Bluesfest Part 2: The Music

In order of appearance, here are brief reviews of the acts I saw at Bluesfest over the Saturday/Sunday/Monday of Easter 2011.

Saturday 23rd April

RocKwiz (Live)

We all stopped to check out the live show principally because it was in full swing on the first stage we came across (Jambalaya) upon entering the site. I am an occasional viewer of RocKwiz on SBS. I love the host and the format, but do find it a bit nerdy (read: the questions are too hard for me!).

Good choice. The show is very engaging live, and had guests like the brilliant Tim Rogers doing a pretty fine Bowie impersonation with his cover of Fame to close the show. A Karaoke segment got one of the regular panellists (Giovanni) out of his chair for a burst of April Sun: his abandonment of the lyrics sheet to share the tune with the crowd was the envy of everyone there who has dreamt of ever getting a shot at being a rock star. A vibrant, energetic welcome to Bluesfest.

Jeff Lang

I’ve long been a fan of Lang, and saw him years ago at the intimate Basement venue in Sydney. His guitar playing is finger pickin’ goodness, and his songs tell beautiful, sometimes haunting stories. He held a full Mojo tent of at least 10,000 people spellbound for a full hour and if I ever manage to learn to play guitar, this set will be one of my inspirations.

Mavis Staples and her band

Believe! Believe! Mavis believes (and rocks out). A little bit gospel, a little bit rock’n’roll, Staples is in the Hall of Fame and was a joy to experience. She beamed a smile of passion and love, she shared her voice with us, and we ate it up and felt good inside. She closed her set by inviting Trombone Shorty, who was next up, to join her on the Crossroads stage. It was a taste of things to come.

Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue

Built like a track athlete, adorned in a white singlet and black jeans, Trombone Shorty is long on talent. And confidence. He sings, he swaggers, his trombone spreads an infectious joy over us all and we get our groove on. One of my friends declares that she’s moving to New Orleans, the rest of us marvel at his energy, his showmanship, and his circular breathing that holds notes throughout an entire chorus. During their last number everyone swamped instruments, with Shorty jamming on the drums, whilst the beat went on. We loved Trombone shorty.

Wolfmother

Being acquainted with Aidan Nemeth on guitars, I was pretty curious to see these guys, and also see what a Blues & Roots crowd would make of them. I loved the set, it was a real rollicking Zeppelin-esque jam, and I loved their inclusion of ‘Joker & The Thief’, written as something of a tribute to Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’. A nice touch.

The crowd seemed a little cautious at first, but Andrew Stockdale up front soon had everyone rocking out, and even the doubters seemed complicit by the time the boys got to ‘New Moon Rising’ late in the set.

Michael Franti & Spearhead

“Everyone deserves music, sweet music”. These were the first words from Franti when he hit the stage and it was a powerful opening that set us all off on a 90 minute celebration. Loved it that he sprinkled the hits through out the set rather than holding them back to milk an encore (Hello Cat Empire!), that he ventured into the crowd for a jam, and that he invited a tonne of people up on stage to dancer with him for the closer, ‘Say Hey’. I had urged some new friends to stay for this set and one of their kids (James) stole the encore with his moves on stage. we all left the first night on a huge high.

Sunday 24th April

Irma Thomas

The soul queen of New Orleans mooched on stage after mavis on Sunday and sang like a warm southern breeze.  i got myself a little music education here, learning that her cover of  ”Time Is On My Side’ pre-dates the Stones memorable edition, recording it as a B-side before the Stones copied her version, wound up the guitars, and made it a top 10 hit later the same year. Irma lacked a little punch, but so does your nanna – she’s a graceful 70 years old.

Blind Boys of Alabama featuring Aaron Neville

Aaron Neville – “the voice of an angel!” The Blind Boys are an inspiration, I was transfixed by both the voices and their ability to communicate on stage. Some incidental slapstick occurred during the latter parts of their set when several blind boys, seated, kept rising to join in harmonies that were meant to showcase others on stage. One of the guitarists (later to appear with Robert Raldolph) would put a kind hand on their shoulder and help them sit, only for another to rise and join in. Each time the guitarist would ease over and guide them back to their seat – this went on unabated for several minutes until the guitarist conceded defeat.

