Live Review: BLUESFEST

17 April 2012 | 12:23 pm | Alex Hardy

Defying a long tradition of moist beginnings, Bluesfest 2012 began in a sun-kissed haze and proceeded to be blessed with the best weather the festival has ever seen.

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Defying a long tradition of moist beginnings, Bluesfest 2012 began in a sun-kissed haze and proceeded to be blessed with the best weather the festival has ever seen. Thursday is traditionally the quietest of the five days, but the perks of sparkling clean portaloos and the first ever Australian headline act – Cold Chisel – saw the dust (not mud!) fly as the early birds trooped in.

The afternoon featured some funky keyboard battles from The Hands' and a breath of new life into old school folk from Seth Lakeman, who switched effortlessly between fiddle and guitar whilst stirring his crowd into a bubbling ceili. With the word having spread like wildfire after their performance last year, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue wowed the crowd with their sizzling energy, virtuosic solos and smooth, unified punctuation. Alabama 3 were sloppy in comparison, with a poorly structured set that saw their singer cut a ballad mid-verse in an effort to retain the drifting crowd.

Eilen Jewell's sweet Southern lilt and blend of rockabilly jazz held her crowd spellbound in a saloon-esque atmosphere; Ziggy Marley brought some reggae to the day's table, gaining smiles and some solid bopping from his (and his dad's) feelgood tunes. Nick Lowe and John Hiatt & The Combo had that rolling, Johnny Cash vibe, which was awesome for a few songs before getting a little predictable, particularly for the later evening slots.

My Morning Jacket were epic. They wove through rich atmospheric progressions to rocky solos and frontman Jim James' soaring falsetto sliced through the distortion like a knife through cucumber. Across the air, Kooii kept the dancefloor hot with their driving bass lines, catchy melodies and thick harmonies. Lucinda Williams nailed the sour, broken-hearted blues, but looked so pissed off with the world that it was an effort just to watch her.

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Cold Chisel sparked a ball of energy in the Mojo tent and had old and young singing along at the top of their lungs. Jimmy Barnes' gravelly scream was a little grating on the ears, but Ian Moss' rich harmonies complimented it well and their enthusiasm was tangible as they wove new material between their classics. The Fabulous Thunderbirds managed to draw a small crowd away. A distortion effect on Kim Wilson's mic was an interesting choice for his harmonica and vocal solos, but he had the crowd grooving all the way to the bus lines, which, it must be noted, moved impressively fast.

Day Two saw another pristine sky and double the crowd, as the three-day pass holders joined the throng. The queues grew, the chair army threatened to dominate the main stages and the busking tent kicked into life with some ear-catching performances. Harry Manx enraptured his audience with his Middle Eastern-infused slide guitar and husky vocals. Clayton Doley from The Hands accompanied him with some wicked keys solos and a serene composure. G3 saw two hours of epic guitar solos from some of the most prominent masters out there – Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Steve Lukather – and while it was impressive, perhaps it would have suited a rock festival better.

The Backsliders and The David Bromberg Quartet brought some awesome blues to the table while Sublime With Rome packed out the main stage, the crowd skanking and singing loudly to their catchy punk/reggae hits. Johnny Lang drew a fair share of the seated crowd with his indulgent yet inspiring guitar solos and Candi Staton brought a bit of disco into the mix. Keb' Mo' had the crowd swooning with his rich vocals.

Buddy Guy belied his 75 years of age with a sass and skill that had his crowd roaring in appreciation. The Specials had great energy and a massive crowd, but their set was more reggae than ska and so the epic skank circles never arose. One side effect of the perfect weather was the space it allowed the crowd to spread out if unconfined to the shelter of tents. It was not so much an issue in the smaller tents, but occasionally the collective energy would lose some of its steam in the luxurious space around the main stages.

Earth, Wind & Fire had no such problem. Opening with Boogie Wonderland they had the packed Mojo tent grooving for their entire 90-minute set. They performed with a zest and energy that explained their 40-year career and their funky tunes were irresistibly feelgood. On the other side of the festival, Crosby, Stills & Nash drew their own sizeable, although largely more subdued crowd. The vibe was much more mellow and though they played their hits to solid appreciation, the funky rhythms from their rival stage were hard to ignore. Perhaps an earlier slot would have been better scheduling.

On paper, day three looked to be a much more laidback affair. However it seemed the crowd had finally caught the dancing bug. With a contagious energy, Angelique Kidjo whipped the Crossroads tent into a dancing frenzy, grooving through the crowd before pulling a large chunk of them up on stage to dance off with her percussionist. Brian Setzer's Rockabilly Riot kept the frenetic energy rolling, although muted for the first five minutes due to some technical issues. A cover of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues earned a roar of appreciation from the crowd and their high-energy set kept the air buzzing and arms flying. Donovan was so chilled that even Mellow Yellow made eyes droop. Joanne Shaw Taylor blew the Jambalaya tent away with her epic guitar solos and husky, raw vocals and was hailed by one reveller as “Jimi Hendrix incarnate”.

