The Byron Bay Bluesfest has been a top tier event on the Australian Festival circuit for many years now and a staple on the Easter Calendar. Top notch acts are always a given and a wish list event for many a blues and roots fan across the country. For those music lovers who have the means and time to travel at this time or who are local to the area it’s a blessing. For those who are further afield and find the logistics beyond them it’s a huge source of envy – speaking for myself at least! What a boon for us Victorians that an offshoot indoor version was to be held in Melbourne over the Easter weekend this year. A microcosm snapshot of Bluesfest, minus the mud and the camping, with a select number of acts both local and international promised and delivered as a more than viable alternative.
The centrepiece of the festival was the Plenary Theatre, a large multi-level auditorium with ample seating and sophisticated acoustics, was the forum for the big ticket acts while two other stages, the Music City Stage and the Naarm Stage served as a platform for up and coming acts and local favourites. These were innovatively held in convention halls transformed into live venues in a kind of music hall format with seating at the rear and a large standing area for people to dance and soak up the atmosphere. A family friendly event, there were equal parts coffee stands as bars in addition to indoor market stalls and merch stands scattered throughout the venue. Given the cold snap and rainy conditions, it was a relief not to have to slog it out in the elements to get from stage to stage. So civilized!
Highlights from day one:
Kasey Chambers and her band delivered a mix of old and new songs on the Plenary stage mid-afternoon on Saturday. A great time to be inside enjoying her brand of country rock as the rain squalled around outside. Together with her four musical offsiders, Chambers was full of anecdotes and self-depreciating humour. Before starting her song “Pony” from her 2004 “Wayward Angel” album, she prefaced it with a warning, telling the audience that some people found her voice to be a bit screechy and if they were those people that now was the perfect time to take a “dunny break”. She even went so far as to say that it was quite a long song so a safe bet for anyone who needed to “do a number 2”. I wonder if Kasey knew the Comedy Festival was still on? I reckon she could easily start a side hustle! People were fully engaged with her banter, back and forth with her father Bill on slide guitar in particular, and tales of her time in the desert and of being a mother and being on the road with her children. This was the first time I have actually seen Kasey Chambers live and I feel like I have been missing out big time. She’s so much more than her radio hits – a great songwriter, musician and all round entertainer.
Over at the Music City stage, Russell Morris dug deep into his blues rock side with a set that was full of heart and soul. Busting out tunes from his critically acclaimed and award winning album Sharkmouth from 2012, Morris dedicated tunes to the late Renee Geyer and Jim Keys, the latter with whom he had written and performed with at various stages throughout his career, in particular the song of the set “Black Dog Blues”. Russell Morris isn’t afraid to go back to the songs that made him a household name and allowed him to develop into the great blues rock performer that he is today, busting out hits like “On the Wings of an Eagle”, “Sweet Sweet Love”, “Hush” and of course his mega hit as produced by Molly Meldrum “The Real Thing”. His cover of Dylan’s “It’s all Over Now Baby Blue” was also a highlight with is voice unchanged and as strong as ever he had people dancing up a storm.
Back to the Plenary for the allocated seated big ticket item of the night, the 50th Anniversary version of the Doobie Brothers was worth the price of admission. With the current lineup consisting of founding members Tom Johnson and Patrick Simmons on guitars and vocals alongside long time members Michael McDonald on vocals and keys and John McPhee on guitar and backing vocals, the elements were in place to deliver the hits and memories. The stalwarts of the California rock sound of the ‘70s gave us rocking renditions of hits such as “Take Me In Your Arms”, “Little By Little”, the Easter appropriate “Jesus is Just Alright With Me”, “What a Fool Believes” and “China Grove”, all showcasing their trademark harmonies, the sharing of lead vocals and the duelling guitars that make their sound so distinctive. Tom Johnson acted as the spokesperson for the band on stage, praising the talented John Butler who played his set immediately before them and exclaiming that he was a boy in a man’s body and quipping “If you have enough boys in men’s bodies you have a band!” The crowd were a little sedate in their strictly numbered seats, a departure from the free for all best in best dressed format of earlier in the program until Johnson beckoned the audience to get up and at ‘em giving them permission to get out of their seats and dance. That’s when the party really started and the band showed a bit of extra fire piling on even more hits such as “Black Water” and “Taking it to The Street” and finally closing with the iconic “Listen to the Music”, for which they were joined onstage by John Butler – an odd pairing in theory but the perfect celebratory end to night one of festival.
