Bluesfest 2010 Highlights!

Review: Elize Strydom
[Photo: Stuart Blythe]
There comes a point during the festival – usually when you’re trudging through the mud towards the Mojo tent to get a good possie for that band you can’t believe you’re about to see – when you get the blues. For the past few days you’ve existed inside a bubble of banjos, harmonicas, dust bowl/mud pit dancing, university cigarettes, gumboots, ferris wheels, Hare Krishna fare and music from across the globe. You’ve been wrapped up in a place where Crossroads, Mojo and Jambalaya (and maybe the port-a-loos) are the only destinations you need to remember. All of a sudden you realise it will all go up in smoke tomorrow. You’ll have to pull down your tent and sit in a traffic queue for an hour before you get to the highway and start your journey back to reality. I guess that’s why people come back again and again; to get another injection of the magic.

The Byron Bay Bluesfest turned 21 this year and finally moved into its own home at the Tyagrah Tea Tree Farm. Over five days there was almost too much musical goodness to take in…but here are some of my highlights.

The program describes him as “A Hasidic Jewish musician from New York City.” That description doesn’t give much away and conjures up all sorts of incorrect assumptions. In reality Matisyahu is an exciting, intense and challenging hip hopper who rhymes about religious devotion over reggae/dancehall/ska beats. Still not convinced? Take my word for it, the guy is the real deal. He takes over the stage and jumps into the crowd before climbing back up for some beat-boxing and switches between pop rock and acoustic soul. I have no idea how he keeps his skullcap in place for the entire set!

The Swell Season
I saw the film Once about two years ago and I’ve been dying to see these two live since then (if you haven’t seen Once, you MUST. That’s all I’m gonna say about that). Glen Hansard is the front man of the Frames and Marketa Irglova is a Czech pianist and singer. After the film wrapped they became lovers and formed the Swell Season, or so the story goes. They’ve since split but remain musical partners. Their live performance consists of shared-mic-vocals, solo songs, plus lots of harmonies and instrument hopping. Hansard is another intense performer and the damage to his acoustic guitar is evidence of the raw emotion that pours forth as he sings songs from the film’s soundtrack plus the latest record, Strict Joy. Irglova is more subdued and no-nonsense. She seems content to let Hansard have the spotlight and dutifully back him up. Nevertheless they play a gorgeous and at times heart wrenching set. The last song comes as quite a surprise. Hansard warns that they’re going to cover a song by an Australian band and confesses he’s not too sure how well it will go down. I’m convinced he’s setting himself up for a fall until I realise what I’m hearing. It’s a cover of Empire of the Sun’s Walking on a Dream. And the crowd goes wild, success!

The Avett Brothers
At the end of this set I couldn’t help but think that this band of brothers (plus a few ring ins) gave me what I wanted from Mumford & Sons. Yep, they’ve got the banjos and the double bass (two!), the harmonies, the toe-tapping verses and crashing choruses and the fusion of folk/country/bluegrass/rock but they mix it up. Each song goes off in a surprising direction abandoning all notions of a formula. It’s exciting, unexpected and infectious. I physically want to be closer to the stage; they are literally drawing me in – a rare feat! Oh and check out these lyrics: There is nothing worth sharing more than the love that let us share our name. Nawww, brotherly love!

John Butler Trio
Why aren’t I bored of JBT yet? I’ve seen Johnny and Co countless times but I could listen to them a hundred times over. Tonight, the new-ish line-up of Byron Luiters on bass and Nicky Bomba on drums gives them a fresh feel. Butler seems a bit distracted at first and explains that his flight from Western Australia was delayed and he literally just flew in. As the set wears on, he visibly shakes off the concerns of the day and immerses himself in the music. Typically, when a band has a lot of ‘hits’ they’ll rip through them and it’s clear they’re just going through the motions. Not JBT. Yeah, all the hits are there – Betterman, Used to Get High, Better Than, Funky Tonight – but you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re being played for the first time.

Bluesfest Bluesfest
[Photo: Stuart Blythe]

Joe Bonamassa
Okay, so before I made my way to the pit to take photos of this set a fellow photographer quipped that he was, “excited to see Joe Satriani – whoops, I meant Joe Bonamassa!” Yeah, yeah I can see the joke but the guy is a guitar great who caught the attention of BB King at age ten. A friend of mine told me that Bonamassa has spent the last 20 years doing nothing but playing the gee-tar, and it sure does show. Wow. The crowd is a real mix of young and old and everyone’s eyes are glued to the man on stage with sweat dripping off the tip of his nose as he smashes out an electrifying set.

