Sunday, May 16, 2010

Byron Bay Bluesfest 2010

So here we are again at the annual report on the East Coast Blues and Roots Festival.
This year 2010 was the best ever. I must admit that I did consider not attending. I thought that the organisers were becoming complacent and taking the soft option - the choice of artists was becoming predictable and the lack of contingency in last year's deluge just topped it off. In addition the festival was moving further out of Byron Bay.

Well the artist announcements included some who clearly could not be missed, Jeff Beck, Dr John and Peter Green were old heroes but the crunch for me was Oumou Sangare, the Malian diva. Her CD Seya had been in the car since our return from the UK in June and it was my top purchase for 2009. And she was playing with Bela Fleck. But she wasn't our 2010 Bluesfest winner....
Our accommodation last year upgraded from tents to a house in Byron Bay – our family came up for a wedding so we opted for the additional expense. This year Len, Patrick and I were fortunate to share a house with Michelle, Niki and Annie, colleagues of Len. We were joined by Team Trevor for a couple of nights Trevor and Len are a Gold Coast Run team for 2010. A cheery boisterous group who viewed sleep with some disdain (except Team Trevor who hit the sack moments after arrival).
“I spit on sleep, said Pat at 1.30am after arriving back from the Bluesfest, ”it's an encumbrance, besides there's at least two hours of cricket on tv.....” After limited kip we were up and dived into a bright new day with a swim in the surging sparkling waters off Brunswick Heads, a coffee on the return journey then the Blues Brekkie on the barby, a fortifying start to the day. Tradition. Then Len was off to the pub and TAB to pick his winner. Tradition. Then a schooner or two to drown the dogs of misfortune. Or in Len's case gee gees. Tradition.
Slightly altered photo of Niki sqwawking alongside an attentive Len.
Now to the ratings. But before that I must put to rest some rumour that I won the snoring comp.
Pat reached eight on the Richter scale and Len was making noises resembling a pregnant hippo. And Niki one morning following an enthusiastic drinking and squawking session was cracking walls in the girl's bedroom according to Michelle. Not that I heard anything.

More photos can be seen at 

Thursday provided an enticing flavour of what was to come. The Avett Brothers was our first stop – a bluegrass group with great harmony vocals, intelligent lyrics from what I could hear, plus a dash of punk attitude and execution. Multi instrumentalists apart from the Japanese cellist whose expression evoked rapture or anguish, I'm not sure which, but he added an interesting dimension to the mix. Rating 9 Len 9

Following the Avetts we had two doses of prime Southern gumbo. The good doctor, Dr John, I hadn't seen previously and although almost in his seventies and using a cane, his voice and expertise on the keyboards were as strong as on record. The highlight for me was the eerie voodoo swamp song, Walk on Gilded Splinters. It was as if he had summoned the roots of his muse right there. He played two keyboards, an organ on his left and a piano on his right, sometimes simultaneously. A shrunken skull (or a child's skull....) was placed on a silken cloth on the organ. There were inscriptions on the cloth. An adult's skull was grinning on the piano together with other voodoo odds and bobs, alligator teeth, claw of cougar, penis of python.....who knows?
“We wanna thank y'all for comin on down t' see us” Rating 9.00 Len 9.5

The Good doctor and Len, both in appropriate crown and brim.

The second gumbo was Lil' Band of Gold, a band consisting of Louisianan blue ribbon players led by the tall C C Adcock. Crouching, with his guitar slung before him like a gun, Adcock stalks his music, spins around pointing his weapon at the next soloist or together with collaborator Steve Riley (leader of the Mamou Playboys) moves in on his prey – usually joshing the fabulous drummer vocalist, smiling septuagenarian Warren Storm. ABC Radio National's Lucky Ocean sat in on pedal steel, doing a fine job. Len bought the album, Promised Land, a studio recording which has the diversity of their repertoire but for me doesn't reach the live show. You might say “it's a studio recording ya wombat” and do you know what, you would be right.
Rating 9 Len 9

Leaving Lil' Band of Gold quite enthused we popped into Orquestra Buena Vista Social Club who sounded musically very good as you'd expect but not quite what we wanted to hear at the time.
Rating 8 Len's rating 7

Len headed for Tribali a lively band from Malta who he rated a big 9, then to Jack Johnson who didn't do much for him at all – rating a disappointing 7. I ended with Jools Holland & his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra – about 20 musos on stage putting out a very professional, slick selection of blues in various forms, jump blues, R'n B, jazz blues etc. All well done but cabaret for me, there was no edge to it at all, but the audience seemed to be enjoying it. Rating 7

Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson
Hat Fitz for me has always epitomised the core of the Bluesfest. This is blues in its most primitive and raw state. This is where it all came from, one man with a box of wood and wires and a voice full of wailing emotion, energy and power. This is where rock stems from, this is the Rosetta Stone.

