When I was a kid, the Easter long weekend meant two things: Chocolate for breakfast, and no more school. Nowadays, the full moon marks something much more significant – an annual pilgrimage to the Byron Bay Blues and Roots Festival, Bluesfest. Nestled in Byron Shire, Australia’s most easterly point, the 5 day festival this year boasts an impressive bill of amazing musical talent from Australia and around the world.
The day started at 4 PM, but with the last of the working week to finish up and forget, it wasn’t untill 6 that I managed to make it on site. The site this year is very similar to earlier years, but includes a new tent – the Cavanbah – featuring more local artists from Byron and the region, and other press stuff. After pausing for a moment to take in the spectacle as the sun set and the lights began to take over, we headed over to the Mojo tent, where the thick, bouncing dub bass of Ziggy Marley was already pulsing through the ground. performing as a solo artist, after nearly twenty years with his band, the Melody Makers, Ziggy stands as a commanding force for love and positivity. In addition to hits Look Who’s Dancing, and Tomorrow People, Ziggy also sang a few songs from his father’s back catalog – Get up, Stand Up and Is this Love. Reggae, and the history of Jamaican musical culture are alive and well, and it was a great place to start the festival.
Missed: Trombone Shorty, David Bromberg Quartet, Eilen Jewell, Ollie Brown, Dan Hannaford
My Morning Jacket
After a short interlude in the Mojo tent, Kentucky alt-rock-country outfit My Morning Jacket hit the stage. They gave a commanding and intense performance, but I have to admit I’ve never been able to get exactly where these guys are going. From the opener, Setting Sun, through tracks from the latest album, Circuital, Jim James and his mates essentially confused me with their unclassifiable, genre hopping brand of music. I like it, I think. I probably need to spend more time with the records to get the most out of the concert. Still, an impressive show.
Canned Heat have been playing blues boogie music for 47 years. To the uninitiated, (like me) it sounds a bit like they have just been playing one song the whole time. Still, the crowd at the Jamabalya stage were loving it, spilling out to hear the crunchy sweet tones of the band’s guitars. It’s just so cool to see people enjoying themselves, and the crowd at Bluesfest are the best festival crowd in the world.
Hat Fitz and Cara
I snuck over to the APRA tent to find a curious thing going on. There was this bloke who looked like a bushranger, only his axe was a guitar and an Irish girl playing the tin whistle and a drum kit with amazing precision. Even more amazing, the crowd was going completely batshit crazy, as though the tent was transformed into a black gospel church. The girl then began to lead the crowd, in a lilting call-and-response, revealing a beautiful, powerful voice. Something about the stomping beats and wicked blues guitar licks got into me, and before long, I was testifying with the rest of them. If you get a chance to see them perform Friday and Saturday, I strongly suggest you go.
Missed: Nick Lowe, John Hiatt & the Combo, Kooii, Mojo Bluesmen
Cold Chisel are, in Australia, one of the most important bands in the world. My son, who is 14, said to me in the middle of My Baby: “How do I know this song? I’ve never heard it before.” It’s something a bit troubling, but clearly Cold Chisel songs into all Australians, through some unknown mechanism. Jimmy Barnes unique vocal talent of harmonic screaming and shouting, and Ian Moss’s laid back, more traditional vocal style merge to create are imbibeda kind of aural magic – something that I have never seen replicated in any other band. Add to that the formidable keyboard and songwriting talents of Don Walker, Phil Small’s precision bass playing, and Ian Moss’ spectacular skill as a blues guitarist, and the band is, well, incredible. Along with new drummer Charley Drayton who brings a ferocity and youthful power to the heart of the music, the boys took the stage to the strains of Standing on the Outside Looking In and worked their way through their catalog, also premiering songs from their new album – No Plan. At these tracks, the crowd obligingly fist pumped and nodded along. But when the opening piano bars to Khe Sanh rang out through the Mojo tent, the crowd instantly collectively went utterly mad. The cheers, hoots and whistles were deafening and the singing! – everybody seemed to know all the words to what might as well be the National Anthem. Jimmy Barnes was struggling to be heard. I mean C’mon – it was Jimmy Barnes. And he had a P.A !
Here’s betting there will be a few hoarse voices around the breakfast table come Good Friday.
Missed: Lucinda Williams, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Banjalu