Festival Review: The 27th Annual Byron Bay Bluesfest – Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm (24-28.03.16)

Five full days of music will wear even the most vehement live music fanatic thin. Byron Bay Bluesfest is always a big ask for those who are up to the task, but the ones who stick it out for the entire Easter Weekend are rewarded with some of the best, most profoundly satisfying live music moments all year with a lineup curated around a high standard of quality, assisted by festival regulars which fit a taste that has been cultivated over the 27 years of the festival. A dedication to excellent sound across all stages.

Yes, there’s a formula to Bluesfest, but it’s one which has worked each and every time, bringing to Australia a hefty mix of legends and newcomers that are in line with the sound festival goers have to come to know and love, offering a platform to experience special performances from established acts and discover new favourites. In previous years, that formula has expanded to include more styles of music, all of which fit the aesthetic of an older, more mature sound; this year pushed that formula even further and though results were mixed at times, it made for one of the best Bluesfests in years.

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HARTS. (Photo: Andrew Wade)

Thursday

It felt like a summer festival for the opening day, with temperatures soaring while each stage provided respite from the heat with their big, shadowy tents. The best way to start the whole thing was to head straight for the Crossroads stage for a set from Melbourne’s Harts, who regularly wins fans over with his arena-fitted distorted rock-soul. On approach, I thought he had a full band with him but was surprised when I saw that it was just Harts on stage with a drummer to the side, there to provide some body to these mind-bending, distortion-heavy freak outs.

Harts puts 100% into these songs, you can tell from the way he handles his shiny axe as he almost violently breaks down with sometimes smooth, sometimes chaotic solos, shredding in between flourishes of soul and funk. He closed with one of the weekend’s best covers, a mostly faithful interpretation of “Purple Haze” (Jimmy Hendrix) that gave us a close look at how deftly Harts handles his guitar.

U.S soul band Con Brio hit the Crossroads stage early on in the afternoon with a very “Bruno Mars in Uptown Funk” vibe, driven by frontman Ziek McCarter who was easily one of the most exciting and energetic performers on the entire lineup, jumping, dancing, and shuffling his way through a magnetic performance that would see Con Brio’s crowds grow larger and larger across several sets through the weekend.

Elsewhere Lukas Nelson, son of Willie, and Neil Young’s touring band, Promise of the Real, waved the flag high for bluesy, traditional rock & roll, carefully layered but still raw and impactful enough. Lukas’ voice glides over the instrumentals perfectly, which is how he gave the day it’s second show-stealing cover, with Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes”.

The smokey, jazzy vocals for Hiatus Kaiyote’s Nai Palm kickstarted the soul and hip-hop vibes at Mojo for the Thursday, pushing the band’s experimental future-soul out well beyond the confines of the massive tent, soundtracking the inevitable push-and-shove that would lead up to headliner Kendrick Lamar, coming from a crowd that made it feel more like the Mix-Up Tent at Splendour in the Grass rather than any stage at Bluesfest. Though, the atmosphere was a bit diluted (more on that below), Hiatus were graceful on stage, recreating tracks like “Shaolin Monk Motherfunk”, “12 Atari”, and the set-closing “Nakamarra” with style and finesse, stepping up to the big task for opening for both D’Angelo and Kendrick.

KAMASI WASHINGTON. (Photo: Andrew Wade)
KAMASI WASHINGTON. (Photo: Andrew Wade)

Next up was Kamasi Washington who, along with his band, The Next Step, fully realised the hype surrounding his three-disc masterwork The Epic, recreating tracks from that universally praised project but adding in small nuanced – and seemingly improvised – expressions that helped flow the set along, showcasing the past, present, and future of Jazz in what was one of the weekend’s most memorable performances.

D’Angelo’s set list was almost exactly the same as it was at his Sydney Opera House show a few days prior, except that the crunchy Prince cover (“She’s Always in my Hair”) was taken out and replaced by playful Black Messiah cut “Sugah Daddy”. His high spirits come through with the performance, lively and vigorous with an obvious leaning towards interpreting both older (“Devil’s Pie”, “Feel Like Makin’ Love”, “Left & Right”, “Chicken Grease”) and new (“The Charade”, “Really Love”) works through funk and rock as opposed to the buttery soft neo-soul his first two albums became renowned for. A cover of Funkadelic’s “Red Hot Mama” said it all about the direction D’Angelo and his band, The Vanguard, is heading in, and even seemed to bring some of the more inattentive members of the audience over to his side.

Was Kendrick the right choice?

