The Best of Bluesfest 2016 – our team names their picks of this year’s festival!

With this year’s Byron Bay Bluesfest in the bag, our team has returned back to Sydney and Brisbane full of highlights from the epic Easter Weekend of live music that brought together everything from hip hop to jazz, blues to country and almost everything in between. Larry, Andrew and Chris give us their picks of the festival  – the best way to combat a festival comedown, no? Reflect on Bluesfest below…

lukasnelson

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real

With five sets over the festival, Neil Young’s backing band drove a lot of rumors in the lead up to Bluesfest 2016. Whatever hopes had been dashed without any late lineup additions were quickly forgotten within minutes of the band kicking off their set, however, with the stomping blast of Americana/Country quickly gaining favour with the ever-building crowd. Each set was consecutively better attended, culminating in Peter Noble himself confirming the band were the first booking for 2017’s edition of the festival – a testament to how quickly positive word-of-mouth spreads in the Bluesfest community. – Andrew Wade

houndmouth

Houndmouth (Sunday)

I did not know much about this Indiana four-piece going into their set; in fact I only planned to stay for the first few songs before catching another scheduled artist. I sat up the back, but by the end of the second song I was right at the front of the growing audience, cheering along with the fans, who would constantly offer a “Wow”, “Woah” or “Holy shit” at the end of each song, simply because the four musicians on stage just kept going from strength to strength.

For starters – and I realise that this is a big claim – lead vocalist Matt Myers sounds eerily like a youthful Bob Dylan at times, and it’s not even him who stays as the band’s lead for the set. Members Katie Toupin, Zak Appleby, and Shane Cody all take the reins at one point or another, making it seem like Houndmouth is several bands in one, with each vocalist distinctive from their band mates in both sound and style.

Whether it’s the tender Toupin with the very well written “Gasoline” or the dynamic Appleby with his energetic vocals, Houndmouth are exciting, engaging, and oh-so talented; they even brought Bluesfest one of its very best covers (of which there were many across the five days) of the weekend with John Prine‘s “Quiet Man”. – Chris Singh

Houndmouth Set List
Black Gold
15 Years
Honey Slider
Quiet Man (John Prine Cover)
Northeast Texas Women
Houston Train
Say It
Hey Rose
Darlin’
Gasoline
Sedona
My Cousin Greg

stpaul

St. Paul and the Broken Bones

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again – St. Paul and the Broken Bones (who I discovered at SXSW in 2014) are one of the best live bands on the planet right now. With three spectacular performances – including what may be the best cover of The Beatles’  “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” I’ve ever seen, this Birmingham, Alabama troupe did not disappoint.

Word of mouth spread through the space of the festival’s five days and though it’s hard to argue they didn’t have anything but a stellar reception at each set – something that got St. Paul (Janeway) and the band a bit emotional in their first appearance – the anticipation was growing with each performance. By the end of the week, those who had never heard of them before were singing along to songs while they danced like they never danced before. To top it all off, the group teased some new material which sounded mighty fine… This was their first visit to Australia, and I wouldn’t expect it to be their last. – Larry Heath

residents

The Residents

Pioneers of weird, The Residents were more outliers on the bill than headliner Kendrick Lamar ever was – freewheeling synths and matryoshka doll layered vocals are just the tip of the oddest iceberg you’ll ever see – but the highlight of their first Shadowland set was helped along by the only downpour of the night, leading to crowds scrambling into the tent and walking directly into a fever dream. It was prime people watching for about an hour, with equal parts incomprehension, terror, and amusement on the many faces. – Andrew Wade

Kamasi Washington-6

Kamasi Washington & The Next Step (Thursday; Saturday)

Kamasi Washington is a perfect example of just why encore performances are such an important part of Bluesfest. If the artist/band’s first performance is exceptional then word will spread around the site quickly and that artist/band’s encore performance will often double in terms of attendance, allowing those who missed the first time around to catch what has been deemed an unmissable performance.

Hype already surrounded Kamasi Washington based off of his adventurous three-disc record The Epic reaching near the top of countless end-of-year lists for 2015, but nothing could have really prepared the crowd for this. Along with his band The Next Step, made up of all equally talented musos with different prodigious skills, Washington blew our minds, touched our souls, and stimulated our senses with a set that had so many different shapes and sounds to it that it felt like a festival all in itself.