Hat was chuffed at Byron, glowing in his new love.
A pissed voice kept yelling for Po' Boy. Hat responded “I'm no poor boy now, look at that....”, nodding significantly over to Cara. “ All those trips to Ireland, coming back with friggin' leprechauns, four leaf clovers [sic]. Look what I came back with this time....!!”
Together they sang Blind Willie's Delia, Cara adding flute. Holy shit. Where was the manic Hat of old we asked? The one with mad eyes popping, voice raging against providence, flailing his guitar like a beast possessed? Is this Hat Lite? Could there be such a creature.....?? What happened to Itchy – he's obviously been scratched?

Well, as it turned out what we have is a more musically adventurous Hat. Sometimes it works and sometimes it misses, but when it hits, as in their version of Delia when Hat actually sings with a low rich vibrato, or in Nobody's Fault but Mine when Hat's slide has such a delicate sensitive touch, it sounds great. Cara has a rich adaptable voice, she can sing Bessie Smith, sound like Bonnie Raitt, and can probably sing in the ornamented Irish traditional style, sean nos.

I bought their new CD Beauty and the Beast – Hat reckons ''she's the beast....'' - it is nothing if not eclectic. The addition of Cara's flute and whistle, plus Jim Conway's harp on a couple of tracks, Jacko (Jackson who else?) on fiddle, others on tuba, clarinet and cornet all go to vary the musical palette. Wicklow Feel sounds like Barney McKenna and Ciaran Bourke from the Dubliners, albeit with a hangover. It's a bit clunky in parts and I'm not sure whether it may have
been the fault of the bodrhain player. Perhaps it could have been ironed out in the mix. Euronator is flat out RL Burnside dance and it works! Backdoor Man is blues rock with great harmonies. Fitzmulholland is a folky hippyish instrumental, skipping around the fire. I think it points to a good future. Hat is recognising the potential of his voice and playing, and Cara's influence will hone his art alongside her own.
Rating at Byron 9.5 Len's rating 9.5

Ye Olde Brit Blues Blowers

I remember seeing John Mayall in the early 80s at the appropriately named Punchbowl Pub where drinks were sold in plastic cups, everything was nailed down. You had to arm wrestle the Gatekeeper to get in. And she always won. Mayall was supported by Mick Taylor and John McVie, I can't recall who was on the tubs – I'm sure it wasn't Mick Fleetwood. Anyway a fab lineup with Mayall pretty well in his prime, shirt off after a couple of numbers to highlight the rich dark Californian sun tan, hair by Charles blown by the strategically placed fan while he sang “It's a hard road 'til I die”. You could be forgiven for cringing at the irony.

Almost thirty years later Mayall can still put out a show which pleases the punters. Nothing real flash, he can still do Parchment Farm, All Your Love and other staples – the band was good, his guitarist a cut above, and yeah, it was a steady show. Rating 7.5 Len was more impressed and gave 9.5.

Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac is recognised among aficionados and critics as being the best Brit blues band of the 60s. Not only blues but pop rock – Apple wanted to sign them. The man at the helm was guitar maestro, singer and songwriter Peter Green. A hero of mine, I loved his stuff with Mac – check out the live Boston concerts, Greeny duelling with Danny Kirwan. A Mojo best guitarist ever list of the late 90s placed him at No 2, just behind Hendrix. Well those lists are always contentious but there is no doubting the man's deft touch, subtle and soulful, but his talent could also encompass rock, r 'n b and even the Spanish cante hondo style. And his lyrics always hit the mark. But Greeny dropped out for about 30 years before being coaxed back in the 90s.

The marquee was chokkers with those who wanted to see The Legend levitate, self combust, burst into fits of uncontrolled mirth or just play Apache. Surprisingly he starts with Oh Pretty Woman – a Mayall standard lifted from Albert King. He's seated and the poor old bugger is studied and tentative, his fluidity has diminished and he looks like a rabbi in a mosque, but you feel the audience willing him to succeed. After a while he seems to be enjoying himself. His voice has less strength but his singing is as soulful as ever. He did a great version of ''Dark End of the Street''. Crowd pleasers such as ''Oh Well'', ''Black Magic Woman'', and ''Albatross'' were there – the last without the harmony support guitar lines – presumably the 2nd guitarist could have played them.
Rating 8, Len's rating 9

Jeff Beck has fared the best of ye olde Brit Blues Blowers. His playing is better than ever. This is where Peter Green might be, had he not blown his brain with acid. Of course Greeny has said that he's only [sic] a blues guitarist, but compositions such as The Supernatural, The Green Manalishi, much of the LP Then Play On would discount his assertion. Beck is close to Hendrix's muse. A superb player, inventive, controlled, a master of his music. Great versions of Rollin and Tumblin, A Day in the Life and Somewhere Over the Rainbow – the only songs/tunes I was familiar with – must get his video Live at Ronnie Scotts. His support band was excellent, the young female bassist – an Aussie someone said - was a marvel.
Rating 9.5, Len's rating 9.5.

