Bluesfest Byron Bay had such a variety of performances in five tents over five days that it can be difficult to catch it all. With five stages running between 11am and midnight so there is a lot going on. John Goodridge lists a few highlights from his visit.
Patti Smith and her band perform Horses
Patti Smith was the artist I was most excited to see and she didn’t disappoint. From the opening bars of “Gloria”, the crowd were on board, singing along enthusiastically. Long time collaborator Lenny Kaye was on guitar. Smith followed with “Redondo Beach” and did a rousing rendition of “Free Money”, before figuratively turning the record over and putting the needle on the second side. Apologising for her sore throat she thanked the girls backstage for cold remedies to help her along before launching into “Kimberly”.
There were anecdotes about different tracks during the set. The inspiration for “Break It Up” was a dream in which she imagined Jim Morrison trapped inside a marble statue which started beating; he then started breaking out with angel wings and flying away.
The final song from the album is “Elegie”, which is a tribute to lost friends as she listed many of the musical greats who have passed on. Patti Smith then did a “greatest hits” including “Dancing Barefoot”, “Because the Night” (co-written with Bruce Springsteen) and “People Have the Power”. This was a glorious end to the first night of Bluesfest.
Mary J. Blige
Emerging from a darkened smoky stage into a flood of light and sound, I was immediately struck by the power and intensity of Mary J. Blige. Like many of the female artists showcased on the Bluesfest line up, she exuded a confident, sexy air that captivated and enthralled.
The light show was fantastic, the music fast paced and energetic and Mary J Blige herself enchanting to watch.
Devon Allman Band
A surprise find for me. I heard the Devon Allman Band belting out some crisp rock tunes from the Juke Joint stage on the first morning as I was headed to see Byron Bay singer Lucy Gallant on Delta stage. I made it a mission to catch the show later in the week and I wasn’t disappointed. Devon Allman knows how to wring every last sound out of his Gibson Les Paul and has great stage presence. Worth looking up for genuine Blues and Roots music.
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry
I caught two sets from Billy Bragg and he was as powerful and entertaining as the first time I saw him many years ago. The first set on the Crossroads Stage was classic Billy Bragg with “Levi Stubbs Tears”, “Milkman of Human Kindness” and “Greetings to the New Brunette” all crowd favorites.
On the final day Billy Bragg teamed up with collaborator Joe Henry to play songs from their album Shine A Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad. He talked about the loss of the once great railway network across America and how the trains don’t even run to Nashville any more. A completely different set but still very satisfying to watch.
Later at the signing tent, Billy Bragg patiently listened to people’s stories for an hour and a half, signing merchandise.
Three of the five mornings the Boomerang Festival played at the sand circle and the Juke Joint stage. Yothu Yindi played a secret show early on Saturday that was a treat for those in the know. There were performances from Australian and South Pacific artists including OKA, Yirrmal, Airileke and Tenzin Choegyal.
The highlight was on Sunday when all the artists came together at the sand pit to present a showcase of music and dance. This year the Boomerang Festival was scaled back compared to previous years due to government funding cuts, but there were still workshops that were well attended. Hopefully this initiative can be scaled back up in years to come.
Madness burst on stage to the heavy heavy monster beat of “One Step Beyond” and were as energetic and engaging as one could wish to hope for. Their infection sound, with Suggs at the helm and Lee Thompson on saxophone had the crowd, which was bursting at the seams, jumping to hits including “Embarrassment”, “Baggy Trousers” and “Our House”. A fitting end to Sunday before the final day of the festival.
In a word, Buddy Guy was incredible. At eighty years old he has the energy and cheekiness of someone half his age. What this man can’t do with a guitar can’t be done and the ability to connect with the crowd is something to behold.
Buddy Guy was “Born to Play Guitar” and it shows. The showmanship of Buddy Guy is something that has to be seen to be believed. When he plays “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and dry humps his guitar, the whole crowd is humping back. Later in the set, he climbs down off stage to get even closer to the crowd.
There was a huge buzz around Santana’s set and justifiably so. Carlos Santana has reformed much of his original line up and the performance was electric. It was an honour to witness this master of the electric guitar bend sound with ease.
Naturally, “Black Magic Woman” was a crowd favourite, but the tent was crammed with people vying for a better position to watch this virtuoso of the guitar do his thing.
Kasey Chambers is such a genuine performer it’s hard not to fall in love with her instantly. Like many others, she professed her love for the Bluesfest Festival, having attended some nineteen times, many of them performing. This year she explained to us that she had bought her young son and watched Vintage Trouble perform and was excited to watch his reaction. Her set was filled with anecdotes and observations; noticing a bearded man in the crowd singing along to “Am I Not Pretty Enough”.
She introduced us to her backing band, members of Grizzlee Train, Brandon Dodd and Josh Dufficy and told us how she discovered then in a bar watching them play. Winners of the 2015 buskers competition at Bluesfest, they played a track from their own material and are two young performers to watch. Later in the set, Bernard Fanning was a surprise guest and they covered a duet.
I caught both sets from Beth Hart and they were both incredibly moving performances. She puts her life and soul into her act, from a raunchy rendition of “Baddest Blues” to a soulful version of “Leave the Light On”, leaving the audience begging for more.
Vintage Trouble are a band that put showmanship to the forefront of their shows. Frontman and singer Ty Taylor gyrates, grooves and jumps from one side of the stage to the other while belting out guitar powered rhythm and blues. At one stage Ty climbs up on the rail to be closer to the audience. The show is fast and furious and definitely worth catching.
Jake Shimabukuro has been playing the ukulele in his home state of Hawaii since he was four years old and can wring sounds from it that have to be heard to be believed. Starting with “Eleanor Rigby”, he covered a range of songs including “Bohemian Rhapsody” and some of his own songs from his album Nashville Sessions. I missed seeing him guest appear with Devon Allman later in the week but from all accounts it was sublime.
There were plenty more highlights over the five days of the festival. Vasti Jackson at Playing for Change was a true virtuoso of the guitar and was breathtaking. Chicago blues guitarist Davy Knowles was truly great to watch. Snarky Puppy played an eclectic mix of jazz pop that was a fresh interlude during the day. The Doobie Brothers began their set with an extended mix of “Jesus is Alright by Me”. Neil Finn, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Buffett, Mavis Staples, Remi, the list goes on.
Many of the musicians commented on stage what a great festival Bluesfest is and it’s easy to support that fact. With a huge array of food stalls from local vendors, great organisation that meant waiting in line was kept to a minimum, five undercover stages with a wide variety of music, Bluesfest is deserving of the many awards it has won in recent years.