It’s a tough and brave decision to bring jazz to a contemporary audience and make it work for a festival environment, but this progressive, highly innovative arena-type jazz was compelling from beginning to end, highlighting each musician in a diverse diorama that was illustrated with the past, present, and future of jazz music, evoking the weirdness of Sun Ra and the razor-sharp focus of John Coltrane, while creating something new all together.

The band’s double-bass playing Miles Mosley enjoyed the most memorable spotlight on the Thursday night performance, with a deep, solid piece that could have easily been a big band interpretation of a Hudson Mohawke production, a horn-assisted monster that would have filled producer KLC with envy and single handedly revived Mystikal‘s career (the James Brown of hip hop really needs to jump on something with these guys).

You’ll be hard-pressed finding someone who walked away from either or both of those sets with a newfound (or re-ignited) love and appreciation of Jazz. – Chris Singh

bluesbrothers

The Original Blues Brothers Band

Having seen the film more times than I can count, this really was the true party to close out the festival. Despite the only original members being Steve Cropper and Lou Marini, running through staples from both the Blues Brothers’ discography and movies was an excellent move to close, with the packed tent shouting back full strength at the call and response parts of “Minnie the Moocher”, dancing wildly to “Shot Gun Blues”, and the drawn-out closing version of “Sweet Home Chicago”. Fingers crossed for a repeat visit from the greats soon. – Andrew Wade

Con Trio-2

Con Brio

Speaking of word of mouth, without question one of the most talked about acts of the festival was one I’d never heard of before this weekend – San Francisco’s Con Brio – a funk group whose lead singer Ziek McCarter is oft-compared to Michael Jackson, and can do the splits at the drop of a hat. There was HUGE energy that came from this group – and though I can’t speak to their recorded material, it feels like this is a band who have made a name for themselves on the live stage, for they are one of the most fun I’ve seen. And boy, do they know how to work a crowd… Do check them out if you ever get the chance. – Larry Heath

d'angelo

D’Angelo (Saturday)

For a fan who has been loving his music for as long as they can remember, it was a beautiful thing to see D’Angelo deliver a highly energetic, compelling performance of funk, soul, and rock with a wide smile on his face not once, but twice at Bluesfest.

His Thursday slot before headliner Kendrick Lamar was sensational, but marred by the atmosphere the younger and more obnoxious Kendrick fans brought to the Mojo stage, leaving Saturday to be the real deal; the perfect moment for any fan who has been waiting years to watch this highly influential, universally praised artist do his thing.

A mix of old and new is what we got here, stretched and transformed in expert fashion by D along with super-band The Vanguard, giving us everything from a funky live version of “Devil’s Pie” and a two-part performance which spanned “Left & Right” and “Chicken Grease” (easily the purest moment of unadulterated funk all weekend) to a politically charged rock epic in “The Charade” and the Spanish slow-sway of heart-plucking jam “Really Love”.

Though, it was the final 20 minutes that left the crowd stunned on the Saturday night; a very long rendition of D’Angelo’s most well known ballad, “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”, starting with D behind a piano with no one else on stage, building to an intensely passionate burst of funk-infused screams and guitar licks, and then slowly being deconstructed as one-by-one each band member would take leave until there was just D’Angelo, once again sitting at his piano and singing with the crowd. That was special. – Chris Singh

D’Angelo Set List

Devil’s Pie
Red Hot Mama (Funkadelic Cover)
Feel Like Makin’ Love
Really Love
The Charade
Brown Sugar
Left & Right
Chicken Grease

Encore
Untitled (How Does It Feel)

 decemberists

The Decemberists

The Portland, Oregon five piece finally made their Bluesfest debut (their second visit to Australia and first since 2010) and boy, was it splendid. Their two main stage appearances could not have been more enjoyable, ending each with the effortlessly enjoyable “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”. The song, which featured one massive felt whale and a whole lot of audience screaming, helped round up two well rounded sets, where the band churned through an impressive selection of songs old and new, sure to impress fans and serve as a perfect introduction for the rest. “16 Military Wives” got a particularly rousing reception on the first show, and the inclusion of a few tracks from the magnificent record The Hazards of Love to start off their second was a welcome one indeed. – Larry Heath

Special Mentions…

Steve SmythGraham NashNathaniel Rateliff & The Night SweatsAllen StoneTom Jones and Modest Mouse.

Visit our Bluesfest hub for more AU content from Byron this year!