Live Review: Bluesfest 2016

30 March 2016 | 4:23 pm | Mick RadojkovicSteve BellJake Sun

"Words can never do justice to this level of surrealism and absurdity."

More Bluesfest More Bluesfest

Day One — Thursday 24 March

It’s easy to see why Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real were picked by Neil Young to be his backing band for his most recent long player, The Monsanto Years. Today’s solid, 90-minute slot gives the 5-piece the room to show off all their rock moves, and given the pedigree of their lineage (Lukas is the son of Willie Nelson) it’s no wonder these moves comes so naturally. A cover of The Doors’ classic LA Woman caps off the set and the response is huge.

With his current six-piece band Steve Smyth marries the traditional three-piece rock unit with a three-piece horn section and the payoff is pretty rewarding. A forceful charge down the corridors of rock and blues takes place as psychedelic patterns swirl overhead on the ceiling of the tent. Songs from his last long-player, Exit, sit comfortable alongside older selections from Release, and satisfying amount of scope is explored within this short-but-sweet set.

Her sensational clear voice reached out over the fresh and clean crowd as the last remnants of sun disappeared over the Byron hinterland. Janiva Magness shared over 30 years of musical experience and ten plus albums with an eager crowd. Deep and sultry soul is one way to describe it, but her obvious excitement and emotive performance was a perfect way to roll us into the first night of Bluesfest.

Indie darlings Cold War Kids come on with all guns blazing. They appear energized as hell and seem to channel everything into this fast paced, frantic performance. While it’s a very different vibe to the surrounding stages, they act as an integral part of the whole, adding to the dynamism of this vast festival. Their subtle flourishes of contemporary blues make them a great fit for this festival, and when they unleash picks like Louder than Ever and Hang Me Out to Dry the crowd couldn’t be more welcoming.

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

Adorned in a white hat and black feather boa vest, the pimpin’ D’Angelo took to the stage almost looked like the re-invention of Prince. His falsetto deserves to be in that category too, as he wailed expertly and pranced around the stage that he owned completely. From classic soul covers like Red Hot Mama, to newer edgier material like The Charade, D’Angelo was bang on, firing up the crowd for the huge opening night, but we would have loved to have seen some female gospel backing singers!

No superlative can describe the anticipation in the Mojo tent as we waited for the clock to tick over to 10:45pm, but the desperate yearning we all felt as Kendrick Lamar teased the microphone to start the show was collectively shared. Single-day Bluesfest wristbands were prevalent as the buzziest artist (not you, Ye) on the planet proved to us why he is. A pulsating, energetic and exceedingly good performance from a man whose confidence exceeds his years. King Kunta revealed an enviable bounce and as the condensation from the crowd heat dripped back onto us we chanted it’s refrain until we were given Alright to complete a sublime set of culturally relevant and superbly crafted music. Blues or not.

more from day one...


Day Two — Friday 25 March

Bluesfest veteran Archie Roach does great service to the tradition of storytelling every time he graces a stage or lends his sweet voice to a recording. Four other guitarists/bassists lend their talents to this performance, providing a fresh accent to the telling of gems such as Beautiful Child and Charcoal Lane.     Roach holds the early afternoon crowd captivated in a way that only a master storyteller can, introducing each song with a short tale that sheds a little light on its history, before letting the poetry of his verses carry the messages all the way home to the heart.

Arnhem Land-bred indigenous act East Journey combined traditional instruments (didgeridoos and clap sticks) with a drum-kit and guitars and the result was sublime. The sound is not unlike any alternative rock band you would find at your local pub and the added tribal and traditional dress gave the performance an edge that’s worth watching. Singer Rrawun Maymuru is the grandson of the late Dr. Yunupingu, and the Yothu Yindi comparisons are worthy.

Not so chatty on stage, but Lord Huron let their music do the talking. Intricate layers of sound flow from this well dressed four piece LA indie folk band and it’s very pretty. The use of atmospheric sounds like rain and the beach remind you that you’re watching this in a sweet location. Tracks from their Strange Trails LP of last year we the main songs, including Love Like Ghosts, Fool for Love and The Night We Met. Their music is inoffensive and easy to listen to, but they barely registered a blip on the personality scale. 

When it comes to personality, Elle King has it in spades. A force of nature on the stage, she declares that this is her first visit to Australia and has been “drunk almost the whole time”. This could have resulted in a bad show, but this was anything but. She has moxie, sass and is most definitely not afraid to put her personal life into a song. A great crowd whooped it up as she a great mix of tunes, including her biggest hit, Ex’s & Oh’s, a perfect example of her putting herself out there and a fantastic reworking of The Beatles’ Oh! Darling.

