Bluesfest 2015 Review

  • Written by  Claire Maddocks & Suzanna Zagon
  • Friday, 10 April 2015 12:54
Charles Bradley Charles Bradley © Lachlan Douglas

Transitional vegetarians, dreamers, daydream believers, hippies, old rockers, soul sisters, hipsters, babies in giant earphones, circus performers and occasional occultists joined a bevy of musicians, writers, artists and photographers at the Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm for the magical spectacle that was Bluesfest 2015.

Bluesfest is in every sense a destination festival. The journey is paramount. As festival organiser Peter Noble commented, “you need to get in your car and go there. It’s a travelling event, like circus maximus, the public spectacle, the medieval and renaissance fair.” There is a distinct culture around festivals in Australia where you have to travel and set up camp. You become immersed in a universe where the banality of the outer world ceases to exist, you are encased in a microcosm of art, music and culture. With 105,000 participants and 29 artists touring, an extra 109 sideshows throughout Australia, Bluesfest continues to reinforce itself as one of the most enduring and successful festivals of its kind.

View social photos from day 1, 2 & 3.

I embraced my inner-gypsy, danced under the full moon, cleansed myself of days of mud in faerie like tea tree lakes, hitched a ride in the back of a ute through winding rainforest under infinite blue sky, interviewed punk poet Frank Turner, ragtime roots aficionado Pokey LaFarge and reggae diva Natalie from Blue King Brown. I ate organic chocolate donuts, eggs poached in tobasco with fried bread and drank thirty thousand black coffees. I participated in mud swamp selfies at the campsite and got covered in Charles Bradley's sweat from sexy sandwich hug. And on the corner of Soul Street and Production Road I began to write.

Day One

I set up camp and had a stingingly painful introduction to the green ants nesting in campsite. I decided this particular species and I were not destined to be friends. I put on my gumboots and joined the tie-dyed, dreadlocked, bearded, hennaed crowd for day one at the circus.

Jurassic 5
Six-piece hip hop crew Jurassic 5 was the perfect act for day one with their infectious, upbeat, thumping groovy vibe. The set opened with grimy vinyl scratching from aficionado DJs Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist. The introduction transitioned from scratching to soul disco references then into their distinctively alternative form of hip-hop. Opening with the rhythmic funkiness of ‘I Am Somebody’ they had the crowd responding from the word go. Its music that makes you dance but also makes you think. And you don’t stop. J5 said jump and everyone jumped. J5 said shout and everyone shouted. Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist produced sounds from hand held vinyl scratcher shaped like a guitar, and a novelty sized over-large record which took centre stage. They sampled the distinctive ‘Fake Records’ beat from Dead Prez’s seminal political power track ‘It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop’. They took the crowd back to the year 2000 playing old crowd favourites ‘Freedom’ and ‘What’s Golden.’ Jurassic 5 brought to the table a rocking party, a celebration of peace, unity, freedom, justice and equality. They did a cheeky wild west standoff in a line and danced the robot. Seeing the group who provided the soundtrack for pretty much all the parties throughout my high school years, I danced, wriggled, jumped around and felt, this, right here, is freedom.

Jurassic 5
Jurassic 5 © Carl Neumann

Sticky Fingers
Sticky Fingers gave it their all with a set that fused indie, reggae and psychedelic rock. '70s reggae stylings dispersed with elements of Aussie backyard hip hop, with a healthy dose of Rolling Stones-esque rock star swagger thrown in. Festival organiser Peter Noble likened them to a young Cold Chisel, with their tempestuous presence currently manifesting itself all over YouTube with footage of singer Dylan Frost’s altercation with security during their set.

Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue
Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue were one of my great discoveries of Bluesfest. Sonically sensual, rhythmically vibrant, with a blistering horn section, groovy bass lines and psychedelic guitar, Trombone Shorty instantly transported the enthusiastic crowd from the Byron Bay mud into a dark smoky bar in New Orleans. The bass player grooved chunky swampy blues riffs, the two saxophonists old time jazz rhythms and the singer alternated between vocals, and extraordinary trumpet and trombone solos. Their cover of ‘Get Down’ on it by Kool and the Gang made you swing your hips side to side, jump around and be glad that you're alive.

Day Two

The fantastic line-up and successful allocation of bands on the program, with several artists playing multiple sets at the festival allowed for optimal consumption of an extremely diverse line-up. Festival organiser Peter Noble commented on this year’s bill, affirming, “that’s what I love about Bluesfest, you come early and the bands are not filler. They’re not the $500 bands, they’re not even the $1500 bands… we’re not just about the headliners. We’re about booking strong bills. Bluesfest is going from strength to strength.”

