Day four of Bluesfest was another massive day of talent punctuated by the classic Bonnie Raitt and the new skool Tash Sultana showing why musicality is transcenent of generations.
Day 4 was a reminder that even at the business end, Bluesfest 2023 is all about a good time, and it all started with everyone’s favourite musical quiz show, RocKwiz. With guest performances from the likes of Wilson, The Living End’s Chris Cheney and Hunters and Collectors frontman Mark Seymour, all accompanied by the brilliant RocKwiz band, the music was every bit as impressive as the trivia knowledge on display.
The first must-see of the day, Bobby Alu lit up the Juke Joint stage with a bright smile and stories that showed off his natural gift of the gab. In a set full of delightful tunes anchored by Alu’s ukulele and vocal harmonies, it was the story of his parents’ love that struck a chord - particularly when he brought his mother onstage to dance along to one of his songs, dressed in a traditional Samoan outfit. With hits including Fire and It’s Time, Alu’s main message was clear - “if you wanna do it, you should do it” - and his “live in the moment” philosophy was just what Bluesfest punters had ordered.
There was just enough time to catch 19-Twenty on the busking stage, where they somehow managed to fit a double bass, drums and several guitarists. Tunes like Heartbreak Radio and a cover of the classic I Like To Move It drew a crowd, as did their raucous performance style and cheeky sense of humour. “If you haven’t noticed, it’s not about you when we play, it’s about us,” they quipped, before launching into another epic cover of 99 Problems”. Between a drummer described as the “dodgy uncle” of the family and a frontman who didn’t hesitate to stride out into the crowd and jump up on the table, there was no shortage of charisma on the stage.
Roshani was undoubtedly one of the best surprises on the bill, drawing a crowd from further afield with her stratospheric vocals and unique electronic touch. While much of her set revolved around her beats machine, she was quick to whip out her harmonica for a real blues touch, and - just when the crowd thought she couldn’t possibly outdo herself - an electric guitar for Black Lightening and her captivating original set closer, Breathing Underwater. Finishing up with a commendation from the one of the festival organisers himself, it was clear that Roshani had everything going for her - and that it wouldn’t be the last time Bluesfest bore witness to her talent.
Speaking of Bluesfest regulars, Byron was stoked to welcome Ash Grunwald and his brand of effortless cool back to the festival for the tenth time. Wearing a blazer and a top bun, he looked right at home on stage, and even more so when his daughter Aria made an appearance onstage before his rousing rendition of I Want You To Know - a tune dedicated to her and her sister. Grunwald’s rousing cover of Ain’t No Sunshine was a standout set highlight, true to the original with a welcome feature from the organ.
Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter
As the sun began to sink, Femi Kuti was tasked with keeping the crowds up and dancing - a task he took on with infectious enthusiasm. A unique blend of brass, percussion and rhythmic African influences, the performance was as layered and complex as the dancers’ bejeweled costumes were colourful. The charismatic frontman himself wore a bright green tracksuit, moving freely as he whipped the crowd into a dance frenzy. Dubbing himself “Flight Captain Femi Kuti”, he took the crowd on a fast-moving journey punctuated by brilliant saxophone solos and declarations of hope. Evidently, the positive force was working in the dance master’s favour, allowing him to keep up his high energy dancing and handle songs full of intricate complex lyrics with incredible breath control, and it was more than enough to keep everyone in the mosh pit dancing and clapping.
When it comes to matching that energy, few but Michael Franti would be up to the task. From the opening video and colourful graphics to the whole-crowd do-si-do, the set was vibrant and uplifting. With track titles like I’m Alive and It’s Gonna Get Better on the set list, it was only natural that the set turned into a group therapy session - whether Franti was jumping down into the crowd to be amongst his people or inviting one fan onto the stage to sing and dance with him. The set reached a peak for wholesomeness when Franti invited his wife onstage to duet Life Is Better With You, and their children followed, creating adorable chaos.
Crowd participation was just as central to Mavis Staples’ performance as her genre-defining voice. Even early numbers like Handwriting on the Wall had the air of an elder giving a masterclass, backed by some of the most enthusiastic supporting vocalists one could hope to find anywhere. They closed their eyes and raised their hands like they were in a church service, matching Staples herself for enthusiasm. As she said to the crowd, “first, you’ve got to drop your seatbelt and then just let yourself get loose. If you get loose, you are guaranteed to have a grand time. If you wanna ride, you’d better board this train now. This train is bound for glory.”
Amongst many set highlights, the Respect Yourself duet between Staples and her guitarist was a standout, second only to the gospel perfection of Will The Circle Be Unbroken with guest stars, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne.
Finally, as the set was due to finish, Staples simply raised her hands and left the stage as the band played her out - class until the very end.
Mavis Staples had left the stage buzzing with the energy of a true Queen, and Bonnie Raitt was quick to pick it up and run with it. Ready for her solo moment after several supporting performances, Bonnie was not shy with her music or with her political views, looking perfectly at home on the stage as she dedicated her performance of We Used To Rule The World to “all the fools running for office” in America.
Raitt carried the same fabulous edge throughout the performance, with highlights including the dance number “No Business”, full of attitude until the very last note, and Blame It On Me, a tune full of passion, memorable moments on the organ and sultry vocals. Later in the set, Love In The Wintertime was an ode to the glorious April weather, giving Raitt the opportunity to switch to the keys. “We have played here in the rain and in the smoking hot muggy heat, and this is just perfect,” she said, and by the end of her set, it was all Byron could do to hope for many more repeat performances.
Watching Tash Sultana on a main stage at the same time as Bonnie Raitt, it was crystal clear just how far they have come in the past decade. Their piercing falsetto could be heard across the grounds, drawing crowds of fans old and new to watch them demonstrate their proficiency as a multi-instrumentalist - from the guitar to the flute, the trumpet and the saxophone.
After crafting a tapestry of sound using the loop pedal, Tash swung the guitar over their shoulder, freeing up space to move and deliver the energetic performance fans have come to expect from them.
Everything about the performance was high energy, from their jumping to the way they flicked their hair - that is, until they made an announcement for all the stoners: “We’re going to slow it down a bit, so if you’re thinking of smoking marijuana, you should do it now.”
After an hour and a half of captivating showmanship, Tash left the crowd with some words to remember: “I just manifested that this gig was going to be sick, and I can say that this is the best gig I’ve played this year.”
Although it was quite the transition from a one-person show to a big band like Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, the start of the set was nothing but pleasant surprises. Building up the strings and guitar, the band left plenty of room for the main man, and when he finally emerged with the trombone, the crowd went wild. The crowd was pleased to find that the frontman’s talent for trombone also carried across to his vocal abilities, and that the other band members shared similar talent on their respective instruments, with saxophone solos stretching into full blown jam sessions. Their cover of Give Up The Funk was a set highlight, capitalising on their fantastic stage chemistry and impressive vocal chops.