Festival Review: Byron Bluesfest (Day Three) - Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm (19.04.14)

Day Three. The halfway point. A chicken wrap and a chorizo stick down and I’m ready to go again, dropping by the Crossroads stage, where Lime Cordiale are already in the midst of their Saturday Bluesfest set. The Sydneysiders, who I’d last seen play in Austin, have only gotten better over the last few years and seeing them on a stage this big was a great way to open the day.

I dashed over to Mojo to see the unfairly gorgeous Kate Miller-Heidke perform soon after – the first time I’d seen her play since 2009. Performing a run of tunes from both Little Eve and the new record O’Vertigo!, Kate’s presence on stage is at the same time both fragile and dominating. The operatic tones, blended effortlessly with the pop sensibilities that have made her famous and a certifiable darling of the Australian music industry, were on form today and alongside Keir Nuttall, she was an early Bluesfest force to be reckoned with. All hail Kate!

A tweet had been circulating for a few hours that a mystery guest would be doing a busking set at the Busking Stage around 3pm, so I wandered over with a few others who looked equally as suss, trying not to attract attention to that part of the festival site – most of us knew the mystery guest would be Passenger and that once word spread, getting a good vantage point would be difficult. Luckily, I managed to score myself a front row position for Mike Rosenberg’s ‘surprise’ set, which took me back to when I first saw him busking in Adelaide about three years ago. A veteran of this kind of scene, Rosenberg acknowledged early on how special this moment was for him and how important it was that he didn’t lose sight of the path he’d taken prior to being launched into stardom. A large crowd soon formed and it wasn’t long before we were all singing along and staring in awe as he powered through some impassioned performances of “Holes”, a cover of Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” and of course “Let Her Go”. A poignant moment was in “Riding to New York”, where Passenger told us a heartfelt and quite sad story behind it, but poured all of that emotion into the track which had everyone silent. A fantastic performer who is to take to the Mojo Stage as part of Sunday’s program, this was definitely a set no one was taking for granted – we knew how special this was.

Devendra Banhart and Iron and Wine followed each other on Mojo – two artists who I’d been anticipating the most of all the festival acts so far. Having not seen Banhart since his Big Day Out visit moons ago, this was a great way to become reacquainted with the performer in a nice afternoon setting. His banter with his band was great, but their musicianship stood out above all else. Switching between both English and Spanish through the set Banhart had hearts aflutter and some great moments of dancing happening down in the immediate front rows where I was. Changing the pace, Iron and Wine brought some enthusiastic fans down on to the barrier where we were able to witness some truly engaging folk music, with an edgy twist. Pulling from an impressive catalogue of music, Sam Beam and his band had a tear coming down my cheek at one point, but then smiles and sing alongs all round at the next.
The next few hours are spent flitting between the guitar solos of Gov’t Mule and the inventiveness of the North Mississippi All Stars, before eventually winding my way back around to Mojo, where the John Butler Trio were playing probably the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen for them.

They’re Bluesfest favourites of course, but there was a new sheen to Butler and his new boys that added to that quintessential JBT experience. With a new album and a new line up to show off in 2014, the John Butler Trio has definitely been a popular Australian band that crowds have been flocking to. Given that, despite a clear level of fame and recognition, there’s still something innately chilled out and grass roots about this band, the way JBT were treated tonight was as if they were one of the international headliners. The crowd remained totally enamoured by Butler’s skilled guitar work and screamed loud without even being prompted. Of the three days and nights of Bluesfest so far, I think JBT had pulled one of the more intense crowds of the lot.

With everyone seemingly splitting between the Dave Matthews Band and Jeff Beck towards the end of the night, I made a move to the Cavanbah, where Clairy Browne and the Bangin’ Rackettes were heating things up and performing a bit of a farewell set for departing member Darcy McNulty. That right mix of sultriness and attitude has always been whipped up so well by the band over the last few times that I’ve seen them play and I felt like, in the last hours of tonight, I’d needed this injection of soul music. Following on from this, which had perked me up enough to power on, Saskwatch took on the last set of the night and went and blew my mind.

The Melbourne nine piece were so much fun and being as close to the stage as I got, it was impossible not to get swept up in the mania that conjured. Nkechi Anele is now one of my favourite vocalists and performers – her tone and presence onstage was unbelievable. They showcased both favourites and material from their new album Nose Dive, which went down great with the crowd; even a nod to the talent to come out of their city via a cover of Little Red’s “Coca Cola” got everyone jumping. I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to finally see Saskwatch perform, but I’m incredibly happy they’ve still got another set to go at Bluesfest – I want to do it all again.