I’m not really a music festival type of girl – mainly because I’m precious about my personal space. The thought of being packed into a sweaty tent amongst a sea of strangers, spilling their beer down my back and bumping into me while i’m trying to get into the groove of my favourite band sends me into a panic. As a teenager I never went to the Big Day Out or Falls Festival with my friends – and you know what? I was always content with my decision, because the post-festival stories they told me reinforced my fears of attending. Like how Beck attempted to crowd surf during the Violent Femmes, but nobody picked her up. Or how Renee drank so much beer that she spewed all over the security guard as she was being ejected from the festival grounds. Or how Ben was so jammed in at the front of the stage while he was waiting for TISM that he was forced to take a leak right there in the audience. They returned every year with these stories and a severe case of sunburn. The peeling that ensued was horrendous.
Anyway, I digress. But you get the idea – I don’t dig festivals.
Fast forward to January 2014 – I won a double pass to Bluesfest. I took it as a sign from the heavens that I needed to get over my festival phobia and so I packed up my fiance, a large bottle of sunscreen and set sail to Byron Bay.
We had the option of camping at the Bluesfest site, but decided to try Macca’s Campground at Upper Main Arm. It was a fabulous decision. Macca’s was a hippie camping paradise in the middle of the rainforest, surrounded by leafy trees, ponds with lilypads and all manner of animals including billy goats, chooks and ducks. We arrived in our van late on Thursday afternoon and found a spot out of the main camp area. For the most part it was serene, apart from when our neighbour – who, it turns out, was a permanent resident – roared around on his dirt bike and yelled expletives.
One of the beaut things about staying at Macca’s was that the owner was happy to shuttle us in and out of Bluesfest in his bus whenever we desired. Well – not quite: At the end of the night, if you weren’t waiting for him in the carpark at exactly 12.15 he’d leave you behind. Trying to get on the bus was often difficult, too, because as soon as it approached the drunken crowd would surge towards it, assuming that it was going to Byron. One night a couple of guys snuck on and then refused to get off because they wanted to go to Maccas to get a cheeseburger and fries.
After we’d settled into our camping spot on the Thursday, we hitched a ride in the bus and strolled into the festival as the sun was going down. We stopped by to see Steve Earl’s set. As you might expect, the crowd went wild for Copperhead Road. That song really brings out the fist pumping and thigh slapping in everyone.
For me, the standout performances of the festival were Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, Dr John and Larry Graham. Seun Kuti’s show was an energetic, semi-religious, afro-beat experience. He pranced onto the stage in his jumpsuit and danced and sang like he was possessed for over an hour. It was a ripper performance that would of made his father, Fela Kuti, proud. Here’s a clip for you, so you can get the gist:
The original members of Fela’s band, Egypt 80, were grinning from ear to ear for the whole thing- especially the keyboardist. At the end of the set, after the rest of the band had left the stage, he stuck around and did a little dance before shuffling off.
Meanwhile down at the Crossroads stage Dr John shuffled over to his piano.
Now, I’ve gotta tell you – I was very excited about seeing Dr John again. I had the pleasure of seeing him at a small venue in New Orleans last year. It was just him and his piano and it was very special. I knew his Bluesfest show would be different to that, because he was bringing his full Nightripper band but I hoped he’d play classic tracks from his late 60s/early 70s recordings such as Gris Gris; The Sun, The Moon and The Herbs; and Babylon. He did a few off Gris Gris, but that was about it. It didnt matter though – I dug it anyway, especially when he got up from behind the piano and went around casting Voodoo spells.
There was, however, one annoying aspect to the show – his new ‘musical director’, Sarah Morrow, who positioned herself at the front of the stage under the spotlight. At times she acted as MC, initially introducing Dr John to the stage by whipping out this cliché: “Does anybody here need a doctor? I SAID – does anybody here need a DOCTOR?”. What a cringe. The band would of been better off without her. Her trombone solos went on and on. The doozy she whipped out on the last song wasn’t even that good.
Larry Graham had his own spotlight-hungry female band member who was equally hard to take. She was a brilliant singer, but she could of done with some Valium before hitting the stage. She gyrated and pulled cheesy faces for the whole set. Here’s a classic example:
Still, I managed to block her out and concentrated on Larry and the rest of Graham Central Station. At the beginning of the set, Larry was having trouble with his microphone feeding back. It was mounted to the top of his bass guitar, which probably wasn’t helping things . The rest of the band were hassling the sound guy to fix it and so, mid-song, he disconnected the microphone while Larry was still playing and started attaching a new one. He didnt get to complete the job because the band yelled at him to stop. I felt sorry for the poor guy.
Despite the initial technical problems, the set was great! If you’re not aware of his genius, here’s some youtube clips for you to educate yourself with. Nice wig hat:
He was the bass player with Sly and the Family Stone. Here’s their performance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Gee whiz they don’t make sets and clothing like that anymore. Mind-blowing!
