Bluesfest Review: Sweet Sunday

Buddy Guy at Bluesfest. Photos by Stuart Bucknell Photography

It’s chocolate day! And as we enter through the Southern gates the sounds of Lloyd Spiegel making the crowd laugh with his tales welcomes us to another glorious day of Blues, before we can hear Spiegel breaking in to a blistering rendition of “Lucille”. It’s his last tune, so maybe we’ll catch him again tomorrow.

Our main aim is to grab lunch and make haste to see Glenn Cardier and the Sideshow, at 1:30pm on the Delta stage. It’s a modest but keen crowd as Cardier’s moody blues kicks off the day. The Sideshow delivers a tight meld of consummate musicians, producing a slick sound and emotive melody from the album ‘Stranger Than Fiction’. A high energy and animated performance of “Rust in my Tail Fin” has us all going, and you’ve got to love a piano accordion in the mix with electric guitar, acoustic drums and a double bass!

Heading to the Mojo stage for a 2pm grin-fest Jake Shimabukuro and his wicked ukulele. Touting his new album recorded in Nashville, Shimabukuro is accompanied only by an electric bass. The strummy sound of a ukulele can brighten the most melancholy tune and the Beatle’s “Eleanor Rigby” does just that as an opening, a delicate and haunting treatment of a favourite that turns up the energy with smooth bass underpinning. Shimabukuro’s sense of humour and light banter is perfect for the sunny afternoon and he introduces a song inspired by his favourite show growing up. The song is called “Ukelele-5-0” and we all laugh along with the joke as high energy and spirited number traverses tempo and vibe, delivering a sense of emotion, through a journey that awakens the mind and heart of us all. His epic dexterity and speed builds to crescendo and then lulls in to a beautifully entwined and intricate plucked wonder. After a decadent medley of some favourite pop tunes, and something with a Spanish flair, he finishes the set with a crowd sing-a-long to Bohemian Rhapsody!

We make our way to catch Mud Morganfield at 3pm on the Delta stage. With a honky tonk style sound filled with riffing beats, twanging electric guitar, jiving keys and a whole lot of sass pouring forth from the stage, we’re all bopping along before we even know it. A wicked harmonica solo herald the entrance of the man himself, the son of legend Muddy Waters, Mud Morganfield steps out on stage. This is real old school blues, where you can’t help but sway along. The entire crowd is tapping, bopping or swaying to the old time jive sensibilities transporting us to another time.

After grabbing a quick drink and bite to eat, we settle in to witness Buddy Guy take over Bluesfest in his 5:30pm set on the Crossroads stage. His performance is so highly anticipated that the crowd not only packs out the tent and overflows behind, but is also overflowing to the sides, all the way to the big screen and back to the craft beer bar. And Buddy didn’t disappoint. Starting big and only going bigger, he may be 80 but he gives the rest of his band a run for their money. Resplendent in polka dots, Buddy commands the stage with both his presence and his swaggering guitar riffs. His voice shackled the high notes and melted all the way down through every blues note with such passion and showmanship. The extremely talented members of his musical collective frame his iconic style perfectly, as he brings it right down and plays with the audience, teasing us right up to the punchy, powerhouse moments. When an Octogenarian plays the guitar with his goddamn elbow, followed by his “belt buckle” you know this is the cheekiest 80-year-old we’ll ever see.

We pop up to the Juke Joint at 6:30pm to check out Max Jury. Opening with a chilled vibe with just Jury on keyboard and singing a solemn love song, it’s a great stepping stone to the full ensemble as the 5-piece band joins him on stage, complete with two female backing singers. We’re treated to “Numb”, a soul filled tune with glorious backing vocal harmonies and followed by “Little Jean Jacket” a tender melancholy, with sweet backing vocals building a soft cocoon around the sentimentality of the song, as the mellow bass and drums slide in underneath and lift the music to flow out over the crowd. As Jury moves from the keys to strings, glorious uplifting backing vocals presents “Ella’s Moonshine”, a more upbeat tempo shifts the whole vibe to more of a troubadour or journeyman style.

