Our Day 4 began with Mama Kin, whose set mixed sassy keyboard progressions with big soul vocals and the odd ballad thrown in. Her inter-song stand-up routine engaged her very relaxed audience, as did an awkward-looking but gutsy-sounding drum solo.
In an unexpected change of pace, Yann Tiersen et al gave the crowd a progressive/shoegaze escape. Although the occasional vocals were muffled in the mix, there was an undeniable cinema about it all (fitting for the artist that did the Amelie soundtrack amongst others), and Tiersen's violin virtuosity was raw, inventive and stirring.
The next stop was Busby Marou, who came across as a sincere and likeable bunch, refreshing considering the sudden exposure 2011 brought the Rockhampton boys. Their song-writing was very familiar, and although I'd heard comparisons to Josh Pyke, the compositions reminded me much more of UK acts such as Damien Rice, Frightened Rabbit and The Frames. Either way, the folk rock resonated with the sunny Byron day.
Stopping by at Watussi, one question leapt forward: why aren't people dancing?! Maybe the heat had fatigued the sambistas, but with the infectious brand of Latin grooves Watussi were bringing and the tight work on the congas and kit drums, it was a little surprising.
In the Angelique Kidjo tent however, the atmosphere was one of pure celebration. By the time I arrived she had the crowd in communal ecstasy as she'd first jumped down with the audience and then reciprocated by inviting a throng of dancing punters onto the stage. Her West African music was joyous and fiercely rhythmic, and after nailing some visceral dance moves she created an inspiring djembe-fueled dance-off with the mass on stage. An honest, elated show which everyone felt they were a part of.
Four days in, and I realise I’m mentally running out of synonyms for the word ‘solid’. Because that’s exactly what every act I’ve seen has been. And the run of them continued – The Audreys, solid, Josh Pyke, solid. The performers delivered their music with experience and grace, and while the audiences weren’t bursting out of their skins like in other tents, they were enchanted.
You also know it’s been a good festival when you've seen so much brass that as Maceo Parker takes the stage with his saxophone it seems normal. Can I say ‘solid’ again? Parker & his band brought classic funk to life again at Bluesfest, and as they all struck a cheeky tableau it dawned on me how lucky we were to see such professionals and masters of the genre. An unexpected highlight of the set was a moody guitar jam that waxed and waned and set up a cool little juxtaposition to the smoother, jazzier tracks.
Then just when it seemed we were desensitised to the power of brass… there was Melbourne Ska Orchestra. A lot of festival-goers must have heard the same Triple J shout-out I heard, claiming this was the band to see live, as the Jambalaya tent was overflowing with the hoards. However it felt like there were just as many people on stage – an over 20-strong ensemble in school band formation, glittering with all the saxophones, trumpets and trombones you could ever dream up. They had the exultant energy that only that many performers, and some judicious spirit-fingers, can achieve, and the performers and audience interaction were the right kind of hammy.
It goes without saying by this point in the festival we’ve also seen a lot of amazing blues. It could be hard to stand out in the blues wash, but that’s exactly what Backsliders did. A homegrown exemplar of all that is gutsy and moving about blues/roots, a highlight of the set saw Rob Hirst (ex-Midnight Oil) take his drumsticks to all the stage equipment in a seamless rhythm.
Whether by coincidence or design, it seems John Butler Trio are at every other Bluesfest (and Aussie music festival in general), which makes it tough for them to innovate their act year after year. For first- or second-timers this would've been a rewarding set, but the numbers didn't hold as it felt like people went off in search of something they hadn't heard before. And what do you do in JBT's position? You perform your fast-paced hits with accomplishment and unwavering passion and skill. They did, and it worked. You invite a guest, although the duet between Butler and Mama Kin was a touch underwhelming given the potential I'd imagined this combination to have. You draw attention to the political side of your slower tracks, which made 'Revolution' an evocative moment but flagged a little in the song about the Kimberleys. Or you describe how one instrumental piece represents all you know about the meaning of life... and then play 'Ocean'. That worked. That really worked.
Blue King Brown, on the other hand, seem to have reached a new level in performance after many festival appearances. One could remember the urban roots band for impressive guitar, keys and percussion solos, but I hadn't before noticed how good their overall live arrangements are. The track that broke them back in 2005, 'Water', sounded like they wrote it yesterday and had the masses unable to repress rootsy dance moves. They also added to their show some enormously entertaining West Papuan dancers. The anticipated political tangent then came and, although it started with some heart-string-tugging music, lead singer Natalie Pa'apa'a's skill as an orator shone and the West Papuan cause felt very significant and very close to home. Blue King Brown quickly moved back into celebration mode though, leaving the soapbox moment uncontrived and touching.
Lastly, for those who wanted a new sound it was St Patrick's Day over in the Crossroads tent as The Pogues gave us tight Irish melodies with a slightly drunken drawl. In slower tracks, swaying was the mandatory dance move, while the spectrum of foot stomps and box steps possessed the crowd in rowdier numbers, and it was clear The Pogues were giving the audience the intoxicated excuse to dance they needed at the end of a huge Day 4.