Perhaps the boldest move for Bluesfest organisers this year was booking Compton emcee Kendrick Lamar to headline the opening day on Thursday. Almost immediately, criticism came from Bluesfest regulars regarding two concerns. First, they claimed Kendrick didn’t at all suit the festival’s aesthetic (keep in mind that the likes of The Roots and Jurassic 5 have played well-received, well-attended sets at the festival in previous years), and second, they questioned the type of crowd he would attract. The claims that Kendrick doesn’t suit the festival’s “sound” are ridiculous, and easily put to rest with even just one listen to the intricate idioms of Jazz, Blues, and Soul on To Pimp a Butterfly, but there’s a bit of basis for the second concern, and unfortunately many who came for Kendrick’s set on the Thursday only proved that criticism.

“No one knows who D’Angelo is, skip him and get to Kendrick”, one kid shouted behind me as he pushed his way to the front before the neo-soul comeback king took to the stage. “Who is this c***, where’s Kendrick?” A young girl behind me asked, getting a laugh from her friend, before they both started chanting the hook to “Alright”, a song which comes from an album in which a major motif is respect (funnily enough those same girls cheered when Kendrick stopped his set midway to say “give it up for the legendary D’Angelo”). I was right up front for D’Angelo, a man who many never even dreamed would return to the stage until a comeback was announced last year, and already the atmosphere had been polluted by these putrid, obnoxious, and unwelcome tweens.

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KENDRICK LAMAR. (Photo: Andrew Wade)

As someone who grew up with Hip Hop and has loved it, studied it and defended it since a very young age, I sadly found myself agreeing with the Bluesfest regulars, but most of those negative feelings quickly subsided once Kendrick really got into the nitty-gritty of his set. It was my third time seeing his live show in less than a week, but in that tent, with all that enthusiasm and life from the crowd, it was no less impressive.

The tent was perfect to really tease out what his band was capable of, but it all came back to Kendrick and his rapid-fire spoken word pieces that were inserted in between the more “turn up” focused tracks like “m.A.A.d City”, “Money Trees”, and “Alright”, all of which resulted in explosive waves of jumping, sweating, and clashing bodies not just in the mosh pit but all the way up to the very opening of the tent; not bad for someone who focuses more on actual skill and emceeing rather than production for his live show to work, with the only embellishment really coming from the band, who would re-shape tracks by stretching parts out, doing something grand like adding a heavy riff of N.W.A’s “Dopeman” to “Backstreet Freestyle”, or just playing the background while K Dot fiercely delivered the poetic slam of his more cerebral TPAB cuts.

Of course, Kendrick is in no way responsible for how frustratingly terrible some of his fans were; it’s just disappointing that Hip Hop was represented in such a way by the people it attracted to the festival, unfortunately reconfirming what the doubters already thought about Kendrick, rather than proving them wrong. I hope Peter Noble continues to take a chance on promoting good Hip Hop at Bluesfest, but something tells me the several fights up front, the two idiots that climbed the tent and were told by Kendrick himself to get down, and the fact that the stage manager had to plead with the crowd to “take two steps back”, means that the festival’s choice in Hip Hop will be limited should they want to preserve that relaxed, all-about-the-music vibe that Bluesfest is renowned for.

ARCHIE ROACH. (Photo: Andrew Wade)
ARCHIE ROACH. (Photo: Andrew Wade)

Friday

With so many classic albums celebrating anniversaries now it was only right for the organisers to tap music legend Archie Roach for a special performance commemorating 25 years since the iconic Charcoal Lane. The early afternoon was all about this set right here, as a more familiar Bluesfest crowd packed the tent to hear Roach sing through these thoughtful songs, full of spirit and honesty, strongly connected to both the beauty and ugliness of Australia’s history. His songs are insightful and affecting, which is why his first performance at the festival in years, celebrating an album which is inseparable from Australian music history, was a special moment.

Elle King gave a strong performance which would become one of the most talked about of the day, with a hugely enjoyable dual cover of The Weeknd and Nick Jonas, following a bluesy version of “Oh! Darling” by The Beatles; legendary songwriter Graham Nash performed, with exceptional guitarist Shane Fontayne, songs from both Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and The Hollies, showcasing the power of great writing; The Word put on a non-stop, high-energy set of finely tuned, fast paced blues; and Nahko and Medicine for the People presented what was one of the most diverse and musically dense sets of the day, interesting in structure and sound, particularly with an epic performance of “I Mua” encircled by brief covers of Justin Bieber, M.I.A, Blackstreet, TLC, Bob Marley, and even Macklemore.

