Left – Nas. Cover – Eric Gales.
Growing up in the Byron region (lucky me, I know) had so many perks beyond the beach. I was raised with the blues, with Byron being a strange catalyst (like anyone could have the blues around Byron?). Year-round blues beats pump from local drinking holes whilst enjoying a pub meal, but my memory, in my formative years, remains ‘Bluesfest’. I was only eleven (in hot pursuit of my toe tapping mother) when I became hooked. Smells, sounds and sights opened my eyes to what would be a lifelong love of the Byron Bay Blues Festival. Over the years I have got in any way possible but this year I hit my pinnacle – being invited to write for the festival that spawned my love of blues and roots. Way to go, World!
From the previous stomping grounds (Red Devil's) and Belongil Fields, I have watched Blues Fest evolve, settling in at Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm. A mega set-up across five main stages, there is always a plethora of entertainment at any given moment and the inclusion of a stack of performances based around a variety of indigenous culture and arts by the creators of Boomerang Festival has created a sort of 'festival within a festival'. The aim was to make indigenous culture and arts accessible for everyone attending, whether indigenous or not. What a wonderful way to showcase the beauty and culture of this lands' first people.
Walking into the festival the primary experience is the smell. That familiar ‘breeze’ from food stalls paired with the sight of thousands of happy faces indulging: a keen feaster couldn't possibly eat anything twice (except Pizza Loca, who am I kidding?) and this whole-experience festival makes you hungry, even if you just ate! Enough about the food already... except this year also saw the introduction of the RFID wristbands, which even though it came with some social-media-backlash on my feed, I personally hailed as ingenious. Scan-in, top-up and pay-wave your way to beverage freedom. No more lost or wet/torn tickets, stumbling around trying to figure out whether you wanted to buy a beer or a wine and settling on spirits anyway. Just beep-and-go back to your blues. Worked for me! Topping up on Thursday night, we found ourselves in the queue already making jokes and jivin' with punters whilst Snarky Puppy grooved in the Crossroads tent. A slow line moves quicker when there is some sexy saxophone to get the feet shuffling. We mosey over to the Mojo just as Vintage Trouble starts. With a high-energy sound straight off the bat, there is the undeniable pull to get out and get groovin'.
A feast for the senses and we're ready for another hit! An inside tip from a seasoned 'Blueser' and I'm hot-footing it to see Eric Gales. I'm promised that he is 'a contemporary man's Jimi Hendrix...' and you're not wrong, friend. The sound is coming thick and fast from this tornado of talent. What an absolute machine of musical power, how could I have never heard this man before? Upon researching the ‘Bluesfest App’ I find that he is indeed on the radar, with heavy hitting names in his fan base. My notes actually read, “Slay with a side of psychedelic.” It seems I've found a favourite pick and I haven't even moved past day one. Just when I suspect I've topped my list for the night I catch the set for Trombone Shorty and I'm done, I've found it – Thursday's musical nirvana, until I saw Nas performing with The Soul Rebels....
Lessons I’ve learned from ‘my elders of festival’ – it is IMPOSSIBLE to see everything, so why beat yourself up? Bluesfest, for me, is not all about big headliners – yes, they’re draw-cards for sure, but treat this as an opportunity to experience artists that you DON'T know. My folks call this experience “the accidental tourist”. Whether it is being caught up in the monumental moment of music, or just the inability to move off the picnic rug, the artists you undoubtedly stumble across at the festival might just be the inspiration that changes your mind about everything. I found my new 'Usher' in the voice of Gallant. A smooth singing, exceptionally beautiful man, crooning his sensual sound – I had to pull myself together and drag myself away to witness the legendary Jimmy Buffet. Awash in a sea of parrot-hatted-pirates and naff Hawaiian shirts, I found myself looking for my lost shaker of salt, losing it again when I heard Jake Shimabukuro jamming the ukulele, beaming from ear to ear on stage. Who could have thought, ‘Weather with You’ or ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ could sound so excellent on the steel drums? The only complaint I heard “... I wish he'd played with no shoes...”
