Taj Mahal courtesy of Anthony Moulay at AV Images Photography | Allen Stone courtesy of Swamp House Photography
BYRON BAY BLUESFEST 2016:AN EASTER WEEKEND EDUCATION
THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA
Waking up with hot cross buns, triple shot coffee and shots of Fireball Whisky ain't everyone's Easter Saturday cup of tea but after a solid 2 sessions at the Byron BluesFest they seemed like the perfect opening act. Day 3 as a whole, provided enough action for it's own separate festival with some truly mind-blowing sets and hidden diamonds in the rough as can be expected at Australia's premiere multi-day music event.
We rolled into the Fest in the backseat of 'Terry's' minivan, a local surfer turned UBER correspondent with a mean sales pitch and outright dogged client-seeking determination, to catch the end of STEVE SMYTH's set on the Juke Joint Stage. Smyth, in full warrior poet mode, was minimising an early finish time with a shanty a'capella which took outright balls and showmanship. The crowd showed their approval by joining in the mesmerising hook as Smyth elegantly faded into backstage shadow as the chant continued. If this moment's glory demonstrated the vibe of the whole set then Smyth must have had a win.
KALEO proved Iceland has a next big thing in the making. Armed for the Aussie weather in shorts and singlets, lead singer Jökull Júlíusson buckled a few knees with a deep growl through to high falsetto vocal range matched by some solid Blues Rock riffery. Ones to watch in the future.
Anyone following recent music-related events was heading to see the EAGLES OF DEATH METAL. A programming master-stroke, Jesse 'Boots Electric' Hughes weathered Rock figure took to the stage with an enigmatic theatrical rendition of E.L.O's Oh Oh It's Magic which set the tone for a fun upbeat set. After the Post-Paris incident turmoil, the band seemed in high but appreciative spirits with wizard-bearded guitarist Dave Catching working the crowd like the pro that he was born to be. Flying the dirty Rock'n'Roll flag EODM ripped through a tasty 60min set with the highlight being their rowdy track I Want You So Hard along with a band member solo battle which saw Hughes don a blindfold and play for the crowd-voted win. EODM are definitely back and badder than ever.
Grabbing a can of Tooheys New from the can bar in what can only be surmised as a cacophony of can crack pinch and release, we ventured deep down into the Delta (Stage) and were wowed by the solid level of showmanship demonstrated by FANTASTIC NEGRITO. One of those 'diamonds in the rough' alluded to earlier, the band moved through T-Rex-inspired Rock groove to Delta Blues repetitive chant and on to Jack White-esque Blues Pop with hints of almost Country when performing the Muddy Waters classic My Girl, cleverly changing the lyrics to 'Black Girl'. A dapper and charismatic frontman, Dphrepaulezz worked the crowd hard leaving punters with one of the call-and-response quotes of the day "Take the bullshit and turn it into good shit!". This band will improve.
Act of the day went to L.A.s VINTAGE TROUBLE. Having got the inside scoop that these were the cats to watch, we positioned ourselves close to the front of a packed Crossroads Stage for what would be a mind-blowing 60min offering leaving the audience in laughter-level high spirits. Led by modern day James Brown frontman Ty Taylor, the Trouble showed all class moving from high tempo Gospel hysteria to slow Soul burners with such effortless precision that you're left wanting to hit the practice room immediately. Preaching quality smack at the crowd with lines like "1, 2, 3 push your pelvis with me", a gyrating Taylor leapt into the crowd, actually walking past us just in time for me to pat him on the back and wipe his mojo-ridden sweat over my own face in the hope of some sort of soul imbibe. Popping up at the sound desk, Taylor then proceeded to jump on top the crowd and swim (and sing) his way some 50m to the front of the stage, punters with outstretched arms like in some 70s Funk Rock mass. Move of the day. Getting a full crowd to vibe so hard they seem in the palm of the band's hand is no easy feat. Vintage Trouble achieved this on Day 3.