After some delicious dinner, we visit the Mojo stage for Michael Kiwanuka’s 8:30pm set and are greeted with an epic intro full of synth, and eventually Kiwanuka joins the stage with a guitar that sings its way through the crowd, calling us together to join the night. A smooth, soulful “Cold Little Heart” rolls forth with velvet like vocals and the crowd flocks to him, drawn by the enigmatic quality of his music.

We move along, wearied by the days of music to experience, and make one last stop for the day at 9pm to Jambalaya for legend Mavis Staples. We saw her last year and could not miss her this year, even if just for a glimpse. Staples walks on stage oozing style and panache, and gives a cheeky knowing look as she and her retinue blasts out  a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” as a statement opening number with signature beautiful harmonised backing and an edge of funk to the whole delivery. The entire performance demonstrates Staples’ professionalism, working with the backing vocalists and delivering a slick production that is rehearsed and wonderfully collaborative in its style. Opportunities to showcase each vocalist and their contribution or specialty are plentiful and it’s clear that time was taken to plan the set to highlight different members of the ensemble. Staples addresses the crowd, telling us that “at Bluesfest, the people are so warm and beautiful, we are welcomed, hospitality plus, personality plus. It’s our family! We bring you greetings from the Windy City. We’ve come this evening to bring you some joy, some happiness, some inspiration” as the most glorious rendition of “The Weight” then carries us in to the night.

It may have been traditionally a day filled with chocolate, but we’ve filled our senses with spectacular performances and astounding music, and very excited for the last day of Bluesfest still to come.

Catch up on all the action:
Good Friday Review
Easter Saturday Review

View our full Bluesfest photo gallery on our Facebook Page.

Highlights from Sunday at Bluesfest

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Bluesfest Review: 5 things we learned at Bluesfest 2017

Vintage TroubleVintage Trouble at Bluesfest, by Stuart Bucknell Photography

Before we give you our full wrap up, here’s 5 things we learned at Bluesfest this year:

1 – Byron Bay Organic Doughnuts are still THE most popular food item at the festival
It seems trivial, but food at festivals is a huge part of the experience, and ever since we’ve been going to Bluesfest, the Byron Bay Organic Doughnut stand has always had enormous queues. Our advice? Definitely get at least one, but get in the line any time you see that it’s short – no matter if it’s early in the day. #treatyourself!
NB: It turns out they’ve experienced heavy losses due to the floods, to we’re sending all the sugary vibes their way to be able to bounce back soon!

2 – Powerhouse Performances Guaranteed
I said it last year and I’ll say it again. Peter Noble knows how to program. Some of the most notable powerhouse performances to hit the Bluesfest stages this year were the electrifying Nikki Hill who blew the socks off everyone and had them clamoring for more, more, more; Kasey Chambers whose stellar set ranged through her back catalogue and her recent works, with everyone watching on proving they were in fine voice – when you’ve got a bearded man singing along word for word to “Am I Not Pretty Enough”, you know you’re on to a winner; Beth Hart stole hearts and minds both in her sass filled set and with her cameo with Soul legends, Vintage Trouble. Hart’s prowess and her effortlessly smooth transitions from full band, to solemn brevity on a solo piano piece, to funky piano riffs and soul soaked blues had her a firm favourite in the hearts of Bluesfest.

3 – Legends Never Die
Ok, so some actually do, and it’s sad when we lose a musical talent that has helped shape what we know and love, but the great thing about Bluesfest is the ability to bring out absolute legends who may be advanced in years but still have enough swagger to floor multiple thousands of people at once, just like 80 year old Buddy Guy did on the Sunday at the Crossroads stage, resplendent in polka dots and serving up a voice that shackled the high notes yet melted all the way down through every blues note to the bottom, playing guitar with his elbow, or his belt buckle, or it seems with his just his sheer personality. Mud Morganfield had the crowd entranced with the whim of his jive and old school blues sensibilities. And Mavis Staples blew the roof off the Jambalaya stage when her elegance and grace meshed with the most divine harmonies between herself and her backing singers. Staples spoke of her love for Bluesfest – the warmth and hospitality they receive from the people behind the scenes, acknowledging them as family. She declared that she came “to bring you some joy, some happiness, some inspiration” and that she did. Given it was Easter, it seemed only appropriate that a voice as deep and smooth as chocolate can smother you in blues, as Tony Joe White’s did, rumbling along like a percolated coffee – earthy, enticing, and altogether satisfying.

