Monday, 28 April 2014

Live Review - Byron Bay Bluesfest 2014

Published in the Arts section of The Sydney Morning Herald, April 22. (Unedited version below).

Byron Bay Bluesfest, 2014
Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, Byron Bay

This year’s Byron Bay Bluesfest was a special one. It’s not many music festivals that make it to the 25 year mark, but the weekend just gone, Bluesfest hit the milestone with aplomb, and under clear blue skies to boot – a far cry from soggy events of years past.

Despite the silver anniversary however, numbers did seem down on previous years. This isn’t really a surprise given the current oversaturation of music festivals in Australia, along with the fact there was no ‘super act’ on the bill this year (a Robert Plant or Bob Dylan for example, as was the case last year and in 2011 respectively).

Regardless, numbers were good, a party vibe prevailing, the usual diverse crowd that descends upon Bluesfest every year out in colourful force – Indian headdresses and Slash-style top hats, neon and tie-dye, old hippies and young kids, everyone there for a common reason; Bluesfest crowds have always been listening crowds, they’re there for the music and it’s reflected in the relaxed atmosphere.

On the Mojo Stage on Friday night, the future of blues music revealed itself in the form of Gary Clark Jr. On his Bluesfest debut, the 30-year-old Clarke, with his soulful voice and incendiary guitar playing, stamped himself firmly as the man to take the blues to the next generation.

By contrast, a member of the older blues generation, James Cotton, on his first Australian tour, played to an overflowing Delta Stage on Sunday night. Cotton, one of the last surviving artists to record at Sun Records with Sam Phillips, still knows his way around the harmonica; backed by a crack band, he took everyone back to the deep south, showing at 79 years of age, he’s not done yet.

While headliners John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band and Jack Johnson attracted a great deal of the younger audience, it was in the mid-range that a lot of older punters found their moments. Gregg Allman, Jimmie Vaughn, Medicine For The People, Michael Franti, Charlie Musselwhite, Saidah Baba Talibah and the ubiquitous Music Maker Foundation, this year featuring Pat Wilder and Cool John Ferguson, stood out, an eclectic range of artists, as has always been Bluesfest’s MO.

Twenty-five years in then, and Bluesfest is alive and well. It’s a festival which has shown a willingness to adapt, as well as take risks, something which has kept it ahead of the curve and allowed it to expand and flourish, this year’s event being testament to that.

Samuel J. Fell

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