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Live Review: Bluesfest

3 April 2013 | 11:04 am | Lucia Osborne CrowleyDan CondonSteve BellMiki P

A surge of satisfied punters left the muddy festival ground and said a reluctant goodbye to Bluesfest for another year.

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Thousands of gumboot-wearing, rain jacket-clad music lovers from all over the country descended on Byron Bay for another rainy long weekend of Bluesfest. The rain barely let up all weekend and the resultant mud covered absolutely everything, but despite all of this, as ever, the event consistently has the most relaxed, tolerant atmosphere of any other Australian festival.

On the first day the intensely soulful voice of Joan Armatrading played to an overflowing tent of excited punters on the Jambalaya stage. The singer opened with Show Some Emotion and followed this up with a heartfelt rendition of All The Way From America, which encouraged a lot of simultaneous arm-waving. The highlight of the set, which garnered full crowd participation in every chorus, was her closing classic Drop The Pilot.

Rodriguez combined his charming Bob Dylan-esque sound with muted, syncopated trumpet lines to give his first day set something of a Latin feel. The singer delivered a powerful performance of Sugar Man to rapturous applause, followed by Like A Rolling Stone (which was, dare this reviewer say it, perhaps a more exciting version of the song than the one we saw performed by Bob Dylan himself at Bluesfest 2011).

Across at the packed out Mojo tent, Bluesfest veteran Ben Harper graced the stage with new accomplice Charlie Musselwhite. In true Bluesfest style, the two opened with a classic 12 bar blues melody, which engaged the crowd from the opening. The highlights of the set were certainly the pair's energetic renditions of I Don't Believe A Word You Say and Don't Look Twice. American Rocker Chris Isaak then closed the evening over at the Crossroads Stage. With his powerful vocals and enigmatic stage presence, the singer held the captive audience's attention throughout his entire performance.

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Day two of Bluesfest saw Taj Mahal produce some signature driving electric blues. He varied the tone with the delicately finger-picked rolling country blues of Fishin' Blues. Much to the crowd's delight, he closed his set with The Blues Is Alright, which again attracted plenty of crowd participation. Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, on the small but charming APRA Stage, performed impressive renditions of Blue Roses Falling and Gentlemandolin to a particularly engaged audience.

Ben Harper returned for a solo acoustic set, which was perhaps the standout performance of the entire festival. Harper performed a very moving rendition of Hallelujah, which the audience particularly enjoyed, then went on to perform some of his older classics such as Here Comes The Sun and Burn One Down. He was then joined on stage by fellow Bluesfest regular Xavier Rudd, and together they performed a phenomenal ten minute set.

Jimmy Cliff at the Mojo Stage was another highlight of the long weekend. The sprightly 64-year-old reggae veteran belied his age in a dynamic performance to an adoring crowd. The singer combined old hits like Wild World, The Harder They Come and I Can See Clearly Now with politically charged material from last year's record Rebirth. The entire band played the African drums for a beautiful and moving version of Rivers Of Babylon. A perfect way to close the night, the incredibly enigmatic Manu Chao performed an eclectic but exciting mix of rock, reggae and ska, which got the entire Crossroads tent dancing well into the night.

The third day of the Bluesfest saw the seven vocalists of Sweet Honey In The Rock – supplemented by a variety of hand-held percussion – create stunningly complex harmonies, notably on a passionate version of Bob Marley's Redemption Song and Nina Simone's See-Line Woman. The Jambalaya stage was overtaken by the power and incredibly energetic presence of Ruthie Foster. Byron Bay has always loved Ruthie Foster and it was clear immediately that the feeling is mutual. Combining soul and gospel influences with a powerful base and solid percussion, Foster epitomises the heart and soul of Bluesfest.

The night was then closed by an incredibly powerful performance by rock legend Robert Plant, the Mojo Stage overflowing with excited music lovers desperate to get a glimpse of the man himself. With an incredible amount of energy for a rock star of his age, Plant delivered an impressive set. He pleased the crowd by playing a satisfying number of Led Zeppelin tracks, with the highlight of the set undoubtedly being his performance of Whole Lotta Love.

With the rain falling harder than ever, Sunday featured an exciting set by Canadian rockers Current Swell at the APRA Stage. The band performed a combination of classic rock beats with blues rhythms, pleasing a committed crowd who had braved the heavy afternoon rain to see their performance. The Cavanbah Stage was graced by the impressive Ben Caplan, who delivered one of the most vocally accomplished performances of the festival.

