[Live Review] BLUESFEST 2014

Tyagerah Team Tree Farm, Byron Bay April 17-21, 2014 :

Everyone came to the party that was Bluesfest’s 25th anniversary celebration – the weather gods included! Provisions including more gravel and the exclusion of fold up chairs from the big tents went untested, with not a drop of rain, not even a cloud over the five days. As always, that unique Bluesfest magic was in the air, even more so for the tone of celebration. The crowds were huge but still largely retained the friendly happy and respectful vibe that underscores this special festival (rain may have challenged this). Over five days, I saw only one person who had indulged too much, which says a lot. Michael Franti used the word commune and I really think this epitomises the festival – a diverse mix of backgrounds and ages, bought together by the common thread of love and appreciation of good music, the best aspects of humanity on display. Wrenching decisions about who to see and when from the incredible lineup of 107 artists were not made any easier by having even more (seven!) stages, it almost goes without saying, but not one performance disappointed.

We opened our experience with Beth Hart, who had already had a large crowd, perhaps drawn in by her opening with Tina Turner’s ‘Nutbush City Limits’, perhaps by her being billed as ‘pick of the festival’ by director Peter Noble. It wasn’t long before us and everyone were spellbound by her voice and onstage performance – the kind that reaches out and grabs you – the perfect welcome. Her set finished with ‘My California’, touching on her tormented past with drug addictions and the like. The crowd was very grateful she overcame the demons and returned to produce music like this.

Missing Grace Potter and the Nocturnals last year was a regret; I was therefore thrilled to see them return; Grace’s smoking voice, presence and control on stage all on display. From there it was Dr John and the Nite Trippers – The Dr’s attire an apt reflection of the colorful, eclectic nature of the Bluesfest lineup, with a bit of the mystical thrown in. The crowd was well into the heavy rhythm and blues and the voodoo skull arrangement on his organ was almost as good as the song arrangement on display.

John Mayer was the headliner for Thursday; I wasn’t really sure of what to expect, knowing well his older music and vaguely aware of a change in direction of late. His set seemed to take a while to slot into the groove, but really hit the mark when it did. Mayer managed to display the American roots feel he has been rediscovering on most recent albums, without ignoring some of the songs he is well known for in particular from Continuum, which were presented in a bluesed-up guitar jam style, that won over my uncertainty.

My personal picks for Friday were all about old school rock – however we began the afternoon on quite the opposite note with the incredible Joss Stone. It was obvious she was stoked to be here, chatting between songs and declaring she was here to have fun. The crowd embraced that, not difficult given her passion and natural exuberance, coupled with such a phenomenal voice. Songs new and old were played, but the bottom line was soul – bucket loads of it.

From the doughnut line we first heard the sweet sounds of Aaron Neville, and couldn’t help but move under the tent, the crowd in full appreciation of his heart stirring, melodic magic including a version of ‘Aint No Sunshine’ that went down well. Boz Scaggs was always going to be a highlight for me and his rocking blues jazz created a great feel up close under the crossroads tent. Mixing it up with songs from his latest Memphis album, crowd sing-along favourites (‘Lido Shuffle’ of course) from his self proclaimed “Hollywood years” and a particularly memorable blues encore that sat right in the pocket.

We moved even closer for my other anticipated act The Doobie Brothers, who naturally on Good Friday opened with ‘Jesus is Just Alright’. From there it was hit after hit, the crowd in a groove to the mesmerizing harmonies and guitar work. New tracks from World Gone Crazy fitted seamlessly with old favourites and whether or not you had “taken your medication” (as described by founding member Pat Simmons) it seemed as though we were transported to another level, a performance to remember for sure.

Saturday saw us head straight for Robben Ford, who played a blues-drenched jazz-fusion set, an exhilarating mix of his guitar work and lyrics. Seun Kuti goes down as the ‘wish we caught the full set’ experience of 2014, the final two songs of this afro funk excitement with 16 piece band Egypt 80 had us wanting more.