Frank Yamma
I continued my musical journey on day two, sitting in the drizzle and among the pebbly stones listening to the hauntingly beautiful sound of guitarist, singer-songwriter Frank Yamma, an initiated Pitjantjatjara man from Australia's central desert, singing in his native language. Yamma comes from west of Uluru, in his own words "where I've come from, I've seen the last frontiers." Singing in his indigenous tongue, his ethereal guitar and deeply arresting voice resonating through the stage as he played songs from his new album 'Uncle'. Playing a song he wrote when he was sixteen about warming yourself by the campfire, the powerful resonance of Yamma’s music momentarily transported his listeners to a different world.

Playing For Change
Playing For Change © Lachlan Douglas

'Rockwiz' Live
I joined the crowded Jambalaya tent for 'Rockwiz', a live staging of the cult TV music quiz show. 'Rockwiz' feeds on audience appreciation and participation, which was particularly evident when the entire crowd launched into a rousing version of ‘I'm A Believer’ by The Monkees. The cheeky interaction between those on stage and the audience creates the dynamic of the show and this translated to the live version, with one contestant told "don't say you don't know the song because a thousand people just helped you." Host Julia Zemiro, introduced as the “siren of Byron” got the ball-rolling for the show which included Elvis impersonations, contestants doing the nutbush and the lively sounds of the 'Rockwiz' backing orchestra. The show has enjoyed enduring success due to its interesting and comical take on music trivia, as well as the wit, commentary and extensive musical knowledge of its contestants. There were questions about Johnny Cash, The Bee Gees, and does anyone know what the T in TISM and the K in K. D Lang stands for? Silly, diverting fun for the whole family.

Jimmy Cliff
Next it was time for the ska/ reggae stylings of multi-instrumentalist and singer Jimmy Cliff. The set was upbeat, perky, and infinitely pleasing to the packed out crowd at the Crossroads stage. Cliff combined elements of funk and soul into the reggae, topped off by some seriously great dancing. The crowd loved his version of ‘I Can See Clearly Now The Rain Has Gone’ which may have been more aspirational than inspirational since the rain had set in seemingly for good and much of the festival grounds were already starting to resemble a swamp.

Day Three

Day three and I was starting to acclimatise to gypsy life. This was intensified through my morning walks through the camp, with the heady scent of smoke and sausages cooking, fairy lights dimly twinkled in the misty morning light, towels and clothes hung limp across tent ropes in futile attempts to reclaim some dryness in the swamp, mud squelching under my gumboots. I eat a motley assortment of veggies, eggs and bread fried in butter, and head down to the corner of Soul Street and Production Road to write, plan my day, drink too many black coffees and eat Easter eggs and sweet biscuits in the media tent. Hearing snatches of New Zealand-born Marlon Williams and the Yarra Benders perfectly matched my mood of nomadic elation while I traversed the growing crowds and trudged through the mud towards all that awaited me in day three.

Mariachi El Bronx
It was time to get loco early with kooky Mexican acoustic carnation of punk band The Bronx. With three mariachi guitarists, percussionist, violinist and singer the irresistibly up tempo act got even the most lethargic dancing with their fiery, passionate, punk Latin sound. Lead singer Matt Caughthran bellowed excitedly at the crowd "it's hot as shit but it feels so goddamn good to be playing music, it's fucking beautiful!" They played an old track ‘Sleepwalker’ inspired by touring and writing in Byron bay, followed by ‘Rescue Me’ as the heady scent of Damiana lingered in the air.

Melbourne Ska Orchestra
The stage was inhabited by the inimitable presence of the 26-piece Melbourne Ska Orchestra. Sharing the stage with the infectious grooves of these maestro musicians was festival organiser Peter Noble, who rocked out with the best of them. Opening with ‘Lygon St Meltdown,’ they soon bewitched the crowd with the ska genre classic ‘A Message To You Rudy’ by The Specials. I left as they were playing their rendition of the theme to 'Pink Panther', and as always when I hear that tune, found myself doing a covert skulk walk, which nonetheless had a jivey ska skip in it, imagining instead of wearing mud stained gumboots suddenly I was in a slinky trench coat and fedora. Got some interesting looks from the people I was ska skulking past, but was totally worth it.

