Now in its 23rd year, The Byron Bay Bluesfest is truly one of the great festivals of the world. Grown from the vision of main man Peter Noble and developed over almost a quarter century, the lineups of current stars and the greats of the past get consistently better, year by year – the lineup this year seemed almost beyond belief.

Bluesfest is one of those rare festivals run by a total music fan (and of course a canny businessman) – Noble is now at the enviable juncture whereby his festival has almost become a vehicle for his wish-list. As an example, Noble personally sought out and secured original UK flower-child and faery-king Donovan Leitch for this year’s festival. Which is quite a coup, considering Donovan no longer tours!

The mix, as ever, was a delight – superstars, sentimental favourites, artistic must-sees, wildcards, local blues and roots artists.

We began with Keb’ Mo’ who, within two tunes, shot us from country blues to Steely Dan-slick funk blues. Sweet stuff. Then, sensing a dip in the program of our must-sees, we took in our first wildcard, the bouncing and boisterous Eagle and the Worm – a great mix of garage rock and soul horns whose party vibe masks some seriously ‘on’ musicianship.

From garage party to the bluegrass folk of David Bromberg – a star of the 60s folk revival and a cult hero ever since. His drummerless quartet was country clear and country simple, but the most riveting song was the duet (with bass) rendition of Jerry Jeff Walker’s evergreen ‘Mr Bojangles’ – a song, a story, a singer: you could have heard a reefer drop.

I sauntered around and met a man who had eaten a cheese sandwich with Stephen Stills the day before. Then it was afro-groovin’ with Angelique Kidjo who filled the stage with dancers and was our African Queen for that hour. From afro-ecstacy to rockabilly and grease – the buzz of a jewel-studded festival program. Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot was just that: teenage kicks with all the joy of a 1950s none of us have lived – hot rods, Peggy Sue and gang rumbles. Setzer had all the dancers dancing, the rockers rockin’ and all the guitar-players slack-jawed at his rockabilly Gretsch flash.

We left before the three double basses (!) came out to go and check Donovan who was of course as spacey and regal is expected – his swirling dance during ‘Season of The Witch’ was something to behold.

Easter Sunday we started with some local surprises – The Round Mountain Girls who were actually boys, got their bluegrass party on. Then the ‘demon blues’ of the Mason Rack Band – local but now doing things internationally, and it’s easy to see why: high-energy, howling shitstorm of the punkier edge of blues, they finished with a three-way steel beer-keg drum solo – what’s not to like!


Resigned to having our heads genre-bent by the amazing diversity of today’s lineup we went from this to the ambient wonder of French violinst/composer Yann Tiersen and his young band. It was one of those musical experiences where time truly stands still and you float (and no, I was not into the fragrant Byron Bay horticulture like many around me). I needed a little shakeup and the latin fire of Watussi gave me the shot up the jacksie that did the trick.

One of Peter Noble’s program picks of the festival this year was Australian singer-songwriter Richard ClaptonClapton’s songs, in his heyday (and even today, judging by the new tunes in the set) seemed, as Dylan did with American life, to perfectly capture and frame the Australian experience. His band was lean and hard rockin’, Clapton was boozed enough to be loose and witty and the whole crowd sang along when he sang his memorable Sydney-couplet ‘Sitting out on the Palm Beach Road / I’m so drunk and the car won’t go…’ from 1977’s ‘Deep Water’.

Our last day was centered around turning up late for the triple-whammy of John Fogerty, Dweezil Zappa and YES. Sloping in late we found ourselves before the beguiling Justin Townes EarleSteve’s boy – bespectacled, bright, witty and with a nice rock’n’roll chug to his country songs. For some reason his music, all mixed in with the Jim Beam, the humidity (a storm threatened and flashed a way off) and the general good vibes of Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm put us in a good good mood for what was to come.

For 25 years Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty did not perform any CCR songs – the band experience, souring and breakup had been too painful. But Bob Dylan and George Harrison (as well as, tacitly, millions of fans around the world) begged him to bring these songs out again. And to hear them live, with Fogerty in great voice and form made one realise that the CCR Songbook is one of the treasures of post-war pop – a perfect amalgam of psych, swamp, rock’n’roll and pop that many bands have tried but few have achieved. At times I couldn’t hear the band for the singalong around me. Magic.

And speaking of the treasures of post-war music, Frank Zappa’s son Dweezil has taken it on himself to keep the enormous, challenging and influential oeuvre of his father alive. Under the banner of Zappa Plays Zappa, he tours the world, spreading the good word with his (astonishing) band of young players. Early tech problems robbed us of a couple of songs but we were still treated to such radio-unfriendly FZ hits as ‘Carolina Hardcore Ecstacy’ and ‘Willie The Pimp’.

What better ending to such a blissed-out, bluesky and bounteous bluesfest than the expansive prog anthems of UK godfathers YES? With new vocalist Jon Davison filling in for original starship trooper Jon AndersonYES spaced us all out even further. There is a point where you surrender to ecstacy and it fills the world – if our souls could smile it would have been then.

It wasn’t only the nature-worshipping star-music of YES, it was the whole Bluesfest trip – the lack of hot-and-bother, the utopian flags snapping against the blue sky, the warmth of the earth and the sun. Thanks to Peter Noble and his wonder-workers, for another Easter weekend we were the beautiful people.

Published April 2012 on liveguide.com.au

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