In an event such as BluesFest with such a wide array of ultra-talented acts, seeing a band twice is sometimes counter-productive. We broke that rule early Saturday evening when skipping out of Steve Earle to go back and see KAMASI WASHINGTON. 8piece Soul, Funk, Jazz fusion is not a style I'm normally accustomed too I have to say but by the end of the Fest, these guys were firmly planted in my Top 5. I kept imagining being in some black and white beret-wearing New York jazz club, smoke filling the ceiling as this class act took punters on a real journey through an epic 90min set. Highlights included a dual drummer solo, a Hendrix-esque bass solo, Kamasi himself's smooth sax grooves and the at times tearful honesty exuded by main vocalist Patrice Quinn. The band leader, responsible for much of Kendrick Lamar's arrangement, was almost secondary at times to the other band members' performances but remained in total control of the complicated arrangements with constant shifting of time signature and dynamic leaving a notable euphoria over the crowd. Kamasi topped off the night for us by sharing in our bootleg vodka whilst watching The Wailers deliver Survival. Complete gentleman amongst an amazing array of LA-based talent.
The heavens opened up in predictable Byron Bay Easter fashion with a solid downpour during the set of HIATUS KAIYOTE, the Aussie act kicking major international goals at present. The Melbourne Soul 4 piece brought strong four-part-harmonies and an angelic lead vocal to the mix with amazing syncopated vocal and instrumental rhythms delivering a real lesson in music to wide-eyed and wet onlookers. Someone next to me quoted "This is like watching the future of music unfold before your eyes" and they were right. HK are definitely pushing musical boundaries and were one of the Australian highlights of the Festival.
I remember getting kicked out of a Tea Party concert for crowd-surfing 1 song in at a venue in Rockhampton in the mid nineties. Traumatised. Fortunately my teenage hero and I were re-united when JEFF MARTIN played the Juke Joint Stage as Day 3 started to wind down a little. The well known and loved Morrison-esque frontman, most recently having ventured into Blues Rock territory with his 777 project, was in fine form, fronting a stripped back but none-the-less powerful performance in duo mode. A master of soaring vocals and guitar dynamic, Martin brought exceptional skill to the fray with an almost religious experience delving into past works of The Tea Party amongst other solo material. Some 9 years has passed since Martin, now a Byron local, performed at BluesFest… let's hope it's not that long a wait until the next rendezvous. Exceptional for a stripped back set.
Ain't too many around like JOE BONAMASSA. Lead lightning. The vintage Blues performer was all cool and class at his 10.00pm appointment with an epic 120min set for one of the longest sessions of the 2016 festival. Delivering quality licks and Blues sentiment, Bonamassa played to a packed tent with the slick of a formula one racing tyre. Backed by Jeff Harvey on keys and a powerful rhythm section, the experienced 7 piece demanded respect in what was a tight all-round performance. Big media attention-puller… NO. Class outfit… YES.
When looking at the 2016 poster, other than Taj Mahal, I noted the perceived absence of true African-American Blues masters this time around. That was quite simply because I did not know who LUCKY PETERSON was. And man what a pleasant surprise I got. Wearing matching suit and cap, Peterson delivered a smiling assassin's performance, nailing feel good Blues Rock chops with ultimate style and finesse, trading licks from keys to guitar effortlessly. Buffalo-born and discovered by Blues legend Willy Dixon, Peterson simply charmed the crowd with the 'real deal', oozing talented contentment and a sense of giving which I've only seen when watching the masters play such as BB King and Buddy Guy. The set climaxed in a crowd entry by the man himself, Lucky walking through the crowd with wireless rig playing his guitar for one of the moments of the festival. He proceeded to sit in the middle of wide eyed onlookers of all ages (after a plastic chair was crowd-surfed through from the stage to his position) and schooled all present in the ways of A1 Blues guitar. Crowd members clambered up onto bins and climbed polls to catch a glimpse of this Blues statesman completely in his element. A seasoned performer, backed by a tight band, Lucky Peterson was one of the standouts of the festival and pretty much wrapped up an epic Day 3 for this white boy.
By day four of a festival you really begin to feel it. Sore calves, sore head, liver screaming obscenities… all was allayed however when we were greeted with the sweet voice of Roots superstar KIM CHURCHILL as we walked through the Southern gate past the sniffer dog posse to begin our Easter Sunday Blues pilgrimage. Churchill, a mainstay at pretty much every BluesFest of the last 6 years, had the crowd vibing with 'Window to The Sky' to finish his set, a song which would have to be listed under the genre of 'Festival'. Australian Blues N Roots hot property and a super nice guy to boot.
