The sweat is already running down my back as I get off the bus at Byron Bay Bluesfest’s south gate. It’s late on Thursday afternoon, opening day, and people throng around the entrance, funnelling through barriers where bags are checked and wristbands attached.
I need to collect my press packet but the media window is at the north gate, so I begin the long trudge around the gargantuan site, slugging from a rapidly warming bottle of water, dust settling on my boots. It takes a good 15 minutes to make the half-circuit, testament to how big the site is, to how much room is needed to accommodate the infrastructure, the musicians, the hordes of punters.
Bluesfest has grown from humble beginnings since it launched as the Annual East Coast Blues festival in 1990. This year – its 27th – it’s a world renowned behemoth: where new acts are broken (such as Ben Harper in the late 90s); where established acts are welcomed back (the likes of Buddy Guy, Jackson Browne, Steve Earle and John Fogerty); where despite the event’s size, people are laid back and laissez faire. It’s Byron Bay, man. Keep it cool.
This is brought to the fore over the weekend. Whether soaking up the gospel exuberance of the Blind Boys of Alabama, the frenetic soul energy projected by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, or the genuine, down-home blues offered up by Taj Mahal, everyone is smiling, making way for others, offering a hand, dancing, singing, exuding the traditional Bluesfest vibe as they revel in all manner of sounds.
Early on Saturday night the heavens open – it wouldn’t be Byron at Easter without a downpour – which settles the dust and softens the ground. The grassy areas are reduced to sludgy ruin before long, but it doesn’t dampen spirits.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band are festival regulars now, and their Saturday night spot is truly a sight to behold as rain cascades off the edge of the tent, forcing people to press together, shuffling back to let more in. A seamless blend of soul, gospel, blues and rock‘n’roll fills the Crossroads tent, and pushes out beyond. Susan Tedeschi’s voice is a freight train. She wails and croons, steps up on guitar when needed, stabs of electricity in direct contrast to Derek Trucks, whose slide playing is among the best in the world, fluid and sharp. They work together effortlessly, a set for the ages.
Guitarist Joe Bonamassa holds court over two hours to close the day out, his blues/rock trademark now carrying more soul. It’s a good set, but his guitar playing is so technically proficient – so precise and perfect – it doesn’t leave room for any improvised grit or grime. I wander over to the Mojo stage where D’Angelo is whipping people into a frenzy with his high-octane R&B, a never-ending wave of thump and grind that seems a decent way to finish things off.
By Monday, the heat is back and the mud smells, a faint barnyard odour that lingers, wafting across crowds. Mix that with the smell of woodchips and deep-frying potato, and you have the smell of Bluesfest. People are happy though; they step across bogs and small swamps, gumbooted, heading every which way, and the place almost steams.
The Blind Boys of Alabama are one of the longest-running groups in history. Formed in 1944, they still boast a founding member in Jimmy Carter, who doesn’t let age get in the way: he bounces, walks through the crowd (with help), holds notes for what seems like an age. He and his cohorts summon the power of God with infectious enthusiasm, and gospel music rains down on the celebration.
There’s much to see in the dying hours of a four-and-a-half-day marathon, so choosing wisely is of the essence. I head over to see Tom Jones, the wailing Welshman, thinking it’ll be somewhat of a laugh at his expense, but it’s anything but. It’s fun. Jones is having fun, everyone there is having fun; it’s upbeat and loud and proud. Jones is backed by a down and dirty country band and they belt out 50s rock‘n’roll, soaring country, and a razor-sharp and shimmering desert version of Delilah. Jones is in fine voice, and I should never have doubted what turns out to be a festival highlight.
I finish it up, exhausted and sweat-stained, with Blackberry Smoke, who specialise in head-nodding southern rock, and Jason Isbell, one of the best Americana performers on the scene today, whose country-laced songs provide the soundtrack to a shuffle out the gate and over to the bus, back to where it all began, closing out all that came in between.
Certainly a weekend of sonic diversity, but with a variety in mood that didn’t always work out for the best.
Hip hop superstar Kendrick Lamar was a surprise addition to the Bluesfest lineup, playing his only set late on Thursday. While the festival does have a penchant for booking acts that exist outside the roots music umbrella, Lamar’s music – dark, sinister, angry by nature, and heavily influenced by 90s gangsta rap – brings a vibe that seems particularly out of place. This wouldn’t be so much a problem were it not for the crowd.
Portions of the audience attracted by this year’s lineup seem younger, and less aware of those around them. Stories of aggression and fighting leak back to me throughout the afternoon, from friends who’ve hit the Mojo to see Kamasi Washington and Hiatus Kaiyote in the lead-up to Lamar. When I head up there to catch the start of his set, the odd, unwelcoming atmosphere has been building all day, replacing the happy bonhomie that’s come to define the festival.
And this is despite Lamar’s set, which is what you’d expect from a man at the top of his game: rock solid. His delivery is rapid-fire, downturned – it’s like he’s not standing in front of thousands, but on his own in his bedroom reeling off poetry, freestyle. That’s how real it seems. But of course this isn’t loose; it’s tight and considered, he raps faultlessly between samples, his band behind him adding the funk, soul, and jazz that defined his important and critically acclaimed 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly.
But I leave the set early, the lack of compassion in the crowd around me souring the feeling – a big shame for the festival itself. I’ve attended Bluesfest for the past 13 years and can attest to how well this year’s event came together, but while I understand the organisers want to forge ahead, booking hyped talent to attract a younger audience, the event needs to also retain the mood that speaks to where it’s come from.