John Butler goes hand in hand with Bluesfest; as always a huge crowd greeted him, dancing and singing to favourites new and old and riding the wave of his instrumentals including the well-loved ‘Ocean’. He reminisced about his first performance, two festival sites ago, at Devils Park and of course reminded us of his latest cause, having been touring the country protesting coal seam gas. It was refreshing that the somewhat aggressive nature of protest was missing; he implored us not to fight, rather to just take and claim what is ours – the land.

It was then to headliner Jeff Beck; wasn’t sure if I could manage a full set of screaming guitar, but soon found myself mesmerized by his playing and the control he has with those hands – truly special. Joss Stone came on for a surprise encore joining in for ‘I Put A Spell On You’ – that they did, the whole performance was faultless.

The artists we chose for Sunday marked a different feel to our usual Bluesfest experience, beginning with Kasey Chambers. The Australian singer-songwriter is no stranger to the festival, recalling her previous years back to ’98. Her vibrant demeanor and well-known songs made for a great start to the day and an appearance by Bernard Fanning adding to the set.

There is something truly different and out-there unique about Iron and Wine (aka Sam Beam), something I feel many folk-pop artists strive for only to end up sounding similar. His engaging melodies left those under the tent in a bit of a trance. Continuing the somewhat Sunday chill out theme was Morcheeba, whose lead singer Skye Edwards sensual voice had the crowd in a dreamy state but this was interjected with some more upbeat songs.

Front of stage was then the place to be for Erykah Badu, one of my favourite R&B performers but whom I didn’t know what to expect from live. She wanted us to just “feel what she feels” and although it seemed to take a while for the audience to adapt to her manner – conducting the show and seemingly producing the arrangements on the fly – it turned into a truly magical performance, each song almost like a living growing entity itself. At times it felt she was caught in a distant reverie, only to step out into moments of pure connection and almost primal roars. The set included ‘I Want You’, ‘Apple Tree’, ‘Danger’ and her final song ‘Next Lifetime’ included climbing offstage to hold hands and sing with the crowd; pure wonder.

When Monday rolled around, the perfect show to snap out of any growing weariness was found with KC and the Sunshine Band. Until then I had been missing that real cut loose dance your booty off performance. With a crazy stage show of dancers and a faultless musical performance they had everyone up and moving to the sounds of dance party favourites ‘(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake your Booty’, ‘Get Down Tonight’ and ‘That’s the Way (I like it)’; it was an infectious feel good affair.

Michael Franti continued that dose of feel good positive vibes; I now understand the rave about his live performance and it was obvious the reggae-funk-electronic anthems engaged every person under the tent, truly connecting us as one like I have never seen. The uplifting performance ended with Franti bringing an after party style DJ set and making his way all the way to the back of the tent for a dance with the crowd.

Gary Clarke Jr. was billed as funky, hip and badass – a soul man for the new generation. His show left me happy to embrace this, a raw psychedelic brew of guitar licks and howling lyrics that had the Monday night crowd a little bit wild. I wandered over to catch Ray Beadle as a closing act on the smallest and newest stage (Juke Joint), the Aussie blues guitarist certainly met his ambitions to have the crowd dancing, the rocking rhythm and blues a great note to end on. Then it was all over for another year.

ONE can only wonder what may be in store next year – Peter Noble admitted to taking a bit of a risk on this year’s lineup; more blues than ever and a distinctively contemporary vein over previous years jam packed legends. The balance still felt right, let’s hope it can continue to thrive. As always the caliber of musicians on show was out of this world, each and every artist on top of their game, masters of their art and not hardly a drop of ego. The artists are here for the crowd, the crowd here for the artists but in the end it is the music that shines. This seems to set this festival apart from others in my eyes; at other festivals it can all be a little too self-indulgent. But as we sung at full voice for the Doobies – we are all here to just… ‘Listen to the music’.