No matter where in the world you go, it’s unlikely you’ll find another festival that offers the same experiences as Bluesfest Byron Bay. With sunny skies and an almost flawless combination of Blues legends and budding performers from a wide range of neighbouring genres, this year’s five day festival was an escape from normality and a step into the ideal way of life:
“Eat, sleep, Blues, repeat” as the Spotify bags so greatly put it.
Bluesfest has been celebrating roots music and all the new and old artists within it for almost three decades, and their 28th annual festival may just have been their best yet.
For the hard-core Blues obsessives this was the year to be in attendance, kicking off the festival was the line-up’s best rising Blues musician, Davy Knowles. With warm vocals that cut straight through to the souls of those in attendance, Knowles scrambled brains and ignited the stage with ferocity, passion, and bucket-loads of talent that was taken to great heights by his band.
One major positive of this year’s festival was the quantity and quality of the female performers featured. Leading the pack was slide guitar maestro and all around Blues Queen, Bonnie Raitt. Performing a wide range of classics, including the emotionally charged 80s hit I Can’t Make You Love Me and a cover of I Need You Tonight by INXS, Raitt did all but disappoint.
Gliding through sensational solo after sensational solo, Raitt was later joined onstage by fan favourites The California Honeydrops to perform Women Be Wise, a gorgeous, energetic, and inspiring performance from one feisty Blues mama.
That being said, the peak of Raitt’s set came as keys player Mike Finnegan jumped into a solo performance of BB King’s Don’t Answer The Door which left many jaws sufficiently dropped. A truly transfixing Blues set from one the genre’s most celebrated artists and her world-class band.
Fellow guitar greats Buddy Guy and Santana took to the stage next. Blasting into both performances with Damn Right I’ve got The Blues, Buddy Guy showed zero signs of slowing down. Guy proved that he is everybody’s buddy with the best crowd interaction of the year which included a walk into the masses, throwing his used towel into the audience, and chucking picks into the air.
His crazy onstage antics came to a gentle halt with a tear jerking rendition of Skin Deep which was accompanied by a beautiful story of being ten years old and standing behind his mother who was combing her hair whilst looking into a broken mirror, he said “mama I’m good lookin'” and she turned to him and said “yeah, but that’s only skin deep”.
The last of the original Blues legends touched the core of all those who were smart enough to watch his two performances, and proved that 80 is one hell of a sexy number.
Santana’s incredibly tight and energetic set was the one of the many peaks of the festival. Playing an assortment of crowd favourites including Black Magic Woman and Smooth, Carlos Santana is a guitar phenomenon, and undeniably lived up to his status. Though it was his wife, drummer Cindy Blackman who stole the show, tearing through an impossible nine minute drum solo that scored screeches and screams from the adoring crowd.
After a mediocre performance from Booker T and his band, Ray Beadle and Eric Gales took the stage, some of the best guitarists the Blues have to offer.
Ray Beadle, or the poor man’s Jimmie Vaughan as I like to call him, proved yet again that he is a great performer and a complete pleasure to watch live. The Aussie Blues veteran broke a string two songs in and managed to power through the remainder of the set with wit and mastery:
“I bet you’re all wondering when I’m going to change the string, but this is the blues, you only need one string to play.”
Fellow guitar veteran Eric Gales and his band showed that they were all masters of their instruments with some mind boggling sets that saw him use his guitar to exude as much emotion, strength, and virtuosity as possible, and also saw his wife break out into the wildest tambourine solo ever witnessed.
The man that Joe Bonamassa once called the “greatest Blues player alive” slam dunked his way into the best performers’ list for this year’s festival, and undoubtedly left a mark on every person in the packed out tent.
Another guitarist who shredded themselves into oblivion was punter favourite, Melody Angel. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a person bragging about this guitar slingin’ goddess from the US this week, I’d be one seriously rich woman! With class, athleticism, and an abundance of soul, Melody is equals part Prince and Hendrix, one insanely talented vocalist and player. Her set was packed full of energy and left the crowd reeling after each of her performances.
Punk poet Patti Smith managed to pull in a seriously mammoth crowd during her incomparable performance of the classic album Horses, but to my surprise, the largest audience of them all was for the supremely tacky Jimmy Buffet. Despite my many complaints about Buffet over the years, old people and young pulled up chairs and squeezed themselves into the tightly packed tent to watch him sing about cheeseburgers in paradise. A highly entertaining set, if only because of the grown men in the audience throwing around blow up parrots, wearing Hawaiian shirts that they probably bought from Lowes.
To close out what was one of the most talent-filled Bluesfests in recent years was a hip shakin’, gyrating performance from The California Honeydrops. Watching these guys do their thing was a complete and utter throwback to the 1960s. With tantalisingly tight musicianship, an unbelievable horn section, and vocals that oozed spirit, sex appeal, and old school soul, I was hanging hook, line, and sinker on every word that was sung.
A brilliant ending to the most lovable celebration of music in Aus. Ahhh, Bluesfest you’ve done it again.