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Bluesfest: To Hiatt, Or Not To Hiatt

Apr 7th 2012 | Dan Condon
The decision will haunt me for the rest of my life...

It's a gorgeous day in Byron; that may seem a banal way to start off, but if you were here you'd know why it needs mentioning. A deep blue sky, beaming sun and cool ocean breeze like this makes you happy to be alive. Good Friday indeed; if only we were going to see a bunch of awesome bands...

Perennial Bluesfest favourite Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges is pumping through one of his trademark sets of plodding electric blues as we trod through the gates this afternoon. It's a very pleasant way to gear up for what's to come, even though he's offering little we haven't seen before.

I'm not a guitar-head by any means and I'm a strong believer that you can say far more in two notes than you can in 674, but I'm intrigued by the Gods of guitar culture and there are three bona-fide ones making up G3 today. We arrive to see Steve Lukather (who my comrades have thoughtfully referred to as “the guy from Toto” all week) absolutely shredding the bejesus out of his fancy looking axe. Seriously, he's going so hard and so are his backing musicians. He's so into it that I burst into laughter and I just can't stop; I'm worried I'll have a guy in a PRS t-shirt accost me for disrespecting a living legend, but I get away with it. I manage to yell out for Rosanna just the once before he leaves the stage and after five minutes of waiting for Steve Vai to appear to no avail, the joke has run its course and we need to leave.

Steve Earle has decided to start early this afternoon and, all on his lonesome, puts together an engrossing set filled with great music and a fair whack of his trademark political and social commentary. Waitin' On The Sky kicks things off before Gulf Of Mexico from his latest record slots in very nicely. He introduces his bouzouki with great humour before turning it around and making it a pertinent point about immigration, launching into City Of Immigrants. He switches to guitar for My Old Friend The Blues which is so gruff and gorgeous it feels like everyone needs to have it on hand for every dour moment in one's life. A big cheer goes up when the opening chords of The Galway Girl ring out, a cheer only rivalled by the roar the masses give for Copperhead Road, funnily enough probably the least exciting song Earle plays all day. He's a fucking treasure, this man. Charming, smart and supremely talented, we're lucky to have him in full flight.

I have pretty big hopes for the David Bromberg Quartet and, in a way, they absolutely deliver. I'm going to go out there and say I'm a little disappointed he decided on playing a full blues set, because there's so much to this artist that no one knows about and I worry he may have painted himself into a corner with the audiences out here. But he does blues so damn well that it's still great; his voice is rich, his lyrics generally quite neurotic and his delivery is 100 percent perfect, note to note. His rendition of the old classic You've Been A Good Old Wagon and his own song Try Me One More Time shows that he's not your average bluesman and his gift for witty lyricism almost supersedes his guitar brilliance. He's clearly having a very good time and chuffed he's managed to draw an audience in Australia and it's truly heartwarming to see that. He's also incredibly comfortable on stage which adds to the set greatly, it feels like he's just making all of these songs up on the spot he is that casual. He closes on Will Not Be Your Fool and the delivery of its last line is one of the best things I've seen at this festival in years.

I need to see Sublime With Rome to relive some high school memories, even though I find the whole band a bit weird with only the one original member. I could've sworn I saw Sublime tonight though; new frontman Rome looks like the complete opposite of the sadly deceased Bradley Nowell in every way but he sounds like the he is the same man, it's actually really scary. Smoke Two Joints has those memories I was hoping for rushing back immediately, though it makes the air smell a bit funny. Eric Wilson is smoking onstage which is pretty tough these days and as they slam through a set mainly comprised of Sublime hits, the people lap it up with gusto.

By the time Candi Staton is halfway through her opening tune Nights On Broadway, you know that this is going to be a pretty special set. I'll put it out there now, staton is the best looking 73-year-old woman I've ever seen and she has bags of energy and a stunningly powerful voice to boot. She smashes Stand By Your Man (a hit for her in 1971) with Stand By Me pretty impressively and pumps out a pretty strong Suspicious Minds, but it's her big hit Young Hearts Run Free that's most surprising. The song has been bastardised so much over the years that it's seen to me as some kind of party anthem, but when Staton sings it tonight it seems quite tortured and sad, despite the disco backing. Her all Northern Rivers band (you'll see most of them hanging around Lismore's Southern Cross University) do a very good job of bringing these songs to life, despite Steve Russell's far-too-cheesy synth horn sounds, and they work off Staton and each other brilliantly. The set wouldn't be complete without You Got The Love and just about anyone not out of their shell yet has succumbed by this point, if Staton's charm can't win you over then there's no hope.

I find myself with time to catch one song of John Hiatt before moving on to Buddy Guy, imagine my grief when he drops into Cry Love – the same fucking song I saw last night. I've seen Hiatt before, but I know I'll live to regret not catching a full set this year.

Buddy is basically up to his old tricks tonight; his hotshot band holding things down while he solos, whispers, yells and smiles (a lot). It's not very far removed from the show he played here a couple of years back, but the unfortunate thing about tonight's set is that a lot of people seem to have chosen it as a place to catch up with their mates. I'm no fun hating shoosher, don't get me wrong, but when one of the legends of Chicago blues is whispering into the mic, I'd like to hear what he has to say. A few tracks from his latest Living Proofget a run, 74 Years Young sounding particularly strong (perhaps because Buddy is now 75). As per usual he pays his dues – John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom gets a big cheer, as does Voodoo Chile and a far-too-lengthy play on the Sunshine Of Your Love riff.

I'm not a huge fan of The Specials, but if I was I reckon i'd be in heaven tonight. They play with great power and energy and they seem to be having fun. Concrete Jungle stands out as the highlight for me , though you'd surely have many differing opinions if you were to survey the crowd. But no one does that because none of us care. Honestly, I don't even know why you're reading this blog.

I grab a beer and a seat and let the safe, light blues of Keb Mo wash over me. He's not the most exciting bluesman in the world but he's got a kind of reassuring quality to his music, a warmth and familiarity that's so endearing. And, yeah, he's a hell of a guitarist. The early showing of Perpetual Blues Machine was what sucked me in and while he never tops it tonight, him and his band provide pretty nice ear candy.

The Earth, Wind and Fire vs Crosby, Stills and Nash clash was a rough one for many tonight, I nervously put my eggs in the basket of funk and I'm not regretting it. It's a funny set from Earth, Wind and Fire; they're not the disco hit machine many were expecting. While they do dance onstage and open with Boogie Wonderland, it all goes pretty deep pretty quickly; this is a supremely talented funk band who want to show off their considerable skills as musicians and an ensemble. While this probably pleases 20 percent of the crowd (yours truly included), the rest begin streaming out at a rate that's simply not fair for a band putting on this kind of performance. Deeply rhythmic, tight as all hell and featuring some of the best thumb piano you'll ever see, these guys really delivered the goods tonight. Sure, there's only three original members, but you stick with someone for 41 years and let me know how it turns out.

On Saturday, John Fogerty will change your life. The two Earles go back to back earlier in the evening which ought to be great, Bettye LaVette could well dominate and a whole bunch of baby boomers and hippies will make Donovan hard to get a spot for, but hopefully he'll make it worthwhile.

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