Bumper Bluesfest Review: Part I

Bluesfest Saturday Photos by KT Bell

Having teased you with a few interviews and snapshots on select Bluesfest artists, it’s time for the big one! (SO big, we’ve had to split in two).

Six days, one festival. I’ve had holidays shorter than this! But my fears of festive fatigue were put aside as, in my opinion, one of the best Bluesfests unfolded almost seamlessly. Only a day and a half of rain towards the end bought a much welcomed, mostly poncho-free experience. Being my first visit to the new Tyagarah site, I discovered an impressive layout, with easy access to all stages, minimal queuing, plenty of food stalls and bars, abundant shelter, more ATMs, and plenty of toilets. Brilliant!

The weather and layout alone would make this Bluesfest a complete success, even before a band is mentioned, but it just went upward from there.

This year’s lineup bought with it a mix of the old, and the new. First time Bluesfest guests, and festival veterans. Folk and country, blues and rock. Some who twist the definitions of each genre, and those who escape definition all together. Some playing the legendary hits and crowd favorites, other’s showcasing new material to the diehard and uninitiated alike. And then there’s those moments when you’d just much rather remember the good old days. But I digress. Time to enter the gates!

Quickly swinging by Michael Franti and Spearhead for his familiar rootsy pop hits, I was fortunate to catch a happy couple interrupting proceedings with a marriage proposal on stage, followed by Kim Churchill joining Franti on stage for “The Sound of Sunshine”.

Moving on to Ernest Ranglin, the Jamaican reggae guitar veteran, who some call the ‘Godfather of Reggae’. Having been one of my Bluesfest highlights back in 2007, I was itching to see him again, and I was not disappointed. This was the perfect way to start the festival. Hit smooth rolling guitar, floating over the super tight stab and bounce of the rhythm section. Dabbling in sweet latin jazz, and the trademark reggae, ska, and rocksteady rhythms filling the cool night air, there was not a drop of rain in sight. The band even ventured into dub territory, and it was great seeing Ranglin work along side a sound which he was instrumental in forming.

Bluesfest Friday

Next up, the driving Orleans funk and blues of Funky Meters (the current form of The Meters), part of the original New Orleans funk scene, featuring original members Art Neville and George Porter Jr., joined by Russell Batiste on drums, and Brian Stoltz (of the Neville Bros. band) on guitar. Playing a mix of their classic instrumental tracks such as Look-ka Py Py, and their more lyrical tracks such as Fire on the Bayou, People Say, and a drum heavy version of Chicken Strut. Unlike a number of their contemporaries, the band were having a ball playing live, with stage presence, interaction with each other, engaging the audience, and even the occasional false start. You don’t want a performance to be too perfect, but finally seeing the (Funky) Meters was just right!

From the history of funk, I stumbled upon the Juke Joint stage and Ray Beadle, undoubtedly the future of Australian blues, funk, and roots driven guitar music! Only four hours into the festival, and I knew this set was going to be one of the highlights. A versatile musician, Sydney based Beadle dabbles in blues, rockabilly, funk, and hard hitting, rough and tumble rock and roll, with calculated finesse and skill. Moving into moments of Zappa-esque experimentation, his guitar oozed smoke and sex. It was almost indecent! A little over the top? No way! I love when an artist induces from you involuntary shouts and hollers.

From this musical high, next up was the newfound raw energy of Ben Harper & Relentless 7, until when turning the corner, I swear I just walked through a time warp back to 2006. On stage was not Relentless 7, as advertised, but Harper’s Innocent Criminals lineup. What followed was the inevitable string of crowd-pleasing hits and sing-a-long’s, and Harper in classic mode. But was he enjoying himself? I’m not sure. He seemed to be going through the motions. As for me, excited, and then let down at the prospect of another Relentless 7 set, I opted to postpone the remainder of Harper until his Fistful of Mercy set (which was worth the wait!).

Day two kicked off by way of folk/soul/funk/gospel singer Ruthie Foster, with a huge voice, and smile to match. An artist that makes you believe that they’re enjoying every moment on stage. Backed by an equally dreaded all girl band, Foster comfortably, and with all Texan power, charges through songs and stories that reflect the personal nature of her performances. She takes the crowd through a journey of her life, her music, faith, and politics, offering her songs in hope, and not just as an emotional outlet. A modest and admirable artist who deserves far above the recognition she already receives.

A quick detour to the Mojo stage found C.W. Stoneking, in all of his understated muttering splendor, spouting stories of railroad tracks, African fertility dances, and lazy day conversations on the porch.

