshall O’Kell, who blew the roof off the Cavanbah Stage on the Saturday afternoon to a crowd more suited to somewhere like Wacken, as opposed to Bluesfest.  These two are on their own trajectories, and it was excellent to see they’re evolving so solidly from lacklustre records released a year or so ago.

The aforementioned G3, whilst epic as far as guitar pyrotechnics go, bordered on both the insane and the mundane – you’ve really got to be into what they’re selling to sit there for two and a half hours; there’s such a thing as too much guitar.  Still, to wander past every half an hour or so and bathe in the insanity was a fine thing to be sure – everything is good in moderation.

It has become apparent that Lachlan Bryan, frontman for Melbourne band The Wildes, is equally as mesmerising on his own.  With just him, his guitar and a percussionist using a snare and brushes, Bryan spun many a tale – he’s certainly into his murder ballads – with a voice like molasses and guitar skill to match.  Think Jordie Lane, but more of a country bent, and you’ve got Lachy Bryan, who is destined for bigger things.

Lachlan Bryan
It didn’t rain this year, for the first time in the festival’s existence apparently, and temperatures reached those of mid-summer, an odd prospect for this part of the world at Easter time, and so there was a carefree vibe floating over the festival this year.  Numbers were down slightly (as you’d expect, given the almost unbelievable strength of last year’s lineup) and so there was room to move, a true Byron Bay experience indeed.

Canadian Harry Manx once again brought his east-meets-west ethos, and with local boy Lachlan Doley on keys, added some extra depth to his Indian raga-influenced blues sounds.  Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson expertly melded blues with Celtic influence with finger-snapping results; Joanne Shaw Taylor melted faces with some expert electric blues guitar wrangling; and Maceo Parker brought the funk, New Orleans style, his show late on the Monday night the cure for what ailed everyone, which at that point was exhaustion and perhaps, for some, overindulgence in beer, wine, what have you.

David Crosby had recovered from his vocal problems of the previous week, and with Steve Stills proving he’s one of the best guitarists out there, CSN laid down a heavy, dark set which had old hands ecstatic, and new comers converted – age has not wearied.

Sublime and Slightly Stoopid were also on the bill this year, but aside from that do not deserve a mention.

Where to from here?  Seasick Steve with John Paul Jones on bass and mandolin – exceptional.  My Morning Jacket – confusing and exciting, all at once.  Brian Setzer – is it about the hair or the guitars?  A three-way double bass-off though, that’s something you don’t see every day.  Angelique Kidjo – how did she fit that many crowd members on stage?  There must have been 100 up there.  Zappa Plays Zappa and Yes – what, exactly, is happening there?  Good, though.

And so it came to an end, things melding into others, sounds ringing in your ears, dust in your nose, unused drink tickets in your pocket (possibly).  A festival that, big name-wise, wasn’t as huge as 2011, but that musically ticked all the boxes and created some new ones.  It just shows that even if the headliners don’t overly excite you, there is always something lurking just beneath the surface, waiting to grab you just right.  That was certainly the case this year, and no doubt will be for years to come.  A fine festival all ‘round.

Samuel J. Fell

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