Rodrigo Y Gabriela
Rodrigo Y Gabriela © Lachlan Douglas

Rodrigo Y Gabriela
After a few days of fantastic new musical discoveries, and watching so many great covers of classic songs, I was super excited to see an act well-known to me, heavy metal loving virtuoso guitar duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela. I’ve seen them live before and they never disappoint. Fiery, frenetic, frenzied, they combine incredible guitar playing with a thrashy nod to their metal roots. Ever raw, spontaneous, and humble, Gabriela told the crowd “we are from Mexico and we came here to play some crazy music for you. Gracias." They delivered on that promise tenfold, a particular highlight was their cover of Metallica’s ‘Orion,’ definitely one of my favourite solos of all time. Playing his guitar with a beer bottle as is Rodrigo’s signature style, I got goosebumps as he played the solo where the melodic chord progression gets under your skin and bites at your very soul.

Day Four

The morning began with a walk through the winding roads of lush Byron rainforest. There were singing birds, twisting vines, yellow butterflies, the air became damper, cleaner, as we trudged through the undergrowth into the woods, discussed the existence of the bunyip from indigenous Australian mythology, and finally reached our destination, the Tyagarah Tea Tree Lake. It was a magical mystical sensation bathing in its cleansing waters. The algae danced on my skin, the oil cleansed my face and hair. I began to feel less like a bedraggled festival swamp creature and more like a faerie transported to another realm. We hitchhiked on the back of a ute, the wind in my hair, back up the winding path under infinite blue skies. Then after an Easter egg chocolate coffee reviver I headed to the artist tent to interview UK punk folk rocker Frank Turner. As the morning light faded to muted afternoon sun I sat in the mud of the campsite, ate famous organic Byron donuts laced with lashings of chocolate and listened to Led Zeppelin. In my happy place. It was a blissfully peaceful entrance to the revelry that was about to begin in the night, under the pagan glow of the full moon.

The Beautiful Girls
The Beautiful Girls delivered an awesome set with their signature chilled out Bondi dub reggae vibes. Babies in earphones too large for their little heads bopped unsteadily with their siblings and parents to their brilliant cover of ‘I Can Feel It Coming In The Air Tonight.’ After four days of charging round the festival I was really starting to feel my aching feet and protesting legs. I began seated but was soon irresistibly drawn by the percussion, trumpets and sunshine to dance and let go of the urban decay that over the last few days had been slowly ebbing away from me. The DJ, horns, Brazilian percussionist and the singer’s son rocking out with the band with his little guitar up front allowed me to let go of the troubles I have seen. The mood of elation was intensified by the band’s great covers of Bob Marley and Fat Freddy’s Drop.

Xavier Rudd United
Xavier Rudd & The United Nations © Lachlan Douglas

Xavier Rudd & The United Nations
Xavier Rudd’s new project Xavier Rudd & The United Nations played to a packed tent and sang tracks from their new album 'Nanna', a celebration of musical diversity, culture and freedom. Featuring artists from South Africa, Samoa, Germany, Papua New Guinea and Indigenous Australia, it was a dreamy celebration that perfectly encapsulated the spirit of Bluesfest. Playing tracks ‘Flag,’ ‘Hanalei,’ and old favourite ‘Follow The Sun,’ as well as the beautiful cover of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time after Time’ which the crowd belted without restraint, the band’s two female backing singers, guitar, bass, horns, flutes, live drums and percussion created cloudy reverb, colourful dub, at times dreamy, at times bouncy. A highlight was an amazing bass solo by bassist who Rudd described as “a man who has shown us you can rise out of great oppression and celebrate peace and love".

Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls
Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls amped up the party with their poetic lyrics and thrashy pub rock punk folk sound. Taking the piss with just the right amount of rage, it’s jump around, swill your drink, land on your arse in the mud music. The lyrics are dark and nihilist: “there is no God, my time is running out, yet right now it's fun as fuck”. They played an amazing track ‘The Road,’ treating the crowd to lyrical poetry: “I’ve driven across deserts driven by the irony/ that only being shackled to the road could ever I be free”. The band played ‘Get Better' – a potent and uplifting song is about having a shit year then coming out the other end – and ‘Wessex Boy,’ about growing up in the small UK town of Winchester. Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls were a great new discovery and I’ll definitely be checking out their sideshow this Saturday.

Day Five

By day five the festival has presented a breathtakingly diverse array of artists and musical styles. Throughout Australia and internationally, there is currently discussion around how female artists are significantly underrepresented at festivals and musical events. When asked why he thought that is the case, festival organiser Peter Noble answered  “I don’t know, because last year we had more female than male artists, over 50percent of the artists were female. I don’t know what other festivals do, I just know what we do. And I don’t care if you’re male, female, black, white, hermaphrodite – it’s all about how good you are.” I walked through a mud strewn laneway as rainbow bubbles floated serenely around my head, and moved towards the last day of my festival journey.

