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Firmly established in its 24th year as one of the premier music festivals of the world, the Byron Bay Bluesfest continues to top its already heady highs. The lineup for this year’s festival was a dream program for lovers of blues and roots music and anything else festival director Peter Noble decided to throw our way.

Criticised in the past for veering too far from its original blues brief, Bluesfest has outgrown these criticisms purely by booking the biggest acts in the world, and some of the most interesting – over the past few years headliners have been Bob Dylan, B B King, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Yes, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, Paul Simon and (almost) Roger Daltrey performing Tommy (even though Daltrey didn’t show – next year maybe?).

Noble’s knack for picking the greats, blues or not – and a demonstration of the power he wields on the world festival circuit in doing so – was vindicated by this year’s record attendance: capacity crowds of 17,000 per day which adds up to 85,000 in toto.

And I was one of those fools dancing in the rain. And the smile is still on my face.

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Taj Mahal

Accompanied by Gaz T, my intrepid local tracker and native guide, my 24th Byron Bay Bluesfest experience started on the Friday with the wonderful Taj Mahal. Mahal was one of those bluesmen – like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee – that the 1970s hippie freaks took to their hearts back in those fragrant days. His popularity has remained undiminished since then. As is often the case, I expected a creaky veteran, tottering on a chair – but what we got was a big man, standing tall, whipping his trio through modern blues, pre-war country blues and even calypso flavoured blues. Yeah!

And if Taj Mahal surprised me with his age-denying vigour, reggae and ska legend Jimmy Cliff utterly floored me. Cliff was already a star in Jamaica while Bob Marley was merely learning his trade, and at 65 he has lost nothing – twisting, dancing, leaping through his set. It is this pin-sharp showmanship that reminds us of the huge influence classic 60s Motown had on pre-Marley Jamaican artists. Slick, soulful and bang-on, his beautiful songs had heart, message and groove.

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Jimmy Cliff

Shuggie Otis

Shuggie Otis

While everyone headed to Steve Miller in one of the big tents, I moved towards the smaller Jambalaya stage and blues guitarist Shuggie Otis. Otis was a child prodigy of the blues guitar, the son of rhythm-and-blues bandleader Johnny Otis. After a few semi-hits in the 70s he faded from view. After a 40 year hiatus for whatever reason, he is back touring the world and I could not miss him. Rail thin and now with the angular almost-Latin good looks of his father, Shuggie seemed troubled and ill at ease. But when he found his zone and soared, he soared higher and higher. His beautiful playing took my breath completely away. In a way it was more exciting to see an artist who could easily miss, but hit it so well; compared to all the other in-the-pocket coolly-pro bands at Bluesfest, Otis’s set had that element of danger. Sublime and edgy.

Then the rain hit and my Bluesfest experience sprung a leak. Not having brought a raincoat or wet-weather gear I was soaked to the skin in minutes. Not being able to squeeze into the Steve Miller tent I stood in the rain and watched him play ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ – rain will come and go, the beautiful epoch-defining voice of The Space Cowboy (some call him Maurice…) singing this glorious freedom song was here and now. Around me, teenage fans danced in the rain to Miller’s golden period hits, singing every word to ‘Rockin’ Me Baby’ and ‘The Joker’. It’s only rain, it can soak our skin but it can’t dampen our spirit.

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Carlos Santana

Keeping the San Fran psychedelic vibe going – albeit in a very very different way – Santana’s set began with cosmic interstellar graphics fading in and out of the two huge screens either side of the stage. Then it was a brief drum roll from drummer Dennis Chambers and the Santana band roared into 1971’s ‘Toussaint L’Overture’. As well as Chambers, the percussion backline was made up of long-time conguero Raul Rekow and Karl Perazza on timbales – who together propelled the music like a freight-train, but a freight-train which skips and dances lightly along the track. Of course the main voice of this band has always been the elegant guitar playing of Carlos Santana – always lyrical, always going for the emotional connection over the empty dazzle of technique. Which ultimately makes him, above and beyond his Latin and jazz phrasing, one hell of a great blues guitarist – as we heard from a short (and all too rare) snatch of Santana playing some straight blues during the set. Can music reviewers still use words like ‘celestial’? I guess I just did, because it is the only word I have left to describe Santana’s unearthly performance.

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi

The day ended with a truly soulful set from The Tedeschi-Trucks Band. The absolute highlight of my first ‘Fest two years ago, the band of slide ex-wünderkind Derek Trucks and his wife, vocalist Susan Tedeschi never fails to amaze. For their 2013 return they brought their three-man horn section along and their firepower went up a notch. The thrilling ‘Midnight In Harlem’ – a song that is built on an almost sexual upward curve – had Trucks’ solo coda taking it up and up into that region that Carlos Santana used to (and I am sure still does) call ‘spiritual orgasm’.

I was saturated with rain, good vibes and killer music. And I still had two days to go.

