Bluesfest celebrates 27 years on the Australian festival calendar in 2016 and this year, the Byron Bay affair has brought together possibly one of its strongest and diverse line ups yet. Featuring the likes of Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo, The National, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds and more, the festival ignited conversation in 2015 surrounding the direction it was heading in; was it moving too far away from its original blues and roots beginnings, or was Bluesfest demonstrating an inclusive, forward thinking approach when it came to their programming?
With the dissolution of major Australian festivals, most recently Soundwave last year, Bluesfest has managed to stay put as an event that hasn’t been shaken by the recent hits the festival scene has taken. For another year, tickets sold rapidly, with only limited allocations remaining for certain packages as of January. An environment that has festival goers buying their tickets ahead of initial artist announcements yearly, the Bluesfest family maintain that its this environment they strive to establish and uphold to the greatest extent with each event.
Festival organiser Peter Noble owes this successful festival experience Bluesfest offers its punters to one, a strong line up of artists all the way down the bill and two, the curation of a festival that has its crowds discovering new artists as well as seeing the big hitters.
“The festival shouldn’t just have two or three bands on the top and then whoever else they could get cheap enough to fill the bill.” he says. “You should walk in at noon and the first band you see, you should be going, ‘Who is that? Are they playing again?’. To me, sometimes the best parts of Bluesfest all happen before the sun goes down – they’re the next bands and there are no slouches. We put real money into that, a real investment, because that’s our future.”
“As you get into the evening, the stars come out at night and then you get into the headliners. I think it’s a mix of that and it’s so exciting to have those artists who are playing earlier in the day who are bands that can potentially be the next big things. Lucas Nelson or The Bros. Landreth or Fantastic Negrito…all those bands seem poised to me. We just have a great crop of young artists who are on the way. Rhiannon Giddens, there’s another one.”
He addresses the 2016 Bluesfest bill in particular, not shying away from highlighting the inclusion of Lamar and D’Angelo in particular, two artists who caused a divisive reaction when they were announced on the line up. Both artists, set to perform on the festival’s Thursday night program, have never been on the same stage directly one after the other before – a coup that has drawn the interest of international fans, some who will be making the trip out to Byron Bay especially to witness it.
“It will be an amazing hip hop experience,” Noble enthuses. “Kamasi Washington playing into Hiatus Kaiyote into D’Angelo, into Kendrick Lamar. Now, Kendrick and D’Angelo, I don’t know if they’ve played together anywhere else in the world. They may hear that as ‘hip’, but I hear that as a long line of African American music that Kamasi sits perfectly within. You’ve got to keep challenging yourself as a presenter and you’ve got to keep challenging the public too. To go, ‘I know that you may think putting a rap artist on Bluesfest is a big call, but have you really listened to Kendrick Lamar?’ I mean, this guy is a genius. That’s what I do and that’s what I get paid to do; maybe I don’t get paid as well as some of the other festivals, although it seems from what I’m hearing, some of them aren’t doing too well at the moment either. We put the talent first and we book it right.”
“You can look to the other end of the festival,” he continues “There’s Brian Wilson doing Pet Sounds into Tom Jones, into the original Blues Brothers Band, who we’re all going to dance at the end to. What’s in the middle is so much great music between Thursday and Monday. I think that if people come and they bring their ears and they go, ‘I like Taj Mahal, but I’ll have a listen to D’Angelo,’ or ‘I like Brian Wilson, but I’ll have a listen to The National‘ or, ‘I like Modest Mouse, but I’ll give Joe Bonnamassa a listen,’ – there’s just so many discoveries to make. That’s what I’ve always wanted Bluesfest to be; you go there going, ‘I’m going to see this half a dozen artists,’ and you’ve come out having found another 10 or 20. That’s what Bluesfest is and that’s why we maintain our popularity. Of course, on top of that, we care about the person who comes to our event; we care that they have a great experience and we give them one.”
Noble comments on the questions offered above, regarding the direction of the festival in recent years, openly admitting that not every choice has worked for Bluesfest in the past – but that’s just the name of the game. Sometimes the gambles don’t pay off but when they do, the result is brilliant.