4 – Diversity in Styles and Causes
Bluesfest may boast the best line up of Blues, however, it’s steadfast reputation for quality means the door is open for Noble to select an eclectic mix of styles and genres that may be close to, derived from, or inspired by blues music. Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue carved up the stage with their cataclysmic, high energy, RnB fuelled, jazz infused funk; Sir Roosevelt’s moody intro and high production values set the scene for the melding of acoustic and dance music –  slide and acoustic guitars accompanied a full club scene vibe complete with choreographed dancers! Madness whipped the crowd, both young and old, in to a frenzy with hit after hit. The Boomerang Festival with it’s astounding array of Indigenous performances, country style hoedowns with an electrifying edge, synths vs electric guitars, Hip Hop and RnB, ukeleles and two covers of Bohemian Rhapsody… This year’s Bluesfest had everything. The festival is also a solid community supporter, with multiple fundraising groups on site, drumming up support for their cause. It was heartening to see the Northern Rivers Flood Appeal, a devestating disaster only weeks before the festival, included at short notice int he fundraising efforst at the festival, alongside the famous Cyctic Fibrosis Raffle and the steadfast Playing For Change band.

5 – The Gender Gap Exists
In no way was Bluesfest deficient in amazing female performers, in fact, it feels that year after year, the festival selects some of the best and most inspiring women from around the world to grace the stage. However, these women are almost exclusively front women, women who are the main attraction with a band behind them. Time and time again, we saw bands of all males, whether a backing band or a feature act – if it was a group, it was a high likelihood that the members would all be male. While there were a few exceptions, like Mavis Staples’ fantastic backing singers and the inimitable Little Georgia, the prevalence of all male bands and groups was quite noticeable, especially after the ongoing social commentary about the issue across the music industry of late and with festival and gig line-ups being scruitinised and questioned regularly by the public. While it’s no fault of the Bluesfest team, it is proof of the endemic issue across the music industry which hopefully the inclusive nature of festivals like this can start to shift through leadership and discourse, and innovations like the Buskers stage and the nurturing nature of this festival itself. We want to see more gender diversity across all aspects of music – not just front women, but musicians in bands of all gender identities. I know it will be festivals like Bluesfest that lead the way as a much needed change begins.

All in all, Bluesfest left it’s mark on the 100,000+ strong crowds and we’re still dreaming about the amazing musicians we saw. Our full wrap up coming soon, in the meantime, check out the photos by Stuart Bucknell Photography on our Timber and Steel Facebook Page, and if you’re keen to experience Bluesfest yourself, get in line for an early bird ticket to next year’s festival!




Bluesfest Announces First Round of Artists for 2017

Image Courtesy of The Lumineers

It may only be August but that doesn’t mean it isn’t time to start thinking about the 2017 festival season. This morning Bluesfest launched their first round of artists for next years festival and it’s huge.

This morning’s announcement includes Zac Brown Band, Patti Smith, The Lumineers (above), Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Mavis Staples, Billy Bragg, Jethro Tull, Trombone Shorty, Gregory Porter, Snarky Puppy, St. Paul and The Broken Bones, Beth Hart, Laura Mvula, Roy Ayers, Booker T Jones Presents The Stax Records Revue, Andrew Bird, Rickie Lee Jones, Joan Osborne, Turin Brakes, The Strumbellas, Jake Shimabukuro, Dumpstaphunk, Nikki Hill and Irish Mythen with more to be announced.

Bluesfest takes place over the Easter long weekend for the 13th to 17th April. For more information including how to get your hands on tickets check out the official site here.

