Thursday April 17 – Monday April 21
25 years old, and Byron Bay’s Bluesfest remains divorced from those persistent rumours about the failing health of Australia’s major festival market. What’s its secret? Frankly, it might be nothing to do with the blues.
The audience plays its part, of course – Byron attracts a knowledgeable, responsive and diverse crowd this time of year, one which spans at least three generations and doesn’t suffer fools. But the biggest signpost towards Bluesfest’s future is that its most unlikely acts are the ones that work perfectly.
Take Chali 2na, for instance, the rapper whose Sunday afternoon set was one of the festival’s surprise highlights. He stepped onstage to a sparsely populated Crossroads tent, yet within a few songs it was near full. 2na’s beaming smile (and occasional tears) infected everyone in the vicinity as he landed ‘International’ alongside some Jurassic 5 material.
Bilingual folkster Devendra Banhart had already played a similar hand in his Saturday main stage slot. He was one of the bravest songwriters on the bill, for his refusal to rest on safe clichés. There were no 12-bar blues or disco sing-alongs here – in his slower moments, Banhart borrowed all the most meaningful elements from jazz without the trimmings of self-indulgence. Kate Miller-Heidke, KT Tunstall and Beth Hart ruled the festival’s first half, while fans of Jack Johnson and Jeff Beck returned bearing varying levels of disappointment.
No matter, because John Butler Trio were on hand for Saturday night to deliver the weekend’s biggest performance. Butler himself was in the birthday spirit, and while he was one of the more obvious acts on this lineup, it wasn’t always the case. “We played this song here 14 years ago with 500 people in the tent,” introduced Butler for ‘Pickapart’. “The rain came down, 3,000 people came running in – and they’ve kept coming.” This time, a 22-minute version of ‘Ocean’ had 10,000 or more screaming. Another pair of potential future stars – Clairy Browne & The Bangin’ Rackettes and Saskwatch – offered popular sets on the small Cavanbah stage, yet could have used some tighter material.
While 2na was tearing up his Sunday appearance, Kasey Chambers was joined by Bernard Fanning for a rendition of a brand new song. And the sing-along country acts continued with Troy Cassar-Daly and later John Williamson keeping the old fogies in tow. Ozomatli jumped around and Morcheeba grooved their way towards ‘Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day’, but all eyes were on the Easter night headliner Erykah Badu – or at least her backing band, left to play a nine-minute intro before the so-called ‘Queen of Soul’ deigned to appear. By the time Badu finished her first song, she’d made four separate requests for the monitors to be adjusted. When she halted proceedings to conduct an entire line check (even though the reason for her hearing difficulties might’ve been the stovepipe hat and headscarf she’d wrapped around her ears), a significant portion of the audience clearly grew fed up and left in the direction of Michael Franti, where Henry Wagons had hopped onstage to play guitar and dance. Franti’s voice needed all the help it could get, but by voyaging out into the crowd for ‘Hey Hey Hey’, that’s exactly what happened.
The crowds came late on Monday for Elvis Costello & The Imposters and another taste of the much talked-about Dave Matthews Band, but it was a shame for those who missed the Tim Rogers’early slot. One punter declared his love for the You Am I frontman, but Rogers snapped back: “I’m the cult icon, you’re the audience. This is not a conversation.” It was all in good fun, naturally – Tim Rogers is Tim Rogers – and his stripped-down set hit the mark. A substantially different audience made its way to KC & The Sunshine Band (plenty of hits, but let’s face it; children’s entertainment for adults), as another did to Jake Bugg. The Nottingham youngster is only growing as a performer – cuts from his debut record and last year’s Shangri La have built his setlist into a confident beast, and he’s another whom Byron Bay will be keen to see again and again.
The final word on Bluesfest 2014 was left to Gary Clark, Jr. – the extraordinarily talented guitarist and leader of the new generation of blues music. If this is the healthiest festival of the lot, Clark fits its mould well. When the Clarks, Buggs and Banharts become the Becks, Costellos and Frantis of the world, and Bluesfest has another 25 years to celebrate, you’ll know how it got there. A happy birthday indeed.