Busking Comp Winner
Alternative bluescore duo Grizzlee Train and indie rock act Hoo8Hoo were the winners of the 2015 Bluesfest busking competition. Grizzlee Train provided up-tempo blues beats by the drummer and the guitarist sang vocals with a voice powerful to fill the rowdiest of Aussie pubs. Playing their new track ‘Anita’ the winning duo gave glimpses of Stevie Ray Vaughnn, but lighter, and the crowd went insane to their cover of The White Stripes best known ‘Seven Nation Army'. Playing tracks ‘Soldier For You’ and ‘Warning Bell,’ Grizzlee Train wowed the crowd and humbly expressed their thanks for the opportunity to steal the show at their biggest ever gig.

Train © Carl Neumann

Pokey LaFarge
I headed to Jambalaya for the old world, ragtime, gypsy big band feel of Pokey LaFarge, playing their first ever set in Byron Bay, with five more shows around Australia to come. Playing songs off their new record, with tracks like ‘Something In The Water,’ Pokey LaFarge perfectly captured the imagination of the festival with his swing jazz, ragtime blues feel. The five-piece perfectly distilled Misissippi vaudeville riverboat nostalgia in a performance brimming with life and virtuosity.

Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaries
Day five of the festival was capped off perfectly by the soul extravaganza that is Charles Bradley, singing with that voice that grabs you by the throat and rattles you around, with a psychedelic guitar sound straight out of the '70s. Singing ‘I Need Your Love,’ Bradley sobbed, overcome by the intensity of the moment and awash with tears at the reaction from the crowd. When he sang ‘Just You And Me’ it was like he was singing directly to one person and not a crowd of thousands. The performance of these virtuoso musicians felt intimate, raw, nostalgic and powerful. The crowd hollered with delight as Bradley did the splits on stage, epitomising the amount of raw energy he brought to the set, yet as a performer he still gives so much, concluding his performance by running into the crowd, high-fiving, hugging and breaking down the barriers between himself and the audience. My feet were sore from running round doing interviews, my back felt broken from not having seen a bed in six days, my shoulders were similarly wrecked, but this was the most energy I've had all festival, the sensuality and sheer magnetic force of the music makes you forget your tiredness and troubles and forces you to sway.

View artist photos from days 1, 2 & 3.

Final Cap Off

It was a magical time at the spectacle. Best festival pick-up line? “Nice gumboots.” Most drool-worthy festival feast? Byron Bay organic doughnuts. Most fun festival sighting was getting a sexy soul hug from Charles Bradley. Coming back into real life, it was hard to believe I was returning to a place where I wasn’t going to start the day in a mud swamp, eat bread fried in butter for breakfast every morning, punctuate my day with Easter eggs and have my mind consistently blown by the sheer magnitude of the musical talent that I was lucky enough to witness. I’m sure I’ll acclimatise to life without gumboots, but for now, take me back to the circus, and bring on Bluesfest 2016.

– Written by Claire Maddocks

Ben Harper Innocent Crim
Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals © Lachlan Douglas

I'd never been to Bluesfest before, and in the weeks leading up to it my curiosity grew with the discovery that so many people in Melbourne had either been in the past or knew of someone who had. "You're gonna love it!", "it's wonderful!", or "you're so lucky!" were common comments, and so it was that I began to feel quite fortunate to be sent on this quest as a reviewer.

And then my anticipation was compounded even more so by the vibe I picked up on having landed in Byron Bay the day before. There - in it's paradoxical setting where the green, lush rainforest meets a pristine sandy beach - I found a most definite buzz of reserved excitement;  from the local shopkeepers busily stocking up shelves and adding final touches to their displays, in knowledge that their quaint little town would soon be bustling with an influx of traffic, to the police placing strategic road signs warning of double demerit points, to the locals peddling around on their bikes making a concerted effort to appear as laid-back as normal despite their knowingness that a hell-of-a-good time was coming around again. The buzz was tangible, I could feel it, and this was very, very cool. It took me way back to the '70s and '80s, when we would count the days until the next big rock gig hit town. That night I fell asleep to the calming sounds of rainforest bugs and the rhythmic loll of the surf nearby, knowing that over the next five days I would be experiencing a music festival unlike any other I'd been to before.

© Lachlan Douglas

Day One

Having been woken by a bout of torrential rainfall throughout the night, and – despite rising to a beautiful sunshiny day – I observed sign after sign along the main road through Byron Bay advertising the sale of gumboots. "No way," I thought. "Why would we want gumboots?" And yet a little voice told me that the locals knew something I didn't...

View social photos from day 4 & 5.