Live Music at The Grammys

Levon Helm Tribute

Following yesterday’s Grammy Awards and the big wins from the folk side of the fence (including Album of the Year for Mumford and Sons) we thought we’d post some of our favourite performances from the ceremony.

Because of the nature of The Grammys (in taht they want to protect when and where the broadcast takes place) these videos are not “official” and there’s a very good chance they’ll get taken down – so jump in quick if you want to see some amazing performances.

First up is The Lumineers performing their mega-hit “Ho Hey” in a way only they know how – stripped back, raw and pure.

Next is Mumford and Sons with their first 2012 single “I Will Wait”.

But the highlight for us was the tribute to the late great Levon Helm, singer and drummer for The Band. The tribute song was, naturally, “The Weight” and featured performances from Elton John, Zac Brown, T Bone Burnett, Mavis Staples, Brittany Howard (Alabama Shakes) and Mumford and Sons. Check out a rehearsal video here:

And then the final tribute performance is here:

Stream the Newport Folk Festival Live

Justin Townes Earle
Image Courtesy of Justin Townes Earle

Every year the lineup of the Newport Folk Festival in the USA is announced and every year we look at it in absolute amazement that so many outstanding artists would gather in one place at one time. One day we’ll actually raise enough cash to get over to Newport but in the meantime we have the next best thing.

The USA’s public radio broadcaster NPR and top US online folk radio station Folk Alley will both be streaming performances from this year’s Newport Folk Festival (held on the weekend of the 30th and 31st July) live via the wonder of the Internet. Artists already confirmed for the stream include The Decemberists, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Elvis Costello, Gogol Bordello, Earl Scruggs, M. Ward, Amos Lee, Wanda Jackson, Tegan And Sara, Mavis Staples, The Felice Brothers, Delta Spirit, Middle Brother, Justin Townes Earle (above), Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Civil Wars, Freelance Whales, The Devil Makes Three, The Head And The Heart, Typhoon, Chris Thile And Michael Daves, Trampled By Turtles, The Cave Singers, Pokey LaFarge And The South City Three, Secret Sisters, River City Extension, PS22 Chorus, The Wailin’ Jennys, David Wax Museum, Mountain Man, Brown Bird, Sallie Ford And The Sound Outside and The Seeger Clogging All-Stars with more to be added closer to the festival. See what we mean about the lineup?

And don’t worry if you already have plans on the weekend of the 30th – if last year is anything to go by NPR will make many of the sets available to stream on demand like this performance from The Low Anthem at last year’s event.

Head over to NPR or Folk Alley for all the details about the stream. And then start saving your cash so we can all go to The Newport Folk Festival next year.

Bluesfest Interview: Kim Churchill

Kim Churchill on the Woodford Stage, photo and interview by KT Bell

Here at Timber and Steel, we’ve developed a bit of a crush on Kim Churchill and we’re always keen to see what’s next on his agenda. Since we caught him side of stage at Woodford, he’s flitted through the US and Europe, so we couldn’t resit the opportunity to catch up with him properly after his Bluesfest sets.

KT Bell: I’m sitting here, drinking Scotch with Kim Churchill, because that’s what you do on the last day of Bluesfest!
Kim Churchill: That is! The interview’s started well. [laughs]

KT: The last time we saw you was side of stage at Woodford and you were about to disappear off to Peats Ridge.
KC: Oh yes!
KT:You were doing that crazy 2 festivals in 2 days thing. And you’ve done 2 shows here at Bluesfest, how have they been?
KC: I guess probably what every artist would say after playing a set at Bluesfest is they’ve been amazing and that is kind of the only thing that a show at Bluesfest can be. It’s one of those festivals that has created over the course of 22 years or however long long they’ve been running, similar to Woodford, they’re the gigs you live for as a musician, they’re the ones that you play all the other shit gigs, not that there’s many shit gigs, but you work through whatever tough times we have, be them small tough times or large tough times, you work through those to get to the sets at Bluesfest and stuff like that.
KT: I’m glad you had lots of adoring fans to see you and the Mojo Stage must have been great.
KC: I don’t know if they were my adoring fans, but I stole a few off Dylan.