Highlights from Day Two:
Steve Earle was billed on the program as “Steve Earle and the Dukes” but it was a solo Steve that strolled out onto the Plenary stage early on Easter Sunday afternoon. He may have been Dukeless but he certainly filled the stage with his autobiographical cautionary tales mixed in with songs of joy that were from the heart. His first big hit “Guitar Town” from 1986 went down a treat acoustically, coming to life via Earle’s vintage Martin guitar with his melodic finger picking and rhythmic harmonica playing adding dynamics and melodic nuances. “Now She’s Gone” and “The Galway Girl” brought put the Irish folk elements of Earle’s music while “Transcendental Blues” served as a reminder of his dark days in the grips of addiction. Steve Earle had an important message for those gathered to hear him and it was a poignant one about the death of his son Justin Townes Earle, a talented and much loved singer songwriter who died of a drug overdose in August 2020. The pain was evident as he urged the crowd to beware of the dangers of Fentanyl, the drug that took his son at the age of 38 before singing a very emotional version of his late son’s song “Harlem River Blues”. The set was punctuated with good natured banter despite the heavy subject matter and his big hit “Copperhead Road” brought the house down after proclaiming Bluesfest to be his favourite festival in the world.
Lucinda Williams and her band Buick 6 followed Steve Earle on the Plenary stage and gave the performance of the festival as far as I’m concerned. Having suffered a stroke in November 2020, Lucinda Williams can no longer play guitar on stage but the addition of guitarist Doug Pettibone to her core band of Stuart Mathis on guitar, Butch Norton on drums and David Sutton on bass more than made up for its absence. Although the stroke has made her less physically mobile it has miraculously left her voice sounding stronger than ever as she opened with “Can’t Let Go” from “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” the album that put her on the map beyond the critical and peer acclaim her earlier releases had garnered her. We were treated to new songs “Stolen Moments” a tribute to Tom Petty and “Let’s Get the Band Back Together” both from her next album set for release at the end of June.
Williams told the story of her late friend and contemporary Blaze Foley before launching into the song she wrote in tribute to him “Drunken Angel” for which she was joined onstage by long time friend and collaborator Steve Earle on vocals and harmonica. As Lucinda introduced him to the crowd who had just witnessed his powerful solo set as “Steve Fucking Earle!” the hoots and hollers seemed to give her more strength as she duetted with him on “You’re Still Standing There” the song that Earle said he wrote specifically for him to sing with “LuLu” as he affectionately referred to her. There was definitely a lot of love in the room for both performers and an abundance of mutual admiration on stage. Williams’ views on the current political climate in the USA were made clear as she introduced “You Can’t Rule Me”, inspired by Memphis Minnie who has been one of her biggest influences and dedicated to the United States Supreme Court with a flash of anger and a ton of passion. After closing with a raucous cover of Neil Young’s “Keep on Rocking in the Free World”, which saw Williams walk with purpose over to the front of the stage almost as if she was gaining more physical power with every song, she left with the parting message in her distinctive Southern drawl “Peace and love y’all – don’t give up the fight!”
It was going to be hard for anyone to follow that inspired performance by Lucinda Williams on the Plenary Stage but if anyone was going to it would be the legendary blues guitarist Buddy Guy. It was a case of perfect programming as the 86 year old Grammy award winning Rock’n’roll Hall of Famer hit the stage hamming it up, telling stories from his childhood and quickly having the audience eating from the palm of his hand. He announced to the crowd “I’m here to play the blues so I’ll give it to you the best that I got” with a smile and a nod before ripping into “Got My Mojo Working”, the highlight of the set and a song he had recorded with Junior Wells. His 2022 album “Blues Don’t Lie” featuring collaborations with the likes of Mavis Staples, Jason Isbell, Elvis Costello and James Taylor, was represented with the title track along with “I Let My Guitar Do The Talking” and he certainly did. Resplendent in a baggy pair of overalls and a guitar strap emblazoned with the words “Damn Right”, his trademark phrase, Buddy Guy eked an amazing tone from his vintage Fender Stratocaster and although he played his licks sparingly at times made the most of every note that he picked. Bolstered by his band, he charmed the socks off all and sundry with a constant, mischievous grin and a twinkle in his eye.
Scottish heart-throb Paolo Nutini closed out the big ticket events with a theatrical stage set up complete with props and dramatic lighting. New fans weren’t alone in thinking he was a swarthy Italian straight from Eurovision given his name, but the faithful fans lined up early to get pole position against the crowd barrier at the front of the stage. I would call his music more electro/rock/pop based than Blues and Roots. Maybe the fact that everyone in the audience looked at him like they wanted to root him qualified him for the genre! Whatever the case, he was a big hit and so was this offshoot of the Byron Bay Bluesfest. Let’s hope the promoters will keep this going next Easter – it was a ripper!