Families and fans-alike flocked to Bonnie Rait with blankets, chairs and chariots-of-child-comfort in the form of 'pimped-out' baby blues-wagons. It's a joy to see so many little fans making memories with their families and gave me something to aspire to when I (hopefully) bring my own future pint-size punters one day.
Day three: we are still not knee-deep in mud and I am experiencing something I have never felt before – a dry Bluesfest! I bought brand new wellies, surely I am going to ruin them any minute now? The skies keep clear, we are slowly becoming covered in a layer of dance dust – a welcome change from the usual mud-cake. Perfect conditions for the ukulele, and I'm in for a treat. A double-up of The Australian Ukulele Show and Jake Shimabukuro. The Australian Ukulele Show might just be the most fun I have had doing nothing: with an Akubra-full of Aussie songs, 'chockas' full of 'Straya-feels. If you didn't grow up singing these jingles, you'd be questioning whether you even grew up here at all. Enter Jake Shimabukuro, now moving into the spotlight as cameo king, popping up on stages all over the festival and jamming out a version of 'Thunderstruck' that left your head spinning, with the band sporting the same doe-eyes we saw in Jake, the very night before, performing with Buffet. Wonderful to see the criss-cross of artists who love supporting each other, almost as much as they love performing themselves. Knowing Jake was following this band of buddies, I had to hold my ground in the Jambalaya tent until the very last strum.
Nahko and Medicine for the People satiated our ears whilst we feasted on food, refuelling for the behemoth set ensuing when The Doobie Brothers hit the Mojo stage, finishing out the night (for us anyhow....phew...)
Sunday (fun-day) and we arrive to see a string of parachuter’s gliding blissfully over Tyagarah, with a view that must have been worth a million dollars. The sun is shining, the people are pouring into the festival and it's STILL dry. Life is sweet! Remi got us worked up for a big boogie, followed by Santana, a spectacular show with fans sprawled out across every spare inch of space, pumping out sound I’m sure dolphins could have felt at Belongil. A gran-daddy of musical stature, I still felt heart-warmed to witness half my crew shooting off to catch The Australian Ukulele Show mid-set, not wanting to miss that fun-bunch-of-chaps having a ball, doing what they love. THIS is what makes Bluesfest so magical; legendary musicians vying with other bands – there is always someone willing to hit your show. Never an empty tent, no matter what. The Jimi Hendrix Experience delivered on promises (as cult-classic fans delivered the infamous Wayne's World 'Foxy Lady' dance) and Booker T and the Stax Review brought it home with a flawless version of Otis Redding's '(Sittin on the) Dock of the Bay', his voice playing out into the starry night.
Monday was a slow start and an easy finish, with picnic rugs strewn out, affording a ‘chill’ feel. We managed to squeeze in a few musical snacks: I was barred from leaving for Brisbane before witnessing St Paul and the Broken Bones. What a way to end the day, watching a firecracker quite literally roll around on stage with energy I'm sure no crowd-member could have mustered at this Monday juncture.
Well worth a mention: amongst all this music, this flavour, both melodic and mouth watering, the unsung heroes of the entire festival would have to be the crew, the volunteers, the guys and gals that stood out in the hot sun (or cool night frost of the car parks, entrance/exits); the staff and stall holders, staying open for our late-night doughnut needs; the excellent bar staff and security ‘sorting’ us, laughing and ‘high-fiving’ us as we casually enjoyed what they worked so hard to create. A positive, good-vibe atmosphere that has kept people coming for 28 years, and hopefully, will continue on long after the pint-size punters of this year are pushing their own baby-blues wagons. Thank you, again, Bluesfest and see you next year!
2017 Byron Bay Bluesfest
Venue: Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm (north of Byron Bay) NSW
Dates: 13 – 17 April, 2017