The entrancing Lotus Palace arena witnessed an incredible performance by Playing For Change. One of the most heartfelt, captivating sets of the entire festival, this eclectic group of street musicians from around the world won the heart of every audience member. Their renditions of classics such as Etta James' I'd Rather Go Blind and audience favourite Stand By Me truly encapsulated the group's goal of creating 'peace through music'. Across at the Jambalaya stage was the matriarch of political gospel herself, Mavis Staples. The singer performed a fantastic up-tempo version of Wade In The Water, her powerful voice underscored by thunderous percussion and heavy guitar licks. The Mojo tent was brought to life by Bluesfest regular Xavier Rudd, who, as ever, entranced the vast audience with his impressive didgeridoo melodies and beautiful vocal harmonies. Another of the festival's highlights was Fat Freddy's Drop, who performed a satisfying set full of heavy bass and infectious beats, encouraging the entire audience to dance enthusiastically.

Rodriguez: Pic by Linda Heller-Salvador

The final day of the 2013 Bluesfest had Kitty, Daisy & Lewis' set skip through some classic swing and country with skiffle-influenced drumming, chugging harmonica and some honky-tonk piano riffs. All the young people at the festival then seemed to congregate at the Jambalaya stage to see Melbourne rapper Grey Ghost. Dancing to a hip hop show at Bluesfest did make for an interesting variation on the theme, however the audience thoroughly enjoyed the set and the rapper garnered a very full crowd by the end.

Another music legend, Paul Simon, then took to the Mojo Stage. Playing many songs from the hit album Graceland, his talented ensemble delivered tight percussive African rhythms combined with the Latin inflections that are signatures of his later work. Bowing to the inevitable, he sang a competent but uninspiring version of The Sound Of Silence.

One of the closing sets of a fantastic festival was provided by the joyous 26-piece Melbourne Ska Orchestra. Their infectious high-octane ska had a packed crowd dancing and singing. Band leader Nicky Bomba's witty rapport with the audience added an entertaining dimension to a rousing finish to the festival. In a nod to their inspiration, their set included a bombastic version of A Message To You Rudy and the '60s ska hit My Boy Lollipop. With that, a surge of satisfied punters left the muddy festival ground and said a reluctant goodbye to Bluesfest for another year.

Lucia Osborne-Crowley (Drum Media)

The epic line-up for this year's instalment of the annual Bluesfest extravaganza has ensured a solid crowd from the outset, with hordes of music lovers descending on the beautiful environs of Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm for an incredible does of music from around the globe. There's far too much happening over the full five days to cover it all, but here's just a taste of the incredible music enjoyed over the duration.

THURSDAY

Wanda Jackson's voice is still dynamite and she takes us through a whole cache of hits from throughout her 58-year career. Riot In Cell Block #9, I Gotta Know and Funnel Of Love get things started nicely but the crowd goes nuts when she yodels her way through I Betcha My Heart I Love You. A version of The Valentinos' It's All Over Now from her latest LP is a surprisingly great fit, but you can't beat the classics that follow, like Fujiyama Mama, Mean Mean Man and Right Or Wrong. Jackson calls for Chris Isaak who, she reveals, is meant to be helping her sing Let's Have A Party but he's running late so we all miss out, it still sounds great, as does closer Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On.

It feels like Joan Armatrading doesn't belong here tonight. She does everything right, but therein lies the problem, it's all a bit too contrived, a bit too slick and it comes across completely soulless. The set list is solid; Show Some Emotion, Crazy, and the anthemic Love And Affection are all highlights, but it just lacks guts, energy and personality.

Rodriguez walks on to an enormous cheer and plays You'd Like To Admit It before the unmistakable bassline that brings in I Wonder gets plenty excited. Inner City Blues and Crucify Your Mind are both brilliant and the opening chords of Sugar Man send the crowd into a frenzy. The fact that I Think Of You can retain its intimate, intricate beauty in such an environment is testament to The Break, who back him up tonight, while the more powerful moments Like Janis, Can't Get Away and Rich Folks Hoax are just brilliant. A whole stack of covers follow, Blue Suede Shoes gives the band a chance to break out after being restrained, and a pretty great rendition of Midnight Oil's Redneck Wonderland is surprising, to say the least. Rodriguez bids us adieu with Forget It, and closes the finest of his Bluesfest sets yet.

