By Deb Kloeden, Rock at Night Australian correspondent
Venue: Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, Byron Bay, 18th April – 22nd April 2019
Australia’s premier blues and roots festival BLUESFEST BYRON BAY, celebrated it’s 30th birthday over the Easter long weekend and what a party we had. This year’s line-up saw the return of many of the finest acts seen in previous years as well as some welcome new faces. Headliners Iggy Pop, Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, Paul Kelly and The Saboteurs were the icing on the cake.
The first act I caught was Australian singer-songwriter CAITI BAKER, who eased us into a chilled set. American folk legend ARLO GUTHRIE proved he still has what it takes to draw a big crowd. In between songs he provided entertaining stories about the history of each hit. Multi Grammy nominee, RUTHIE FOSTER delivered a powerful set of soul, blues and gospel. NAHKO AND MEDICINE FOR THE PEOPLE returned to Bluesfest this year, much to my delight. Bearing new tattoos, Nahko performed much-loved favourites, as well as new songs of passion. I was very keen to see self-taught guitarist MELODY ANGEL shred guitar again. Taking over from the late great Jimmy Hendrix, Melody certainly knows how to make a guitar scream and squeal. I saw two of her four shows. First-timers, KURT VILE AND THE VIOLATORS, played a mean set with Kurt playing a huge array of stringed instruments. Their sound is grungy country. In contrast, Kiwi drum and bass outfit SIX60 got the crowd dancing to their grooves. Finally, one of the draw cards of the night, Aussie surf/rock band OCEAN ALLEY brought their chilled sound to the Mojo Stage. They treated the crowd to all their popular songs including their Number One hit ‘Confidence’. THE BLACK SORROWS, the last act of the night, really got me dancing in the photo pit. After 35 years of performing blues, R&B, Soul and Gospel, they’ve still got what it takes to get you moving.
The line-up on Friday was insane. I went back for more MELODY ANGEL, followed by South Carolina’s THE MARCUS KING BAND, who made their debut appearance at Bluesfest. 20 year–old Markus King has an explosive sound and can play a mean guitar. The king of Soul and Gospel Blues, ST.PAUL & THE BROKEN BONES brought their flashy, flamboyant show to the Mojo Stage. More than just a singer, ST.Paul gives a real theatrical show. Next I caught the funky SNARKY PUPPY who deliver a really fun show. The bass player pulls the most amazing faces and they always appear to be having a party on stage. Their fun energy is infectious. The legendary NORA JONES was a real treat. Her dreamy voice and seductive stage presence won everyone’s hearts. Next up, the Irish darling HOZIER drew an enormous crowd, playing all time favourites, including of course, ‘Take Me To Church’. It seems everyone at the festival had this one only show marked on their programs. Next up I saw the iconic GARY CLARK JR for a dose of some ‘real Blues’. Making his 3rd appearance at Bluesfest, Gary had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand.
I’d been waiting with great anticipation for the real wild child, IGGY POP. I had never seen him before, so photographing him was a real bucket list treat. He came out already shirtless, launching straight into his prancing antics and getting up close to his fans. At 71 (he turned 72 two days later) he certainly can still deliver the goods. He certainly gave fans what they’d come to see. Playing at almost the same time was the very popular Aussie multi-instrumentalist TASH SULTANA. I have seen her perform several times now and never tire of her positive sound and bouncy stage antics. She delivers a happy vibe that leaves you feeling very satisfied. It was a great way to finish Day 2.
The Saturday line-up got straight into more Bluesfest classics. Scoring an early time-slot VINTAGE TROUBLE drew the crowd straight back for more. Front-man TY TAYLOR is known for his signature leaps from the mic stand, crowd surfing and mic lead skipping. He treated us to all of this in the first three songs. A Vintage Trouble show is not just about the music, it’s a whole workout. I was also lucky enough to meet Ty Taylor a couple of times over the weekend. He is very friendly and approachable.
LARKIN POE are sisters, related to the creative genius Edgar Allan Poe. The word was out, their show was not to be missed. They delivered a combination of strong vocals and solid guitar riffs. I continued with the feminine theme, chasing down the dreamy IMELDA MAY and the charismatic SAMANTHA FISH who made four appearances at her debut Bluesfest. She certainly won new fans.
I was keen to see one the interview sessions, ABC BEST OF BLUESFEST. The one I caught chatted with FANTASTIC NEGRITO, LUKAS NELSON and JACK JOHNSON. It was a great way to learn more about the artists and hear them talk about their beginnings, musical journey and current projects. Each also performed short, intimate acoustic sets. Next up was the very special KEB’ MO’ who performed solo, delivering his special blend of American Blues and Roots. THE WAR AND TREATY, fronted by husband and wife team Michael and Tanya Trotter were a powerhouse of energy, delivering funky bass lines and swampy southern soul.