As drink tickets were restocked and tins were cracked we ventured to the main Mojo Stage to catch Louisville Americana quartet HOUNDMOUTH who've made quite the SXSW buzz in recent years. A small but attentive crowd tuned in to hear Bob Dylan/Rodriguez-esque vibes with Katie Toupin's (who has since left the band) unique female backing vox underpinning chilled country grooves through to old school 50's Rock'n'Roll. The 4 piece, a surprisingly small configuration compared to the 10+ piece mega bands that seemed to grace most of the stages, sounded full and rich and really brought home how polished all the US artists seemed to be.
It must also be noted that sound on the Mojo Stage (and Crossroads Stage) far exceeded the sound quality of the smaller stages which I guess is to be expected. Bands lucky enough to perform on the big platforms were treated to A1 sound reproduction whereas I felt some of the bands on the smaller stages were hard done by throughout the Fest.
Ain't no modern Aussie Blues Rock discussion would be complete without mentioning ASH GRUNWALD. The Blues troubadour, who started out as a soloist and has played the chameleon through a range of stylistic shifts, has to be one of Australia's best talents, holding the flame for Aussie Blues Rock. Backed by Brisbane horn masters Bullhorn, Grunwald brought an 11 piece band to full effect, also featuring Ian Collard on harp with Susan Collard on backing vocals, Sheila Finke from Tijuana Cartel on percussion and bass player OJ Newcombe who couldn't have had a busier BluesFest, also lining up for Robert Randolph's The Word. A short vocal guest appearance also went down for Kasey Chambers who excited the crowd in full Blues mama mode, great to hear. Grunwald channelled the Delta masters himself with soulful pipes throughout, encouraging crowd participation, particularly in his punchy rendition of the Chain hit 'Black and Blue'. Fat octave-soaked dirty Blues riffs made the surrounding mud feel part of a righteous Blues swamp in one of the Aussie sets of the Fest.
After seeing the clip for single 'Late July' on YouTube some time ago I went into SHAKEY GRAVES' Jambalaya Stage set with vested interest (Note: Jambalaya Stage ruled the first half of Easter Sunday!). We were treated to quite the different show however with Graves delivering plenty of Rock fodder in an unexpected yet upbeat display. Swapping Folk Blues licks with almost Prog Rock transitions, Shakey demonstrated plenty of falsetto as he played the guitar and keyboard at the same time to display the talent that obviously earned him his BluesFest slot. The lack of bass player at times did nothing to hinder the 3-piece on stage with both guitarists splitting into Ampeg fridges and Fender combo amps to create some fat tone. The second guitarist also wore underwear throughout the set for the win.
On the pilgrimage to catch BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA we were stopped in our tracks by RAKO, a Fijian dance troupe and a cool addition to the event. Not one to normally appreciate the finer movement art, the performance definitely captured attention, celebrating authentic cultural diversity in an amazing display of movement to almost Hip Hop percussive beats at times. Sexy.
If Christian guilt had you feeling the pinch for not attending Easter Sunday mass, THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA certainly washed your sins away in one of the sets of the Festival. The Gospel Soul group was all class in its 60min delivery, offering up mega-soulful vocal solos and harmony matched with Church organ and tight backing band in what would, I imagine, be par for the course at a deep Southern church service. Tracks such as 'God Put a Rainbow in the Clouds' and the act's epic version of 'Amazing Grace' set to the melody of 'House of the Rising Sun' (only made famous by The Animals), let spirits soar and hungover demons be released. A late appearance by the infamous Robert Randolph on slide guitar book-ended what was a cleansing and amazing musical experience.
Take that soulful cleansing experience then line that up against the next act's set and you can see why the BluesFest programming team are so on the money. MODEST MOUSE took over a packed Mojo Stage tent for an hour of US quirky Indi Rock with a 9 piece configuration, including 2 drummers, belting out hits in an enigmatic and eye-catching display. Opening the set with what sounded like a swarm of bees across the PA system, the band churned through hits with Isaac Brock cutting an intense figure on the big screen, certainly looking 'in the zone'. All in all a solid performance.