The brilliant Herbie Hancock tune Chameleon gets both Fred Wesley & The New JBs and the small, enthusiastic crowd of dancers warmed up nicely. The grooves are thick as butter and the band sharp as a hacksaw – but they get the job done with far more precision. The mix of funk and jazz played by some of the best in the business is a real treat tonight, Trick Bag gets them singing, while Foreplay from the Horney Horns' A Blow For Me, A Toot To You could well be the best slice of funk we hear all weekend.

It's strange seeing Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls playing to a sparse APRA Stage given that he plays massive stadiums in his native UK, but the band kick into If I Ever Stray as if it's their biggest gig ever and the fervent followers in front respond in kind. Tunes like Glory Hallelujah and Reasons Not To Be An Idiot get a great reaction – as does his cover of Smudge's Outdoor Type – but the set highlight is the crowd dance-off during Four Simple Words.

Say what you will about Ben Harper, it's awesome that he's made it so Charlie Musselwhite can be headlining the (albeit not very full) Mojo stage 24 years after being a headliner at the first ever Bluesfest. Their set is full of warmth and passion and they complement each other really nicely; who knows how long this project will last, but it's worth catching if you ever get the chance – Harper fan or not.

FRIDAY

Taj Mahal plays to a packed tent who lap up his exotic style of blues. He plays in trio mode this afternoon, and the sound is mighty powerful and Mahal proves he hasn't lost any skill as a bandleader or entertainer since we last saw him; he manages to generate a huge buzz in the Crossroads tent and elicit screams from the thousands before him. The set is full of highlights, but you can't go past the brilliant Going Up To The Country (Gonna Paint My Mailbox Blue).

Relatively young US bluesman William Elliott Whitmore draws an attentive crowd, swapping between guitar and banjo and using a kick drum to great effect to establish a real 'one man band' sound. Songs such as Didn't Need It, Diggin' My Grave, Pine Box and Old Devils all sound so authentic – hallmarks of a genuine new talent in our midst.

The decision to have Ben Harper, one of the undisputed rulers of this festival, play a mid-afternoon set away from the festival's mainstage could go either way, but for the most part it works out really well. He starts on piano with Trying Not To Fall In Love With You, an unbelievably weak beginning, but things pick up from there; his version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah is passable, while a piedmont fingerpicked Steal My Kisses works really well. Excuse Me Mr and Burn One Down bring back some serious memories to those of us who may have lapsed in our appreciation for the artist while Fight Outta You sounds better than ever in this environment.

There's a packed tent for Jimmy Cliff and despite the grey clouds looming overhead, he exudes sunshine from the opener You Can Get It If You Really Want and onto Save Our Planet Earth and World Upside Down, his positive outlook mirrored by his bright red and gold outfit. “It's a wonderful day!” Cliff proclaims, before offering Wonderful World and Many Rivers To Cross. His showmanship and signature high kicks oozing classic charm and the enraptured crowd hang on every move, Cliff reanimating his gangster onscreen moves before launching into the title track from seminal reggae film, The Harder They Come. Closing the band's tight one-off performance, he jokingly asks, “Reggae Night, do you know this one?” Needless to say, Jimmy – yes we do. 

Shuggie Otis seems in a bit of a terse mood tonight, but his band don't seem to mind. The epic Wings Of Love is a pretty good showcase of Otis' guitar playing and he certainly seems to enjoy it, but it tends to drag a little. On the flipside of that, Strawberry Letter 23 gets the small crowd very excited, but Otis seems somewhat less thrilled to be playing it. Ice Cold Daydream from that same era ends the set in an almighty wash of noise and feedback.

Though the rain pelts down hard, plenty catch the Steve Miller Band in action, the classic Abracadabra sounding brilliant early on. They acknowledge a hunger for blues and rip through Further On Up The Road, before bringing Charlie Musselwhite out to lend his blues harp nous to proceedings. They go back to 1973 and dig up the Latin-flavoured Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma in dedication to the Santana rhythm section, showing a bit of versatility in the slick, fun outfit.

The Break emerge in great looking space suits and rip through the first song proper from their brand new LP Space Farm and the thunderous Cylinders, the best song from 2010's Church Of The Open Sky, follows. For such a bunch of pro musicians, The Break play with a looseness that makes you feel that they just see this as a way to have a whole lot of fun. Midnight Oil tune Wedding Cake Island sounds perfect, and it's still so good to see three members of that band smash through Martin Rotsey's 1980 composition.