Canada’s rising country stars The Bros. Landreth make a great impression for their Bluesfest debut. They draw a decent crowd and reward in all attendance with a clarity of sound that maximizes the effect of each chord played. While it may be early days in the career, songs like I Am the Fool Who Came, Made Up My Mind, and Let it Lie show a maturity beyond their years. This is likely not the last we’ll see of these bros at this festival.

Nahko & Medicine For The People — the band that inspires people to recommend them — are a band that you have to check out. The man known as Nahko Bear fronts an eclectic group, including very impressive violin and trumpet players. The songs evoke images of mountains, the sea, the sky and our connections with nature. There is no shortage of love in the Mojo tent as they excel with Black as the Night and a surprisingly well constructed medley of songs from Thrift Shop to No Diggity. Fun, funky and fearless. We loved it.                       

It’s hard to believe that Graham Nash is now 74 years old. His voice is still going incredibly strong and as he stands up on stage today he exudes such vitality. Joined by guitarist Shane Fontayne, he takes us on a walk through the CSN glory days and beyond. Marrakesh Express, Immigration Man, and This Path Tonight are early favourites that all come through strong, but he’s just getting the crowd warmed up before he really knocks them over. He uses little back-stories to tease the introductions to both Cathedral and Our House, but this only adds to their impact, and the fans are immensely ecstatic in response. 

St Paul & The Broken Bones prove to be the find of the festival. This Alabama blues band may look like nothing special, but when singer Paul Janeway starts to sing, your jaw drops. The man that was meant to be a preacher of god, preaches the blues instead to a lucky Bluesfest crowd that will forever be able to say, “I was there”. He dashes from side to side, he gets on his knees and cries, he belts out the blues with such a passion that you feel that every drop of sweat (and there’s a lot of it) coming off him is deserved. A cracking cover of The Beatles’ I Want You (She’s So Heavy) tied in with material from their debut album and new tracks for an upcoming album. If you get an opportunity to see this band live, do it.

Steve Earle is certainly no stranger to Bluefest, and he leads his band The Dukes through a set which encompasses his entire stellar career. His most recent album, Terraplane, was an exploration of the blues so, naturally, there are a slew of its songs trotted out such as Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now and Just As Mean As Me, but it’s the older classics such as Guitar TownCopperhead Road and Galway Girl which really get the tent pumping, as well as their shredding cover of Hey Joe, which completes the brilliant outing.

Those looking for a course of their favourite Fleetwood Mac classics will certainly be barking up the wrong tree when it comes to The Mick Fleetwood Blues Band. For the most part, this is a whole other venture through and through. But one can’t complain that they didn’t warn us. This one really is dedicated to the blues, mapping the roots of the Fleetwood evolution. It’s a true trip back through time, with songs like Rattlesnake and Shake and Fleetwood Boogie bringing the past back to life with a real feeling of authenticity.

It feels like too long since we’ve experienced Tex Perkins live as we watch his most recent venture, a four piece super-group, The Ape. Components of Magic Dirt, The Gin Club & Dallas Crane combine into a frenetic and fun sound that only Perkins could orchestrate. His voice is still as sexy and raw as ever and the rock is straight and loud. Bassist, Pat Bourke, tries his hand at some keyboard, but we feel that this band needs no keys. The more rock, the better! Perkins declares that “The Ape love you”. We love you too, Tex.

After a sensuous intro fades out, City & Colour take the Mojo stage by storm with their stunning eight-minute opener, Woman. Its hold is so strong that it leaves a sense of longing upon its close and one is left wondering why the hell they don’t extend it to a 30-minute version. It does, however, set the mood and act as sort of point of access toward a deeper intimacy with the rest of their set, allowing songs like Wasted LoveLover Come Back, and We Found Each Other I the Dark to really work their charm. Frontman Dallas Green commands a powerful and emotive presence, singing almost every line with eyes closed and head tilted askew as if in search of a higher solace. What could easily come across like an indulgent detailing of despair, instead becomes an alchemic exercise that traces paths of hope within the beauty of the wounded. 

