Left – Lionel Ritchie. Photo – Orlando Sydney. Cover – Rag'N'Bone Man. Photo – Evan Malcolm.
Ever changing with the calender, music lovers can be assured of two things over the Easter long weekend: predictably unpredictable weather, and Blues. Entering it's 29th year of continued growing greatness, Byron Bay Bluesfest delivers the best line up of Blues, Roots and Rhythm this side of the Southern Hemisphere. Come rain, hail or shine (sometimes all three in one day) the sweet sounds of Bluesfest are bound to call you in, like a siren to the sea.
There are few creature comforts one is willing to give up without great reason but Bluesfest is definitely a big draw card. You can't catch many of us lining up for a fancy opening of a nightclub but watch as we stand tirelessly for an organic doughnut at the end of a long stint in the Jambalaya tent. You won't go out for the evening without a hot shower and a pressed shirt but rejoice in your ability to 'ground' yourself by spending days squelching in the mud with your bare feet. Ordinarily conservative dressers are suddenly donned in rainbow hats adorned with a dozen rubber duckies and even if there were fashion police in attendance, their judgement would fall on deaf ears. No need for diet here as you tuck in to a serving of souvlaki or fight for the last tear of langos. THIS is the thick, delicious, muddy feel of Bluesfest – and we wouldn't have it any other way...
After last year's dusty dance bowl it was almost nostalgic to arrive to the mud-pit of old and I knew I had made a sound choice in wearing my trusty old festival boots. Hot and humid makes for a thirsty crowd and with the introduction of the Square system this year it had seasoned vets doing something that has previously been unheard of at the festival – only lining up once for drinks. The tap n' go system made many areas of the festival virtually cash free, which in turn made for speedy service and pleased punters. It was refreshing for the environment concious, the time strict schedulers and the ones in search of literal refreshment. I even tapped for gelato – what a time to be alive.
Boomerang festival was in full swing again and I am so glad I spent the lion share of my days amongst it as it really was packed full of culture and rich, monumental moments to share. Indigenous culture is strong and alive and it was moving to see how many other cultures were gathered around the sand circle – waiting to learn and love. The Jannawi Dance Clan teamed up with Muggera Dancers, as well as local Bundjalung peoples to perform a series of music and dance that showcase the rich and beautiful heritage of this nation's first people. The intoxicating smell of burning leaves washed over the constantly growing crowd as these performers paid respect to their ancestors with music, song and dance of both traditional and contemporary nature. Looking around the crowd it was heart-warming to see so many varied backgrounds. Inviting the crowd to get in the circle and learn a local dance; I almost choked up seeing the overwhelming response from the crowd. Locals, foreign visitors from countries like Japan, PNG and New Zealand, sparkly hipster teens, children with their parents and a handful of cool-clad grannies were standing side by side in the circle, hungry for a chance to access a new experience and an ancient culture through the common ground connection of music and dance. The crowd were asked to collect leaves and dance together as a representation of a flag that unites all people. A moving tribute to our first people and a wonderful experience that many will surely remember when they think back to their time at Bluesfest.
Narasirato were a major highlight with their infectious and wildly upbeat performances, that gave us a taste of music and dance from the Solomon Isles. Flutes, pipes and drums formed a big bamboo-based band and were hard hitting,high energy as they bounced around on stage and made us feel manic with the need to move. Sorong Samarai came out like hip-hop heavy weights with a strong political message from deep within the heart of Papua New Guinea, all the while still bringing forth traditional dress, dance and instruments mixed with and a hefty serving of contemporary beats.
A cultural melting pot, Boomerang had so much to offer in terms of learning, culture, music and dance but the highlight for me – not just for Boomerang festival, but Bluesfest overall was the Te Kopere Maori Healers. An 'oasis' if you will, time spent within their tent was like a new world. As peaceful as it was powerful these wonderful women and men were truly worth the time out of the musical chaos that surrounds you. Each workshop comes with a different music, healing and experience which no matter how it is pieced together will leave you feeling uplifted and loved. Just greeting each one individually made me feel like I was part of the family by the end. I highly recommend taking the time to learn a new lesson and have a laugh and some fun along the way. If you find yourself amongst the Boomerang area – you won't regret it.
Feeling enlightened and uplifted you can head back out to the warm embrace of the festival and after a quick snack attack you can immerse yourself in a dancing frenzy with the ever rewarding sounds of Dumpstaphunk. Need something more sensual? Juanes' sultry pop sounds gave us a taste of the Spanish speaking sensation (and the screams of scores of South American fans were definitely enough to concrete why it made the bill). Want an acoustic take on Bohemian Rhapsody? Newton Faulkner is your man. Have a bad case of the feels? Better set up a rug for Citizen Cope. Call me bias but my musical moment of the festival was dancing up a storm to the big sound of The New Power Generation. Prince may be gone but his legend lives on in this perfectly paired group that can make a mammoth crowd break it down to Raspberry Beret. The weather may have held out but there was certainly some Purple Rain falling inside the tent!
The wealth of choice for music is so plentiful that even when you miss one act, you can always discover another. You get called in each day by the countless head-liners such as Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters, Ms. Lauryn Hill or Lionel Richie but it's the bands you weren't die hard fans of that keep you coming back time and time again. Rag N' Bone Man was a definite highlight, with a deep sound that touched the darker strings of the heart and Lukas Nelson and The Promise of The Real that made me feel just a little more countrified. Fellow festival companions that could barely wait for Walter Trout's set to finish before hurrying off to purchase the album. Every year a new classic is created for every individual and the Bluesfest is the catalyst for the ongoing love affair we all have with great live music.
Emotions ran high when Harts finished out his set by smashing his guitar and strong political platforms were taken by many influential artists such as Tash Sultana who preached her intolerance for intolerance. The very memorable stand point that John Butler (alongside many other artists) took to bring forward the important message of protest to stop Adani. It is representatives and platorms such as these that bring big issues to the ears of every generation and remind us that as long as there is fight left in us, music will be the language in which it is best received. Thank you Bluesfest for giving us the safe space and the global reach to share it.
The Boomerang closing ceremony was another big overall moment, as all the tribes from near and far came together to bring a massive performance, demonstrating that no matter your background, history or culture – we all share a strong connection to the land and the people through music and dance. If you weren't moved by the ceremony it's probably because you weren't there.
You'll never leave without something good to take away from the day, no matter which one you choose or if you're lucky to be at all. The music, the food, the learning opportunities and the whole culture of the festival is really something to take stock of. So many great memorable performances, artists and moments (too many to mention). From the big head-liners to the busking competitors, the glitter glitzed bar staff to the awesome volunteers standing out in the hot sun of the car park, every little bit counts towards something bigger. Another year down, another great memory for another 100,000 happy people. I've got the blues, but only because it's over...
2018 Bluesfest Byron Bay
Venue: Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm (just north of Byron Bay) NSW
Dates: 29 March – 2 April 2018