More belated summer weather brought Byron Bay to life for the second day of Bluesfest, and you couldn’t help being drawn to the sunshine vibes of Queensland’s Bobby Alu, especially as his trademark percussion breaks lured more hip-shakers to the dancefloor.
The other early drawcard of the day was G3, in the last Australian show of Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Steve Lukather's guitar tour de force. Steve Vai yelled in his solo set ‘You ready to build a church in here?’, and it most certainly felt like people had gathered in reverence for the guitar. Although the crowd stood mostly in stillness, the reception at the start and end of each performance showed they were enthralled (not to mention the many punters filming lightning-fast two-hand tapping larger than life on the screens rather than the filming the guitarists themselves). From free jazz, to vast melodic progressive rock, to inventive whammy bar soundscapes, even if you were attracted by the parade of aesthetically-pleasing guitars you knew this was something musically extraordinary. The shred-a-thon G3 promised was well and truly delivered and, contorting faces aside, it was a great privilege to witness such technique live, especially the control of Satriani. Closing on their ‘Rocking in the Free World’ jam loosened the crowd up to close out a heady set.
After 150 minutes of G3 it was hard to imagine there was any other approach to playing guitar, but James Vincent McMorrow came as the ideal juxtaposition. The simplicity of his guitar was a perfect complement to his stunning vocals and heartfelt folk song-writing. There was a tangible sensitivity and intimacy in the APRA Tent, even though McMorrow looked at the top of the tent more than the crowd. Misty eyes and soft smiles showed on all faces as McMorrow moved from a fragility akin to his often-compared contemporary Justin Vernon (also known as Bon Iver) to a soaring vocal control reminiscent of Antony Hegarty (from Antony & the Johnsons). His performance sans support musicians was a rewarding decision, and his finish on ‘If I Had a Boat’ showed a passion beyond the recorded version.
Candi Staton’s soul stylings brought a lively warmth as dusk settled in, and evoked an immensely fun mass karaoke session during ‘Young Hearts Run Free’. Trombone Shorty warranted a second visit with another irrepressible set of jazz/funk tunes, his intimidating versatility as a musician and the tightness of Orleans Avenue only topped in the crowd’s eyes by Dan Oestreicher’s cheeky baritone sax solos.
When it came to cheekiness however, Buddy Guy showed it to the crowd in spades. While crowd numbers didn't feel as big as last year, you wouldn’t have known it packed in to watch the blues legend strut his stuff. The religion of the guitar once again swelled, but although the crowd were in awe at G3, Buddy Guy’s playfulness stripped back any indulgence and excess, and brought a very authentic connection with the beauty and influence of his skill and creativity with the instrument. ‘I came to Byron just to mess with you’ he sang, and his ineffable charisma was captivating, as he oscillated between youthful tail-chaser and berating grandpa. His mischievous reprimanding of the crowd only engaged us more of course, as the tent lifted with lyric call and responses, especially during ‘Someone Else is Steppin’ In (Slippin Out, Slippin In)’. The musical strength of his band was particularly striking, making the Buddy Guy package a highlight of the day.
The pointy end of the night saw veterans of the blues & roots spectrum across all stages. The Specials’ unique brand of ska visibly hit the mark with their fans. Canned Heat was an excellent stop for the weary traveller, as a meandering blues groove transported the audience before they worked the energy levels back up with more familiar funk jams. The surprise find was happening over in the smaller Cavanbah tent however, where young one-man-band Kim Churchill had the same energy of all the larger stages but condensed and amplified. His music was dynamic and engaging, and it made sense to me as a Churchill first-timer that the world festival circuit has already caught onto this Aussie talent to watch.
Earth, Wind & Fire’s sound was exactly as you would’ve expected, which is far from a criticism, as we watched festival-goers faces light up as they realized just how many seminal funk and pop tunes Earth, Wind & Fire have produced. Although the crowd had halved by the end of the set, those left were still dancing, and Verdine White seemed to have a magic touch, eliciting a cheer for every featured bass part. Crosby, Stills & Nash, on the other hand, had their audience wrapped up in a warm nostalgic blanket with their earnest harmonies. Although my visit was short, their performance of ‘Our House’ became particularly touching and had tuneful audience voices of all ages resonating out over the Byron night sky. The only shame was that the more tender moments of talk had a rousing funk soundtrack for those of us towards the back, as music bled across from the Mojo tent. The most resounding sentiment by the end of the day though was that the artists were loving being part of Bluesfest, with each and every artist we saw commenting on how significant Bluesfest is to them. I’m sure this is an energy we’ll continue to be rewarded with going into Day 3!