Ohioan indie rockers The National close out the Mojo to a huge crowd who fully appreciate the massive production that they’ve assembled, the sound epic and monstrous as the pull out some early classic like Bloodbuzz Ohio and Squalor Victoria. Frontman Matt Berninger looks bedraggled but his voice is as statesmanlike as ever, and they throw in a cover of Grateful Dead’s Peggy-O before finishing with the staple Mr November, the ecstatic crowd dragging them back for an encore and being treated to renditions of Terrible Love and Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks to finish things off for the night.

more from day two...


Day Three — Saturday 26 March

Darren Hart is a machine. Not only can he produce sound from a guitar that many of us would only dream of, he sings, he struts and writes some of the best written songs of recent times in this country. On stage, he evokes Prince with his moves, but his delivery is unique; just one other person appears on stage with him, his spot-on drummer. We get the feeling that this will expand to a full band at some point and then we will see Harts reach his potential as a live act. 

The term ‘hipster-soul’ has to be coined to describe Allen Stone and his band. It’s not a bad combination, though, as he performs heart-warming soul music with a voice akin to the masters of the genre. At times, it seemed that they lost the audience with numbers that didn’t really go anywhere, but they pulled them back with participation in Free Love. A cover of Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know was given a unique soul edge, but seemed to miss the mark. A strong finish with Perfect World and Voodoo completed a set that showed potential not quite reached. 

What a voice Grace Potter has. An ear-piercing scream that is pitch perfect? Yup, she can do it. Ever-moving on stage, Potter’s set gave us a mix of pop-rock, country and blues as she jumped between a ‘Flying V’ guitar to the Hammond organ showing off her impressive versatility. The music was all top notch, but the varied styles makes her hard to pigeon-hole. She definitely gave her all on stage and we left entertained, albeit a little confused, wondering how to take it all.

“It’s time for a little journey … we’ll be back here in a minute.” And just like that we are transported to the jazz world of Kamasi Washington.  Along for the ride are his ultra-talented band, The Next Step, including his father, Ricky Washington, Professor Boogie on the coolest sounding keytar you’ll ever hear and Patrice Quinn with deliciously smooth vocals (and dance moves). For 90 minutes, we are treated and transfixed to the sounds created by everyone on stage, because not only does every band member get a chance to shine, they make the most of the spotlight. We are treated to stories of Washington’s youth and the bands inception and we’re asked to guess the time signature of a new song to get a special message at the signing tent. (For what it’s worth, it was seemingly 11/8.)

A massive crowd fills the Mojo stage for California rockers Eagles Of Death Metal in a show of solidarity for the band being the victims of the Parisian terror attack late last year that claimed the lives of so many of their fans. The band seem delighted to be both alive and at Bluefest and this adds even more vitality to their already hedonistic aesthetic, a fun vibe permeating everything they do as forntman Jesse Hughes bounces around the stage like a kid who’s had too much cordial. Despite the obvious pathos by the end of the set it’s their driving roadhouse rock’n’roll and songs like I Love You All The Time and I Want You So Bad which have won people over as much as their undoubted intestinal fortitude.

A band with two Grammy nominations under their belt should be a household name in this country but, as of yet, Hiatus Kaiyote are not. Anyone in the tent will not forget their name in a hurry though as Nai Palm — guitarist, vocalist, keyboardist and Michael Jackson-earring-wearer — belts out the drawn-out words to tracks from their fantastic album of 2015, Choose Your Weapon. Highlights include their unique track, Atari, with video game effects, and Breathing Underwater, an understated masterpiece. The set is trippy, mind-bending neo-soul mixed with rock and jazz that delights and expands the mind.

The Word don’t speak a word, for the most part. Their performance is instead filled with instrumental improvisation that covers gospel and jazz and entices the audience to groove along silently. Robert Randolph is a pro on the steel foot-pedal guitar, but the whole band, including legendary jazz keyboardist John Medeski get their chance to show off their impressive skills through-out the set. The sort of performance you may want to sit back, grab a feed and a drink to and marvel at the skills of the super-group in front of you.

Portland indie icons The Decemberists have been irregular visitors to our shores over their long and distinguished career, so fittingly there’s air of barely-concealed expectation as they start off with The Singer Addresses His Audience, singer Colin Meloy beginning in solo mode before the band gradually join him and the song bursts into life. Meloy is so nerdily charismatic and seems delighted after The Engine Driver and The Wrong Year to introduce a brilliantly faithful version of Hoodoo Gurus’ Death Defying (which he refers to as “grade A pandering”), and the tight and enigmatic outfit complete their brilliant return by being eaten by a cut-out whale during the excellent finale The Mariner’s Revenge Song.