Upon arriving and parking in Tyagarah (about 15-minutes from Byron Bay) and walking towards the festival grounds, I wished I could collect and bottle the mood. There was a manifest cheerfulness being exchanged between visitors  – from the very young to the very old – and the multitude of attendants, akin to old buddies getting together again after a long time in-between. And then once we'd collected our media passes and made our way through the main entrance, there lay Bluesfest in all its full splendour. The vastness of the area is what struck me first, then the hugeness of the tents covering the massive stages and eating areas, then stall after stall after stall offering an incredible variety of foods and wares. The presentation and layout appeared remarkably well thought out and easy to navigate, despite its size. And so it was that – wearing a smile I could not restrain – bracing myself for the next five days ahead, I drew a deep breath, checked my 10/10 Bluesfest Planner app, noted the first gig to head to, and made my way to that stage to begin taking notes for this review.

Frank Yamma
What struck me about Frank Yamma was the intensity and soulfulness of his lyrics – their beautiful sadness – and even when he was singing in his native Aboriginal tongue, it wasn't difficult to get the gist of what he was communicating.

Matt Andersen
In true form, Matt opened his act by crooning the females in the audience (including yours truly) with his meltingly romantic song 'Make You Stay'. What a guy!

Sticky Fingers
Sticky Fingers © Carl Neumann

Sticky Fingers
This band is a class act – both musically and visually, entertaining and initially somewhat of a flashback to the '70s countdown era, their soul/ funk with a modern hey-there-here-we-are attitude drew me in big time. The hairy bare-chested keyboard player admittedly distracted me at first, but then as I took them in as a whole I understood how he completed the groovy mock up of his group, and this made me smile.

Ohhh... with that distinct voice and that dark broody look of his, Hozier belted out his somewhat disturbed love song 'To Be Alone', and the tribal sound was entrancing. He holds his space comfortably, and clearly takes his job most seriously. With his gorgeous band of leggy backup vocals girls, Hozier's act was extremely entertaining and mesmerising.

Counting Crows
As their band number's seven, Counting Crows afforded their audience a solid visual treat, while they belted out their tunes in perfect coordinated harmony from start to finish. As a long-time Lynyrd Skynyrd fan, I was hooked by the third song and had to drag myself away to get to the next act on my review schedule.

Hozier © Carl Neumann

The Rumjacks
As the first day of the festival came to a close, The Rumjacks were the last act I heard, and as we passed their stage on our way out I noticed couples jive dancing to their rock & roll, and just short of midnight the singer engaged his audience with: "we need your help to end this night, so why don't you all get up and fuckin' dance!" What a perfect up-beat way to end day one of Bluesfest!

Day Two

I fell asleep the night before with the echo of drums playing in my mind and woke up to the sound of the wildlife and surf. It had pelted down rain again throughout the night and although it had stopped, the morning skies looked ominous.
But the rain gods were just warming up on this day, with only a few showers. However, the crowd was markedly larger today as more and more arrived for the long Easter weekend. And more and more of them were wearing an assortment of gumboots. And still I didn't quite understand why...

At one point I spotted a news reporter eager to get the local constabulary on film (whereas police were in fact a rare sight, as there turned out to be no need for their presence), which – in the news' usual sensational fashion – was no doubt a deliberate ploy to false-report (just sayin'!).

Delta Rae
A ray of sunshine...! I don't believe this woman could ever not be lovely and at peace with the world, and - as if to prove my observation - at one point she stopped and told the audience that out of all the festivals around the world, this is the best she'd ever played at, that Bluesfest has the best organisers and it's a credit to them. Nice.

Blue King Brown
Blue King Brown © Lachlan Douglas

Man – talk about a clean, happy, feel-good group of surfie dudes with catchy melodies. Halfway through, singer Jon Foreman provoked his audience with: "it's early in the day, but is it too early to have some rock & roll for breakfast?" To which the crowd roared "NO!!!" And so his band didn't disappoint, with tight chords, clean well-tuned vocals, and Jon's multi-guitar/ harmonica skills they delivered 'Your Love is a Song' embellished with moving, beautiful harmonic riffs, followed by no less than their cover of Tom Petty's "' Won't Back Down'.

Keb (Mo)
With his funky blues and unique, super groovy, creamy-smooth voice and acoustic riffs, Keb had the audience getting down from the get-go – which was really something, considering it was still only early afternoon. I could so easily have sat and allowed myself to get lured and lost in his sounds, except that I had to move on to another act on another stage.

Band Of Skulls
Right from the first heavy drum beat, this band gave us a refreshing change of beat. With their raw tribal war riffs and mad vocals, they revved up the audience and had them shaking their arses and clapping the whole way through their repertoire. Very cool!