KT: Excellent! Now, you’re just back from touring overseas, Europe and America, how was all of that?
KC: Intense! For me, the transition between being an adolescent living out of the back of a van, busking and doing small pub gigs, the transition came a lot quicker than I thought it would. All of a sudden, we’re living out of hotel rooms and planes and the whole thing was pretty intense to be honest. I don’t look back on it with complete happiness and lovely nostalgic feelings, it was hard work. But, an amazing experience, one of the most amazing I ever had and we’ll be touring Canada and America and Europe for the rest of this year, so it’ll be a chance for me to find my comfort over there more than anything. Because, to this point, I’ve sort of, especially with no surf, it bloody hurts. Like, we got to LA and had a couple of days where the booking agent, he said we were gonna go surfing and it rained, and if it rains in LA, all the poo and crap comes out of the rivers and you can’t surf in the water because it’s too dirty. So we just had to watch these perfect waves breaking off Venice Beach boarwalk. But anyway, I mean, I’ve hardly got anything to complain about.

KT: You played South by SouthWest (SxSW), how was that?
KC: Yeah, no surf there! Kind of in general, I think ridiculously overwhelming to the point where I have very little to say about the whole experience [laughs].
KT: Lot’s of gigs in a few days?
KC: Oh yeah, the gigs, SxSW is, every gig is amazing. The whole vibe of the festival is kind of like “Who are we going to find? What are we going to stumble across?” So as an artist, who, your biggest goal is to be that person that somebody stumbles across. It’s a nice situation to be in because you’re kind of handed everything on a plate, and all you have to do is deliver and then there’s always going to be a couple of thousand people that are going to wander past your set wherever it might be and they will either stop and be intrigued or continue walking. So, in that sense, it was kind of easy, and fun for that reason. I would say playing a wedding 2 years ago was a lot harder. SxSW, at the end of the day, it was a lot of fun, I certainly wouldn’t tell anybody to go there to be ‘discovered’ because there’s 120,000 people and maybe 5,000 are good for doing something in terms of helping you break America and the odds are that they’re probably doing something terribly wrong on the 20th floor of a hotel at any given time. [laughs] But it’s a festival at the end of the day, so you see a lot of amazing bands and you have great gigs.

KT: How does the music and festival scene overseas differ or compare to Australia?
KC: It’s larger, definitely larger. It’s more intense, kind of you have to, I find with festivals in Australia, it’s quite easy to wake up early in the morning and go for a surf and have a bacon and egg roll at the surf club and there’s that kind of relaxed element that only Australia offers. Whereas, overseas, bam! 9 o’clock starts and there’s interviews and there’s breakfast and there’s coffee with this person and you’re in the middle of this city and there’s thousands of people watching shows and you’re watching shows with them. The whole thing is just more intense. At the same token, you get that kick from it, being at those kinds of festivals, you sort of get the kick out of masses of people and the animosity of the whole event. But I feel a lot less at home, naturally.

Kim Churchill on the Mojo Stage big screen at Bluesfest.
Photo Courtesy of Tao Jones

KT: So have you been writing much while you’ve been on the road, or have you just been too busy playing?
KC: No, the more busy I am, for some reason the more I write! As soon as I stop, and I have time to write songs, I can’t f*cking write one! [laughs] It’s a pain in the arse. So, say when we were touring in Europe, it was one of the most thick, dense periods of songwriting I’ve ever had. I feel like there’s so much new stuff to write and record now that I’m a bit lost as to where to go in the future with my music. I’ve been writing a lot of very heavy  stuff on electric guitar and stuff that would probably suit a band, and then lot’s of calm and pretty folk stuff that’s finger-picking on acoustic guitar, and then everything in between. So, writing a ridiculous amount of music and now just kind of trying to process how to find the best stuff from that and create an album that isn’t half a heavy metal album and half a folk album [laughs], something in between.
KT: So, Folk Metal?
KC: Folk Metal! Yeah!
KT: Kim Churchill shall master Folk Metal.
KC: [laughs] I like Folk Metal!