What an amazing effort to perform four full albums over four performances at one festival. Whilst Survival may not be their most popular album, it was The Wailers’ most controversial. It speaks out against African apartheid in the 1970s and we are treated to original members, Aston ‘Fams’ Barrett on bass guitar laying down the recognisable reggae groove. Singer Dwayne Anglin schools us in the Rastafarian ways, which is more than just weed and reggae. It’s a school of thought and has deep political convictions. A well-delivered representation of an important album, even if we may not have known the words.

Floridian blues-drenched rock ensemble Tedeschi Trucks Band are based around the clear rapport between husband-and-wife band leaders Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, but there’s a lot more happening than their chemistry as the massive band fill the stage and bring the noise and party. There’s a clear retro vibe – especially when Tedeschi unleashes her massive soul-drenched voice – revolves constantly around fun and good times and this reverie is infectious. A sea of riffs and smiles dominates the vista, always a winning combination.

more from day three...


Day Four — Sunday 27 March

Shakey Graves. Is it a man, or a band? To start with, we have the first incarnation, which is a man and a suitcase kick-drum playing feelgood folky tunes. Enter two more members and the sound is transformed into a rock and blues venture that our ears weren’t expecting. He regales us with stories of back home in Texas and we smile. It’s the upbeat songs we enjoy more, like To Cure What Ails and Roll the Bones, but we appreciate the slower number with politeness.

Legendary gospel group The Blind Boys Of Alabama are wearing gorgeous matching mustard suits as they assemble on seats in the midst of the large stage, their harmonies immense and moving as their voices mesh together as if meant to be. The music drips with old-time authenticity, but as they unleash an epic version of Amazing Grace set to the arrangement of House Of The Rising Sun you realise that there’s plenty of innovation on display as well as the obvious old-school smarts.

Portland-based indie rockers Modest Mouse are another band who have not visited Australia enough over the journey, and the front of the Mojo tent is packed with disciples as they open with Dramamine to mass sing-alongs. Frontman Issac Brock is as his shouty acerbic best as they move through Lampshades On Fire and Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes, and the crowd goes ballistic as the familiar refrain to Float On gets an airing. There’s a huge carnival vibe dominating Dashboard and as they finish with the epic The World At Large the only complaint is that they came all this way to only play an hour.

One of the premiere live acts in Australia, The Cat Empire never disappoint. With a brand new #1 album under their belt, they dive into the set with their new track, Wolves, and never let up. Harry and Felix are clearly enjoying themselves as they grin at each other when Felix received a chorus of squeals from a certain side of the crowd. New stuff, including Midnight and Bulls fit in seamlessly with classics like Two Shoes and So Many Nights and the crowd doesn’t stop bouncing. Some of the occasional OTT soloing may have caused us to miss out on another encore, but The Chariot was a great way to finish.

We all remember the Melissa Etheridge of the '80s and '90s, but there is so much more to this artist from California including a huge 13 original albums. She chats on stage about the old days, but lets her hands do the talking as she shows off her impressive guitar chops in lengthy solos. The mostly older crowd get involved with extended call and response sections, but we mostly sit back and enjoy the skills of the band on the stage. A huge set which included all the favourites as you’d expect.

The Selecter, co-founders of the 2-Tone movement from the UK, continue on where The Specials left us last time they were at Bluesfest. Pauline Black and ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson lead the dapper band in a retrospective of their old hits including Too Much Pressure and Three Minute Hero, but show that their new tracks are just as formidable from their album of 2015, Subculture. It’s a fun and frenetic set with a class band and precise pop sensibilities. Sweat was prevalent!

Only the bravest and most intrepid souls have gathered in the Juke Joint to see avant-garde legends The Residents embrace the weird and wonderful, the band’s two bizarrely-helmeted musicians Rico and Bob staying on the stage’s extremities as the master of ceremonies Randy — in his underpants and suit jacket get-up — wanders the stage unleashing his venomous diatribes, occasionally visited by lost souls in the inflatable crystal ball such as The Butcher, The Engineer and The Diver who impart their tragic wisdom on the flabbergasted crowd. Words can never do justice to this level of surrealism and absurdity.