There could not be a Bluesfest 30th birthday without alt-country rock darling, KASEY CHAMBERS who is a regular performer. At the end of her set, Festival Director Peter Noble, presented Kasey with a Bluesfest ‘Star’ Award for her contribution to the festival and the Australian music landscape though-out her career. It brought her to tears.
LITTLE STEVEN & THE DISCIPLES OF SOUL, one of the founding members of Bruce Springsteen’s iconic E Street Band was another much anticipated act. They took us back to the 70s delivering a grungy mix of Springsteen hits and original music. LUKAS NELSON & PROMISE OF THE REAL, son of Willy Nelson returned to Bluesfest on the back of his appearance in the movie hit ‘A Star Is Born’. His songs reveal the Country influence combined with killer guitar riffs and impressive hair swinging. Bluesfest classic, BEN HARPER & THE INNOCENT CRIMINALS joined the party for a one-off appearance. This was his 12th appearance at Bluesfest and his show was just as special as the first. Lastly I caught the very fun MELBOURNE SKA ORCHESTRA for some boogie time. This enormous band, fronted by Nicky Bomba is a real powerhouse of energy. It was a great way to end the night.
The Australian TV music quiz show, ROCKWIZ, presented two shows at Bluesfest, combining members of the audience and artists on the two panels. I caught the second show early on Sunday afternoon. Presenters Julia Zemira and Brian Nankervis are extremely quick witted and run a tight, very funny quiz show, interspersed with music from the program’s band and guest artists. I caught Ian Moss from Cold Chisel and Thando. Part way through the program I raced off to catch American groover SHAKEY GRAVES, then onto catch Melbourne brothers PIERCE BROTHERS, who hit my radar a while ago. They put on a very energetic, fun show. It was great to finally see them. Australia’s iconic Indigenous band YOTHU YINDU AND THE TREATY PROJECT gave a very powerful performance of cultural diversity. The band has evolved over the years, but their messages and strong performances remain. I dropped into to see Aussie music icon TEX PERKINS to see what new disguise he was delivering. He has a huge repertoire to draw from.
DIVA MAHAL, daughter of Taj Mahal, gave a powerful performance and looked stunning in her rich costume. I was encouraged to see NATHANIEL RATELIFF & THE NIGHT SWEATS and I’m so glad I did. The seven-piece Soul band was a tight outfit. When you think of Bluesfest queens, you’d have to include the one and only MAVIS STAPLES. At close to 80 years of age, she still packs a powerful vocal punch and looks like she still has many more years of performing ahead of her. I finished the night with American singer-songwriter, rapper MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO for some Neo Soul, then one of my favourites, headliner JACK JOHNSON who played classic favourites with all the charm in the world. I was also lucky enough to meet him backstage too.
I arrived early on the last day to see MAM MIHIRANGI & THE MAREIKURA, a New Zealand Songstress & loop artist, who celebrates the power and talent of Maori women. Her accompanying dancer/musicians were mesmerising to watch. It was a stunning performance. Zimbabwean born, Melbourne-based singer-writer THANDO, made her debut appearance at Bluesfest, delivering a powerful voice. She described being at Bluesfest as ‘living in a slice of Heaven’. ALLEN STONE made his fourth appearance at Bluesfest, playing three shows. I caught his up-tempo Soul set on Monday.
JULIA STONE (from Angus & Julia Stone fame) is a favourite of mine, and her one and only set at Bluesfest did not disappoint. She has been working on solo material with her own band so it was nice to hear new material. Her distinctive voice makes new songs sound familiar, like old friends. I love finding new artists at festivals and a stand-out at Bluesfest was MISS VELVET AND THE BLUE WOLF. With energy like a young Mick Jagger she delivers an epic rock sound that leaves you with only one word in mind. WOW!!!! Playing at the same time was Melbourne-based singer MOJO JUJU. Her articulate dialogue between songs explains the messages she feels strongly about, the stories in her music. She is an impressive Indigenous musician.
By the last day at Bluesfest, you get a chance to revisit some of your favourite acts. I caught second sets from NATHANIEL RATELIFF and KEB’ MO’ before moving onto English singer-songwriter DAVID GRAY. He burst onto the music scene back in 1993 with his first album ‘White ladder’, which became an instant hit. The moody lighting for this set was perfect. I just had to catch VINTAGE TROUBLE again and LUKUS NELSON for the third time before witnessing one of Australia’s finest, PAUL KELLY. His classic songs, the ones that help you recall defining moments, filled the Mojo tent and delighted one of the biggest crowds at Bluesfest.
I missed GEORGE CLINTON & PARLIAMENT FUNKADELIC’s first show, so I was honoured to be at their last performance. The Grandfather of Funk is calling it a day and wow, did they go out with a bang. On the way back to the car park, I couldn’t resist dropping into the CALIFORNIA HONEYDROPS for one last dose of R&B, Soul and Delta Blues. It was a fun way to finish. Thanks so much Bluesfest for throwing the best 30th birthday party I’ve been to.
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