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 beautiful summer-like weather continued on Day 4 of Bluesfest, Easter Sunday. Chocolate was consumed, time for a family breakfast and a leisurely chat on the back deck before we were back on the highway bound for Tyagrah. A long day, plenty of sunscreen thanks to the cancer council, and one or two cleansing ales in the sunshine.
Yann Tiersen is a French musician, best known for the music soundtrack to Amelie. He brought with him his band consisting of three synthesiser/sequencer workstations, bass, drums and guitar. It’s always weird to see the knob tweaking and button pushing of the electronic devices that generate this music – It kind of looked like three guys in cubicles at work. But the output of all their efforts was powerful, melodic layered shimmering music, with hard crunchy edges, thanks to the live drums. Not being familiar with the set list, it was a pleasure to just close your eyes and let the sounds swirl around the crossroads tent. Judging by the folks lying around the tent doing the same, it was an easy on ramp to get back into festival mode.
Dubmarine are a 10 piece reggae dancehall dub band from Brisbane. Fronted by Captain D-Kazman (wearing nothing but the Aboriginal Flag and body paint), and Commander Kat Walker (in a sparkling tassled minidress) the band delivered a high intensity show filled with fat thumping dub grooves, complete with horns, samples and killer grooves. The interplay and vocal skills of the two singers was frenetic and exciting, culminating in a Street Fighter style battle of Ha-Do-Ken sonic fireballs being thrown across the APRA tent. This band puts on one hell of a big show, laden with incredible singing, showmanship, and just everyone in the band clearly having a hell of a good time.
The songs were strong in their message, with positive and uplifting wicked dancehall raps on the topic of indigenous rights, and anthemic chants that had the crowd jumping. It’s impossible not to be sucked into the Dubmarine – when 10 people are onstage jumping, playing and clearly loving what they are doing the contagion spreads like wildfire.
Missed:Mama Kin, Joanne Shaw Taylor
Angelique Kidjo is a native of Senegal, but these days is much more of an Earthling, spending her time travelling tirelessly across the globe bringing her message of harmony, equality and freedom through the medium of African music, dance and singing. And what an incredible show it is. As she welcomed us all with a spirited high energy tune filled with congas and frenetic, unpredictable rhythms, she said “There will be singing and dancing. Are you okay with that?” The crowd roared that yes, they were. I still hadn’t caught my breath, and wasn’t so sure. But there was singing. And dancing. And lots of clapping and chanting. Angelique trained us all in a blessing chant and set the crowd chanting “Shay Mama Shay Mama Africa”, before she disappeared offstage, all the while singing with her incredible deep and rich voice, only to reappear in the middle of the crowd, walking through a swathe of delighted chanting fans, humbled and amazed by this diminutive in stature, but enormous in talent woman.
When she returned to the stage, she said that she had been to see us, and now she wanted us to come and see her… And so a collection of lucky fans joined her onstage to dance their asses off. The conga player brought a drum to the front of the stage, and one by one, random fans were offered the chance to dance off against the drummer, in a one on one battle to the pounding afro beat, while the crowd roared. An amazing, uplifting, spectacular show.
Missed: Betye Lavette, Eagle and The Worm, Richard Clapton
The Audreys are an alt-country band from Adelaide, fronted by Taasha Coates – a strikingly beautiful raven haired songstress who sings with a sweet and dark captivating voice. Ably assisted by bandmate Tristan Goodall, and touring band members, they sang us through another spectacular Byron sunset. The crowd took the opportunity to relax and enjoy their set, which featured tracks from the new album, Sometimes the Stars.
Missed: Maceo Parker, Candi Staton, Slightly Stoopid
For some reason, the sound of opening a beer can reminds me of Seasick Steve. Foamy, crunchy and resonant, with the promise of satisfaction. And that was what this set delivered. With his unique blend of classic blues and mountain music, Steve took us on a wild and wily ride through tracks from his new album, You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks, and some older favorites. Joined onstage by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, and later by the members of Wolfmother, I would wager to say that this old dog has in fact, learned a whole bunch of new tricks. And they are pretty awesome, too. A charismatic, engaging and friendly character, Steve’s banter between songs had the crowd laughing and cheering. “This place – Byron Bay – This is the best place in the world.” Steve said to thunderous applause. “And I would marry any woman who would let me stay here. Except that I’m already married. Oh well.”
Missed: Melbourne Ska Orchestra, Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges, Ray Beadle
Newfoundland, Canada, according to Great Big Sea vocalist Alan Doyle, is “a tropical island” where “the girls walk about on the beaches in bikinis!” Hmm. Sounds a lot like Byron Bay… The APRA tent was packed with people keen to hear this hugely popular Canadian folk band who have sold out their last two shows in Sydney and Melbourne. As an honorary Newfoundlander (it’s complicated, there’s a ritual that involves kissing a fish and lots and lots of rum) I was stoked to be able to join in. As far as I could tell, every Canadian in a 1000 mile radius had made the pilgrimage to Byron to see their favourite band play their third ever show in Australia, and I felt like the only guy in the crowd who didn’t know the words. But that didn’t stop me – I jigged and danced and ducked and wove under the Newfoundland flag that was being waved by my Canadian brothers as the four piece band put on a spectacular show full of stomping folk rock with amazing fiddle playing, bones, bouzouki, mandolin and concertina. The set also included two a capella sea shanties, that were gloriously belted out by the crowd. . Perhaps in an effort to include those who weren’t in the know, the boys played us through a fly by sing along of Canadian music history, including the Barenaked Ladies “If I had a million dollars”, and culminating with a boorish, hilarious crowd led rendition of Bryan Adams’ Summer of 69. At the beginning of the set, Doyle switched it up a bit towards the end of one song, with a wink and a nod – effortlessly transitioning into the Black Eyed Peas – “I got a feeling… That tonight’s gonna be a good night”. He was right. What a great show, and what charming great folk.
It made me love Newfoundland even more.
Missed: Backsliders, Weddings Parties Anything, Blue King Brown
What can I say, this was easily the most hotly anticipated show at the festival – the first time The Pogues have played in Australia for 24 years. And they were downright amazing. As Shane McGowan blurted out at the crowd “It’s nice to be back. It’s uh – been a while.” The oft-troubled frontman started out a little shaky, through the opening song _Streams of Whiskey_, but as the show progressed, his voice sounded grand, and his band mates delivered beautiful melodic celtic punk music in a way that only The Pogues can. The crowd was enraptured, dancing linking arms, strangers stopping each other in the tent for impromptu silly riverdance danceoffs, and the atmosphere around the crossroads tent was gregarious and full of love. They waved their arms and sung along to a poignant cover of Eric Bogle’s And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, joining in for the last verse of one of Australia’s most loved national songs. The band played an encore, and after much hooting and hollering, returned for another, as it was clear that this mob of bluesfest revellers was not done yet. The final encore included percussion from Spider Stacey smashing a tin tray against his head, which was tossed into the crowd to the last note of the evening, from accordion player James Fearnley, who collapsed triumphantly onto the stage. There was a lot of hype around this show. These guys absolutely deserved it all, and we all stumbled off into the full moon, delighted, exhausted and supremely high.
Missed: John Butler Trio, Jonny Lang, Tribali, Blackbirds