Inspired, invigorated, and exhausted: Bluesfest celebrate 30 years with one of their best

For three decades Bluesfest Byron Bay has been a staple event for blues lovers and music obsessives across the globe, and it isn’t Australia’s most awarded festival for nothing.

No other festival in the country, or perhaps even the world, will offer the same across the board inclusivity as Bluesfest. Everyone from babies, to teens, to seniors in their camping chairs groove together in high spirits to blues, rock, reggae, soul and more over the week-long festivities.

Bennett Scorcia bluesfest review happy mag
Photo: Bennett Scorcia

Bluesfest’s 30th anniversary was a spectacular five days that had many of us wishing every week could be Bluesfest week.

Compared to the festival’s 25th anniversary celebrations, Bluesfest’s milestone 30th anniversary lineup was more a diverse celebration of long-time festival favourites than the immersive blues experience it can be. But while the blues was slightly lesser than, the heart of the festival was strong as ever, making it a joyous week of great music, amazing collaborations, good food, and even better people.

This year Bluesfest welcomed a number of blue-eyed soul’s biggest names. St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Allen Stone, Marcus King, and Anderson East each poured their hearts into incredible shows over the five days.

St. Paul was his usual charismatic self, bringing the crowd to their knees while he was on his, wearing a sparkly black cape and singing like a white boy ain’t supposed to.

Photo: Bluesfest

While predominately a blues artist, Marcus King’s vocals are about as soulful as it gets. Arriving at Bluesfest for their first ever Australian shows was exciting for both the band and fans alike. Playing three sets over the five days, the blues brothers blew minds with their southern rock inspired jams, the group united amidst Marcus’ mindful shredding. The South Carolina natives are a musical match made in heaven, and brought a much needed dose of the blues to the festival.

However, the greatest of the blue-eyed soul sets were courtesy of newcomer Anderson East. While the singer, songwriter and guitarist has been performing for years, his first performances down under stunned everyone who packed into the tents to see him.

With one of the event’s tightest bands at his beck and call, the frontman howled and hollered his way through amazing sets of originals and a cover of Springsteen’s Hungry Heart, a highlight being their closing performance of This Too Shall Last on day four.

As the small Delta tent swelled with people, Anderson and guitarist Scott Murphy took the love song to big places, with beautiful harmonising guitars, and a dreamy solo by Murphy who picked all the right notes. It was one of the best and most unexpected moments of Bluesfest 2019.

By day three it had become clear that this was the year of on-stage collaborations, and Son House covers.

Lukas was the man about town this year, joining headliner Jack Johnson on stage to perform a cover of Breakdown, and Tom Petty’s You Don’t Know How It Feels, followed by Gary Clark Jr. hopping on board with Jack for a Bad Weather and Whole Lotta Love mashup. Nelson later joined Gary Clark Jr. and Marcus King for a blues guitar extravaganza during Gary’s final set of the week.

Lukas Nelson’s third and final set of the festival was filled with new and old originals, and a slew of covers; from Paul Simon’s Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes, to JJ Cale’s After Midnight, to a mind altering closing performance of Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World featuring the Hunter Valley’s own William Crighton, and Aboriginal Elder Tracker Pete.

The energetic rendition saw Tracker Pete put out a fire with his bare hands, Lukas playing guitar solos tasteful enough to impress even the harshest of critics, and a packed audience fist pumping and singing along with a contagious energy.

Photo: Bluesfest

Needless to say, Willie’s offspring has music racing through his veins and it shows. His sets were easily the most impressive and memorable of the festival, and luckily for us he’ll be returning for Bluesfest’s 31st year in 2020, as festival director Peter Noble announced at the end of Monday night’s show.

As far as Son House goes, rock and roll sisters Larkin Poe did a moody, banjo-heavy cover of John The Revelator, while Marcus King stripped his third set back to perform a goosebump inducing a capella cover of Grinnin’ in Your Face.

When it came to headliners, Norah Jones came and went in as classy a fashion one can, with some subtle moodiness thrown in for good measure. Sitting behind her piano from beginning to end, she and her band of seasoned pros worked through a set of new songs and hits that had almost everyone in the tent singing along and slow dancing.

For the first time in a very long time, Ray LaMontagne graced Aussie audiences with his presence for one set of melancholy magic. Accompanied only by his guitar and his bass playing pal from Wilco, the pair harmonised their way to a heartstring-pulling climax. The performance was every bit a songwriter’s nirvana.

iggy pop bluesfest
Photo: Bluesfest

The year’s standout headliner was none other than the Godfather of Punk, Iggy Pop. The legendary performer wasted no time, opening his fiery set with I Wanna be Your Dog, and following that up with a setlist of his biggest hits. Pop writhed and wiggled across the stage, exclaiming “fuck” in between songs with a hilarious enthusiasm, giving new life to everyone that squashed themselves into the tent amidst the rain and mud.

While Bluesfest is a celebration of the genre that was born out of worries and troubles, the festival never fails to rid every punter of their blues. The weather held out well, and the music left us all feeling inspired, invigorated, and wonderfully exhausted.

It was a spectacular five days that had many of us wishing every week could be Bluesfest week.