By Deb Kloeden, Rock at Night Adelaide correspondent in Byron Bay
Venue: Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, Byron Bay, 29th March – 2nd April 2018
Australia’s premier Blues and Roots festival, The BYRON BAY BLUESFEST, took place for the 29th time over the Easter weekend. Five days and nights of some of the best music in the world left punters truly feeling that they got their money’s worth.
The logistics of organizing a festival for 95,000 people blows my mind. Festival co-founder and director, Peter Noble, does an amazing job of pulling in big guns like Lionel Richie, Robert Plant and Jackson Brown, every year. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to photograph these three. This was my fifth Bluesfest experience, even though I live 2,000km away.
Northern NSW can be very wet with it’s semi-tropical climate and this year the site was muddy from the start. The first photo pit I walked into saw my feet disappear into a puddle of mud, but fortunately, over the days, the site dried out, leaving everyone sweating in the humid heat.
Thursday started with the traditional ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony that acknowledges the traditional owners of the land we use. The first band I saw was alternative/Indie band HOLY HOLY, long time favourites of mine, who showcased their new album ‘Paint’. This was their first appearance at Bluesfest. Female vocalist, CAITI BAKER was also a newcomer to Bluesfest. She has been writing and recording songs from the age of 12.
I crammed a lot of music into the first day, including heavy rockers GOV’T MULE, English Indie Rock band, GOMEZ and singer/songwriter NEWTON FAULKNER who pulled a large crowd in one of the smaller stages. THE NEW POWER GENERATION, the backing band of PRINCE, created an instant dance party. A variety of lead singers gave the crowd all their favourite songs, with a visual and sound spectacular.
One of the most anticipated artists to appear at Bluesfest, for the first time, was Australia’s self-taught multi-instrumentalist, TASH SULTANA. Leaping from Guitar to keys, to on-the-spot created loops, to banjo and so on, she delighted everyone with her expressive energy and killer acoustics. I finished Day 1 by grooving to Bob Marley’s original band THE WAILERS. They performed four times at Bluesfest, featuring a different Bob Marley album each time. Needless to say, I saw them more than once.
I arrived fairly early on Friday because I was keen to see Sydney’s reggae/dub/dancehall band THE STRIDES. I discovered them at the WOMADelaide Festival three years ago and was very keen to see them again. They performed as part of The Boomerang Festival, a Festival within a Festival that showcases Indigenous music, dance and culture.
Iceland’s ASGEIR was another artist I was very keen to see, offering haunting lyrics and dreamy acoustics. CON BRIO, with their energetic and fiery frontman Ziek McCarter, pulled a huge crowd with each performance. His dance moves were as impressive as Michael Jackson’s. They played three times, Ziek wearing a different outfit each time.
My next stop was a blast from the past. CANNED HEAT, who originally played at Woodstock are ‘on the road again’. Age has treated them kindly and I thoroughly enjoyed sharing memory lane with them. The legendary JIMMY CLIFF brought his famous Ska and Reggae hits to the huge Crossroads Stage. There is a feeling of a being in the presence of someone truly great when you stand before this master.
There was huge hype about the famous Ms. LAURYN HILL, but feelings began to run cold when she kept fans waiting for over half an hour passed the scheduled start time before she appeared on stage. But a couple of songs in and all was forgiven.
SEU JORGE has become famous for his Portuguese David Bowie renditions. A foreign language can be so seductive, especially when the music has so much personal meaning. Canadian HARRY MANX masterfully blends Blues, Folk and Country. Australia’s JEFF LANG, joined him on stage with his skilled slide guitar playing. Other highlights included gospel and soul singer, LEON BRIDGES and Australia’s rhythm and Blues band CHAIN, who were celebrating over 50 years of music making.
A young Melbourne band, HARTS, caught my attention. With a dynamic stage performance, front man Darren Hart proved why the band is such a promising new act, blending a plethora of genres to create a unique sound of their own.
The finale on Saturday was the ever-popular Bluesfest regular, MICHAEL FRANTI and SPEARHEAD. Up to his usual antics, Michael had 2 youngsters on stage singing a song with him, his pregnant wife came on to join in with a love song written for her, and a couple from the crowd used the show for a marriage proposal. Michael, as usual, got close & personal by climbing into the crowd. He always makes himself available when he visits, maximising time with the general public and is often seen amongst the crowd and local communities.
I began Sunday by catching THE TESKEY BROTHERS, an up-coming Melbourne Blues/Soul band who have an amazing future ahead of them. Off the back of their first US tour, they generously squeezed in two shows at Bluesfest before heading off again to UK & EU. I’ve watched this band grow and mature over the last year or so and can’t give them high enough praise.
The guitar master, ERIC GALES, blazed his way onto the Jambalaya stage for a blinding set of Hendrix-style guitar frenzy. This was his second year in a row at Bluesfest, much to his fan’s delight. SEAL was another huge drawcard, with his smooth charm and world-famous hits. A second dose of TASH SULTANA followed this before hitting the funky grooves of New Orleans’ DUMPSTAPHUNK. There’s something really catchy about their music that had me seeking them out at all three shows over the weekend. An unexpected treat was seeing LUKAS NELSON (son of Willie Nelson) join them on stage at the end of their set for a rendition of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Ramble On’.
JOHN BUTLER TRIO needs no introduction. John Butler used his performance to highlight the plight of our coral reefs due to coal mining. The STOP ADANI campaign was given huge exposure when scores of artists took to the stage, unfurling a giant banner that spread from one side of the stage to the other. Many artists wore Tees promoting this campaign when they performed.
I was keen to catch Blues master WALTER TROUT at this year’s festival and finally made it on the last day. The stories behind his music really emphasise the true meaning of the Blues. He took the audience on his own painful life journey through his music, demonstrating that anything is possible with support, love and perseverance.
Seeing CHIC feat. NILE RODGERS perform was a real treat. He and his band gave a super polished act, performing his signature songs written for the likes of Madonna, David Bowie and Sister Sledge.
I saw several bands for the second time round on Day 5, but also saw lesser known acts like DOG TRUMPET featuring Bernie Hayes and Reg Mombassa (of Mambo (the design brand) and Mental as Anything fame). Finally I finished with RICK ESTRIN and the NIGHTCATS who gave a whole new meaning to the humble harmonica.
I would like to extend huge congratulations to all involved at Bluesfest Byron Bay. It is definitely one of the highlights of my year and this year’s festival was no exception. We are all now waiting with great anticipation for the big 30th celebrations next year. I wonder who will headline that?
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From Darkroom to Lightroom in 4 decades.
Deb is aPhotographer, Music Lover, Ex teacher, and traveller.