The Easter long weekend has come and gone, and with it, so too has the 2016 Byron Bay Bluesfest. The 27th instalment of the East coast institution had everything it has always had, and then some. It wouldn’t be a festival in Byron Bay without mud, and that was in abundance, but tunes detracted from the mud. It has been said before, and it will be said again, that a music festival can only be as good as its music.
5 days of sights and sounds from the most diverse line-up ever assembled under the banner of Bluesfest awaited punters at the Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm. Here within, you will find a highlight reel of sorts.
Thursday at Bluesfest is traditionally an awkward day. Awkward in that many revellers arrive late, crowd numbers are usually down, and as such the big names on the bill are not commonly found on Day 1. This year, however, was a Bluesfest like no other. Festival Director, Peter Noble made a bold move in the form of Kendrick Lamar. Did Thursday night’s headliner pay off? In a word; YES. Noble and co. were rewarded with a young, vibrant and enthusiastic crowd, all of whom salivated at the opportunity to see music’s biggest star do his thing. And do his thing he did. Lamar’s band was tight, his flow unmatched. It was an explosive performance that shook the tent poles of the Mojo stage. However, Bluesfest possesses a whimsical romance like no other festival. True love can often be found at the smaller stages, in the form of an unknown act. The Bros. Landreth of Winnipeg, Canada offered up one such love story. Four part harmonies accompanied by cleverly constructed chord progressions, and Papa Landreth on the bass guitar in place of his son; beautiful. “Sometimes home needs you more than the road,” lead singer, Joey Landreth said of his brother’s absence. “So dad stepped in.” The modest crowd who had gathered shuffled a little closer to the stage and to one another. It was classic Easter long weekend magic.
Day 2 was a more traditional Bluesfest experience. Elle King delivered hellfire rock ‘n roll. Her voice is drenched in whiskey, nicotine, and Southern charm, and punters ate it up. To close her set, she surveyed the crowd. “We’re gonna play a cover song. Y’all want an old song or a new song?” A booming chorus of “Ooooooooold” reverberated around the packed tent, and Elle and the band lurched into a steamrolling version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary. Songhoy Blues transported their crowd all the way to their hometown; Timbuktu, and then to New Orleans and Nashville. A concoction of African grooves and dirty blues guitar caused many hips to gyrate. The men on stage were radiant in their joy, so too were the crowd. About 3 years ago, these men were forced to flee from civil conflicts in Mali. Now, they’re playing the blues in paradise. Such is the romance of Bluesfest.
Day 3, and lower backs are a bit sore, knees are starting to ache and punters can be heard murmuring, “I don’t know how some people do 5 days.” But a slice from Pizza Loca and a traditional mint julep from the Cajun Kitchen are enough to keep the throngs on their feet. Some of the most impressive vocal performances in recent memory took place on Day 3; St. Paul & the Broken Bones provided aural salvation via the medium of gospel music. St. Paul’s voice (can neither confirm nor deny the legitimacy of his sainthood) is otherworldly, and miraculously turned a half filled tent into a tin of sardines. Lucky Peterson left the Juke Joint stage to be among the people. Channeling BB King, he sat on a stool at the centre of the tent, his constituency at his feet, and belted old time, unamplified blues in between tasty guitar licks. It was a spine-tingling, eye watering, festival making experience.
Day 4 boasted real star power. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds played new stuff and old stuff. The old stuff was Oasis’ stuff, and to drunkenly sing along to Don’t Look Back in Anger and Wonderwall is special stuff. Bluesfest favourites, The Cat Empire were as funky as ever, while UB40 and The Wailers proved that after decades, they are still something to behold. Allen Stone, who possesses slightly less star power than the aforementioned artists, delivered an ecstatic performance. He is soulful beyond his years and is one performer whose star will continue to rise.
Day 5, and you’re thinking “Is this really the end? Surely I don’t have to go to work tomorrow”, bad news; you do. Thankfully, Brian Wilson was able to soften that blow. It was emotional watching one of music’s great innovators perform. The buttery harmonies were there, so too were the intricate arrangements and clever instrumentation, but the years seem to have dulled his spark somewhat. Nevertheless, witnessing the genius of Pet Sounds was special. There is no other word for it. Later that night, Tom Jones proved that he is one of the music industry’s true pros, delivering an electric performance of classics; his own and others.
In all, it was as good as Bluesfest has been for a long time. There has been a slight change in modus operandi, but when you look around at Australia’s festival landscape, how many other 27-year-old festivals do are still standing? Bluesfest is inimitable, and that’s all there is to it. Thanks, #27. Here’s to 27 more!