Bluesfest Highlights

(Originally Published In Pearl Magazine)


Over the Easter weekend, thousands of punters flocked to the sultry shores of Byron Bay to witness a phenomenal line-up of musicians. Perennial favourite Trombone Shorty kicked off the proceedings on the Thursday afternoon with their brazen jazz/funk fusion and sexy showmanship. Chris Isaak’s slinky voice and bedazzled two-piece got pulses racing, and Tedeschi Trucks nailed that soulful sound that’s become the cornerstone of the festival. Ben Harper and Blues luminary Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica and slide guitar parlance was heartfelt, but sadly slightly underwhelming.

On the Friday night, the Steve Miller Band slickly dispensed their soft-rock hits, followed by headliner Santana’s self-congratulatory, stadium-tailored show. Latin heartthrob Manu Chao convinced the thousands of drunk stragglers they knew how to salsa.

On the Saturday afternoon, Glen Hansard delivered a soaring (and sweat drenched) performance. His Oscar-worthy musicianship and vocals were matched that weekend by gravelly troubadour Ben Caplan, dreadlocked guitar-percussionist Newton Faulker, babyfaced soul singer Alan Stone, ethereal bard Rufus Wainwright, and cult icon Rodriguez; who rose like Lazarus to deliver an enchanting performance, particularly his heartbreaking rendition of Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone. 

Bluesfest’s notorious scheduling conflict was unfortunately evident when headliners Robert Plant and Iggy Pop were pitted against each other. This resulted in a mass exodus from Mojo Stage (where Plant was swaying his aging hips and hammering the highs of Whole Lotta Love) to The neighbouring Crossroads stage, to witness Iggy defy the laws of nature. Remaining with Plant, I thought his Eastern renderings of Zeppelin classics were self-indulgent but mesmerizing.

The Aussie contingent was typically impressive this year, with local bands like Saskwatch and Nicky Bomba delivering convincingly. Traditional soul acts (Ruthie Foster, Taj Mahal, Mavis Staples, Blind Boys) gave formidable performances. The inimitable Jimmy Cliff, particularly his rendition of I Can See Clearly Now, moved many to tears.

Sunday was party night; with Fat Freddy, Cat Empire and Melbourne Ska essentially having a groove-off, to see who could whip their audience into a looser drunken frenzy. Monday held that usual anticipatory atmosphere, and fiery-haired Bonnie Raitt tore through it with blistering vocals and guitar. Paul Simon’s performance, spanning 25 years of his remarkable catalogue of work, was totally riveting. At 71, time hasn’t sullied his iconic voice or phrasing. Thousands of people simultaneously chanting the chorus of The Boxer was a spine-tingling moment, which brought a tear to this reviewer’s eye. Alt rockers Wilco closed the festival with a typically frenetic performance, which jolted the tired and sore punters awake for one last set.