Byron Bay Bluesfest 2011 @ Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm


Abr 28 2011, 7h46

Thu 21 Apr – Byron Bay Bluesfest 2011

My Bluesfest review for Fasterlouder. Intro, outro and Imogen Heap review by Crystle Fleper. Thursday was skipped for sanity's sake.

With near-perfect weather and a colossal line-up playing out across an historic six-day event, this year’s East Coast Blues and Roots Festival has been an absolute world-class event. Around 110,000 punters attended across the Easter long weekend, bearing witness to a range of blistering blues, traditional reggae, meandering folk, classic rock and everything in between.

Friday, 22nd April

Tex-Mex legends Los Lobos get the Crossroads crowd swinging to their patented grooves. The band’s watertight three-guitar attack is frequently awe inspiring, the players – particularly the grey-haired David Hidalgo – peeling off one scorching solo after another. A Latin-rock cover of The Temptations’ Papa Was A Rolling Stone and their famed version of La Bamba are just two finger-snapping highlights of a massively invigorating set.

Bluesfest favourites Blind Boys Of Alabama remind us it’s Easter after all, arriving to a rousing reception and immediately proceeding to holler out plenty of righteous Southern gospel. Dressed in matching white suits, the ensemble showcase the kind of vocal power to warrant a resolutely unique listening experience, and when special guest Aaron Neville adds his impossibly smooth, soaring tenor to the mix, one can feel shivers racing up and down their spine. After he leaves the stage, the Blind Boys mesmerise us some more with their jaw-dropping rendition of Amazing Grace – set to the tune of House Of The Rising Sun.

From Kingston, Jamaica, Toots and The Maytals bring a much needed dose of timeless ska, rocksteady and reggae to the Mojo tent. Following the band’s opening run through a flawless version of Tina Turner’s Missing You, the white-clad Toots surfaces and wonders if we’re ready for the “presha to drop”. We sure are, and duly get swinging to Pressure Drop’s immortal grooves.

Blues leviathan B.B. King sets the Friday attendance record by completely packing out Crossroads and the surrounding area. Appearing after two vigorous instrumental displays by his kick-arse band, the 85 year-old is led out from the aisles to thunderous cheers. Seminal cuts Every Day I Have The Blues and Rock Me Baby are dispatched with gusto and the great man gives off a rare authority as he commands his musicians and the audience from his chair. Yet there doesn’t seem to be enough firepower in the cries he extracts from his trusty Lucille. Likewise, the numerous deliberate stop-starts mean B.B.’s show falls short of Buddy Guy’s hugely incendiary display at last year’s Bluesfest.

Following an infuriating 45-minute wait – during which we sneak out to see the mega groovy New Orleans stalwarts Funky Meters at Jambalaya – Grace Jones makes a grand entrance at Mojo, chiding us for being “impatient”. Despite a lot of the assembled crowd being understandably unimpressed with the hold-up, the pop legend delivers a show that would make Lady Gaga weep with envy – replete with continuous outfit changes, assorted otherworldly looking headgear, a laser-shooting glitter hat and unparalleled artistic vision.

Not many 62 year-olds can get away with flaunting a G-string, striking sexy poses and shaking their booty, but ex-model Jones can – and then some. Following a clutch of signature tracks – My Jamaican Guy, I’ve Seen That Face Before, Private Life, La Vie En Rose – she dedicates Williams' Blood to Michael Jackson and then cranks it up some more. Electrified by the diva’s presence and still-powerful voice, we dance and chant along to Pull Up To The Bumper (culminating with a confetti blast) and Love Is The Drug. In a mighty, one-two finale, Grace spins the hula hoop for the length of Slave To The Rhythm and bids us adieu with a wild, wild version of Hurricane. Simply incredible.

Saturday, 23rd April

Lowell George may be gone for nearly 30 years, but Little Feat still have his freewheeling spirit in spades. The band’s signature blend of rock, country, blues, Southern soul and clever storytelling holds up well live, with hearty vocal turns and slide licks aplenty. It’s all real soulful man stuff, the trademark tune Willin’ carrying a rare serenity.

