Left – Yothu Yindi. Photo – taojonesphotographer.com. Cover – Jack Johnson. Photo – Paul Smith Images
Few things bring more joy than the anticipation of a national holiday. Easter break has pushed itself to the farthest regions of the calendar this year, resulting in a longer wait for our favourite feast for the ears in the church of musical heaven: Praise be to Bluesfest! This year we give thanks for friendship, fantastic tunes and festival outfits as we gather at Tyagrah Tea Tree Farm to speak the most sacred of languages – music.
Bluesfest of old returned with the downpours of rain throughout the festival that is always so instrumental in how the day plays out. It is made up of moments. You could have just discovered a new sound by seeking refuge, en route, to a different tent or hauled up in one which afforded you the time to sit back and listen to something you might not have otherwise heard. A wet Bluesy may dampen the clothes but it never dampens the spirit: a memory could be made in a moment like this.
Thursday ushered us in with a fresh feel – in ground and in music, as we are greeted by the quieter crowds who are often rocking with their mini entourage. It had a great family feel as we wandered through the crowds of teeny tiny toe tappers and settled in to watch Kurt Vile and the Violators, taking stock of the feel of the soft, green grass. It's important to remember these moments too, because tomorrow might be a muddy memory! Six60 get the crowd going for their debut at Bluesfest and whether you're in the fan-base or not, the punters were loving their happy, upbeat vibe as they asked for a lot of crowd participation throughout the show. A new generation of festival friends were present as we sat back and listened to Ocean Alley. I wonder if there is a shift in crowds, but I soon find all the Bluesfest veterans in Jambalaya reminiscing to The Black Sorrows: I feel the peace of knowing that there is always something old to counteract something new. Thirty years of Bluesfest is bound to bring out a plethora of brilliant sounds.
The sun stayed long enough to catch a belly-dancing performance and a roving circus as the skies turned black and everyone scurried like ants to catch Melody Angel. Jimi Hendrix always wins a Bluesfest crowd and this was no exception as people stood in the wet just to watch her cover 'Hey Joe'. A quick change of scenery and we were over at Dobby – who spoke words that have stuck with me throughout the festival: “I feel your energy – I know it's important.” Truer words never spoken as his young and super vibrant performance had heads bopping to his fast rapping fun. I really can't stress enough how good it is to see people support the 'little guy' by giving not only the space but the time to build up flourishing new acts. You could be anywhere, but you chose to be here.
That important energy flows through all acts across all stages and it's up to the individual to choose what's important. Me? It's Boomerang, more and more every year. Having fallen in love with it's power and learning last year, it was a no-brainer that I was bound to spend my time investing in it this year. Mula Kiai Mura Buai brought beauty and culture with a quick cult following through their youngest member who won hearts with his carefree stomp. The closing ceremony was abuzz with the hopes of his return to the circle and with it came a very powerful performance from Yothu Yindi and The Treaty Project booming from Juke Joint as we drank in the smells of the burning leaves outside in the Boomerang performance circle. My own important moments came not just from the combined performers from Australia and beyond, but from a tiny snippet that many may never have even noticed: Peter Noble sitting with his phone poised and filming the performers. The 'Blues Man' himself. The top dog – with a wealth of media, film crew and footage to access, sat and captured something he saw as powerful and memorable as the many standing on the opposite end of the circle. The organisers choking back tears as they watched Mojo Juju beat out 'Native Tongue'. Dobby inviting the children into the circle to share his space. These moments. This was a moving and powerful tribute to a long road to healing that we are all trying to traverse. Thank you, for lending a hand and leading the way.
Another highlight was the ABC Best of Bluesfest. A Double J live interview set that invited various artists on stage to talk about their music, their message and play a couple of acoustic songs. This had such an intimate feel as we watched the Fantastic Negrito take us on a very dark journey of his hardships. Jack Johnson and Lukas Nelson helped spread the importance of the BYOB initiative to phase out single use plastics and have helped us to promote a more nurturing and sustainable environment for the festival. I was all too happy to bring my own bottle and use the water refill stations. Every year Bluesfest becomes more organised, conscious and efficient. Good call.
Now in its 30th year, Bluesfest is a strong and steadfast festival. Not a lot of festivals can boast being half AND double the age of its patrons. Every year someone fresh-faced and exciting hits the stage, dragging with it the new generation. Festival first-timers all dressed in their finest as those who have donned the same old fashion-faithfuls watch on with that knowing look of 'rookie mistake'. 'In' is a matter of perspective, though, and everyone is a winner, as long as they have fun (and stay dry!)
Inspiration comes from so many pockets of Bluesfest and this year I truly felt it among the music and the crowd. I watched on as scores of families danced together and inspired and introduced their children to a lifelong love of music and performance. Inspiration in my own family dressing to impress, forming friendships in fellow dance enthusiasts at Allen Stone and getting excited to watch Jack Johnson perform their favourite songs (but fall asleep before it was done). Catching up with close friends who are expecting – watching them eye off the exciting array of baby wagons and feel the churning of inspiration as they realise that the future is a bright shining baby blues wagon of their own. Innovate, create and inspire. When looked through a holistic view it is so much more than just music. It takes a lot of work for a festival to achieve that.
It's impossible to see everything, even if the weather permits it. Naturally there are always the 'must see' acts, and somehow Vintage Trouble, Mojo Juju and St. Paul and the Broken Bones always make everyone's list. My take home this year? Anderson East. A good, strong indication of a Bluesfest winner is the siren call to see them more than once. I had a few make that list this year and I tried not to beat myself up about the ones I missed. The Bluesfest play-list was enough to keep me powering to and from the festival and the CD shop got a back-catalogue workout to present to my (now Bluesfest retired) veteran folks.
A strong feeling of belonging swept through the festival this year and although it had a heaving sea of punters on any given day, it really felt like there was still a sense of welcoming with room for all. Baker Boy and Dallas Woods got the oldest punters packing out the tent and risking the elements to jump around and watch their high-octane dancing, while Flogging Molly made us all Irish for a day. Melbourne Ska Orchestra gave me a boost of dancing energy I swear I didn't have left. Who needs coffee when the boogie comes for free...
Emotion drove this festival with an almost church-like procession. Everywhere we went we felt strong musical connection. Stories in song and hymns of harmony as every performer told a tale. Hosier had us on our knees and St. Paul and the Broken Bones quite literally crying out a song. The ultimate was watching Paul Kelly sing, “From Little Things Big Things Grow” as a harmonious crowd sang quietly along; not because they had been asked, but because it was instilled in us in an almost poetic way. A truly magical moment, ending the festival out for me. I was never really too deep in the Paul Kelly pocket before that moment, but I felt his energy, and I knew it was important.
Another year done and dusted, another full head of songs and another heart full of inspiring moments. In the fields of Tyagrah Tea Tree we all speak the same language: MUSIC!
Venue: Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm (north of Byron Bay) NSW
Dates: 18 – 22 April 2019