John Fogerty's performance of Creedence Clearwater Revival's hits saw the tent overflowing with diehard fans that had obviously been guarding their spots for most of the evening. Few could resist the familiar strains of Bad Moon Rising and Down On The Corner and though his voice was in great condition, the crowd was almost as jubilant in their own vocals. Kenny Wayne Shepherd pulled his own decent audience in the face of Fogerty, wowing them with his epic blues-guitar solos.

A glorious Easter morning saw day four off to a sleepy start. The sun was scorching and many were resigned to the slightly cooler shade of the tents. Yann Tiersen provided a perfect lazy afternoon soundtrack with his atmospheric tunes before Busby Marou debuted their country/folk and The Audreys dusted the afternoon with the fragile and soaring voice of Taasha Coates.

Watussi pumped up the party with their energetic Afro-beat. Frontman Oscar Jimenez urged the crowd into a sea of waving arms and shaking hips, the tempo shifting every few seconds. Rosie Ledet had her crowd rollicking in zydeco/rockabilly fun, her washboard player a particularly striking bundle of energy. Bettye LaVette pulled things back a little, to the point where she was sitting cross-legged on the stage, her face and voice etched with an emotional ballad.

Slightly Stoopid were as cheeky as ever, performing a selection of their best reggae tunes and not hesitating to spark up on stage to the delight of a gleeful crowd. Josh Pyke's poetic words and sweet voice pierced the early evening in stark contrast to Seasick Steve with his gravelly voice and half a century of stories.

Melbourne Ska Orchestra was an imposing sight with 26 on stage, including a frontman who commanded the Jambalaya tent like a feisty ringleader. It looked just as much fun on stage as off, with more and more guests jumping up, including John Butler. As people came running, the audience swelled until the surrounding shops and toilet queues were all dancing to the infectiously energetic mix of ska and funk.

Blue King Brown was just as much fun but with triple the crowd. The Mojo tent was alive with dancing bodies that only stood still to create a sea of fists in support for Freedom for West Papua, led by frontwoman Natalie Pa'apa'a. The electricity and unity throughout the crowd was quite inspiring and people were dancing like it was their last chance. Of course it wasn't, as John Butler Trio built even higher upon the vibrant energy. Butler's dextrous finger-picking sounded like there were five guitars playing instead of one and the audience were totally enthralled for the entire set, which interestingly left out most of his major hits. He performed a duet with his wife Mama Kin and invited The Melbourne Ska Orchestra up to get things even crazier. Across the festival The Pogues were having an epic singalong of Dirty Old Town and attempting to rouse their crowd of obvious fans into a rabble, but it seemed the 23-year wait had taken its toll and the energy was no match for Butler. Great Big Sea won this reviewer's prize for best Celtic/folk band. Their rousing pirate shanties and toe-tapping tunes left no one standing still and although relatively new to Australian audiences (despite a 19-year career), there were many extra voices singing along to their thick harmonies.

The crowd had thinned out a lot for the final day of the festival and though the sun was shining, the wind began to take a bite with it. Dawes provided some country easy-listening, as did Mick Thomas' Roving Commission; however the smaller stages seemed to struggle to entice the weary crowd on this day. Justin Townes Earle shared quirky stories about the plethora of bad neighbourhoods he'd lived in and a craving for fried chicken. Once coupled with his Bob Dylan-esque tunes, he had no struggle to keep the audience's attention.

Tribali were one of the most entertaining acts of the whole festival. Hailing from Malta, they fused Middle Eastern and Indigenous sounds to wonderful effect. If their infectious beats didn't hook you in, their ceaseless energy and melodramatic performance (ending in glitter cannons) did. Tijuana Cartel were slightly more subdued than usual as singer Paul George felt the after-effects of a big weekend. Still, the intoxicating beats and bubbly flamenco had feet moving. Zappa Plays Zappa were tight and exciting, the son definitely doing the father justice.

Maceo Parker blew the Crossroads tent away with some straight-up funk. He had the sass of years playing sax for James Brown and reeled the audience in with his cheeky banter and soulful solos. Headliners for the night Yes were deliciously '70s and had lost none of their prog-rock appeal, although their sweet Beach Boys-style harmonies could have been louder. Eagle & The Worm were the last stop on this reviewer's list but only managed to pull a small crowd away from the main tent. Their catchy tunes did get those gathered grooving and a different timeslot would see them thrive.

An epic lightning storm decorated the eastern sky, but held off from dampening the close of one hell of a festival. The 23rd Bluesfest could be considered nothing less than a great success and, as the weary revellers left with dusty boots and smiles all round, there was already discussion of what next year could bring.