OK – I’m probably going to smash my musical cred by saying this, but what the heck: another Bluesfest highlight for me was Boz Scaggs. Yes – that’s right. Think what you like! I grew up with Boz on the turntable. Mum was a big fan. She nearly had a fit when I told her he was on the line-up, so I felt it was my duty to attend and report back. The tent was packed out, and I wasn’t surprised since most households in Australia have a copy of Silk Degrees hidden away somewhere.It was pretty obvious that most people had come to see him to play Lido Shuffle. He did, of course, but not before stringing everyone along by playing some new stuff. The audience got restless. Some people left – and more fool them I say, because they TOTALLY missed out. You should’ve heard Lowdown! It went off!
Boz’s voice is still good, his band were cool and, importantly , he didn’t strut around onstage like he was teenager…unlike some other people – namely KC and the Sunshine Band.
Call me crazy, but I had high hopes for KC. I don’t mind a bit of disco, but when its served up by a pudgy man wearing a Madonna headset who’s jiggling around next to two practically naked dancers, I’m not impressed. Suffice to say I put on my Boogie Shoes and left. Once I got outside of the tent I actually enjoyed it much more. We danced to Get Down Tonight by the port-a-loos as the sun was setting. How romantic.
Now that I’m back home, I prefer to remember KC and the Sunshine Band like this:
At Bluesfest there are around six different stages of varying size. My favourite stage was the Juke Joint, which was tucked away at the back of the festival ground. We saw the Backsliders there and they were frenetic and fabulous. Another night we saw Chain who served up a dose of good ol’ Aussie 70’s boogie and blues. I didn’t mind it. They looked like they were having fun.
By chance we came across Charli 2na from Jurassic Five and he was ripping it up. We also saw War twice. The first time we caught the end of the show and danced along to Lowrider. We probably should of left it at that, but the next day we went back to see the whole set and it was disappointing. I couldn’t get into their rendition of Spill the Wine, mostly because that song is all about Eric Burdon’s delivery. Lonnie Jordan did his best, but when he started free-styling and changing the lyrics it wasn’t cool, man. You shouldn’t tamper with magic. Also, Lee Oscar wasn’t there:
Back in the main arena we saw Jeff Beck briefly. I’m not a guitar player, so I couldn’t really tell whether it was genius or just self-indulgent. Most of the reviews I’ve subsequently seen say it was the former, so there you go. We checked out Buddy Guy for a bit and I liked the fact that he was giggling and swearing while wailing away on his guitar.
Speaking of swearing, Tim Rogers was in good form on one of the smaller stages – complaining about being drowned out by whoever was performing over on the big stage.
Truth be told, we didn’t venture over to the big stage that much, mainly because the acts weren’t of any interest to me. I’m talking Joss Stone, John Mayer and Michael Franti. But that’s the great thing about Bluesfest – there’s stuff for everybody’s tastes – you’ve just got to get your schedule in order to make sure you don’t miss the good bits.
After a few solid days of music-watching, we decided to take a break and went on a trip to Nimbin. I was excited. The last time I was in Nimbin I was 14 years old and in the midst of what I like to refer to as my Cheesecloth-and-Calico period. I considered myself a burgeoning hippie and demanded my parents take me there during our family holiday to New South Wales. I remember walking around the Nimbin Museum in awe and gushing over the inventive names of stores in the main street such as “Love Your Hair” (the hairdressing salon). Crazy! Unfortunately the visit was cut short when someone asked Dad if he wanted to buy some weed. He dragged me back to the car while I was in the midst of pulling the peace sign and sped off to somewhere more refined. I was in a massive huff for the rest of the holiday.
For my return visit to Nimbin I wasn’t wearing cheesecloth, but I was wearing tie-dye pants and my hands were covered with henna tatt’s, so I fitted right in. The first thing I observed as we cruised along the main drag was that there were loads of tourist shops selling tie-dye clothing, pipes and hemp products. Old folks were getting around with their cameras. There were cafes. This wasnt the Nimbin I remembered!
The hairdressing salon was gone, but fortunately the Museum was still there and it looked exactly the same – just a little dustier. Also we spotted this glorious Happy Coach:
We perused the stores, went to the pub and Danny made friends with the locals sitting outside the Museum. By the time we made our way back to Macca’s it was dark.
Back at the Festival we saw Gary Clark Jnr, the Soul Rebels and a few other acts that I forget the name of. By the end of the final day of Bluesfest we were worn out and unable to handle another guitar solo. We were also a bit tired of every single performer saying “MAKE SOME NOIIIIIIIISE!!!!!”
Whoever started that jive at festivals needs a good slap, according to one of the security guards we spoke to on the way out. He’d been standing in the same spot for the past five days and had had enough. In contrast, I was feeling elated – i’d overcome my festival phobia. Despite the warm sunny weather, I avoided getting sunburnt, nobody spilled a drink on me and there was only a mild amount of pushing and shoving in the tent.
As far as festivals go, Bluesfest was a fabulous experience. I never thought I’d say this, but….I Rate It. Who knows – I might even go back again next year!