A very earnest Dallas Green had never sounded in better shape then when City and Colour played the second-to-last set at the Mojo stage, soaking the atmosphere in soulful soft-rock with a very crowd-pleasing set that inspired more than a few of the weekend’s loudest and proudest sing-a-long moments, followed up by The National who brought that indie-rock intensity that is unique to the stoic-chaotic dichotomy that is Matt Berninger.

D'ANGELO. (Photo: Andrew Wade)
D’ANGELO. (Photo: Andrew Wade)

Saturday

More so than any other year before it, the 27th annual Bluesfest brought in a lot of soul music, a fitting accompaniment to re-appearing headliner D’Angelo who this time would perform a two-hour set to close out to Mojo stage, helped along by a crowd that was as gracious and soulful as the man himself, resulting in an 18 minute extended performance of “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” which – and he didn’t do this at the Sydney Opera House – brilliantly built towards the full band on stage only to then be deconstructed with each musician taking leave, one by one, slowly stripping away layers of the sound until it was just D and his piano, vibing with the crowd for one of the most beautiful live music moments I’ve ever been a part of.

Of course, that wasn’t the only great thing about the Saturday though, with earlier performances by Allen Stone, who held the crowd in the palm of his hands with his upbeat, uplifting blend of blues and soul; St Paul & The Broken Bones, who continued to be one of the brightest bands of the weekend with a rousing performance that included two brilliant covers – David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” and Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”; and Kamasi Washington, who returned for his second performance of the weekend, obviously energised by how well received his compelling, comprehensive jazz journey was, highlighting even more members of The Next Step to really focus in on the fact that this is a collective of musicians that are ready, willing, and able to change the face of Jazz in the contemporary music landscape.

Though soul was the most dominate style of Day Three, there was some brilliant sets from Eagles of Death Metal and The Decemberists, the latter putting on a fun, theatrical display of indie-rock that ended up with a giant cardboard whale coming on stage and eating the whole band.

MODEST MOUSE. (Photo: Andrew Wade)
MODEST MOUSE. (Photo: Andrew Wade)

Sunday

This was also the only day where Bluesfest actually felt like Bluesfest, in terms of the weather; the grounds were muddy from the heavy rain that fell the night before, and gumboots – both worn and discarded – were everywhere. Nothing could keep the mood down though, especially with an encore performance from Con Brio soundtracking the early afternoon while indie-rock four-piece Houndmouth played their first ever Australian show on the Mojo stage and completely blew expectations away, coming out as one of the very best non-headliner acts of the weekend.

Graham Nash performed his second set of the weekend over at Crossroads, while nightfall saw The Wailers perform Legend in full, capping off their four-day run of performing back-to-back Marley records, delivering their greatest hits to which the Jambalaya tent turned into a celebration of the music of Bob Marley, essentially one giant karaoke machine that was helped along by an excellent band who recreated these timeless reggae classics.

Modest Mouse hit the main stage for their only performance at Bluesfest, bringing a slightly harder edge of indie-rock that was centered around the boundless energy of Issac Brock, whose stage presence was as odd and husky as his enthusiastic vocals, him bouncing around the stage and even plucking the guitar with his teeth. These guys put a lot into their performance, and it shows in how carefully layered the instrumentals are, offering a very different band to the one you hear on record, one in which it’s far easier to see and hear just how many layers there are on a Modest Mouse record, from the propulsive bassline that steers the groove of “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” to the melodic, almost tropical percussion that brings a new dimension to “Float On”.

It could have gone either way for Noel Gallagher and his High Flying Birds as the Day Four headliner, but many forget that the man’s attitude in interviews is mostly disconnected from his music, which with the High Flying Birds is more soulful and blues-influenced than the straight-laced rock and roll of Oasis. As with many of the best acts of the weekend, a small brass section helped bring these songs – which were mixed with Oasis classics like “Champagne Supanova”, “Wonderwall”, and “Don’t Look Back in Anger” – to life. Some of the set was a bit too excessive at times, the band often drowning out Gallagher’s mid-strength vocals with meaty walls of sound (eg “Lock all the Doors”), obscuring much of the lyrics, but the more stripped back and focused songs in the set were undeniable and largely satisfying.

ST. PAUL AND THE BROKEN BONES. (Photo: Andrew Wade)
ST. PAUL & THE BROKEN BONES. (Photo: Andrew Wade)

Monday

Those take-em-to-church vibes of St Paul & The Broken Bones (who were so appreciative they gave us a good preview of some new material) which followed another winning set from Allen Stone made sure the Jambalaya stage was the place to be earlier on during the final day of Bluesfest for 2016, but quality was found all around the grounds.

