Every year for five days, some dusty dirt roads and patches of grass are magically transformed into an exotic wonderland filled with big top tents, colourful stalls, enticing eating houses and the continuous sounds of Australian and internationally acclaimed music. Locals living in Byron Bay know that Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm is the home of many events, but to festival goers around Australia, they know it’s Bluesfest time again.

This year an array of colourful lanterns lead music lovers into a place of play, drinking, dancing, eating and shopping.

With wafting aromas of Thai skewers, pizza, corn on the cob, vegetarian, curry, sushi, vegan  delights, organic pop-corn and doughnuts, I think you get the picture of the variety of food available. Thousands of people ambled between five stages of music, numerous bars, and a myriad of stalls peddling crafts, jewellery, clothing, hand-made books, massages plus so much more.

Bluesfest has hosted big names during its 23 years of existence, and this year was no exception.

Featuring in the Mojo tent on night one was Cold Chisel, the first Australian band to ever headline the Bluesfest.

Synonymous with his hit song “Working Class Man” Jimmy Barnes still looked the same, just older and fleshed out more. Clad in all black, and face dripping sweat, he belted out old favourites like “Standing On The Outside”, “Cheap Wine” and “Saturday Night”.    

The highlight for many fans was hearing songs from their new album No Plans. With Barnes extraordinary energetic personality and gravelly voice intact, he worked his fans to a level of frenzy. Amongst cheers, shrieks, wolf whistles and the occasional ‘we love you Jimmy’, devotees were enthralled with their idol. As the evening wore on and with alcohol firmly ensconced within the hard core followers, fans kept up with Barnes repertoire and belted out their own out-of-tune versions.

Cold Chisel is still the quintessential Australian rock band. Their tenacity of always pleasing their fans will continue to be a force to be reckoned with.

A band that never achieved the acclaim deserved as many of their peers did is Canned Heat. Having been around for over 45 years, their unique modern electric blues, boogie, rock ‘n’ roll, foot stomping rhythm either firmly embedded itself in your blood or left it for dead.

The three founding members still alive, Fito de la Parra, Harvey Mandel and Larry Taylor along with additional session members wooed their fans with powerful rift ensembles, dirty blues harmonica, drum solos and velvety vocals.

Glimpses of their legendary guttural blues rifts could be heard on occasion when the guys jammed, but due to time restrictions, it was kept short.

The Heat started with “On the Road Again”, and with screams of delight, the party was in full swing. “Going up the Country”, “Let’s Work Together”, and “Whisky Headed Woman” were some of the favourites performed.

With an older crowd and smatterings of younger converters throughout, fans revelled, jived and danced for the entire 75 minute set. The Can was opened and the Heat let out. Well worth the watch.

This year’s Bluesfest had a plethora of remarkable talent, and unless you got breathless running from stage to stage trying to fit them all in, you had to be satisfied with the great quality of the performance you picked.

Take the old favourite of many – Crosby, Stills and Nash, been around for years and still popular as ever.  Longstanding songs like “Marrakesh Express”, “Our House”, written by Graham Nash when dating Joni Mitchell, “Almost Cut My Hair”, “Wooden Ships”, “Love The One You’re With”, and of course the timeless “Woodstock”, still captured fans fervour as it did decades ago when Neil Young was musically involved.

John Fogerty was another favourite. During his two hour energetic gig, his distinctive vocals were still evident as he performed songs from his Green River album in chronological order.

With interwoven images screening behind him, he then sang many Creedance Clearwater Revival hit songs. A favourite with the mums in the crowd was “Have You Ever Seen The Rain”, with Fogerty dedicating it to his baby daughter, because “she is his little rainbow”.   

People got into the spirit of the Bluesfest with their themed dress ups and party type antics. One such individual was Banana Man who was seen boogie-ing at singer, songwriter and guitarist Eugene ‘Hideaway’ Bridges gig. Bridges gospel and soul drenched vocals with overtones of BB King and blazing guitar playing whizzed fans to a jiving fever.