One of soul music’s all-time greats, Mavis Staples sings up an absolute storm at Crossroads. Flanked by a killer combo and a phenomenally gifted vocal troupe, she tears through her 1971 hit cover of The Band’s The Weight, Jeff Tweedy collaboration You’re Not Alone and a clutch of soul and gospel chestnuts with gutbucket intensity. Such is her spirit, you cannot help but stand enthralled when she yells out “I’ll take you there”. When Trombone Shorty – the dude whose presence pretty much dominates Bluesfest 2011 – comes on to blow some seriously funky horn, it makes for a singularly delicious icing on a huge musical cake.

She’s “proper English”, gorgeous, sings like a bird, and has charisma in spades. To boot, Imogen Heap is a total nerd, utilising stereo wrist mics to capture mbiras on Goodnight And Go and sampling water-filled glasses on First Train Home. Heap plays Lifeline – a new song made with sounds commissioned through her website from fans, including a dishwasher door and a match – for the second time ever. It’s good, but the standout material of the set is drawn from Speak For Yourself. It’s easy to imagine Heap as a teacher as she conducts the crowd in a vocal canon on an a capella Just For Now.

Frou Frou favourite Let Go has a layered-on-the-spot cello arrangement and banging drums and synth kick in for the chorus of Headlock. Hide & Seek is a hymnal affair, and on the concluding Tidal she rips up a wailing solo on her keytar.

At the near-capacity Crossroads tent, Robert Randolph & The Family Band ably demonstrate their jamming abilities. The American prodigy’s impassioned lap steel solos dominate the heady blues/gospel/rock mix and on the scorching, fuzz and wah-drenched instrumental cover of Hendrix’s Voodoo Child, he shows Ben Harper how it’s really done.

Trinity Roots draw Bluesfest’s entire Kiwi contingent in and around the Jambalaya tent. Relishing their heroes’ welcome, the trio open with a rootsy, slide-heavy blues rock number before settling into their patented NZ reggae grooves. The set features a heavy smattering of songs from their classic album True and gets tastier by the minute with the constant addition of echoed, dubby breaks, sweet Kiwi-soul vocal harmonies and, above all, positive vibrations. The hypnotically odd-metered Sense & Cents is a standout and sounds like a much larger sum of the three incredibly talented musicians.

Sunday, 24th April

Time is well and truly on Irma Thomas’ side. Still in possession of that yearning, forever-young voice, the soul queen belts out one classic after another, peaking with the seminal, Rolling Stones-covered number. You don’t mess with her man, she reckons – otherwise you’ll be blown away by her soulful fury. In The Middle Of It All and Let It Be Me mesmerise, while her rendition of Simply The Best – shorn of Tina Turner’s hamminess – is a pleasure that’s anything but guilty.

There’s fingerpicking guitarists and there’s Jeff Lang, full stop. Playing to the chock full Jambalaya, the Australian blues wonder exercises his powerful voice and finger-burning guitar prowess. With the rhythm section keeping the pulse behind him, we are treated to a whole series of eye-popping displays – and when blues legend Kevin Borich guests on the final number, it finishes the set off superbly.

The 26-piece Nicky Bomba–led Melbourne Ska Orchestra set Jambalaya on fire with their incendiary horns. Literally everybody is moving their hips as the extraordinary collective skank their merry way through corkers like Bob Marley & The Wailers’ early hit Simmer Down, perennial rocksteady stomper Monkey Man, The Skatalites’s Confucius and The Specials’ Message To Rudi. A guest Jamaican MC and a Papuan diva respectively inject some gritty, rapid-fire toasting and full-pelt soul vocals into the dense sonic stew, and the jolly run through Madness’ Night Boat To Cairo seemingly has the tent levitate.

Monday, 25th April

In true lone wolf fashion, swamp-rock forefather Tony Joe White plays two sparse solo numbers before a drummer joins him. With only fuzz and wah pedals to keep him company, the Man In Black keeps us enthralled with his deep, Louisiana-accented burr and minimalist guitar licks. Undercover Agent For The Blues is as sexy as ever and signature tune Polk Salad Annie gets everyone up on their feet with its timeless, primal groove.

