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Live Review: Byron Bay Bluesfest Day Five ft. Zappa Plays Zappa + Dawes and more – Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm (09.04.12)

The gumboots have stayed in backs of cars across Tyagarah. This has definitely been a Bluesfest to remember!

Although over the past four days we’ve talked a lot about the crowd getting moving to the incredible Bluesfest artists’ beats, Day 5 felt a lot more introspective. As storytellers and image-weavers dominated our discoveries, there was a line drawn in bold between us and the musical past.

Of course there were still plenty of acts to get you moving. Slightly Stoopid filled the sunshine with big reggae/dub sounds and a hip hop edge, while it was cock rock o’clock at the Apra stage as Mason Rack Band attracted a black t-shirted mass to Mason’s sandpaper voice.

Joanne Shaw Taylor however had people doing double-takes as this young blonde brought serious blues tales to the Crossroads tent. Comparisons to great females blues musicians Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi are very worthy, although Shaw Taylor’s vocals had a smokiness all of their own. Her voice also reminded me of fellow young British vocalist Joss Stone, which is really to say Shaw Taylor taps into the great soul and pop voices of our past too. But then there’s her guitar playing… and man, can she shred! You could hear the Stevie Ray Vaughan influence as she demonstrated skill and imagery much belying her years, and it was incredible to hear her guitar chatter and banter and croon with the back-up guitarist. It also seemed for a majority of this festival we’d been absorbing great male musicians, so it was significant to see such a striking female blues talent live.

Also significant at this point in the festival was that the Tea Tree farm was as clean and friendly as it was on Day 1. Punters were still friendly, staff were still friendly, security guards were even friendly (I met at least two with a sense of humour). People not only put their rubbish away, but looked at which bin they were putting it in (‘is my soy chai cup recycling or general waste?’), and the cleaning crew were so diligent I saw four cleaners come by in the space of one set. Once again, it was remarkable how much care goes into this festival.

Back to the music, Dawes gave an accomplished performance beyond their youthful looks. Their music had a strong sense of place, and maybe that place is Laurel Canyon LA, but it felt more like an everyplace of longing to which all could relate. Their harmonies in particular shimmered, especially in the bittersweet gem 'So Well'. The set mustn’t have been wholly engaging as I found myself getting distracted by the drummer’s curious facial expressions, but it was a charming and transporting show that undeniably connected with sounds of their forefathers like Crosby, Stills and Nash.

In an interview with Justin Townes Earle at the Cavanbah tent, he emphatically spoke of the difference between a song and a diary entry, and how important it is for songwriters to hit personal notes without hanging their laundry out to dry. In his show, he nailed this balance. An enigmatic and charismatically dorky presence on stage today, he was a storyteller through and through, and the imagery and characters he created were honest, tangible, but never indulgent. The delicately overlapping guitar parts in ‘Christchurch Woman’ were also a great example of how well each part of his compositions complemented each other. Both he and his songwriting legend father, Steve Earle, gave Bluesfest understated performances that showed the vitality of thoughtful songwriting, and it was a rare honour to get to compare them so closely at the one event.

An incredible lightning show settled in for the rest of the night, and Round Mountain Girls got free visuals as their electric banjo and lively violin seemed to synchronise with the flashes. Over at Crossroads, although we’d heard a lot of Americana by this time, it was great to see acts such as Kenny Wayne Shepherd giving their fans entirely new setlists for their second shows. On that note, John Fogerty once again proved what an awe-inspiring performer he is, ripping out another belting two hour set. The audience was full of families this Easter Monday, and all ages were singing and bopping, not only to the Creedance classics but to Fogerty’s solo tracks as well.

Dubmarine provided a distinct contrast with their big dubby sounds echoing across the landscape. Lead vocalist D-Kazman and his female off-sider looked an oddly-matched pair and had a very rehearsed dynamic, but their vocals were strong and their theatricality entertaining. In fact, every band member was enthusiastically pulsing to the beat of their music (especially the young trombonist who was near exploding with dance), and it sure got the crowd energised.

The niggling sound issues unfortunately reared up again at the main stage as Zappa Plays Zappa were forced into a late start. When they had some voltage though, musicians rapidly emerged from all corners of the stage and the vibrant team seamlessly juggled instruments and roles to present a selection of Frank Zappa songs. Dweezil Zappa intro’d each song and made you feel like you had a tour guide back through rock history. It was lovely too to see Dweezil regard his fellow musicians and smile at particular vocal twists or solos they played, as though they’d either nailed his dad’s sound or brought an inspiring new take to it. The trademark changes between tempos and styles were faultless, Dweezil’s guitar commanding, and as a first-timer to Zappa Plays Zappa, I was struck by the entertaining quality of hearing Frank’s enigmatic yet literal lyrics sung live. You could hear in this set not just the connection with the past, but the complex influence Zappa has had on progressive artists later down the track.

With the evolution of progressive/art rock fresh in our minds, the Mojo stage was graced for the final show by Yes. They said the last time they were in this neighbourhood was 1972, and did it show? Well, yeah…. On the Bluesfest stage, they looked old. But they didn’t sound weary. Their psychedelic grooves were dynamic and tracks like ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’ were euphoric. And for the festival-goers that were too young to know the enormous Yes back-catalogue, Eagle and the Worm were giving us a last chance to boogie, with shining brass and some spirited, soulful tunes.

All in all, spectacular voices, shredded fretboards, and brass, strings and percussion to satiate all cravings, have made for one helluva festival. Thank you Bluesfest staff and performers (and the weather) for an Easter weekend dedicated to, and perpetuating, damn fine live music.