Bluesfest 2015 was different. An array of headliners including the Black Keys and Lenny Kravitz had pulled out and a majority of the performers didn’t fit the bill of either Blues or Roots but what we got was something else, it was spiritual, and profound. We experienced new artists, old artists and all round legends who stripped us down to our very core, and soaked up every bit of our attention. More than ever before, a constellation of people from all walks of life came together for five days of musical bliss and as the Bluesfest master himself Peter Noble commented “In 2015 we wanted to be kind of contemporary, part of the challenge is to get new people coming” and that they did.
Byron Bay Bluesfest’s 2015 outing saw an expansion of genre that yielded a great festival experience. Solos, howling vocals and mud, this was Bluesfest 2015.
The first performer I caught was Kristy Lee, an Alabama girl full of emotion who’s acoustic guitar and rich vocals prove she is as passionate as Aretha Franklin circa Soul 69. Lee is highly underrated yet managed to pull in an impressive crowd during each of her three performances. Playing originals and covers including Bill Withers’ Grandma’s Hands, her harmonisation with her all female band the Hussy Hicks was impeccable, and had people bragging for days.
Next on the agenda were Nikki Hill and the Nikki Hill band. Playing a concoction of new and old songs as well as a cover of AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap that perfectly echoed the voice of Bon Scott, and had all of us Aussies singin’ along as brash and out of key as possible. Hill is indisputably the Tina Turner of 2015, and seeing her live only confirms that further. She exudes heart, soul and rock n’ roll and with her husband tearing it up on the guitar playing behind his head Hendrix style, the connection and energy shared between the band is powerful, think Lou Ann Barton and SRV’s Triple Threat Revue. Performing on each of the five days, her voice as big as her 70s afro, her dancin’ as contagious as the flu, each performance was refreshing. Hill and her talented group of accompanying musicians are a godsend to the world of rock n’ roll and most especially to the realm of modern music.
Arguably the greatest act of this year’s line up was JJ Grey & Mofro. When you take eight formidable musicians including sax, trumpet and organ players and throw them into one giant brew of swamp rock, with a pinch of blues, a touch of RnB and a whole lot of soul, lord knows you’re in for something evocative. Playing on the Jambalaya stage on Friday and in the Mojo tent on Easter Sunday, Grey delivered all the goods, and as did the band during each of their virtuosic solos. Performing tracks from Ol’ Glory, This River, Orange Blossoms, Georgia Warhorse and a selection of other works, Grey’s enthusiasm was stimulating. Proving he is all but a one trick pony he took to the guitar to produce mind altering riffs, and when the tambourine made an appearance things started to get a lil’ Slow, Hot and Sweaty! Thrusting, banging and slapping that music maker on top of his expressive vocals, along with the band’s tight timing was almost too good to handle.
Their first appearances at Bluesfest in seven years were evidently mind blowing, and smile inducing (although no one smiled quite as much as Mofro’s bassist Todd Smallie, he sure was spritely!) The Waterboys were easily the biggest thought provokers of the festival. Performing tracks from their latest release and songs from their classic 1985 album This is the Sea including the award winning The Whole of the Moon, which Scott opened with “Lets nail this motherfucker to the wall”, the guys showed that nothing has changed. Scott’s vivacious vocals and sheer fervour saw him kick the mid air, whilst his engaging stage presence got the audience literally spinning around in circles at his request, making for an unforgettable set. Scott is more than just a story teller, he is one of the most profound poets of this century, and the passion, mystery and love that drowned each of the tracks he performed at Bluesfest made that all the more clear.
Although most performances left me elated, there lay a few disappointing sets. Alabama Shakes‘ front woman Brittany Howard’s performances were slapped with zest, and her vocals and backing band were energetic. Yet I failed to become engaged, it was rather boring at times with the striking similarities between songs. Mavis Staples is an undeniable legend, and the ultimate queen of sass and good vibrations, yet she was far too reliant on her backing vocalists to get her through the set, giving it the feel of a cover show, and regrettably not a very good one.
With one legend producing a mediocre show, two other legends John Mayall and Charles Bradley were both god damn astounding. Mayall took to the stage with his band of prodigies including guitar ‘god’ Rocky Athas who played the most intricate solos with the slightest of movement, and renowned bass player Greg Rzab who having played with SRV, Santana, Jimmy Page and Buddy Guy in the past brought an abundance of technique and experience to each track. They performed everything from All Your Love which featured on The Bluesbreakers’ first ever record way back in 65’ to tracks from his latest LP A Special Life. Mayall played the keys and sent the wildest of harp solos ringing straight through each and every psyche.
Charles Bradley, the always suave ‘screaming eagle of soul’ and his band of all male Extraordinaires made an impact that will last a lifetime. The final performance I witnessed and by far the most euphoric. Bradley arrived on stage in one of his 70s sequin jackets and brought along his trademark sex appeal, doing slut drops and using his mic as a means to express his deepest of emotions, and send heart wrenching messages out into the crowd; “We try to change the world for love, peace and honour”. Exiting the stage for the sake of a costume change only made the performance better, one minute he was a disco dreamboat and the next, as my friend George would say, a “funk wizard”. Exclaiming “I love you!” to the crowd on numerous occasions and even getting in with us at the end of the set, I truly felt the love and appreciation.
With the good and bad came the strange and by strange I mean fucking brilliant. Jeff Lang and Hozier had one major thing in common; their knack for creating a dark sound that crawls straight into your mind, and leaves you feeling spacey. Both sets were stripped back yet filled with such intricacy. Witnessing Lang’s organic vocal execution as well as his serpentine guitar technique was exactly what the audience needed to be sent into a state of bluesy coma. However, no one quite played with the same passion Rodrigo Y Gabriel did. The pair laid down percussions on their acoustics as if it were a life or death situation, it was unparalleled and ridiculously rapturous.
One of the stand outs of the festival was when G. Love and Special Sauce brought their trademark blend of hip-hop and blues to the Jambalaya tent. Combining classics like Cold Beverages with favourites from their new record Sugar, the guys played as though they were brought up in the same household. Their musical connection extended to unbelievable heights and when Jack Johnson, Jake Shimabukuro, and Donavan Frankenreiter took to the stage to accompany G, their ability to accommodate different sounds and still leave everyone in awe was highlighted.
Bluesfest 2015 was an experience unlike any other, and amongst the hordes of kick ass strangers I met, and enthusiast 1am D&Ms we all shared whilst listening to guitar solos howling in from all angles of the site, I realised it was the only place you can witness buskers playing on the same stage as revered legends, and bask in it all with a wide range of individuals who simply adore music.
A 10/10 week filled with such joyous vibrations that not even the rain, and gumboots could bring me down, except for maybe that one very long moment when I sunk into thick mud at the Crossroads tent whilst wearing my white leather go-go boots.
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