Eric BibbA ragtime interlude before moving on to Eric Bibb, now a regular of the Bluesfest trail. The quintessential blues and folk artist, Bibb holds his own on stage, engaging the crowd with that certain something that you can’t quite put your finger on.  Acoustic guitar in hand, Bibb recalls a true American style, in a genre that is constantly calling to other continents for inspiration. With dedications to, and inspiration from BB King’s cousin Booker (Bukka) White, Bibb resurrects the delta blues on stage, and in his new album Booker’s Guitar; his performance revealing that ‘certain something’… soul. To have soul is to reveal something deep, and here Bibb reveals not just himself, but the deep soul of American blues and folk singers decades past. And as if his company on stage was not enough, he was later joined by good friend Ruthie Foster, complementing Bibb through two more songs to the end of the set. Though in the largest tent of the festival, there was an intimacy about his set, and look forward to hopefully seeing him in more naturally intimate surroundings in the near future.

After a quick pit stop, next up was Trombone Shorty… the missing link between Kanye West, and Fishbone’s Angelo Moore. A brass fueled funk party that demands your attention, taking the tradition of the New Orleans street band, Trombone Shorty (aka Troy Andrews) is the among the new breed of Orleans talent rising from the disarray of the city’s recent turbulent history. TS and band prove that Orleans funk aint dead, being reborn with a bout of rock and urban jazz, morphing into it’s own unique sound. And he refuses to let the crowd get too used to one sound, trading his trombone for a trumpet, singing one song, and slipping into a hip hop track the next. The traditional sound of New Orleans is the sound of the people, as it was. With a new era comes a new sound, but in a place like New Orleans, you can never forget your past. Both the history and the future of Orleans can be heard in Trombone Shorty’s music, but there’s one thing that will never change, and that is that New Orleans, and Trombone Shorty, know how to party!

Fistful of Mercy at Bluesfest on FridayNow, finally, it was time for Fistful of Mercy. For me the most anticipated set of the festival so far, FoM are a unique addition to the festival lineup, in that they have barely been together for a year, have just one recording, and have been given an hour to feature barely 40 minutes of recorded material. Enter Dhani Harrison (son of George), Ben Harper, and Joseph Arthur, joined on stage by violinist Jessy Greene. Of course, together, their time has been short, but separately they are each well accomplished. Finding their feet through the first couple of songs from the album, this ‘super group’ gradually transformed into their own legitimate entity, with Harper taking a back seat to the overall sound of the trio.
Missing only one song from the album (30 Stones), FoM cruised through their own material, with the addition of Bob Dylan’s Buckets of Rain, Harper’s own Please Me Like You Want To, and Joseph Arthur’s In The Sun. The unity of the group strengthened as the initial three-part jam session progressed into the joining of three musical spirits. Three separate voices became harmonies, and a good set became a great one! For one last song, the trio (along with Jessy Green) stood around one mic, unplugged at first, singing With Whom You Belong, a fitting warm end that really did leave me hopeful for more to come from this unconventional super group.

Day two was coming to a close, but I couldn’t miss a repeat performance (after 5 years) of Mexico’sRodrigo & Gabriella. Catching them at the sadly defunct Great Escape festival in 2006, Sydney’s then leg of the Bluesfest tour, I was instantly captivated, and looking forward to this day. The duo revealed that they had not toured for the past six months, so it was indeed a treat to have Rodrigo Sanchez ‘y’ Gabriela Quintero back in Australia for Bluesfest. Deciding to do without a set list, the duo proceeded to deliver a collection of pieces from across their catalogue, along with the odd song yet to be released. Despite performing sans set list, there was not hesitation in delivering their trademark mind-blowing display of lightning speed strumming, plucking, and effortless synchronization. A noticeable change in their on stage performance is that they’re much more physical on stage. Dancing, moving, smiling; this is a welcome addition!  Opting to avoid a number of their well known covers, Rodrigo y Gabriela show much of their South American heritage in their purely instrumental routine, but never sacrifice that ‘acoustic metal’ atmosphere that thrills the audience.

Leah Flanagan playing at Bluesfest on SaturdayDay three, and the sheer length of this year’s festival is starting to dawn on us. Almost half way there, but still a whole day of music to get through. So, taking a deep breath, we venture to the Mojo stage for Darwin based singer/songwriter Leah Flanagan. Having been discovered by festival organizer Peter Noble in a Darwin club, Flanagan brings with her the tropical flavor of the coastal north, as opposed to that of the dusty central Australian landscape that so many before have done. Sharing stories of people and places, old Darwin and new Darwin. Her songs reflect her surroundings and experiences, often trading her guitar for a ukulele, which seems to evoke the salty air and warmth of the top end. It’s not surprising that Jimmy Buffet personally asked Flanagan to be the opening act for his most recent Australian tour. Her strong connection with not only her indigenous heritage, but also her Irish and Italian descent makes for a striking combination of Australian indigenous folk, country, and rock, with the occasional upbeat Caribbean-tinged ragtime song on the ukulele. When Leah Flanagan plays, she brings home with her, giving every listener a taste of the north, and presenting an invitation to visit as soon as possible.