Classical soul singer Bettye Lavette was another favourite. At 66 she possesses an expressive voice that exudes vulnerability, intensity and raw emotions. “Love Reign O’er Me” revealed mournful vocals of love lost. Look out for her new album The British Songbook.

Grammy award winner, songstress and story teller Angelique Kidjo is an enthusiastic humanitarian and strong force in women’s rights.

With a full accompaniment of African percussion, acoustic and electric guitars and drums, Kidjo dressed in diamond patterns of muted green, brown and terracotta tones, leaped and bound on stage to fast rhythms and beats.  .

Towards the end of her set, while performing “Afrika” she mingled in the crowd and brought lucky fans back up on stage to dance with her. Individuals were shown tantalising African moves by the queen herself, and then each proceeded to dance alone with her Conga Man, Magatt Sow to the cheers of the audience.

Many outstanding acts were at hand to watch and one that must be mentioned was the Celtic/folk punk band, The Pogues, fronted by the incorrigible Shane MacGowan.

Being one of the last bands to play the Saturday night line-up, inebriated punters crunched and grinded together creating a small riot in the mosh ,overwhelming a couple of fans who had to be lifted over the barrier by flustered security guards. Classic hits like “If I Should Fall From Grace”, “Dirty Old Town”, “Love You To The End”, plus many more sent the watching mob wild. It was well worth the 23 year wait.

Then there were ensembles like Trombone Shorty/Orleans Avenue and Eagle and the Worm. Both had impressive horn sections; whereas Trombone Shorty was Supafunkrock tempo, while Eagle And The Worm had overtones of big band sounds.

Another mind blower was G3 featuring three of the world’s renowned and progressive guitarists Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Steve Lukather. All three are technically accomplished and are considered gods by many in the industry.

In particular, Steve Vai stunned his audience with his speedy finger plucking, perfectly pitched whammy rifts, quality slide guitar playing and high voltage performance. Wearing black sunnies, earrings, chains and figure hugging jeans, Vai made cool look cooler as he finished his set playing not only both hands on guitar, but his tongue as well.

Seasick Steve is a talent that has to be seen to be believed. With his hillbilly, bluegrass, gutsy, raunchy sound, he stomps, he rocks, and goes wild compelling his audience to soar with him. Having lived a hard luck life, his music is enriched with thought provoking messages that reaches deep into the soul. John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin and Wolfmother accompanied Steve on both performances blowing fan’s minds.

Lastly, up and coming band, Mojo Bluesmen consisting of dynamic duo Tim Everett (on slide guitar, stomp box, tamborine) and Kiam Adcock (impromptu vocals and harmonica) is a force to be reckoned with. Their raw, unsophisticated cadence and dirty blues harmonica imprints you first then pulses throughout your soul. It was impossible to sit still during their performance.

It’s quite possible Kiam Adcock could even be hailed as the next Ian Dury of the Blockheads, God rest his soul, as Adcock also has a slight physical disability. Kiam’s talent seemed enhanced by this and often his Dury-styled movements and refreshingly innovative vocals make you forget the duo doesn’t have a million dollar album deal yet.

A few songs into their set, they invited Brad Handcock onto the stage, a banjo player they met in Lismore 3 years ago, and fashioned hillbilly/bluegrass rhythms into unique Mojo bluesmen tunes. The three together were absolutely brilliant. When they brought Kim Churchill in as second harmonica man, people literally went wild as they danced and stomped at front of stage.

Mojo Bluesmen are the real deal. Living in their car, they travel Australia and the world performing and busking wherever there is an appreciative audience. Their CD Dirty Love is worth buying now in its original format. Purchase it before they become famous so you can boast you have an original copy before it goes mainstream. Mojo Bluesmen is home grown and definitely a band to watch out for.

All in all, some of the world’s greatest performers blessed our shores during this last Bluesfest just gone. As punters departed amidst excited discussions of who was best and who they saw, stall hawkers packed up shops, street cleaners moved in swiftly, lights dimmed and gates closed leaving echoes of greatness alone for yet another year.

– Terri Rew