Beware the Bluesfest rains, they told me. If there’s one constant in life, it’s that the Easter long weekend will see Byron descend into a maelstrom of music and mud, and your only chance of survival is to build an ark, or failing that, lash together a handful of Santana’s guitars into a makeshift raft and drift to drier ground. Or so they said.
Though it was largely clear, open skies that stretched the length of Bluesfest’s 28th year, to be fair the region had certainly seen its share of rain in recent times. We found just one late-night sprinkle, whereas had we been camping out a week earlier the floodwaters may well have found us after all.
As it is, the Bluesfest landscape is already a strange, sleek beast. Its celebration of music can hardly be disputed: from veterans still raging at a troubled world – Patti Smith, all eyes are on you – to younger musicians still staking their ground (Lucy Gallant, Little Georgia), the bill is a fine blend of sound and fury.
Still, there exists a striking absence here: a lack of personality that can jar with the community that can arise across multi-day events. You swing from stage to stage (the sound quality of which was generally gorgeous), perhaps stopping for food or booze between… and that’s really it. Bluesfest is about the music, above all else; there is little art or greenery in between.
But the music, Jim! The music! You have to give Peter Noble and his team full points for an outstanding lineup, even despite the cancellation of Neil Young and Barry Gibb. The greatest struggle you’ll face at Bluesfest is which artist you have to reluctantly leave early in order to catch the next. Hence the need to slink away from The Strumbellas (who were, in retrospect, among the weaker performers) to find a good vantage point for Gallant, the California wunderkind who was quite simply phenomenal. Three songs in and I was convinced I was seeing the future of alt-R&B, and though the tone of his set could stand to see a touch more variety, this will surely come with time; the guy is still at the onset of his career.
Speaking of the West Coast, The California Honeydrops will surely be recalled as festival favourite for a good many punters. Frontman Lech Wierzynski is the perfect blend of talent and comic extravagance. What’s more, they break out a washboard, so what else could you ask for? The vitality of these guys onstage is a delight, and certainly guaranteed them a repeat audience.
Ditto St. Paul and The Broken Bones. I’d caught these guys before and was afraid I’d over-hyped the soul six-piece, especially when St. Paul himself began his second set on uneven vocal footing. But man, there are few performers out there who can hit such charismatic performative peaks, and they walked away with perhaps the longest ovations this festival had to offer (though you can’t mention charisma without tipping your hat to Vintage Trouble; Ty Taylor’s vocals are one thing, but given the near-faceplant he encountered while crowd-surfing, the guy has earned his stripes).
Patti Smith was, of course, a powderkeg. Her first set, a performance of her 1975 album debut, Horses, resulted in actual weeping from many of those gathered at front of stage. She has a presence up there that is as hard to qualify as it is to deny, and it is encouraging to see someone so political and passionate embraced by such a wide sweep of ages. Her second set, in addition to several spoken-word pieces, saw Smith revisit Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize ceremony with a cover of ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’.
The greatest struggle you’ll face at Bluesfest is which artist you have to reluctantly leave early in order to catch the next.
Oh, Irish Mythen. A performer so inspiring and raw, so endearing, with a voice that sighs and roars like a shifting tide. Her charm and her songs are just exquisite. Ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro achieved the impossible by leading an audience sing-along to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, while Santana were… well, Santana. Carlos and co. easily pulled the biggest crowd, and while they are all exceptional talents, Cindy Blackman Santana on drums was simply jaw-dropping.
It’s hard to look past the strengths of The Mountain Goats (especially with a setlist that included ‘No Children’, ‘Up The Wolves’, ‘You Were Cool’ and ‘This Year’), but I’m a fanboy of old. Nahko and Medicine For The People were superbly atmospheric, Mary J. Blige brought the house down…
In short, Bluesfest is a true event for all tastes and timbres. You only wish they could find some way of making the festival more than a spread of stages, to make it feel like an unlikely home, however briefly.
Bluesfest 2017 took place at Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm from Thursday April 13 – Monday April 17. Photo by Leah Hattendorff