“This festival started by blues bands getting together saying, ‘There’s no blues festival in Australia – let’s do a festival of the music we love,'” he says. “Then after a while, we’ve gone, ‘Hang on, we like this too.’ It could be alternate country, it could be reggae or it could be many things and so we’re going, ‘Let’s see if that fits? Oh yeah, that works – we’ll keep doing that.’ We’ve done a few things that didn’t work, but you only learn by experimenting, not just sitting back and going, ‘Okay, that works – that’s all we’re going to do from now on,’ After a while, that gets boring. There’s a point where it will peak and it will go down.”
“Yes, we work to budgets and profit expectations,” he furthers. “I don’t think ours is as high as perhaps some others because in the end, it’s about having a great experience, dropping a really interesting music event and making a profit. We all need to get paid, but that’s not the first intention. Doing a great event comes first. I’m very happy with this year but you’ve got to be careful with how you say that, ‘I’ve got the best event ever…’ – well maybe I don’t. I think I’ve booked this one pretty much up there with my best ones.”
Speaking from a pretty interesting perspective as festival booker and main point of contact for such a variety of artists and their management, Noble speaks with unbridled excitement when he refers to some of this year’s Bluesfest artists who will be coming to Australia either for the first time, or from far away.
“I take a lot of joy in discovering bands,” he says. “I’ve been doing that for a long time. You [could] bring five or six of the ones you believe are the next big thing, and maybe one will be. Maybe two or three will get somewhere and maybe some others won’t. As a festival, I feel that’s what I want to do for those bands. Like Kaleo from Iceland, I think they’re brilliant. There’s [also] Fantastic Negrito from San Francisco, that guy is amazing.”
“I’ve learned a lot and I’ve been in the business for a long time,” he continues. “I’m going, ‘I’m not sure how many more of these I’m going to get to do before I decide to retire’. Every single one of them is so important to me, that I can do it as good as I can. It’s really hard work. You have to travel a lot; I think I’ve been to the UK three or four times and in the last eight months I’ve been to Canada and the US a few times. Iceland, the Caribbean, Russia, Europe, Singapore… You’ve got to do that, you’ve got to get out there and you’ve got to get your ear to the ground and become aware of who’s doing it.”
While the emerging artists and current ‘hot’ artists are understandably drawcards for many attending Bluesfest year in, year out, there are also the artists who are bonafide legends of the festival – the bands and individuals who’ve been making the trip out almost as frequently as some of the Bluesfest-loyal punters. As Noble says, these are the opportunities he never takes for granted, no matter how many new bands he might also come across.
“I was watching TV [recently] and on comes the Blues Brothers 2000 movie,” he remembers. “I’m watching it and there’s all these artists who I’ve worked with over the years. There were artists like Junior Wells, Lonnie Brooks, Billy Preston and many, many more. I’m watching them and going, ‘They’ve all passed.’ It made me realise that, even in the 15 years since that movie came out, blues music has had a big change. We’ve lost those guys who came up in the 50’s and 60’s pretty much – I mean, Buddy Guy‘s still up there, Charlie Musselwhite too, but not a lot. The next generation of the blues guys has come along now and they’re carrying the torch and they’re doing it well. The Joe Bonnamassas and the Tedeschis and people like that, great bands and great artists.”
“People like Taj Mahal who are coming to play Bluesfest, you can take that for granted. You can say, ‘He’s been coming to Bluesfest for over 20 years,’ and he has, but you never know how many more times, when you see these people, you will ever get to see them. You just don’t know. As they get into their 70’s, some people are able to continue and some people don’t.”
In the end, Noble’s main focus is where it has always been – ensuring that his event is always churning out a different smorgasbord of music, offering festival goers and artists alike a platform to enjoy and absorb some new music. If it costs more to make sure it gets over the line each time, so be it.
“I’m just the guy who puts it all together and gives the artists the opportunity to go out there and create.” he says. “We do it with a lot of love, we care about the artists. The dressing rooms are great and we cater for them. They walk on stage and the sound system has them going, ‘Turn it down, not turn it up!’. It’s got to be like that, you know? That’s how you do it. All that costs a little bit more, but you know what? It comes back in so many ways.”
The 2016 Byron Bay Bluesfest runs from March 24th – 28th. Limited ticket and camping packages are still on offer – head to www.bluesfest.com.au for more information and this year’s full line up!