Lyle Lovett
I’d say there is a 30/70 split between punters who are already fans of Mister Lovett and those who are curious about the character who was once Mister Julia Roberts. The word that keeps coming to mind during the set is ‘quirky’. Not ‘quirky-weird’, more ‘quirky-fascinating’. It’s clear that the man has a sharp mind and a unique interpretation as he sings about being on a pony on a boat on the sea, as you do. His humour is dry and his timing is perfect as he pauses to let the stories sink in. Quite a likable character and a fine blues storyteller to boot.

Jessica Mauboy
Okay, I couldn’t let this one go. Answer me this: if Miss Mauboy didn’t come to prominence via Australia Idol would the music industry welcome her as a credible soul and R’n’B songstress? I’m inclined to think they would. As Mauboy slinks on stage and strikes one sultry pose after another I keep clearing my mind of pre-conceptions. Give her the benefit of the doubt, judge her on her performance today, right here. She’s giving it her all, her voice is pitch perfect, she works the stage and engages with the audience, she’s certainly alluring – wow, I don’t mean to sound like an Oz Idol judge! Sure, her band looks like they’ve been plucked directly from the dance floor of an Oxford Street nightclub and the percussion/guitar solos leave a lot to be desired but the gal is holding her own and earning her stripes. That said, I really would like to hear the reasoning behind adding her to the bill. Hmmm.

Jessica Mauboy
[Photo: Stuart Blythe]

Taj Mahal
Ahhh, blues the colour of the sky on a sunny summer day. Where else but Bluesfest will you get a dose this potent? It’s such a privilege to watch a legend like Taj, especially knowing he’s a recent inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame. Tonight he’s giving a nod to his surrounds with an Indigenous art print shirt and revealing one of his other passions – angling – with a fish pendent around his neck. His performance is smooth and rich and dirty all at the same time. His facial expressions alone are enough to keep all eyes and camera lenses fixed as he belts out such sweet sounding soul.

Fat Freddys Drop
I have waited a long, long time to bliss out to these New Zealand nationals and tonight is the night. I want soul, dub, reggae and horns – don’t forget the horns – and I want them in spades. Ahhh, thank you, Dallas Tamaira that’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout! The set starts out burning slow with a focus on the horn section and with a little of Tamaira’s vocal thrown in here and there. Progressively things build and build until they’re outta control and the trombone player has stripped to his jocks and is sweating up a storm. The whole tent is throbbing to the beat and I find myself passively inhaling the smoke of many a university cigarette. Hey can anybody tell me what the significance of the paper planes is? They are being launched onto the stage by enthusiastic punters the whole set long.

Crowded House
Singalong time! Crowded House are back in fine form, as expected. Four Seasons in One Day, Don’t Dream it’s Over, Fall at Your Feet – bang bang bang, hit hit hit and smiles all-around. US drummer Matt Sherrod has been welcomed to the fold. Sherrod was recruited after the tragic death of original drummer Paul Hester in 2005. Another new addition is Mr Finn’s moustache. It’s dividing the crowd so he conducts a poll. Who thinks I should keep it? Wild applause. Who thinks I should lose it? More wild applause. It’s a split vote. It’s a man’s right, he cries. Fuck ya, I’m gonna keep it! With that Finn performs an impromptu ode to the mo. He has us in the palm of his hand. For the next two hours…plus encore.

Angus and Julia Stone
Oh Angus, oh Julia. I interviewed the enchanted pair right before they skip onstage and I’m still in a glorious haze. Speaking of the stage it has been transformed into your grandpa’s lounge room. Paisley wallpaper, framed sepia-toned, photographs, lamps and even a model ship. A piano, trumpet, two guitars, the drum kit and a keyboard are in place as the divine duo open with And the Boys from the new record, Down the Way. I’ve been playing the record nonstop for the past two weeks and it strikes me as an intimate, soul-baring offering. Clichéd as it sounds, the siblings appear to have a rare connection and deep respect for each other. They are generous, supportive performers and they’re constantly creating space for the other to experiment and shine. They cover new ground with songs such as Draw Your Swords (Angus) and Julia’s heartbreaking plea to her ex-lover, For You as well as old favourites like Mango Tree, Just a Boy and the closer Private Lawns.

Jessica Mauboy