One of the truly unique artists on this year’s bill, veteran Canadian folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie stamps her Cree heritage all over her Mojo slot. Surprisingly, there’s very little “folk” as such, but plenty of vigorous, Native American-themed rock numbers – ably crunched out by the Mohawked backing band. Looking every bit the medicine woman, Sainte-Marie’s shamanistic shrieks are oft-jarring, yet her energy is undeniable. A take on the hit she penned and Joe Cocker made famous Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong is a rare moment of calm amidst the prairie storm.

Over at the APRA tent, Melbourne three-piece Collard Greens & Gravy lay down unhurried, down-home grooves interspersed by Ian Collard’s mean harmonica assaults. It’s the kind of simple, no-frills music that makes one want to tuck into some soul food like the said greens and gravy - unfortunately unavailable from the food stalls – and down a Jim or two.

Fully aware it’s ANZAC Day today, world music pioneers Osibisa fittingly open their set with a solemn trumpet melody before launching into their patented Afro-Latin fusion. Rich on funky horns and flute, the influential UK combo blend impassioned vocals, minor-scale guitar solos, riveting percussion work and six-string bass runs. The only answer is to dance – hard.

The Mojo tent area is a baying swarm of people, the excitement palpable in the air; it’s Bob Dylan time. As soon as the music titan and his band walk on to earth-shaking noise and launch into a swampy, bluesy Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking, it starts raining – but Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right stops the downpour.

Following that generation-defining tune, it becomes apparent that Dylan’s much-awaited set is going to be rather skinny on the hits. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall doesn’t appear to stir a big reaction from where we’re standing and Tangled Up In Blue is practically unrecognisable in its soul-shuffle guise. Nonetheless, the highlight trio of the yearning Simple Twist Of Fate, a freewheelin’ Highway 61 Revisited and biting Ballad Of A Thin Man is on the money, while Like A Rolling Stone’s rolling organ intro sparks an elated collective roar.

The closing Forever Young might be a touch too hopeful considering His Bobness is nearly 70 and his weathered, raspy croak is very much an acquired taste, but at least we can now safely say we’ve witnessed history.

Tuesday, 26th April

The Mothership has landed and the dance party at Jambalaya begins in earnest as soon as George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic disperse an assortment of pre-recorded announcements and the “we want the funk!” chant. The stage, crowded with musicians and world-class singers, is initially missing one crucial ingredient; three songs in, the funk overlord makes an unassuming entrance, the MC playing the “guess which one’s George Clinton” game with the audience before pointing to the short figure in army greens.

His crazy multicoloured dreadlocks are absent on this occasion, yet Clinton’s commanding presence is undiminished – as is his lion-roar voice. Taking over the party, the legend effortlessly directs the merry circus onstage (with a white fur coat/hat-sporting male dancer partaking in Olympic-quality handstands and gymnastic displays). Marking the set’s climactic point, the marathon versions of Parliament’s Flash Light and Funkadelic’s (Not Just) Knee Deep keep us dancing until our legs are sore.

Sublime on Monday night – when he delivered an ultimate headlining set at Mojo, kickstarted by the mighty Pump It Up – Elvis Costello is in an even more animated mode as he attacks his guitar and microphone with youthful energy. With his band The Imposters (counting two-thirds of The Attractions lineup) firing on all cylinders behind him, the bespectacled, fedora-hatted tunesmith is a magnetising sight. Unlike Dylan, Costello’s voice has never sounded better and his participation level is simply astounding; he’s anything other than the hipster daddy.

Keyboardist Steve Nieve’s trademark piercing organ on Radio Radio adds a vicious edge; Everyday I Write The Book is given a breezy, funky treatment, while Watching The Detectives is drenched in dub echo. The still-gorgeous Alison lights up many a smile and the nervy (I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea) has us grooving and twitching in unison.

At the start of the extended encore, the harmonious Secret Sisters get up to sing backing vocals on A Slow Drag With Josephine. Oliver’s Army is absent from tonight’s set list, but the roof-raising Pump It Up is akin to a high-voltage jolt. As the minutes tick away, Costello’s pained, wonderfully expressive vocals and slashing guitar work go into the red during (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding and an epic, seething I Want You finale. Bravo, sir.

And Bravo, Bluesfest. We can’t possibly imagine how you’ll top this next year.


  • starcalibre

    Great review, dude! It was an amazing festival.

    Abr 29 2011, 3h13
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