Music Maker Blues Revue this year opens with the brilliant Dr Burt – the most legit bluesman on the bill this year; his criminally short set a genuine festival highlight. Albert White and Pat Wilder rip through electric, soulful blues, Ironing Board Sam plays a couple of piano driven numbers like Do The Ironing Board before Zydeco master Major Handy closes out the show, keeping hips shaking with his down home style of good time dancing music.

Robert Plant: Pic by Stephen Booth

SATURDAY

The legendary Allen Toussaint gets us started on day three of Bluesfest, the bona-fide legend of New Orleans music has a small but mighty good band behind him as he belts out some of his best tunes from behind the keys. A medley of hits and the iconic New Orleans anthem Big Chief end the set very tidily.

The first of two Wilco sets is a reason to get excited, to say the least. Jeff Tweedy and his band run through a diverse range of songs from throughout their 20-odd-year career: new tunes like Art Of Almost, Born Alone and I Might sit nicely alongside old tunes Passenger Side and Box Full Of Letters and mid-era gems like Handshake Drugs, Heavy Metal Drummer, I'm The Man Who Loves You and Shot In The Arm. At any given time the band can be sweet, explosive, epic, dexterous, brilliant pop-smiths and somehow throughout all this they are utterly unpretentious – one in a million.

Young British singer Michael Kiwanuka oozes class as he and his band work through a stack of soul pop numbers from his debut LP. His voice is so beautifully rich and his presence on stage is warm and inviting. Two of the more beautiful tunes from said LP, Home Again and I'll Be, close the set in lovely fashion this evening.

The ugly, snarling riff of Chase The Dragon kick-starts the Beasts Of Bourbon in their first ever Bluesfest performance, a rare treat for the punk rock lovers who've made their way out today. The set list they air is very satisfying; Just Right and Driver Man are brutal, before Cool Fire brings things down a touch as Kim Salmon works through some jazzy chords, but things get brutal again with Straight, Hard And Long, Ride On, Hard For You, Black Milk and Dropout. Their sound is ugly, dirty, noisy, brutal and probably not what a lot of people expect from a Bluesfest set, but their ferocity is appreciated.

The Blind Boys Of Alabama are always a hot drawcard at Bluesfest and tonight is no exception; the tent spills out the sides to see the gospel group smash out old classics like Amazing Grace and newer fare like Free At Last. When they come together in harmony their sound is like nothing else in music, it's almost magical.

Punk rock progenitors Iggy & The Stooges lay waste tonight; Iggy Pop flails around during opener Raw Power and doesn't stop for the next hour-and-a-half. The guitar of James Williamson cuts through gloriously as the band dish out classics like Gimme Danger, 1970, Search & Destroy in the first half of the set. A massive stage invasion takes place during Fun House, a whole mess of people clamour on stage and dance around with Pop; they slip a few tracks from their impending new LP Ready To Die (“because I am,” yelps Pop) both Burn and the almost ballad-like Beat That Guy sounding quite promising.  Now I Wanna Be Your Dog and No Fun close out the set proper, but no one is willing to accept that as the end and the band come out for I Got A Right!, Cock In My Pocket, Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell and Open Up And Bleed. A band that elicits a primal response such as this, while maintaining such a feel good vibe is brilliant. Yes, they're pioneers and that mustn't be forgotten, but their relevance in 2013 is immense and must be celebrated.

SUNDAY

Irish troubadour Luka Bloom is at his hauntingly beautiful best and chooses a brilliant selection of tunes this afternoon. The Fertile Rock, Exploring The Blue and Love Is A Monsoon are dripping with emotion and spirit, while between songs Bloom is simply charming. He dedicates City Of Chicago to the Irish expats in the crowd, thanks Mark Seymour for gifting the world such a beautiful song after Throw Your Arms Around Me and tells a tall tale of scoring from Lance Armstrong when needing assistance to get through a performance. Like a warm embrace from an old friend.

The coolest man in blues Tony Joe White sits centre stage with his guitar and blazes through an hour of scintillating swamp rock. After a deep and dark Stockholm Blues, drummer Fleetwood Cadillac joins him on stage for the majority of the set, they rip through Undercover Agent For the Blues, Roosevelt & Ira Lee and the raucous Do You Have Garter Belt. He recalls being at Bluesfest for the first time many years ago and being inspired to write The Delta Singer, an incredible song that has real power when heard at this event, runs through a new tune called Hold Up and ends with the great double of Even Trolls Love Rock'n'Roll and Polk Salad Annie.