With the return of Ali Campbell to the vocal duties, expectations were high for this return of UB40 to Australia’s shores. He showed that not only has he not lost any of his singing ability, he can hold a crowd in the palm of his hand. The full band were all class for classic cut Can’t Help Falling in Love and Al Green cover Here I Am (Come and Take Me). An excellent example of an old band returning and sounding just like they used to. They finished with Red, Red Wine, which would stay in our heads for the rest of the night.

The recognisable face and sound of Noel Gallagher make us excited. Here’s the sane and smart half of Oasis to deliver tracks from his breakaway solo act and it’s worth the hype. The songs are all class with the Gallagher’s writing skills stamped all over them. We hope for the odd Oasis tune and we aren’t disappointed as Champagne Supanova, Wonderwall and Digsy’s Dinner are delivered to the frothing masses. It’s the High Flying Birds songs that he’s here for and they are quality. The encore includes If I Had a Gun... and, of course, one more favourite, Don’t Look Back in Anger, as we hum it to our beds for the night.

more from day four...


Day Five — Monday 28 March

Well, now, Sahara Beck — this classy lady surprised us with her intensity early on. Diving straight into her first track with a perfect pitch, we watched a little closer. She continued to impress with a tight and fun set with her newly formed 8 piece band. She switched between acoustic and electric guitars or none at all and each time she sounded strong, especially on new track, Here it Comes and a well-chosen Elvis cover, That’s alright, Mama. A mixture of styles performed, but all of them well delivered. It's likely that we will hear a lot more from Beck, but will it be in blues clubs or on triple j?

Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton brings old-school blues to a new generation with his impressive performance.  Channelling the greats on a myriad of instruments from banjo to piano to violin, he proves that he has a lot to his arsenal, all the while battling with sight impairment. Admitting that he is still a beginner, he plays versions of old blues songs like a pro. We wonder how much better he can get. A great response from the traditional Bluesfest crowd ensures he’ll be back very soon.

A number of artists at Bluesfest have tried their hand at singing blues songs to appease the traditional punters, but Russell Morris has already been there and done it well. Singing songs from his hugely successful Sharkmouth record, Morris shows off his down and dirty blues chops much to the crowd’s appreciation. He throws in the old classics of The Real Thing and Dylan’s Baby Blue in between well-delivered stories. A seasoned veteran on the mic and a prime example of Australian-based blues.

The legendary Brian Wilson takes his spot behind a huge piano as his massive and accomplished band take him through a selection of staples by The Beach Boys such as Heroes & Villains, California Girls and I Get Around. Wilson looks slightly nervous but his voice is still strong and emotive and the mass harmonies are exquisite, the whole tent helping on vocals as they eventually revisit the classic Pet Sounds album and its slew of classics such as Wouldn’t It Be Nice and a triumphant Good Vibrations which just about brings the tent down it’s delivered with so much gusto.

Missourian crew Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats are akin to a soul revue in the way they bring their good time vibes to the Jambalaya tent, the entire tent grooving away to the soulful reverie of songs like Shake and Trying So Hard Not To Know. They finish with party-hard banger S.O.B. but the crowd isn’t ready to let go after it ends in a maelstrom of dancing and singing and fun, keeping up the chant of the song’s familiar refrain until the band re-join the fray and throw in a bonus cover of The Band’s The Shape I’m In. Outstanding.

Closing out an incredible five days over at the Jambalaya stage is the awesome Alabaman singer-songwriter Jason Isbell & The 400-Unit, opening with Palmetto Rose and Stockholm before throwing in the poignant Decoration Day by his former outfit Drive-By Truckers. The gorgeous Travelling Alone unveils its lovesick splendour and the crowd croons along en masse, the incredible wordsmith having assembled a crack band to bring gorgeous tunes such as Never Gonna Change, Speed Trap Town and 24 Frames, and they finish a brilliant set with the moving Children Of Children.

They don’t build them like Tom Jones any more. The Welsh-born 75-year-old is a force of nature and the crowd realise that they’d better push their way past the ‘chair army’ for a glimpse of the living legend. He gives us a taste of everything from the favourite sing-a-long of It’s Not Unusual to the classic Green, Green Grass of Home. It’s great to see he has lost none of his cheek as he rolls out Leave Your Hat On and Sexbomb. Sadly, no underwear to be seen, however. The Blind Boys of Alabama join him on stage for Didn’t It Rain in a rare collaboration. He asked the question, “Ohh yeaaah?” in between tracks to make sure we wanted more, and we certainly did. He delivers Kiss with swagger, and leaves the crowd delighted.

more from day five...

on the ground: day five by mick radojkovic