Live Review: Bluesfest Byron Bay 2023 – Day 4 & 5

Review by Wanda Hill
Photos by Ant Ritz Photography/Rock Shots

featuring Bonnie Raitt – Trombone Shorty& Orleans Avenue – The Cat Empire – Mavis Staples – Yirrmal – Michael Franti and Spearhead – Tash Sultana

The final two days of Bluesfest had a bit of a wild west feeling going on, with autumnal tones, dusty grounds and police people riding around on horseback occasionally, looking very relaxed about the state of affairs at the festival. This may have been the calmest Bluesfest I have ever witnessed, well suited to the sweet sounds of Tash Sultana’s voice gracing the air waves on Sunday night. There never seemed to be a hassle lining up for anything or finding a good spot to dance.

Bonnie Raitt brought listeners to tears with her with her recent Grammy award winning song Just Like That singing about two families touched by a heart transplant donation. Lyrics beautifully brought to life by the sounds of her resonator guitar. The depth of feeling in her sets were a welcome refrain and chance to relax into some gentleness.

Michael Franti was visibly stoked to be back at Bluesfest with his band Spearhead, playing to huge crowds on both Easter Sunday and Monday. He came prepared to share lessons learnt during Covid travel restrictions, with new songs expressing positive and loving outlooks on life. Wearing a t-shirt saying Happy is the New Sexy, he didn’t stray far from the key of up, in each set. He has a gift for making his audience feel seen with great eye contact and always moving out into the crowd. Inviting people to join him on stage for a special moment to sing with him, or have a dance. The other stages suffered a loss of patrons when Spearhead were playing, with everyone wanting to be part of Michael’s good vibe. He encouraged people to meet each other, dance together, form circles and do-si-do. Hard to resist his instruction to let your barriers down, even the security guards were getting into it.

Soaring vocals from Yirrkala legend Yirrmal lured me into the Crossroads on Monday where he was singing about connection to country and long Northern Territory sunsets. He highlighted the huge contribution the Yirrkala region has made to Australian music with artists like Baker Boy, King Stingray, Gurrumul and Yothu Yindi all originating from his homeland in North-East Arnhem Land.

Thousands gathered to worship Chicago blues royalty Mavis Staples. ‘I love you all so much, I even did the wolves howl for you’ she said at her second show for the festival on Monday.  ‘You gotta let yourself loose, like a rubber band… drop the seat belts alright and let yourself loose. You all do what I say, and have a good time… get on board cause this train is pulling out’ she encouraged. Under clears skies and a warm sun, spirits were well and truly raised by her deep funk, soul, blues experience, full of wisdom.

Fresh from a European tour, The Cat Empire felt completely reinvigorated with their new line up featuring Grace Barbé on bass/vocals and percussionist Neda Rahmani. Their set was a vibrant mix of Afro Cuban and Latino influences with bass heavy grooves and uplifting beats. Great audience connection was established by all band members, especially by original band leader, singer and percussionist Felix Riebl. The perfect party atmosphere for the final night of the festival.  

The well deserved honour of closing both Sunday and Monday nights went to Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue who left no hips unmoved by their extraordinary compositions for dueling baritone and bass saxophones, trombone and trumpet. Easily the funkiest band on the bill they made sure everyone shook everything that was possible to shake before sitting in the cues of traffic to head home with full ears and hearts. Thank you Bluesfest cast and crew you have once again put on a world class festival. Number 34 done.