It was Easter Sunday, the sun was shining over Bluesfest and the Crossroads tent was gearing up to celebrate with a solid block of gospel, soul and blues, kicked off by the enigmatic, effervescent powerhouse Mavis Staples and Her Band.
This year’s festival boasted an array of music a legends, not least of which was the incomparable Staples, who either solo or together with The Staple Singers has been >performing for over 60 years. Returning to Bluesfest with material from her Grammy Award winning CD You Are Not Alone, Staples is loads of fun. She’s got the moves, she’s got the attitude and that voice – a rich, raw, rip your guts out and make you happy sound that only improves with age.
She may be the star, but Staples generously shares the stage with her fantastic band and backing singers, obviously enjoying and celebrating their talents. And in true gospel style, she knows how to work the crowd, rumbling through Creep Along Moses and modern freedom anthem Eye on the Prize, as well as Jeff Tweedy’s contribution, the heartbreaking and uplifting You Are Not Alone. Joined on stage by Elvis Costello (“I told you I had a surprise for you!”) to sing The Weight, Staples and Her Band kicked it into top gear for Staple Singers biggest hit, I’ll Take You There. Always thrilling, a radiant Staples left the audience on a high.
Irma Thomas may not be a household name, but the Queen of New Orleans Soul cut her teeth alongside the likes of Aretha Franklin and Etta James, and has the voice and spark to match. In Australia for the first time, and delighted to be giving back to those fans who’ve supported her all these years, Thomas took the baton from Staples and ran an impressive stretch, bringing some genuine soul to Byron. Explaining how it’s done in New Orleans, she soon had the audience waiving their hats, scarves, even shirts in the air (“Don’t worry ladies, the men won’t mind”) and swinging their hips in time.
Backed by a smokin’ seven-piece ensemble, she treated the partying crowd to her hit song (You Can Have My Husband But) Don’t Mess with My Man and dedicated Simply the Best to the long-time fans, before capping off the night with the brilliant, punchy Sing It One More Time Like That, which again had everyone dancing.
Thanks to the efforts of Staples and Thomas, the Blind Boys of Alabama were greeted by a happy, hyped up crowd, ready and waiting for their harmonies and hi-jinks. The Blind Boys have a well orchestrated show. It’s well planned, plotted and rehearsed, with room for humour, sharing the focus around, filling the stage and connecting with the crowd.
And it’s very effective. Add to that the experience, charisma, style and unique character of each and you’ve got the perfect, potent ingredients for a rousing show.
From an awesome Amazing Grace sung to the tune of House of the Rising Sun, and the funky blues of Way Down In the Hole, to the sweet, smooth gospel of People Get Ready, where guest vocalist Aaron Neville’s falsetto provided the perfect contrast, each song offered something engaging and new.
Singer Jimmy Carter (who co-founded the Blind Boys over 70 years ago) caused a commotion mid-set by moving into the crowd, high-fiving fans and singing back to his fellow Blind Boys up on stage, whilst security, minders and camera men chased him about the tent. For their final offering they invited pedal steel maestro Robert Randolph to add his deft touch to There Will Be A Light, before rounding off with a spirited I Saw The Light from their latest album Take The High Road.
Catching the last of The Snowdroppers at the APRA tent on the way out was an unexpected treat. Nice, dirty blues, from these likable Sydney boys, front man Johnny Wishbone riding the packed venue to its limit, and threatening the crowd with bad Dylan impersonations if they didn’t literally get down to the raunchy cover of JOK’s Shout! Rollicking good fun.
By: Pepa Wolfe
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