American Blues statesman TAJ MAHAL, returning to Australia to play solo for the first time in 20 years, carried some serious weight to the BluesFest experience. Recognised as one of the most diverse and prolific Blues performers in the Word, the big man schooled the crowd in vocal dynamics and melody offering up one of the highlights of the Fest with an a'capella sing-a-long. Not just stopping at getting the crowd to sing-a-long (which can be hard enough), Taj actually worked on the crowd for a good 10 minutes until he felt that the majority of voices were nailing a melody, with subtle vocal pitch shifts, probably unfamiliar to those not accustomed to listening to Blues. It made everyone stop what they were doing and actually LISTEN intently at the tiny shifts in pitch and attempt to replicate it themselves in the call-and-response. Epic moment! Mahal continued on to keep the crowd in a trance throughout the 60min set with Creole-inspired Banjo numbers amongst other tricks. The set seemed to go so quickly, Mahal only playing 5 or 6 songs for the hour performance. Well worth the appearance fee, a true master of the genre.
THE WAILERS were without a doubt the hardest working band at the 2016 Byron BluesFest, playing each of the 4 first days with a different Bob Marley classic album each night including Exodus, Uprising and Survival. Tonight Legend was on the table. Led by legendary Aston 'Family Man' Barrett, the band is responsible for pioneering the Roots Reggae genre and certainly lived up to expectation sharing love and emotion to captivated audiences across all four performances. Selling 250 million albums Worldwide is nothing short of amazing and The Wailers were nothing short of amazing here.
Probably the largest female profile of the Festival came in the form of US Rock N Blues legend MELISSA ETHERIDGE who offered up a hardened and razor-like vocal performance, not heard at the rest of the event for mine. The scene veteran, a Grammy award winner, tore through hits with solid guitar chops in her own right as well as delivering a wicked 48 bar harp solo and stint on the drumkit to establish herself as one of the best all-round-performers in the World. Her spirit showed real strength and grit, placing the slightly older-demographic crowd in the palm of her hand with big numbers such as 'I'm the Only One' setting the place on fire. A serious Fest highlight who if you have the chance to catch on tour... DO IT.
The intense action of Melissa Etheridge was Yin and Yang'd perfectly with the spliff-laden vibes of UK mega-act UB40 who brought a tonne of positive flow to their epic 120min set at the Crossroads Stage next. A sea of bouncing energy swirled within the crowd throughout as the band performed a host of big-selling hits in their own unique Roots Reggae feel, 'Red Red Wine' being the crowd favourite. My ability to take notes for this set was certainly hindered by the pretty girl sitting on my shoulders throughout.
Moving back into Brit Rock territory, NOEL GALLAGHER'S HIGH FLYING BIRDS showed why he is one of the best Pop Rock songwriters in the business mixing act originals with a splattering of Oasis mega-tracks. The man you love to hate, with rockstar attitude in spades, delivered a polished performance worthy of his stature with at times tongue-in-cheek disgust at his former band but yet still Gallagher pumped out tracks such as 'Champagne Supernova' to win over the crowd who sung along with all their might, much to his contrasting excitement/disappointment. Brit sentiment was out in force for the imposing figure, in full Psych Rock band mode as they delivered a solid but not comparatively amazing set.
Tight scheduling unfortunately simply meant a brief stop in at NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS (who seemed solid) on our way to favoured act ALLEN STONE. The 28 year old continued to bring the house down with a perfect end to Easter Sunday proceedings full of funked out jams, wailing vocals and a tiger-like stage presence, prowling across the space to full effect. Stone showed true front man grit to capture a weary end of day four crowd and take them back to where they needed to be, certainly repping next level white boy Funk. An eccentric yet cool figure, long hair flowing, bespectacled and in crazy getup, Stone's phenomenal voice showed real maturity and ability delivering everything from deep Gospel vibes through to Bruno Mars-esque Pop Funk tracks bringing total good vibes to the late night appreciative crowd. People walking past sniffing out a good time to end proceedings certainly were not disappointed.
Quite simply, out of the hundreds of festivals attended, this was the best festival experience I've had sonically ever... a real credit to the programming team with a host of unseen acts which blew my mind over the 5 days. Hats off BluesFest Byron Bay. How you gonna top that!?
Photos courtesy of Anthony Moulay at AV Images Photography
April 08 2016 | Christian Tryhorn
Photos courtesy of Anthony Moulay at AV Images Photography
Photos courtesy of Anthony Moulay at AV Images Photography
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