Kendrick Lamar Elevates Bluesfest To Wild New Heights On Day 1

25 March 2016 | 6:12 pm | Jake Sun

"Things get so manic that it feels like a different festival."

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Our team are currently ensconced at Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm soaking in all there is to experience at Bluesfest Byron Bay. We'll be posting a full festival review at the event's conclusion but, in the interim, our reporters are keeping us posted with their adventures on the ground.

Bluesfest 2016, Day One

The 27th Bluesfest kicks off to what seems like a slow start. However, the later afternoon starting time of the first day is a great consideration, which eases the stress of inevitable traffic and entry delays. The number of sniffer dogs lining the gates on arrival, both to the camping areas and festival, is a downer. It’s really quite dishearting given the cases of drug related deaths at festivals in recent years. The time is well overdue for a more progressive approach to this issue, but if you’ve ever been to a festival in NSW you’ll probably guess that they’re not going to be the state leading the charge.

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It may be late March, but summer has seemed to ignored its exit cue and an oppressive sun beats on down. The first walk around the festival grounds bares witness to a crowd that is really feeling the heat and hasn’t yet moved out of first gear since the slow entry. The Bluesfest crowd is generally a varied mix that sits somewhere balanced between Woodford and Splendour, but tonight’s legendary hip-hop headliner has tipped the scales a little more toward the latter. As usual, there’s plenty of variety on offer across the six stages, and there’s an inspiring sense of open-mindedness that one is likely not come across at every festival. I mean, there’s probably not many other places you’d see a woman in her 60s standing in the centre of 20,000 people getting down to loud hip-hop.

For the first of their four scheduled performances, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real play a solid 80 minutes and really ignite the crowd with their closing cover of The Doors’ classic, LA Woman. Steve Smyth’s short-but-sweet set sees a three-piece horn section push the traditional rock formation and sound beyond its boundaries, to great success. And Hiatus Kaiyote make a striking Bluesfest debut, injecting a strong dose of soul-funk to warm the crowd up for the glory run that is to follow them on the Mojo stage.  

It’s not too long before the sun starts to fade and a collective upward gear shift takes place. There’s now a real sense of vigor and anticipation in the air and the festival really comes alive. No matter how much time you think you have it’s always a bit of manic rush between stages, but at some point the festival environment allows one to let go of the regular speed of life, to push aside the anxieties of our age and surrender to acceptance.

Indie darlings Cold War Kids run with the night’s high vibe and pull all the right moves, delivering a highly focused and energized performance. No matter the list of successes though, the night really belongs to the Mojo stage’s back-to-back triple bill of American musical magicians, spearheaded by the greatest rapper in the world.

The eight-piece band of Kamasi Washington brings jazz hurtling back into the limelight with a starling effect. Joined by his father on flute, Washington takes us on musical journey through outer-space, only bringing things back to earth when he takes a break a leaves the stage to his two drummer for a wondrous drum off. It’s really a joyous thing to see a jazz band performing in such a high slot on the main stage of major Australian festival.  

It’s as if D’Angelo is a different man from the one we last saw grace Soulfest stages across the country in 2014. The time in-between has seen him finally release Black Messiah after a 14-year wait. He’s now looking a lot fitter again and exudes a newfound aura of confidence as he sensually struts around the stage. Devil’s Pie, Really Love, The Charade – they’re all sounding so damn sexy tonight.

The choice to leave rows of chairs lining the second half of the tent seemed like a bit of a concern, and this is confirmed when a voice comes over the loud speaker telling everyone in the crowd to take two steps back. How is that supposed to work? So yeah, when things are about to get loose it’s probably a good idea to get the chairs out of there.

The moment so many have been waiting for doesn’t disappoint. Kendrick Lamar’s live set delivers on all levels. A good balance of good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly material is played through and ever version is sounding as fresh as can be. Kendrick has an immensely powerful stage presence and keeps the crowd in the palm of his hand for the entire duration. Things get so manic that it feels like a different festival in many ways, and the presence of a completely nude girl (with no clothes in sight) in the middle of the crowd only adds to this. The closing anthems I and Alright transcend their social-political birthing grounds and hit home with whopping thud, leaving everyone gasping with delight in their wake.

Kendrick Lamar has led a new renaissance in black music, bringing soul, funk and jazz back into the folds of today’s popular culture. Though it was a controversial move to book the former atop the bill, Bluesfest has really done a great service to music fans by recognising this and booking him for this year’s event. It’s a night that will stick with many people for a long, long time to come. And as we trail out to retire to the camping grounds, the words on everyone lips include one common word – “Kendrick”. Thanks, Bluesfest!