The sky looks awfully threatening, which lends an extra kind of gravitas to the deep spiritual vocals of Sweet Honey In The Rock. Their onstage demeanour is so very warm and pleasant, the arrangements of the songs are so complex but made to sound so simple, a really special experience. I Remember, I Believe is aired in tribute to all of our ancestors before a medley of spirituals that were repopularised with the Civil Rights Movement.

Roger Hodsgon and band sound immense as they open with Take The Long Way Home; while people raved about his past Bluesfest performance, this evening's must be on another level for Supertramp fans as the songs are full fleshed out and really amped up. Take A Look At My Girlfriend is a mid-set highlight as a huge crowd of grinning faces soak up hit after hit from the classic rock legend.

Bettye LaVette's leathery, rugged but tender voice rips through I'm Not The One and Tom Waits' Yesterday Is Here while her band ooze class but they have enough grit to make things pop. She laments not being featured on American Bandstand due to the nature of her 1962 single My Man – He's A Lovin' Man before devastating renditions of Gnarls Barkley's Crazy (“I've been crazy for a long time,” she says) and The Moody Blues' Knights In White Satin. The set ends with LaVette giving huge props to Renee Geyer as they close on (As Close As I'll Get To) Heaven.

Part two of this soulful celebration sees the great Mavis Staples hit the stage and open with an a cappella Wonderful Saviour before keeping that theme going this Easter Sunday with Creep Along Moses. They go secular as they run through John Fogerty's Wrote A Song For Everyone and Levon Helm's The Weight and then Staples gives some historical context to the uninitiated by saying that Why Am I Treated So Bad was Dr Martin Luther King's favourite song. We're Gonna Make It and Eyes On The Prize are both very cool, but it's the closing I'll Take You There that sends the audience into a frenzy.

The fresh rockabilly sounds of JD McPherson and his band is all pretty much as expected; endearing, energetic, tuneful and a lot of innocent fun. Song titles like Country Boy and Farmer John give a bit of an idea about the way their brand of '50s-inspired rock leans. They're such a fun rock'n'roll band that it honestly seems like it would be difficult to not like them at least a little bit; they're not offensive but they pack a bit of a punch and the tunes and harmonies are on point. Bo Diddley's Hangin' Round Here sees bassist Jimmy Southern take the mic, while Firebug and Mona stand out.

MONDAY

The relaxation anthem of Zac Brown Band's Toes is perfect for the final day of the Bluesfest, a crowd in a state of bliss hear the US country king boast about his travels in the most Jimmy Buffett like fashion. A guest appearance from Bonnie Raitt, a cover of The Devil Went Down To Georgia and a setlist that includes hits like Knee Deep and Chicken Fried gets a very large crowd very vocal about the superstar artist who's sure to break in a big way over here before long.

Bonnie Raitt is just so cool throughout her set tonight; confident but humble and seemingly very friendly. Most importantly her voice, guitar playing and backing band are all glorious. Used To Rule The World and Gerry Rafferty's Right Down The Line get us started, before a run of hits including Something To Talk About, Angel From Montgomery, Thing Called Love and I Can't Make You Love Me satisfies fans both ardent and casual.

The charm of Ben Caplan has spread throughout the festival and tonight he wins over more fans with his deep voice and quirky balladry. Tonight he has The Beards appear with him on I Got Me A Woman, runs through an obligatory new song lamenting life on the road and gets everyone clapping for Down To The River.

An enormous crowd is treated to a brilliant set from the legendary Paul Simon; Gumboots seems appropriate, 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover is unassuming, Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard has people grinning wider than ever and Slip Slidin' Away is touchingly dedicated to the very recently deceased Phil Ramone. Few people seem to leave as Simon holds our attention for the duration; The Obvious Child, Crazy Love Vol. II and Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes end the proper set, but a stunning first encore of The Sound Of Silence, Kodachrome and an absolutely riotous You Can Call Me Al see the set peak. A second encore of Graceland and Still Crazy seems to settle everyone a little but confirm that this is one of music's greatest voices.

So there you have it, five glorious days of beautiful music in one of the greatest environs of its kind on the planet – not even torrential rain on a couple of days could dampen the spirits of the artists and audiences. How on earth are they going to top this next year?

Dan Condon, Steve Bell & Miki P (Time Off)