As the sun set on Bluesfest for the 111th time, so too did the pilgrimage end for thousands at the Church of Kendrick.
A controversial addition to the blues and roots lineup, the platinum-selling, Grammy-winning rapper, Kendrick Lamar, saw a massive crowd surge the Mojo stage for a glimpse of this modern icon in the flesh.
“Every now and again a great piece of art occurs and it doesn’t matter what area it’s in […],” Bluesfest director, Peter Noble said, “If you really love music you’ve gotta be on it enough to hear that and that’s what’s going on with Kendrick, he has revolutionised an art form known as rap.”
Noble is right. Whether you like rap or not, Lamar had a strong message to deliver during his 90 minute set on 2016’s opening night, and the man has the musical chops to deliver it. In an almost religious fervour, the crowd hung on to every word, eyes aglaze. It was clear they had big expectations, for some, reservations and without a doubt, Lamar exceeded them all with a commanding performance.
But, Bluesfest was not all about Kendrick. Set on 120 hectares of Byron Bay Tea Tree farmland, one of the world’s most renowned and celebrated festivals is everything Noble promises. It is not just entertainment, it is a musical education.
From the international headliners to the powerful Boomerang Festival performers and the local busking competition winners, Bluesfest 2016 was an orgy for the ears and a feast for the senses.
With 200 performances over five days on seven stages, festival goers were spoiled for choice and as one punter said, “You don’t really come to see the bands you thought you wanted to. You’re here to discover the ones you didn’t even know about.”
Without a doubt the limelight-stealer of 2016’s Bluesfest was St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Gob-smackingly good soul that rollicked audiences with unadulterated joy and delight. Janeway’s captivating vocals and showmanship paired with a wall of world-class musicians and tight arrangements surely makes them one of the greatest soul bands on tour right now.
As expected, contemporary headliners Lamar, D’Angelo, Eagles of Death Metal and Cold War Kids knocked it out of the park. Spectacular stage lighting met with huge sound, huge personas and huge performances leaving the crowds in awe.
In his Bluesfest debut, D’Angelo owned the stage from the outset. Described as the founding father of neo-soul, this multi-Grammy award winning artist showed Australia what would happen if James Brown and Prince were reincarnated as one. Masterful vocals, funk-infused beats and an incredible groove that made dancing irresistible.
Cold War Kids delivered everything we expect of a stadium rock band. Blistering riffs, manic keyboards and stratospheric drums served tight and punchy with bolts of lighting for maximum sensory impact. It’s no wonder these kids are selling out tours worldwide.
As for new contemporary discoveries, Vintage Trouble and Nahko and Medicine for the People were irrepressible. Vintage Trouble’s intoxicating, energetic stage antics wowed audiences and had them arriving early to watch repeat performances over the weekend.
Returning to Bluesfest, Nahko Bear and his team of change-makers were warmly welcomed and delivered one of this year’s most memorable Bluesfest moments when violinist, Tim Snider, showcased a sensational solo mid-set. This guy showed just how damn cool a violin can be.
Blues legends Brian Wilson, Tom Jones, Joe Bonamassa and Mick Fleetwood lived up to their lifetime status as world-class musicians, regaling crowds with the big hits.
True to their festival namesake, the Blues and Roots heroes did not disappoint. Veterans Tedeschi Trucks Band were popular given Truck’s epic, world-renowned slide guitar at play and the backing vocalists were, well, jaw-dropping.
Others we will definitely be hearing more from include Kamasi Washington, Songhoy Blues, Fantastic Negrito and charismatic soul man, Con Brio.
On the homefront, Steve Smyth, Mojo Juju, Ash Grunwald and Kim Churchill remain Bluesfest darlings, each on point with their own brand of Aussie-fueled, impassioned blues and roots we are so proud to call our own.
Of his new songs, Smyth said, “No matter how low you go, or no matter how raw it’s coming out of you, that’s the whole fucking point of music…is that you realize you’re not alone.”
If it’s all sounding a bit too rainbows and unicorns, that’s because it is. Headaches, hangovers and the stench of fourth day mud are easily overcome with a Tonic Juice, Byron Bay Organic Donut and shot of whiskey from the boys at Mr Simple Goods. Once that music starts, all else is forgotten.
With its 27th year now under its belt, Byron Bay Bluesfest just got better. True to Noble’s word, the festival continued to challenge and impress with a diverse international lineup and for lifetime fans, Bluesfest will always be bigger than any one act. It’s the people. It’s the atmosphere. It’s the sense of discovery. It’s the shared experience. It is a trust built over one quarter of a century that the absolute best music of yesterday, today and tomorrow, will be on offer.