Band Of Skulls
Band Of Skulls © Carl Neumann

Beth Hart
I swear Beth chose the wrong colour body for this life – the way she moves and sings, if you close your eyes you'd swear she could brag of a Negro heritage. My God – what a voice! Her deep throaty soulful vocals carried far across the grounds, and watching her seemingly limitless energy as she strutted her stuff around a stage she fully owned, especially when she belted out her gutsy cover of Led Zeppelin's 'Whole Lotta Love'. It was difficult to imagine her as the self-admitted no-life druggy prior to realising her talents.

Jimmy Cliff
I was actually standing in line at one of the bars busting to buy a cold brew, when I first heard Jimmy launch into his cover of Cat Stevens' 'Wild World'. It was so incredibly beautiful that I did an instant u-turn to head towards his stage – despite almost making it to the bar attendant. A few lines into the song, the entire audience was singing along with him and I couldn't help but think how gorgeous it was to be a part of it. Jimmy spoke to his audience in his relaxed and natural manner, as though we were at a friendly gathering of some sort, and then he brought the house down with his unbelievable sax solos.

British India
At first I almost literally died for them, as they got a few minutes into their first song it became clear that something was really off, they just sounded wrong. So they did what any good professional band would do and stopped mid-song, apologised to us, took a couple of short minutes to tune their guitars, and after that there was nothing stopping them and they did not disappoint. They played solid, tight and sounded strong as hell. These guys seriously rocked!

British India
British India © Carl Neumann

Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue
Shorty blew his heart out and gave us a huge solid performance, mixing it up with jazz, rock and a bit of hip hop. There's something about this guy, something very endearing in the way he interacted with us, that showed a humble and gentle man who was grateful to be here and genuinely wanted to please. Which he did.

If any band was going to lift the lid off their tent and make every single being in it go to the moon and back, Train would be it and they absolutely did. First prize goes to them for feel-good, toe-tapping, tail-wagging, soul fun-ness. It's crystal clear why they are three time Grammy Award-winners – they know what they're doing with a style very distinctly their own. Man! Patrick Monahan. What a HUGE voice!

G. Love & Special Sauce
Gee, I could really pick up the Lou Reed influence on G. Love – subtle, but most definitely there – which, mixed in with his laid-back rock & roll/ blues sound made it difficult not to automatically sway along. And then to everyone's delight Jack Johnson appeared and jammed with the Zac Brown Band as the sun went down over the tents.

Paolo Nutini
Here was an act I was really looking forward to – a guy with very big vocals and meaningful lyrics – and it became clear very quickly that a majority of others were not going to miss him either. As it was nearing time for him to come on, the masses began herding towards the central MOJO stage, and the anticipation was intense. His impressive lighting rigging didn't distract from the lyrics, as each song carried direct messages of the state of our world and a call to each of us to do what we should about it.

Day Three

We woke up to rain showers, arrived at the festival with it still showering and the now-serious parking attendants warning us on the way in of an imminent storm coming our way. The showers, however much they gradually developed into a downpour by the end of the night, didn't stop the crowds walking from stage to stage, and this day turned out to be the most crowded one by far. It also ended up being the day I fully realised WHY gumboots are an absolute MUST.

Despite the persistent pounding from the rain gods, the crowd did not appear to care one bit. With or without gumboots, and with or without raincoats, they trudged through deep thick mud to walk between stages, tents, toilets and stalls. The temperature was still mild, so hey?What does mud and rain matter?

© Lachlan Douglas

John Mayall
For a gentleman who presents as an ordinary everyday grandad-looking guy (except, perhaps, for the long white ponytail), The Godfather of Blues astonished me. From when he first opened up his vocal chords until to the very end of the set, I could not stop thinking: "OMG – what a voice!!!" Not only have his vocals stayed strong for his almost 82 years, he moved like a 20-year old, upright on his keyboard, swaggering around with his harmonica. I did notice that for his second song 'That's All Right Baby' he relied on prompt sheets for the lyrics,  but then he launched into a harmonica solo and proved he clearly still has what I suspected earlier – a very, very healthy set of lungs! Then with 'One Life To Live' he changed over to his Gibson and proceeded twanging out some good old southern riffs. Admittedly at this point I got a bit nervous watching his fingers on the frets, as he appeared a little uncertain at first – but then he warmed up into a guitar solo that showed us again that age is no barrier for this gentleman.

Donavon Frankenreiter
I was told by locals that Donavon is hugely popular in Byron, and not long into his set it became obvious why this Californian surfer dude, of course, is. Man, such an easy, smooth, soothing, smokey voice and very evident love for this Australian town.