One of the great recent additions to the festival is the busking tent, providing a stage for a wide array of local acts who may otherwise not get a chance to be heard beyond the streets of Byron Bay. One artist I stopped by to check out was Mick McHugh, an Irish folk artist who has called Byron his home for the past 5 years. The accent and occasional mandolin accompaniment helping to draw a fine crowd for a local folk artist, McHugh sung and told stories of people, life, and the comparisons of his current, and true home in Ireland. An authentic Irish sound rarely heard amongst the mostly continental, long established high profiled artists featured on the 2011 bill.

Mavis Staples at Bluesfest on SaturdayNext stop was the Crossroads tent for, frankly, one of the world’s greatest gospel and soul singers, from the most successful gospel group of their time. The sun was shining, the air was cool, and Mavis Staples (of The Staples Singers) was about to well and truly take the Bluesfest congregation to church! Supported by her highly skilled band of backing singers and musicians, each one of whom shone in their own way, the energy and joy displayed by Staples and co. soon infected the crowd. No matter what your beliefs, the spirit of Gospel was in the air, and the crowd had little alternative but to discard their troubles, and throw their hands in the air! Performing a set full of memories, classic gospel, and new songs, this was a much more celebratory Staples than when I last saw her at the 2008 festival. But, you can’t have a Staples set without the straight talking singer herself speaking about life, politics, faith, and tellin’ it like it is. Highlights of the set included a version of Freedom Highway, written by her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples, originally performed by the Staples Singers, and the final song, the Staple Singers’ hit single from 1972 I’ll Take You There, joined by none other than Trombone Shorty to complete the 7 piece party, wrapping up what would be one of my favorite performances of the entire festival.

After a recharge on Byron Bay Donuts, I made my way to the Mojo stage, not quite sure what to expect from the next performer. I had heard her early work, heard a bit more of her reputation since, but knew that I should by any means miss this set. On arrival, I was met by an on-stage set up that would cause anyone to expect at least a 5, maybe 6 piece band . . . two stands covered in a wide array of key and percussion instruments, a Perspex grand piano filled with fairy lights, a drum kit positioned next to a collection of other percussion instruments, and finally a cello, positioned next to a small keyboard.

Imogen Heap at Bluesfest on SaturdayEnter English singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Imogen Heap, accompanied by two band mates who positioned themselves by the cello and drum kit respectively… where’s everyone else!??!  This question only lingered for a moment as the surprisingly tall Heap proceeded to move gracefully from instrument to instrument, appearing less made scientist, and more Flashdance. With wireless ‘Madonna mic’ and two stereo mics strapped to her wrists for those smaller ‘unplugged’ percussion instruments, she proceeded to sing, play, pluck, and loop sounds with ease and precision. During each song, Heap would find a moment or two to dance and sing directly to the crowd, and between songs her amusing and captivating banter would lead her to apologise for talking so much. Playing mostly songs from her two most recent albums, she also threw in the Frou Frou song Let Go, some new material, and to the pleasure of the fans in the audience, the vocoder driven Hide and Seek, which brought her name out of obscurity in 2005 thanks to the popular TV program The OC. For the closing song, Heap played Tidal, complete with rocking keytar solo, and wrap-around shades. An engaging stage presence, and performance unlike anything seen at Bluesfest surely since Sigur Ros in 2006, she mixes performance art with ethereal pop, rock, folktronica. I don’t know why it’s taken this long for her to come to Australia, but much thanks goes to those responsible, and I’m confident she’ll be back soon.

(Soon to follow – Bumper Bluesfest Review: Part II)


  1. Amanda said,

    May 11, 2011 at 22:58

    I may be biased, but I love it James! 🙂 Trombone Shorty definitely knows how to party! Looking forward to part 2!

  2. Amanda said,

    May 11, 2011 at 23:03

    By the way… GREAT photos KT!

  3. May 25, 2011 at 14:37

    […] we’ve been writing about him. From playing tiny bars and clubs around the country to being dragged onstage at Bluesfest by roots royalty Michael Franti, the New South Wales native’s rise has been meteoric to say the least. And it’s not […]

  4. June 29, 2011 at 09:59

    […] quick re-cap… so far, since Part I, we are half way through the marathon 6 day festival, having had the pleasure of watching Ben […]

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