KT: When we spoke at Woodford, you said that you were on track for recording later this year, is that still  on the cards or is it pushed back a bit?
KC: Oh no, it’s been happening, we’re just waiting to pull the right things out. We did quite a bit of recording at Sun Records in Memphis, which was amazing! We got to record though the mike that Elvis sung through for the first time. And, that was amazing. We’ve recorded quite a bit in Byron and we recorded  in Canada as well. Just waiting to grab the songs in the right way I guess. It’s been quite a complicated process and it’s taken longer than I thought it would, to reach something that I want to release. Probably now there’s about twenty songs that we could release and we could put two albums out or two singles and an album, or two EPs and an album or something. But, it’s not right yet.  So, recording will continue until the stage where it’s right enough.

KT: At Timber and Steel, as you know, we spotlight artists who we see are coming up and we think we should support.
KC: You do an amazing job too, I’ve got the mailing list.
KT: Thank you. And we try and cover as much of the Australian scene as we can and I actually interviewed Ash Grunwald earlier this weekend and asked him one of the things we ask a lot of established artists, which is who to watch out for and who is coming through on the scene who we should follow, and he said instantly, without batting an eyelid, Kim Churchill.
KC: [laughs] He’s a legend
KT: And he did tell me that you toured with him, you supported him a few years ago
KC: Yeah man! you know what, I actually , I pushed that guy and he proved himself as an amazingly nice person. I was 18 or something and that was when I was trying to get a gig, at a wedding, busking at market, you know, whatever! And, I saw he was playing this venue about half an hour away that some acts used to tour through, and he could pull a big crowd there, sort of five or six hundred people. I begged him, I found his number personally, Ash Grunwald’s number and I called him and I said “please let me play’. And he did, and I’ve had the utmost respect for that guy since then, he’s an amazing person, so I’m quite honoured to be the person that he mentioned.
KT: He just had such great things to say about you, so I wanted to make sure you heard that one from me!
KC: Oh, good on him! Man, I saw a bunch of his music on a Hollywood movie, the other day.
KT: Yeah, he was saying, Limitless.
KC: Yeah, the amount of work that guy has done, and the element of old blues  he brings in to a very new sort of rock music style, he deserves everything he gets. He blows my mind, that guy.

KT: He’s one of the legends here this weekend, and you jumped up with Micahel Franti on Thursday, because you’ve been touring with Michael Franti, which must be amazing.
KC: It has been amazing!
KT: Jaunting back to Sydney in the middle of the weekend for gigs with him, that must have been a bit mind blowing. So with all these legends in Bluesfest, are there any musicians that you haven’t played with yet and you have an absolute burning desire to meet, play with, jam with, any of that?
KC: Oh man, there are so many names that I would want to say, and the first names I would want to say, this Bluesfest has given me the opportunity to see some of my favourite acts from previous tours and stuff, the Hussy Hicks, A French Butler Called Smith, The Mojo Bluesmen, Transvaal Diamond Syndicate, all those acts, they’re the acts you see at festivals all the time and you go “they should be playing the big festivals, they should be doing the big stages”, and that’s what Peter Noble [Bluesfest’s Creative Director] I think has nailed, as he gets everything from them to Dylan to Elvis Costello, to BB King to Wolfmother! Like, he gets it all. The act that I would most like to write, record, meet, everything with is Dylan, and it always will be, so that is my answer to the question is, Bob Dylan. Whether that will ever happen is something that we will wait to find out about and we shall see.

KT: Like I said, we ask who to listen too and people have said you, so I’m asking you who to listen to, who we should check out.
KC: Alright, at this festival, everybody should go check out Mavis Staples, she is brilliant, she blew my mind, Trombone Shorty, in the Australian scene, the Hussy Hicks, A French Butler Called Smith and the busking comp winner Minnie Marks, she plays guitar like nothing I’ve ever seen before, she sings like Janis Joplin, she’s 17 and she’s going to blow the world apart.

KT: Thank you so much for your time Kim, pleasure again, see you again soon. Thanks for the Scotch!
KC: Thank you, cheers. Oh, you’re welcome!

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)

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