Rodrigo Y Gabriela
This duo came out shredding flamenco-style in their well-known unique, strong and powerful way, then before not too long launched into the haunting chords of Metallica's 'Orion'. Then into a crazy fast and super-complicated solo, where I was sure Rodrigo would snap the bottom string as he hammered it ridiculously fast right up to the bar and back – exhilarating stuff!

Frank Turner
Frank Turner © Lachlan Douglas

The Gypsy Kings
Here we were treated to classic flamenco sounds – with gorgeous rhythmic guitar work and percussion, it was impossible to stay seated. They had their audience dancing in the rain, in the mud, anywhere they could find space enough to move their tail feathers – including the mud swamps – and wrapped up strong with no less than the universal crowd pleaser 'Bamboléo'.

David Gray
By the time David came on, it was very dark and pouring like a mother. The rain gods were bullbaiting us, their plan was overt – they knew this act was gonna be a big one and that we would all want to get to see Dave. At that point I subliminally thrust my middle finger up at the gods and promptly made my way through thick and thin to the huge Crossroads tent, as David's tunes pulled strings from my past. This was the artist who had carried me through one of the most challenging periods of my life, and the least I could do to pay homage was to get closer to experience him properly. And so I stood outside of the over-filled tent, in my Glad Wrap poncho and soaked Birkenstocks, mesmerised in a blissful higher state, totally oblivious to the torrential rain pouring in my plastic 'hood', fogging up my glasses. I didn't care – this man was IT. The large screen outside aided my view and with my first observations it struck me that the way he presented behind the piano for the first two songs, throwing his head around to his music. Dave was reminiscent of a young Elton John. Then he stood up from the piano and asked the audience to do a Pacific wave, and launched into his old goodies; 'Sail Away', 'Babylon', 'Silver Lining' and finally 'This Year's Love' He moved me, he made me cry. And then just as we thought it was all over, he came back for an encore with his aptly named hit 'Say Hello, Wave Goodbye'. Great, great, great performance.

Day Four

We woke up to some straining rays of sunshine – finally some respite from the rains. But the sight that we beheld upon arrival at the grounds was akin to the WWII battle grounds in movies; every inch of what was once grass was now ankle-deep thick black-brown mud. The smart had their gumboots on. I on the other hand had my now-sad and extremely soggy Birkenstocks, and so I commenced a stealthy navigation around and over puddles and slush. By 4pm the dark clouds had rolled in above the tents, rain gods smirking, and the heavens opened up once again – but the atmosphere was still nonetheless up-tone and cheerful. The weather just didn't matter one bit. We were all here for the music, and there was still plenty of it to be had.

Mavis Staples
This incredible woman has to be lying about her age – there is no way she's almost 76?! The highlight for me was her rendition of 'Respect Yourself', which I truly believe only a black diva such as Mavis could deliver as its creator would have intended, which I can only assume would be due to her extraordinary history and livingness past. Mavis gifted it to the woman present with a genuine passion, like a goddess, high up on that Jambalaya stage.

Michael Franti Spearhead
Michael Franti & Spearhead

Xavier Rudd & The United Nations
Xavier and his spectacular ensemble of colourful characters with their array of percussion instruments including a whistful flute which, alongside rhythmic drums gave us a jungle tribal beat that was hypnotically irresistible. Their reggae version of Cindy Lauper's 'Time After Time' complete with congo drums and trumpets was very cool.

Nikki Hill
Nikki is somewhat of a paradox; a stunningly beautiful woman with a slight frame, and yet a massive voice you'd expect from someone twice her size. A hillbilly rock & roller, she screamed out as a finale her 'Whole Lotta Rosie' AC/DC cover and brought the grounds down with it – bodies within a 50m radius of the stage were headbanging and dancing. It was impossible not to join in!

Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals
According to one of the official scenestr photographers at Bluesfest (who happens to be my husband Carl Neumann), this was THE act to shoot – with more than 70 shooters vying for time in the pit to try for a moneyshot of the great Ben Harper, not only because of his fame, but due to the fact that throughout recent tours he hadn't allowed photo pits for his live performances. This guy is indeed a celebrity, and testimony of this was the flux of bodies that began moving like ants towards the huge MOJO tent a good 30-minutes before Harper was due to appear. His set began with a slow rhythmic bass guitar, which gradually built up to Ben delivering an exhilarating lead guitar solo in his true cool, laid back manner. While I totally duplicate the talent he owns, his aloofness (in my opinion) came across a touch arrogant, and this I found to be somewhat of an invalidation of his adoring audience.

