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Live Review: Bluesfest Day Four (Sunday 31 March 2024)

1 April 2024 | 5:23 pm | Jess Martyn

On the home stretch, but still with a big day of even bigger names ahead....

Ben Harper @ Bluesfest 2024

Ben Harper @ Bluesfest 2024 (Kurt Petersen)

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On the home stretch, but still with a big day of even bigger names ahead, Bluesfest punters were out early under the big tops to hear The Whitlams Black Stump – a new band formed in 2021 with “137 years of combined touring experience” between them, according to frontman Tim Freedman. Playing songs from their debut album released just two weeks prior, Freedman introduced each one with vigour and playful humour. “It’s like a car crash coming down the highway,” he remarked at one point, but their songs - telling stories of everything from a meth lab to Ned Kelly’s sister - were a smooth journey from start to finish.

In passing, the busking stage was emanating energetic rock songs full of driving bass and soaring vocals – a stark contrast to the eccentric, Kate Bush-adjacent melodies from Katie Melua and her band. Confident on the stage, Melua invested physically into every part of the song with broad gesticulations while her band members swayed back and forth. She deftly navigated complex changes of key and language, singing parts of the set in a language native to her home town in the mountains of Eastern Europe. The connection to the blues only became clear with the smooth, jazzy piano melody in Wonderful Life, whilst her raison detre as a performer emerged with the gorgeous high notes in Call Off The Search.

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Like Melua before her, Wilsn had a relatively small frame, but her voice was enormous. Tossing out belts and runs reminiscent of Christina Aguilera, she made it look almost too easy, quipping in between about her experiences with love, music and alcohol – “I’m not drunk yet; maybe later.” The set had something for every lover of music and romance, from the slow ballad characterised by lyrics “ain’t nobody gonna love me quite like you used to” to the song about trying to forge a music career in Nashville with her sound man and boyfriend-turned-husband, fuelled by two-minute noodles. Even those who were ne’er too fussed about meet-cute stories would find it difficult to forget the sound of her vocal runs, like butter sliding down hot toast.

Brad Cox and his band were a refreshing change of tack, referring to themselves as a “new kind of country band” – bright, colourful and occasionally shirtless, with lead guitar shreds so epic that Tommy Emmanuel would have been proud. They were also a perfect lead in to everyone’s favourite Working Class Man, Jimmy Barnes.

While many would have expected a build-up to the crowd favourite, it was played at the front of the set – a short, restrained version that reached not the heights of the recorded version, but still the hearts of an adoring crowd. Besides, it wasn’t long before we saw the trademark belts and stage struts that define the man known as Barnesy, backed by a team of singers and instrumentalists who were every bit as passionate about delivering a performance that exceeded all expectations. As far as unexpected set highlights go, the emergence of “my good friend Bernard Fanning” for a duet version of I’m Still On Your Side would have been hard to beat. Still, Barnesy saved all of the best songs for last, knocking out a long list of hits from his solo career and Cold Chisel days including When The War Is Over, Flame Trees, and Khe Sanh, plus a bonus cover of pub classic The Weight.

Heading towards the pointy end of the evening, Newton Faulkner and Peter Garrett both had a bag full of tricks from the decades past – Faulkner with radio favourites like Dream Catch Me from his 2007 album Hand Built by Robots, and Garrett with his usual blend of popular protest tunes.

A one-of-a-kind festival headliner, Rickie Lee Jones had punters of all ages in the palm of her hand as she played through a string of classics. It was a gimmick-free kind of set, backed only by her own guitar and a handful of equally composed musicians. She covered the obligatory Horses with style, appealing to all the purists who fell in love with the song in the era pre-Braithwaite. Amongst many set highlights, The Last Chance Texaco was another home-run standout, indulging in subtle key changes and the purest of high notes to the delight of the long-time fans in the crowd.

When it came to vocal gymnastics, The Teskey Brothers were not to be overshadowed, with tunes like I Get Up providing ample opportunity to revel in the glory of Josh Teskey’s effortless belts and runs. Rarely if ever did they finish a song on schedule, often extending tunes for minutes longer than the recorded tracks and even building them back up from nothing, their mastery of light and shade always creating a captive audience. A surprise appearance from Kasey Chambers was a memorable highlight, adding glorious harmonies to Blind Without You. Raising her arms as though she was delivering a sermon through song, Chambers delivered an assured performance – the perfect complement to the brothers’ sound and stage chemistry. Whether they were singing, playing guitar or harmonica, or just bouncing off of one another’s energy, The Teskey Brothers made it all seem as easy as breathing – never missing a beat, a note, or an opportunity to have a little fun.

Before the night drew to a close, Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals took the stage with a mixed bag of covers and originals. Their beautifully restrained version of Hallelujah was one to remember, Harper laying the guitar on his lap and plucking the strings in a way that inspired reverence and quiet throughout the crowd. Even after many repeats of the chorus, his vocal runs never failed to inspire and intrigue. His cover of Bob Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door was another set-defining choice, inspiring energy, movement and even head banging on the stage as the hypnotic refrain built up. From his set of originals, the faultless bass riff and agile pentatonic scales cemented Burn One Down as a highlight.

Great music, perfect weather and those addictive peace-and-love festival vibes – could there be any better way to spend a long weekend?