Oh why hello again sunshine, bring on Day 3.
For those of you reading this before heading into the festival this year or the next, it's worth mentioning all that exists outside the music (although the music is all-encompassingly good!). Bluesfest is a festival crafted with care. The opening to Day 3 was spent absorbing the tent cities within the festival, and the shops and food stalls prove the thoughtful vibe. (Multiple quality gluten-free options at a festival? Incredible. Well we are in Byron I guess). Shops to be immersed in all things lovingly handmade include Renee Loves Frances, The Knicker Palour, Uscha books, Skincraft Leather & McTrustry’s Cigar box guitars, with its rotating line-up of budding blues musicians trying out McTrustry’s detailed creations. Another ever-intriguing stop in the day is the Cavanbah tent when Rhythms magazine curates interviews with Bluesfest artists.
Speaking of the Cavanbah, this tent is fast becoming my favourite for happening upon crowd-pleasing jams and young music discoveries, and Marshall and the Fro stole the attention of any hapless passerby. Reminiscent of Aussie blues rock acts gaining momentum like The Snowdroppers, they tapped into the instinct we seem to possess to dance to stomping blues, and the band played with such gusto that Marshall ripped his pants. Down the way Blackbirds provided sweet soul sounds, complemented by the smallest saxophone I've ever seen, enchanting and textured like coming off a dusty record. ‘Summertime’ stood out amongst the covers as the trio worked their way through Island and sometimes Latin infused vibes. Lead singer Renee Simone’s effortless vocals were only trumped by her broad smile, and it was lovely to see how much she was enjoying her bandmates’ performances.
It was right about here that I wanted to comment on the quality of the staging and production of festival. The lighting design and projections in particular have been simple, elegant and well-matched to each act. However, the sound team hit a snag in the Mojo tent part-way through the day, and the stage was sadly subject to sporadic audio issues from then on. The first big problem couldn’t have happened to a more apt performer though – Seasick Steve. Seasick Steve was down in the crowd handshaking before I’d even realized his set had false-started, and when his amp lost power thirty minutes in he regaled the crowd with his 12 Dog Blues tale (whereupon lady-of-the-night Trixie the dog leaves him for the butcher across the street). When Steve then pulled out a guitar made of two hub-caps and a broomstick, he said what we were all thinking (now this is really gonna f**k up the amp) - but damn, it sounded good. His real-deal-ness is undeniable, his vocals and slide guitar growled with conviction, and his set was as mean and bluesy as it was tender & funny. A Day 3 highlight and crowd favourite, only reinforced by surprise guest appearances by John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) & Andrew Stockdale (Wolfmother).
Tijuana Cartel were next on the list, and the combination of deep driving basslines and intricate flamenco-style guitar worked the Apra tent into a frenzy. The Aussie world/dance music creatives were impressive with sudden explosions of sonic colour and volume. It was also refreshing when, upon looking over to the DJ desk to see who’d pressed play on an interesting recording, I saw behind the ubiquitous Mac Book Pro there was a melodica-esque instrument being played live. The trumpet and guitar effects were sophisticated, restrained and used to maximum effect, while Daniel Gonzalez's percussion was the backbone of a performance that climaxed with a banging final track.
But then... how do I say this politely... the frustrating drawback of the Tijuana Cartel set was the photographer presence on stage. In the case of the first photographer, it was hard to tell if she was the band’s videographer or a superfan, but hovering a point-and-shoot within centimetres of each of the performers was immensely distracting, and when at one point she entirely held the light of centre stage while filming the crowd, it became almost comical. This was only made worse by the fact two more photographers felt granted permission to do the same after she left the stage. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but if onstage live footage is the necessary goal, dress in black. And find a zoom lens.
It's amazing how the little background you might have on an artist influences how you perceive a performance, but when Bob Marley's son Ziggy Marley sings about revolution, you buy it. His presence was uplifting and the synaesthesia of the reggae jams had me thinking it was still sunlight outside the tent. Although the first part of the set felt a bit lacking in dynamic, the authenticity of it kept you in, and the fire in the performers rose as Marley sang 'Justice' and privileged us to Bob Marley anthems.
Canadian Harry Manx mixed optimistic bluegrass melodies with sultry blues as he switched up slide guitar for banjo for harmonica, and although there wasn't as much world influence to be heard as his artist bio suggested, he was accompanied by fitting and clever keyboard runs. Walking then across to Brian Setzer's Rockabilly Riot!, I realized the only festival costumes I'd seen were some ironically conspicuous Where's Wallies and a drunk banana, so it was charming to see 50's touches emerge in the crowd. But they were well and truly topped by the wardrobe of those on stage, and the attention to detail in the band's staging and their ease and flirtation with their instruments pulled the music out of the jukebox and placed us squarely in an American 50's dance.
When I heard Tribali were from Malta, I was rather surprised to see a didgeridoo in their front line, but I quickly realized this was a group that trade on unique world instruments and genre-crossing. They also trade in theatrics, and their over-earnest delivery was sometimes in a realm between a Eurovision contestant and a Zumba class. But it was easy to get past this, as their music was interesting, evocative and energetic, and as seen also in the Ziggy Marley set, the female singer was pulling off some enviable dance moves that inspired the punters.
Claude Hay meanwhile was doing the one-man loop pedal act, and killing it. In the tiny Cavanbah tent was one of the biggest sounds all festival as he laid down basslines and dirty blues riffs with a guitar made of a Kmart baking tray and some decking (her name was Stella). There was certainly an Ash Grunwald feel in this Blue Mountains blues & roots muso, but his vocals showed shades of diverse American voices such as Nathan Willett (Cold War Kids) and even fast-talking Les Claypool (Primus), and he made a good show of responding to the dance floor that bloomed at his feet.
One word hangs in my mind to describe John Fogerty’s performance – solid. Fogerty & band powered through the entire Cosmo’s Factory album before embarking on hit after hit in their Creedance Clearwater Revival, well, revival. The packed and excited mass of fans rose up into country rock sing-alongs regularly, and Fogerty's stamina and commitment was remarkable, holding the crowd til the closing chords.