Every festival has it’s niche. For some, such as Soundwave, it is an adrenalin-fuelled, whiplash-inducing headbang-fest. Woodford is about a more spiritual appreciation of music and ecology. Splendour in the Grass, Falls Festival, Big Day Out, all about the big names, international contemporaries, but each festival a unique experience in its own right.
For the Byron Bay Bluesfest, it is about the music
That may seem like a pretty stupid thing to say about a music festival; the answer’s in the name – it’s a MUSIC festival. But allow me to run with this just a little. Despite risking pigeon-holing by calling itself a Blues festival, the Byron Bluesfest is fairly genre non-specific. The connection though, that unites artists and crowd and permeates every aspect of this five-day event is a deeper love of music and an exceptional exhibition of some of the most talented artists in the world. Take for example an artist familiar to the Northern Rivers, John Butler. With his band, the Trio create great songs, catchy as a fish hook and sure to please any crowd. But sit JB alone with acoustic guitar in hand and he illuminates. Butler’s solo, vocals-free track, Ocean, is one of those stop-you-in-your-tracks songs, the culmination of years of experience, a burning passion and an all-consuming devotion that sets Butler and artists of his ilk apart. It is like being privy to a love affair between man and music, a couple entwined in utter devotion, lost completely in each other despite the thousands of eyes gazing at them in stunned silence.
English belle, Joss Stone, is another showcase of this. Growing up where she did, there was certainly a folk element to the musical scene, a bit of punk rock, but nothing of the roots soul she embodies. I should know – it’s my home town too. It was her pure passion that drove her heart, a contradiction to her surroundings but such an unquestionable yearning that she is now internationally renowned as a breathtakingly powerful soul singer beyond her years, the new Aretha, Billie or Nina, despite her cute, Englishgirl next door image.
It is a musician’s job to get on stage and play their songs for an audience. They love what they do and, if they’re standing in front of a crowd of 10,000 punters, one would hope that they’re pretty good at it. But for a Bluesfest artist it is so much more, an almost self-indulgent act and a gratuitous public display of affection for their paramour, their music.
Buddy Guy is a man who, to the Bluesfest crowd, needs no introduction, not least because he’s a regular guest at the annual event. The living legend sweats the blues as he riffs and licks his way through each tune, tortured expressions contorting his face, his music such a natural extension of his emotional expression. In some regards, it’s comical to watch an artist grimace and gurn over the curved waist of a guitar, their fingers caressing the plucked and bended strings. But this is ‘it’, the ‘it’ of Kerouac quotes and backwater bayous, the ‘it’ that burns within, unleashed and manifested through whatever tool can be mastered, the ‘it’ that drives the musician on relentlessly, through rain or shine, poverty or stardom, that empassioned expression of emotion that only music can provide.
Michael Franti proves a bit of a spin on this perspective. Like John Butler, his tunes are catchy and you can’t stop your body from moving when he gets warmed up but, with the utmost respect to him, he isn’t in the upper echelons of supernaturally talented musicians. What Franti excels at is connection. Every syllable that passes his lips is given specifically and dedicated to his audience – and they reciprocate. It is emotion formed into lyrics and sound, it reaches out and embraces the crowd, lifting them upon its shoulders and carrying them on its journey.
Nahko and Medicine For The People are also purveyors of an emotional experience. Bluesfest crowds were blessed with a guest appearance by Xavier Rudd, the stage taking on the power of a pulpit, musical sermons of love, compassion, unity and peace filling every heart with hope. Music has the power to move us, to evoke tears of joy or sorrow, to unite or divide us, to make us rise up in rebellion, to fight injustice, to make us fall in love and this is the energy with which the 25th Annual Byron Bluesfest was infused.
With such variety of music, it is almost certain that there were some acts not to everyone’s liking, but usual personal preferences are cast aside in unbiased appreciation of talent. Listeners may not have been fans of, say, bluegrass, but defy anyone to suggest they didn’t marvel at that old boy going to town on the banjo. The Bluesfest line-up is filled with hidden gems, people you’ve never heard of or who you thought put their guitar to pasture or lost their last pick many years ago, and you are continually surprised, as you walk around the expansive venue with all its eateries and shopperies, by the exotic and dumbfounding sounds emanating from every covering of canvas.
Elvis Costello is a world-renowned artist, recognised on stage and screen – a legend. But he came to the Bluesfest with humility and the simple desire to share his work. Byron Bay Bluesfest isn’t about celebrity, the biggest acts or the most renowned songs – it is, quite simply, a showcase of talent. The Dave Matthews Band, another name holding significant weight, hosted incredible, two-and-a-half-hour long sets, overflowing with sing-along songs and crowd-pleasers. Although Matthews himself gave his audience all their favourite songs and a lot of laughs in between, his band stole the thunder with the depth of their talent. Boyd Tinsley on violin, drummer Carter Beauford, Jeff Coffin and Rashawn Ross on brass, all amazing in their realms. And then there was Tim Reynolds. Long, straggly hair obscuring his face, dark sunglasses averting the glaring spotlights, the unassuming lead guitarist could easily have an ego to fill any arena. But he doesn’t – he just plays, fingers running across the fretboard faster than eyes can capture, hand a blur of strums and plucks and an eruption of appreciation from the slack-jawed crowd, but no great claims, no arms raised or limelight grasped. As with so many of the musicians, Reynolds and his fellow band members seem only to be thrilled that what they love they can share with so many and those many hang on every single perfectly-struck note.
There are big names, there are headline acts, there are so many musicians you could rush to see, but Byron Bay Bluesfest holds so many surprises. From the insane live presence and performance of an artist you’ve heard a thousand times to the Johnny Who on the smallest stage whose skills defy physics, as I said to begin, it’s about the music.
All photos: Kirra Pendergast