Elize Strydom gets stuck in the mud at the 20th Annual East Coast Blues and Roots Festival

Bluesfest – 20th Annual East Coast Blues and Roots Festival
Friday 10th April
Review: Elize Strydom

Personality test: What sort of footwear would you choose to wear to Bluesfest?

a. Thongs from Woolies
b. Gumboots from Bunnings
c. Your brand new Dunlop Volleys
d. Au Natural (bare feet)

If you answered a. you’re an optimistic idealist. If you picked c. get set for disappointment. If you deliberated between b. and d. then read on…

The 20th Annual East Coast Blues and Roots Festival was always going to be muddy. In the two weeks leading up to the festival the Northern Rivers had copped near-torrential rain, flash flooding and damaging winds. I spoke to Festival Director Peter Noble a day before the gates were due to open and he was optimistic. One day of hot sun beating down on the Belongil Fields meant they had “dodged a bullet” and things were looking up. Yesterday the Rain Gods withheld their mercy but they’re well and truly smiling again today. Steam is literally rising off the sodden grass as punters – young and old – stream past sniffer dogs, security checks and wrist band fasteners. Tracks between the festival’s six stages, market stalls, food tents and port-a-loos have been beaten and new tracks are appearing as people try to avoid the shin deep mud pit at the centre of the original track. So many are falling at the first hurdle as their thongs flick splats of mud up their legs and backs. Others are literally stuck in the mud as their feet plunge into the thick brown slosh and fail to emerge. Now is not the time to suffer from unpreparedness – there’s music to see, oh so much music. More than 500 artists and 220 performances, to be exact. I’ve gotta start somewhere, why not with Watermelon Slim and the Workers?

Slim (aka Bill Homans) is not a young guy. Deep creases line his face and you just know he’s seen more than his fair share of hard work and hard times. The former watermelon farmer from Oklahoma sings about driving his truck and going fishing and…Hurricane Katrina. He’s got a bit to say on the issue including the lines, “Congressmen and Senators don’t care about boys down here”, echoing sentiments expressed by Mr Kanye West. He argues that there are millions of dollars available for the war effort in Iraq but not for Alabama and Mississippi. It’s to be expected from the long time anti war activist. This is travellin’ blues in its purest form and the audience is littered with bearded men wearing silly grins and whistling as Slim gets lost in his harmonica solo or slide guitar lick. Watermelon Slim and his Workers have certainly set the tone for the four days ahead.

Arrested Development’s ‘Everyday People’ is playing as we wait for Blue King Brown to hit the main stage (Mojo). It captures the good vibes perfectly and the smiles are spread wide across faces by the time Natalie Pa’apa’a and the crew bursts on stage. Natalie is in fine form and looking gorgeous as ever with a swathe of metallic blue paint across her face. They waste no time in launching into a set that would have even the most uninterested observer up and dancing. It’s urban reggae with a message and I’m captured by the energy and honesty of the performance. It sure looks like they’re having fun on stage too. The 10-piece band is complete with three backing vocalists, an extensive percussion section, bass, drums, keys and there are other instruments of varying shapes and sizes strewn across the stage too. When Nat invites a guest on stage I’m thrilled to see it’s Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Watching them sing together is spine tingling stuff. After performing the first single (Moment of Truth) from their as-yet-unreleased second album Natalie decides to get up close with her fans and launches herself into the opens arms of the sea of people before her. This band sure has a lotta love to give.

I’m curious to see Dan Auerbach (one half of the Black Keys) perform on his own. But it soon becomes clear that it’s hardly going to be a ‘solo’ show. There are two drums kits set up as well as a percussion section, piano and three mics. During the first tune – Trouble Weighs a Ton – Dan shares the mic with the second guitarist. It may appear that he’s made an effort to go in a different direction and quash any Black Keys comparisons but Auerbach says that was the last thing he wanted to do. Granted, the set does include a mix of bluegrass, country and Memphis RnB but there’s no escaping his soulful yet distorted vocals. It’s definitely along the same lines as the Black Keys but if Auerbach wasn’t in both bands the same parallels probably wouldn’t be drawn. As the band plays tracks from the new album Keep It Hid it’s clear that this versatile performer is relishing the chance to plays the music he loves and put a whole new slant on it.

Fishbone is one of those outfits that I’m sure I should know about but don’t. The name sounds vaguely familiar in a way that makes me think they’re musical legends and Bluesfest staples that I’ve somehow overlooked. Flicking through the program and reading their bio confirms it: “…past Bluesfest favourites…making an exclusive appearance…legendary Californian band credited with influencing Tool, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction”. Ahhh, right. Not that they sound or look anything like the aforementioned bands! After going on a musical journey that started with reggae, ska and funk, moved onto heavy metal, then punk and rock and rap, it seems the ‘Boners’ have returned to their origins. After 20 years and 10 albums it makes sense to come full circle. Sax, trombone and larger than life personalities fill out their sound and it’s clear the audience is split into those who are aware of how special this is and those, like me, who feel privileged to have stumbled across this prolific and diverse bunch.

By the time I get to the Jambalaya tent Tim Finn already has his audience in the palm of his hand. I watch him for less than a minute before I’m drawn in by his storytelling and sincerity. What is it with these Finn brothers (and sons!)? It’s hard to tell if the packed tent is keen to hear renditions of their old Split Endz favourites or the Crowded House hits or perhaps songs from Tim’s solo career and new album, The Conversation. He mixes all three seamlessly and throws in a little Peter Garrett style dance moves for good measure!

Zappa Plays Zappa eh? I’m sceptical and so are a few of the punters standing nearby. Frank Zappa’s eldest son Dweezil has teamed up with a mix of young and old musicians, some of whom played with his father, to pay tribute to Zappa’s compositions from the 1960s to the 80s. After about two seconds I’m swallowing my scepticism and marvelling at the guitarist in the white jeans before me. Wow. I mean, wow. The kid has huge shoes to fill – musically and performance wise – but judging by the crowd’s reaction he’s ticking all the boxes. I spot a little blond boy – I’d say, 10 or 11 – peeking over the barrier, mouth open and eyes wide. He’s gazing in awe at the six musicians on stage. It becomes clear that that’s who Dweezil is doing this for, a whole lotta Gen Y-ers who aren’t familiar with the surreal masterpieces his father created. Being one of those Gen Y-ers I can’t even name any of the songs but I know that I’m being educated…and blown away!

Still buzzing from Zappa Junior’s performance I wander around backstage in a bit of a daze. I’m vaguely aware that someone’s riding a bike nearby and then my eyes focus on a face in front of me. Someone’s flashing a huge grin and says, “Hi! How’re you doing?” before pedalling off into the night. Was that…? Yes, it was Michael Franti, barefoot and beautiful. I’m looking forward to his set more than ever now…if only to see his eyes and that smile again, swoooon! I take my place in front of the stage and am anticipating his entry when a gorgeous young Jamaican woman strolls on. Franti introduces her as Cherine Anderson, an actress and reggae vocalist who sings on his latest record, All Rebel Rockers. She belts out a tune on her own before he joins her for a duet. To be honest, I haven’t really kept a close eye on Franti and Spearhead since 2003’s Everyone Deserves Music but I must say I’m enjoying the new stuff which has more of a reggae feel than the last two records. The spotlight is on Franti’s vocals and the message comes through a little softer. It’s a step away from the sometimes aggressive delivery he has been known for. The band is feeding off the audience’s energy and vice versa. If this power could be bottled I’m sure it would be enough to achieve the change that Michael Franti and Spearhead are fighting for.