“The people have the power” is what Patti Smith sings, but for the 28th Bluesfest at Byron Bay the women definitely had the power and the glory. Neil Finn summed it up on the last night when he played ‘She Will Have Her Way’ and preceded it by talking about how pleased he would be when women took over the running of the world, because men had fucked it up so badly.
This year’s lineup was jam-packed with women of substance and positive energy, with over 18 of them proving that men don’t run music. Case in point Nikki Hill and her band who, joined by Laura Chavez on guitar, ripped it up with rock and roll and soul.
Melody Angel, a true find at this festival, was joined by her Mom on vocals and Angel praised her skills as a single mom keeping her safe and out of the hands of the police. Angel was a virtuoso on guitar taking us from Hendrix to Chuck Berry blended in with her own fine compositions. She stated at one point this was the ‘best day of her life’ playing to such a large audience after only playing clubs in the Chicago area, and you knew she meant it.
Bonnie Raitt, now the god mother of the blues, was as steady as ever, and Laura Mvula was a captivating performer who garnered enormous crowds. Courtney Barnett, new to the festival and to many in the audience rocked out like her life depended on it – you can see why Patti Smith is a big fan of Barnett with her sweeping lyrics and full out rocking routine.
Let’s talk about Patti Smith and quite possibly her last visit to our shores. Struggling with vocal issues due to illness, her supremacy and her presence illuminated the Mojo stage on the first night. Smith was able to take her album , Horses, and ride it through the downpour that most were unaware of. Lenny Kaye’s absorbing guitar and the poetry of these iconic songs had many people close to tears. Ending with The Who’s ‘My Generation’ is a majestic statement all in itself as Smith literally shredded the strings from the guitar.
But the performance that was truly glorious was Smith’s solo set on Friday. Reading poetry from sheets of paper, glasses firmly placed, she was mesmerising. Her belief in humanity and positive force took the crowd on a ride many had never been on. For many it was difficult to fall into the blues and rock of the rest of the day until that trance was slightly adjusted with more music that evening.
Mary J Blige, Rickie Lee Jones, Rhiannon Giddens and Beth Hart kept the female influence going strong. Giddens eclectic mix of tunes proved she was a fan favourite as word spread and her audience definitely grew over the three days she performed.
This year’s festival was graced with perfect weather. Warm afternoons settled into a cool, but comfortable evening with the moon and stars overhead. If you were in a horny mood, there was a hell of a lot of brass on hand. The new sounds of Snarky Puppy, the New Orleans-styled California Honeydrops, the funky ten piece Suffers from California (with the pretty remarkable Kam Franklin on lead vocals) and of course the return of Trombone Shorty. His funk and horn playing ability just continue to grow from year to year, and he’s one live act that should never be passed over.
The ebb and flow of the festival is amazing to watch. From Thursday to Sunday the crowd swells and tramping around the gravel and grass gets crowded, but there are always places to avoid the huge crowds if you so desire. With an array of food and market stalls, taking a break from the music was never dull, and when finding a dry piece of terra firma or a bench to evangelise about an act you saw or were about to see with other like-minded folks, the word ‘stress’ was hardly heard.
The ‘superannuation acts’, as someone called them, (Santana, Jimmy Buffet Jethro Tull and The Doobie Brothers) all filled their respective tents. Jimmy had his dedicated ‘parrot head’ crowd in the tent and hundreds more watching from outside on the TV screen. Although he garnered a considerable audience, at times it appeared the band were a bit under-rehearsed for their only show in Australia.
The Doobie Brothers, joined by Bill Payne from Little Feat fame on keyboards, kicked off with ‘Jesus Is Just Alright’ and closed with ‘Listen To The Music’. In between there were hits and guitar solos galore for Tom Johnston, Patrick Simmons and the multi-instrumentalist John McFee to show they still have what it takes to get us all rocking out to ‘China Grove’.
Carlos Santana and his band were ablaze as soon as they stepped out on stage. With images of Santana playing at Woodstock on the screen they blasted into ‘Soul Sacrifice’ to a shoulder to shoulder audience. Cindy Blackman Santana wailed on drums and the other two percussionists hit anything that was not moving. Santana’s solos were riveting and lengthy and he looked cool and relaxed and calm as always killing the guitar as he chewed his gum.
What is a Bluesfest without some Blues, you might be asking? Well, we had the great Buddy Guy at the age of 80 still able to command his instrument and the audience. Although he continues to fit in many covers, including some Cream, his playing has not faltered and his showmanship continues as he strolls through the audience getting close to his fan base.
The southpaw guitarist Eric Gales continues to impress and his solos and band were top notch. With some of his personal issues behind him, he seemed clear and on point. But one blues guitar slinger, who played all five days of the festival, definitely has taken on the family name – and is doing them proud. Devon Allman, Gregg Allman’s son and nephew of the late Duane Allman, has taken his solo career to a new level.
Allman has moved away from his previous bands, Royal Southern Brotherhood and Honeytribe, and has matured into an excellent frontman and player. With no visitations to Allman Brothers material, he was able to entice the crowd with his excellent playing and what has turned into an amazing vocal presence.
The highlight of one of his sets – and of the festival – was when Jake Shimabukoro, the ukulele genius, came up to play Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman No Cry’ with the band. Shimabukoro and Allman traded solos with each other and the joy and musical expertise of each artist was clear to see and hear. If you were there, you took away something very special.
There was so much music to take in and some of the other fabulous sets were by the funkiest band in town, Dumpstaphunk; Davey Knowles bringing some British blues guitar to our shores; Jeff Lang, one of our country’s best guitarists; Mavis Staples doing her thing with so much life and vitality at 77; and Turin Brakes and the Zac Brown doing rock and country rock respectively. Zac Brown’s set list included a cover of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ that had to be heard to be believed.
Another great find at this year’s festival was the Los Angeles-based Record Company, the power rocking blues trio of Chris Vos, Alex Stiff and Mark Cazorla. With only one album under their belt, and a fabulous one at that, Give It Back To You, you knew what they were going to give you. They were humbled and surprised at the turn out for an ‘unknown’ act, and they let it rip accordingly.
With the sun setting on the festival and the long Easter Weekend, the crowd thinned out, but not the musical feast. Feet were weary and eyes were bleary, but smiles were still firmly planted on the dials of the remaining throng. Ray Beadle and Tony Joe White were on early in the day and it was hard to choose between the Australian and the man from Louisiana.
St. Paul and The Broken Bones from Alabama rolled out the soul with Paul Janeway singing and rolling around the stage like the preacher he wanted to be at one point in his journey. Booker T and his Stax Revue were on, and the sounds from his Hammond B3 sounded delightful, but the pull of one of Australia’s best in Kasey Chambers pulled the Americana fans in.
Kasey first played solo at the festival about 19 years ago and she was in her element. With chestnuts like ‘Not Pretty Enough’, ‘Pony’ and others she put on one of the highlight sets of the festival. Her new album Dragonfly showcases her new vocal style after having some nodules removed from her vocals. She has always had a fabulous voice, but she has gained some depth and growl, and displayed that in full on the new track ‘Ain’t No Little Girl’, hands down. Throw in a spectacular cover of Little Feat’s ‘Willin’’, and she still wears the crown of Australia’s Americana royalty.
With 28 years of festival experience behind them, Peter Noble and their team know how to throw a party, and there were very few hiccups. Families, couples, teens – they were all there, all loving the moments. As the festival approaches three decades at the top, bands and punters alike continue to be in very safe hands.