Steve Smyth benefited from a three-piece brass ensemble to add to his soulful, husky tones; Blind Boy Paxton charmed the crowd at The Juke Box with traditional, front-porch style blues; legendary Blues artist Taj Mahal made his long-awaited return to Bluesfest with a solo performance that was warm, inviting, and rustic; Vintage Trouble and The Original Blues Brothers Band (yes, the film) made sure Crossroads was left moving and shaking with playful, non-stop energy; and both Richard Clapton and Russell Morris showcased great Australian music. But the final day really was all about the two legendary headliners who helped close out the Mojo stage with some of the biggest moments that no one in attendance is likely to forget anytime soon.

First, we had Brian Wilson and his band (which included fellow Beach Boys original Al Jardine) get us to help them celebrate the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds. Jardine’s son, Matt, possesses a heavenly, creamy falsetto like Wilson did in his youth so that signature surf-rock sound that is unique to the iconic band is captured well here, the vocal harmonies layered wonderfully for songs like “Don’t Worry Baby” and “I Get Around”.

The 73-year-old Wilson mostly sat still behind his piano in the centre of the stage, his voice obviously weathered but still involved enough to knock “God Only Knows” right out of the park, assisted by the band but mostly tasking himself to do justice to one of the best songs he has ever written. As with the equally emotional “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)”, there seemed to be some tears flowing down Wilson’s cheeks as the appreciative crowd had no problem showing how much this moment meant to them. This was as much about respect as it was nostalgia, a reverent celebration of all The Beach Boys mean to rock history.

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BRIAN WILSON. (Photo: Andrew Wade)

Tom Jones still has that swinging, vivacious voice that’s full of enough bass to thicken the air in the packed Mojo tent – which was so busy it spilled far beyond the borders – and he used it to carry a comprehensive set that delivered all of his most well-known hits as well as interpretations of other works by the likes of Leonard Cohen, John Lee Hooker and Prince. At the age of 75, Tom Jones interests are heavily embedded in gospel and blues, and that’s exactly what he gave us, syncing up with the festival’s aesthetic and pushing it out with a Las Vegas sense of showmanship. It was surprising, completely unpredictable from a younger fans perspective, and quite incredible to watch. Dancing was a must, whether it was fast to songs like a stripped back and relatively brass-less “It’s Not Unusual” or slow to a gospel-jazz touch up of “Sex Bomb”.

Jones’ band was impressive as well, hitting all the right beats and working with his crispy and clear vocals rather than against or over them, making for enjoyable renditions of “Delilah”, “Didn’t it Rain” (which featured an appearance from The Blind Boys of Alabama), and hard-hitting set-opener “Burning Hell”.

Final Thoughts

Bluesfest remains an almost perfectly structured and well thought-out festival, providing enough variety but still making it strictly all about the love of live music. Half the joy of Bluesfest is going into the festival not knowing many of the acts on the line-up but coming away with a handful of new favourites (St Paul & The Broken Bones, Houndmouth, Blind Boy Paxton, and Con Brio for me); the other half is seeing some rare, extended performances from legendary artists and bands who seem unfettered and unburdened on stage because of the environment.

CON BRIO. (Photo: Andrew Wade)
CON BRIO. (Photo: Andrew Wade)

You have the celebration of music, love, and life in general, keeping a certain spirit in the air that you don’t get at similar events, helped along this year by programs like the Boomerang Festival, which was a place to relax and watch traditional dance and performance from Indigenous Australians and other cultures, spread through the weekend with workshops and talks. There were even secret pop-up intimate gigs from Bluesfest acts like Grace Potter, who performed a brief Q&A and acoustic session alongside excellent singer-songwriter Janiva Magness at the Radio National tent hidden off the side on the way to Mojo.

Bluesfest is often considered one of the best music events in the world because of a strong dedication to the art and the history of music; this year was a sharp reminder of that status, from the quality of the performances and the people (younger Kendrick fans an exception) that flock in and out of the grounds united by the love of good, powerful music, to the often overwhelming choices in food and drink available (grabbing some Byron Bay Organic Doughnuts after seeing Allen Stone sing is like an over-indulgence of soul food) alongside boutique designers and market stalls.

For our top picks of Bluesfest click  here, and for all our coverage including photo galleries head to our Bluesfest hub HERE.