Robert Randolph & The Family Band

Amazing slide guitar, a rhythm section that hummed for an hour, and a rendition of Hendrix’ ‘Purple Haze’ that raised the roof. This was the one moment of the festival that I found my body surging towards the front of the stage, locking arms with complete strangers, dancing with people I would never know outside this moment.

Randolph was a man in charge of his craft: he played to the crowd, he improvised with the band, and looked like he didn’t want to leave the stage (and made several guest appearances during the festival). My highlight of the whole festival.

Cat Empire

A festival favourite whose musical message is in simpatico with the ethos of Bluesfest. We were packed like tinned sardines inside the Mojo tent – as I made my way toward the centre where my friends were, a girl I squeezed by wryly whispered “Bold move”. Spot on, and before long we headed out of the mosh pit where we could dance to the latin rhythms streaming from the stage. They opened with the rambunctious ‘Sly’ , moved through a few more melancholic tunes, and went out on a high with ‘Hello’ and ‘The Car Song’. Disappointed not hear ‘Days Like These’ – my favourite!

Monday 25th April

Secret Sisters

Two sisters from Texas, discovered recently by Elvis Costello and taken on tour as his opening act. Sweet melodies, honeyed tones easing across an acoustic guitar that brought to mind the sirens in ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’- if there was an apple blossom tree and a patch of green grass I’d have laid down and soaked it in. But there wasn’t, so I moved to the Juke Joint tent next door.

Snowdroppers

These lads smashed out a dirty bluesy rockabilly set that had everyone asking ‘who are these guys?’ Lots of on-stage banter amongst the band that really embraced the crowd, highlighted by an on-the-shoulders ride the lead singer took around the tent late in the set, leaping back on stage with an apology for his indulgence that went something like “Look, I am a white boy from the middle classes in Sydney, but THAT was the best thing I have EVER done in my entire fucking life!” Musical highlight was ‘Do The Stomp’, with a great big infectious beat and a great big catchy chorus.”I’ve been workin’ hard, all day, an’ all night …”

Buffy Sainte-Marie

Education through music: Buffy brought her Native American heritage to bear on a 60s folk sound. at times it felt like a peace rally, as she referenced current world politics with Universal Soldier (which she wrote about the Vietnam war). An honest and interesting performance.

Warren Haynes & His Allstar Band

The man can play guitar. Listed somewhere high up in the list of greatest ever guitarists so say the experts at Rolling Stone magazine, these guys were treated to a huge audience courtesy of being programmed in the slot before Dylan. The musicianship was brilliant, but for me it felt more like a studio jam than a live set.

Bob Dylan

The big screens went black, the stage darkened, the crowd went nuts, and the sounds of something approximating ‘Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright’ rang out. Three or four tracks later I made out the words ‘Tangled Up In Blue’, and the encore performance of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ was momentous. I’m stoked to have seen a living legend do a live set – the quality of performance offset somewhat by just being there with great friends.  The greatest excitement in the crowd seemed to derive from just identifying what the fuck he was trying to sing.

That he sounded gravelly was understandable (and expected). That he didn’t acknowledge the crowd – not even a greeting – seemed insular, a behaviour exceeded by omitting any kudos to his excellent band. It really felt like he didn’t want to be up there. ‘Let’s just belt this shit out one more time’. There have been some glowing reviews of the same set, and there are people for whom a Bob Dylan fart would be a sweet sound.  One and the same? You can be your own judge of that.

Elvis Costello & The Imposters

‘I’ve been on tenterhooks
ending in dirty looks,
list’ning to the Muzak,
thinking ’bout this ‘n’ that.’

And without further ado Elvis Costello walked on stage, cranked it up to 10 for a rousing version of ‘Pump It Up’, and everyone went ‘holy shit, that is really quite good’. When he closed the opening number with this:

Johny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government

we fairly roared with delight. And that’s how Bluesfest wrapped for me. Elvis Costello playing gem after gem, including ‘Watching the Detectives’, ‘Everyday I Write The Book’, ‘My Aim Is True’, ‘Alison’, and an encore performance of ‘Oliver’s Army’. Wonderful.

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