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allentoussaint

Allen Toussaint

Saturday we eased in with the once and future king of the Big Easy himself, New Orleans magus Allen Toussaint. The man’s CV is virtually a history of modern R&B, soul and funk and his urbane cool belies his immense impact in shaping these musics. As if his beautiful, artfully funky music (and stunningly virtuosic piano playing) wasn’t gift enough, he threw Mardi Gras masks (and green and yellow AFL footballs?) to the crowd. A charmer in every way.

After a while cruising the human river and people watching (a Bluesfest pastime in itself) I chanced upon Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. And it was one of those wonderful music moments when seeing a band live makes you an instant fan – all subsequent listening experiences filtered through that thrilling ‘Eureka!’ moment of discovery. Wilco’s music seems to beat with the same American-classic heart at the centre of the songs of Neil Young and the darker Bruce Springsteen material. The band (especially guitarist Nels Cline) seem to be able to paint perfect soundscapes behind any of Tweedy’s songs, be they dark rockers or sweeter country-tinged ballads. A revelation.

Floating on the beauty of Wilco’s music I was yanked back down to earth by Status Quo. Britain’s answer to AC/DC, the indestructible Quo have been playing the same song for over 40 years – a variant on 12-bar pub boogie that has sold 118 million albums (think about that figure for a minute). Watching their flawless set, with mainstays Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt rocking hard before banks of white Marshalls, I could (almost) forgive them their awful Coles ads. Some bands are simply a force of nature and Quo are a blast of the simple joy of undiluted rock’n’roll.

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Robert Plant’s Sensational Shape Shifters

The straight-from-the-botttle thrust of Quo was perhaps a good brain-scourer –  an astringent appetiser – for the almost too-rich feast that was Robert Plant, which followed next. The fabled Led Zeppelin vocalist has been the main obstacle to any Led Zep reunions, as he has always moved forward with his music, taking his former band’s world-music aesthetic to greater heights than they ever did. His new band, The Sensational Shape Shifters, are the best version of Plant’s patented future-primitive groove – to one side of the stage we have Juldeh Camara working a Gambian wooden banjo, to the other side keyboardist John Baggott (ex-Massive Attack) sits in a nest of synths and laptops. Plant acknowledged the faithful with a few Led Zeppelin tunes, but messed with their anthem ‘Whole Lotta Love’, bedding it in a chugging African drum figure. Unlike almost every other ‘legendary’ act at Bluesfest he made no attempt to recreate his past, instead giving us a show we would think about for many months to come – a show driven by the restless creativity and often contrary nature of a true and uncompromising artist.

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Sunday we awoke to clouds and gray skies over the succulent green of Byron Shire. At the ‘Fest, Tony Joe White’s Swamp-Fox baritone conspired with the dull skies to lull us into maybe too deep a state of ‘relaxation’. We needed a wake-up!

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Saskwatch

And we got it in the shape of Melbourne nine-piece Saskwatch. Bursting with chops and youth – and fronted by their not-so-secret weapon, vocalist Nkechi Anele – the band mixes soul, funk and Afrobeat horns to great effect. Like Mayer Hawthorne in the US they also take the bouncier, pop-soul side of Motown and do great things with it. Last year it was The Eagle and The Worm that assured me music is in good hands for the future – this year is was the snap, crackle and (soul-)pop of Saskwatch.

My 2013 Bluesfest experience wound to a finish in a mix of rain, muddy dancers and 1970s progressive rock classicism. Jon Anderson, the vocalist of perhaps the greatest of all Prog bands, YES, played an intimate solo show for us that was quite sublime. (Oddly, YES played Bluesfest last year with –surreally – a replacement vocalist who was drawn from a YES covers band). Listening to Anderson peppering his set with acoustic, folky versions of YESsongs made me realise that it was in this form these tunes were written and presented to the band – who then proceeded to inflate them to Prog size. Unadorned with pomp, they are lovely songs, Anderson’s voice is one of the sweetest in all Rock and the man is once of our most beloved space cadets.

My prize for 24th Bluesfest Festival Moment goes, however, to the experience of standing in the teeming rain, with my 5 dollar poncho disintegrating on my back as I listened to Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson singing ‘It’s Raining Again’ (with not a drop of irony from what I could gather). But of course, the magic of his songs – one beautifully uplifting hit after another – sung in his spacey tenor blew away the rainclouds in my head and warmed the souls of all who listened. Once again, it’s only rain; this was bliss, a good reason to live right here, right now.

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stilts

Beautiful people

So that was it – right there, right then. Bluesfest 2013 – a festival beyond belief in so many ways. Criticisms? Around me I heard faint grumbles of over-selling and over crowding, and yes, it seemed fuller that previous years. But it is never anything like a problem – considering the logistics of an event that has grown to such proportions, artistically and attendance-wise.

What will Peter Noble conjure up for us next year? Being the 25th Bluesfest, he and his intrepid team will need to go beyond the pale to top the jaw-dropping line-ups of the last few years. The Jimi Hendrix Experience? The Beatles? Elvis Presley (pre-Hollywood of course)? I am just putting it out there – and knowing Noble’s almost supernatural powers (coupled with the soul of a true music fan), I really wouldn’t entirely put it past him.

 

Published April 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

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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