Charles Bradley
Charles Bradley © Lachlan Douglas

Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires
Man – this guy is F-U-N-K-Y!!! It is simply irresistible to not compare him to one of my all-time favs James Brown, and not just because he sounds and appears physically similar. Hugely entertaining, Bradley and his enterage are most definitely as 'extraordinary' as their tag defines them. With his humongous voice and outrageous Motown dance moves and grooves and glittery suits, he is much, much larger than his small stature. At the end of his set he appealed to his audience in an unusually serious tone: "no matter where you are from, just remember we are all of this one earth." Well there you go...

Day Five

On this day the sun gods victoriously squashed their enemies and the sun was the shining crown. It was wonderful to observe the festival grounds slowly but surely drying up here and there, and spirits were as high as ever.

The numbers attendant were markedly lower than in previous days, but towards nightfall it appeared to fill almost to capacity. There was a vibe in the air indicative of the fact that this was the last day of what had been a hugely successful event, and an unspoken group agreement that we would see it to the end with as much enthusiasm as on the first day.

Eddie Boyd & The Phatapillars
It was the ukulele that drew me into the smaller Delta tent, and upon ending a mesmerising feat on such a small instrument, Eddie cracked up his audience with a (trust me on this) appropriate question: "does everybody smell good?!" Not only did he impress with his multi-string talent, his drummer's skills became apparent in one of their own songs, 'Juliet' – and it was here that his look and drumming style gave me the impression of a less-tattooed version of Motley Crüe's Tommy Lee. Then another song, 'Crazy' – which Eddie explained he'd written about his life right now – started off super cruisey, and then sneakily built up to a point where the three of them headbanged in unison. Amazing how three young guys can put out such a big rich and absolutely unique sound with their own original tracks - and so it goes, no wonder whatsoever why they won the Bluesfest 2014 Busking Competition.

Sahara Beck
Sahara Beck © Lachlan Douglas

Towards the middle of his set, Diesel launched into his first ever chart-topping single 'Don't Need Love' from 1988, and with his gorgeous slide guitar riffs it was obvious he masters his instrument. Then he gave us his beautiful acoustic love song '15 Feet of Snow', and with that husky heartbreaker voice of his I was not surprised to notice that there were markedly more women present than men – all of course gazing at him adoringly. Diesel ended this song with a crazy-long high note and then a stint of haunting whistling. Until then I had no idea he was blessed with such an impressively wide vocal range, and I could have stayed on to the very end of his set, but instead tore myself away to get to the next stage, as he crooned another of his beauties, 'Come To Me'.

George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic
Verbatim, in a big black man's deep throaty voice: "yeah!!! We been here a few days and I know you guys may have had a vision of some black guys with rainbow-coloured hair. Well there will be none of that!" And so this large group proceeded to engage the audience to begin clapping along with their super-funky groove, mixed with rap, soul, rock and ghetto sound. At first it sounded great, but as it turned more and more ghetto-rappish I decided it's not really my thiing. But I could see others digging it, so I left them to it.

Gary Clark Jnr.
I have so many adjectives to describe this musician, but most especially he is smooth, groovy, sexy, unassumingly cool and reserved. His lyrics are fine, he makes it look easy and his guitar sings are just like Hendrix, as it is the latter that the NY Times predicted him to incarnate.

Rebelution © Lachlan Douglas

Michael Franti & Spearhead
Earlier in the day, Franti took a God-like charge of a massive group yoga session held underneath one of the bigger tents by playing acoustic guitar to the sprawling and contorted bodies below him. It was quite a sight to behold. Then as a finale to end the festival, he took to the stage again with Spearhead, with an early highlight when dozens of beach balls were released into the front audience and volleyballs bounced around during 'The Sound of Sunshine'.

View artist photos from days 4 & 5.

Final Cap Off

Crawling back to the car at midnight I was feeling elated, albeit exhausted. Wow – what a five-day blast! And you know what? Not once did I witness any transgressions; not one D&D, no visible signs of drug use or abuse, nothing but harmony and good will. From the local stall workers manning their food and wares, to the security, to the cleaners and parking attendants and above all the festival goers in their tens of thousands.

© Carl Neumann

Despite the rain and the mud and the multitudes of bodies, the rubbish control and overall cleanliness throughout the entire area was remarkable and consistent. My hat comes off to the organisers of this sensational event, for a job very well done. I would very much love to come again and would recommend it to anyone, no matter what age or musical preference.

Bluesfest is most definitely one a kind. Peace and love.

– Written by Suzanna Zagon



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