Review: Bluesfest, Byron Bay, 29 March – 2 April 2018
Be happy and proud of who you are, not who you’re meant to be.
With a Welcome to Country and these words from the Bundjalung People, Bluesfest began its 29th assault on an eager public. In perhaps the most appropriate scheduling in history, Holy Holy took the stage first as a biblical downpour hit, forcing them to ask punters, “Are you just here to get out of the rain?” It was wet. Very wet. But holy holy hell that didn’t stop Tim, Oscar and the boys from firing off a set featuring hits like ‘Elevator’, ‘True Lovers’, ‘You Cannot Call for Love Like A Dog’ and ‘Sentimental and Monday’.
Though the weather was an even more popular topic of conversation than usual, nothing could dampen the buzz around the festival site. Barefoot children jumped in puddles while barefoot adults jumped in unison, with every punter of every age feeling everything but the blues, especially once the sun and the star-studded lineup brought the heat.
There was, as always, no shortage of big names both old and new. On Thursday, Tash Sultana melted minds and the Blues Brothers destroyed the dancefloor. On Friday, Robert Plant replanted the Led Zeppelin flag and Ms. Lauryn Hill was, well, late as usual and confused Byron Bay for Brisbane throughout her set – but fans were no doubt pleased she eventually made it. Michael Franti brought the sound of sunshine while Sheryl Crow soaked it up. Fans waited all night long for Lionel Richie to charm the tent, after a blistering performance from Chic and Nile Rodgers.
While we’re on the topic of Chic can we please, just please, keep talking about Chic? The disco legends delivered tune after tune, rolling through a set featuring ‘I’m Coming Out’, ‘Like A Virgin’, ‘Get Lucky’, ‘Le Freak’, ‘We Are Family’, ‘Everybody Dance’ and ‘I’m Thinking About You’. The performance satisfied fans’ wildest dreams and those unfamiliar with Chic’s history were given one of the greatest musical gifts in the world. Friends turned to each other at the beginning of every song, gobsmacked that not only did these people have such a huge influence on music over the past few decades, but they can still deliver a live performance that’s the talk of a festival.
Bluesfest isn’t just about the headliners, either. The term ‘headliner’ really isn’t even appropriate given the depth and range of talent on offer at the festival. Legends like Jimmy Cliff, Seal, Melissa Etheridge and Jackson Browne may not have had closing sets, but they didn’t need them to bring sweat and tears to the audience’s eyes. Prince’s band, The New Power Generation, smashed three performances for fans of all things Prince and funk, with many people dropping in each night just to see their touching tribute and ‘Purple Rain’.
It’s almost impossible to pick a favourite. Opinions changed hourly and people ran from tent to tent, either on a mission to see as much as possible or following up on a hot tip about a hotter set. ‘Best act of the festival, hands down,’ took over from ‘I’m sick of the rain,’ and ‘I’m sick of the sun,’ in the Most Overheard Statement contest. Even the busking finalists impressed, especially Sydney-based band Kingston County, who ended up second in the final to Sametime.
While we’re on the topic of Chic can we please, just please, keep talking about Chic?
The beauty of Bluesfest, as previously mentioned, is the depth of the lineup. It’s designed to discover new music and the talent of the invited artists means there really aren’t any duds. But just because you can discover new music, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Music Insight met two diehard fans who not only saw The Wailers play every single day (five times), but also managed to make it backstage during one of their sets. Similarly, a gentleman named Bruce watched The California Honeydrops play five festival sets, as he did the last time they visited Bluesfest. The Honeydrops closed out the last night of the festival with one of the sweatiest dance floors imaginable, painting the crowd in a concoction of dust and sweat and introducing the blues to a new generation.
Though it was tough to come to a consensus on the best act, there was one thing on which many agreed: the #StopAdani movement. There’s widespread anger over the proposed Carmichael coal mine due to serious environmental concerns, and several artists sported badges and made their concern public during their set. Holy Holy singer Tim Carroll, for example, wore a #StopAdani badge and took time before playing ‘If I Were You’ to tell the crowd that he wrote the song for his kids and he wore the badge for his kids because, as he put it, “their future’s not coal”.
None took it to John Butler’s level though, with the highly political, incredibly talented singer and guitarist recruiting artists including Ziggy Alberts, Tash Sultana, The Teskey Brothers and Mia Dyson to protest the the mine on stage with the unfurling of a banner reading ‘Stop Adani: Coral Not Coal.’
“We must stop this mine,” Butler told a packed Mojo Tent. ”If we allow Adani to go ahead, the mine will not only be the one of the world’s largest, it will be one of our generation’s greatest regrets. We owe it our children, and their children’s children, to make sure this environmentally reckless mine never sees the light of day.”
The term ‘headliner’ really isn’t even appropriate given the depth and range of talent on offer at the festival.
Adani wasn’t the only issue tackled by artists. First Aid Kit, the Swedish sisters behind tracks like ‘My Silver Lining’, delivered messages around equality, victimisation of women and the #MeToo movement, accompanied by a blazing rendition of their track ‘You Are the Problem Here’. Empowering and inspiring, their performance was just one part of a huge Sunday afternoon in the Mojo Tent that included local favourite Ziggy Alberts and Swedish-Argentinian crooner Jose Gonzalez.
The Boomerang Festival, an Indigenous mini-festival, was also back for its third instalment as part of Bluesfest and saw the likes of Benny Walker and Yirrmal playing while punters had an opportunity to learn more about Indigenous music and cultures. Directed by Bundjalung woman Rhonda Roberts, the Boomerang Festival is a key part of Bluesfest director Peter Noble’s commitment to Indigenous causes.
It’s said that Bluesfest is a marathon and at five days in length, it’s difficult to argue otherwise. There is so much happening at any one time: artists to see, friends to make, charities, stores, food and more. It can get a little overwhelming at times. But like any long distance race, you have to run your own and that can look like just about anything. Bluesfest makes it incredibly easy with perhaps the best logistics of any Aussie festival including plenty of toilets, regular shuttle buses and a huge team of volunteers keeping the site clean and the patrons happy.
Yes, it is a pricey endeavour, but those who have been will almost certainly be back. Not just for the music – which is simply phenomenal – but because of the atmosphere. An atmosphere of hope, of positive change, of inclusivity regardless of age and, when it comes down to it, a bloody good time with some bloody good people.