Ancient Black Blues Guys Who Still Stand Tall

The second time I've seen Buddy Guy and like before he astounds with his energy and skill. He defies all laws of nature, the guy, that is Buddy, must be at least 300 years old. Seriously he is walking museum, a timeline direct to Muddy Waters and then to Son House. When he was a sideman for Chess, Son House, M. John Hurt and Skip James had yet to be rediscovered. He was part of the young guns trio which emerged in Chicago in the fifties, alongside Otis Rush and Magic Sam. Listen to his complete Chess recordings for some of the best slow burning blues – but also jazz and pop! Listen to his later albums, Green Tea and Skin Deep - just as intense.

As a performer he is electrifying. His vocals and guitar playing are becoming stronger still, if that is possible – have you seen the Stones' Shine A Light where Buddy Guy steals the show? This is the artist so admired by Jimi and Stevie Ray. There is no other blues performer alive who has this street cred, pure ability and excitement. Astounding. 
Rating 9.5 Len's rating 9.5

Both Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal are no strangers to the sexual blues metaphor eg. I'm a crawling elephant's trunk etc Yet between them they have about 450 years. Ok my maths are crook, but somewhere thereabouts. Can they still get it up, metaphorically? Betcha.

Initially I thought Taj was a folky bluesman, educated middle class doing faithful reproductions - not the dark hard lived Mississippi blues which continued electrified in the Chicago tradition. But Taj is Mr Eclectic and has branched out over the years into various forms eg African, Hawaiian, Caribbean, gutsy r 'n b and this wealth of styles comes together in his entertaining performance. Blues has widened in its scope, you don't have to be a cotton picker to play it, or express its emotions. John Mayall would agree. You can polish your licks in a tree house in suburban Manchester. You don't have to blow your harp on a street corner to earn a dime. These are the days of the middle class educated yuppie blues person (YBP). Where are all the Blind Willies??  Or, for that matter the Big Willies and Little Willies? 
Rating 8.5 Len's rating 10

Bela Fleck's African Project feat. Oumou Sangare (and her band)

Banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck is a humble dude. If you thought he was the headliner here, as the advertising indicated, you would have been mistaken. It was Oumou Sangare's show all the way.
When I saw Oumou's name on the list of artists I had to attend. I had bought her last CD Seya in London last year and it has been in the car since then. Fabulous. Bela Fleck's African Project CD has Oumou on three tracks including the wonderful Djorolen, and they are among the best on his album. On stage he took a back seat adding his banjo subtly to the tapestry of traditional and modern instrumentation. I really enjoyed it but there were mixing problems which slightly marred the concert. Oumou's voice was fabulous as you'd expect, and she tried to communicate to the audience in French but heck, some of that audience would have been challenged in English.... 
Rating 9.5, Len's rating 9.5

The Winner Justin Townes Earle

Ah yes, you have all these bands with their gizmos and volume but all it takes is a voice, a hollow box with wires, energy and imagination. It was like watching Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie. A true line of tradition. He stepped as he said in his slurred diction from the plane to the stage folks,
this lanky (186cm - 6'5”), skinny guy with legs like poles and a body like a ventriloquist's dummy has talent, attitude, and liquor. He stoops, leans in over the mic, does his Backstep Hunch and Stoop, leans in again. We were blessed, though I doubt this son of outlaw country star Steve Earle would have put it like that. He also won our sartorial award. His mum didn't dress him. He said he and his dad don't get along – too much alike "I ever hope to hear, I am my father's son/ I've never known when to shut up/ I ain't fooling no one/ I am my father's son/ we don't see eye to eye/ and I'll be the first to admit I've never tried/ it sure hurts me, it should hurt sometime/ we don't see eye to eye/ I was a young man when/ I went down the same road as my old man.". But he said his good side comes from his mum “and I still see wrong from right/ cause I've got my mama's eyes”. Ex Drive By Truckers Jason Isbell backed him well on a number of songs, both puffing on ciggies and cracking tubes, like a couple of musos sharing a song, before we became so clinical.
Rating 10 Len's rating 10.

 The madness of gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello

Such manic energy from this NY gypsy conglomeration had the audience jumping like maniacs.
It was The Pogues on fast forward. The music is eclectic – gypsy with ska, dub, reggae, rai, punk, metal, techno, rap, flamenco etc etc. Leader Eugene Hutz leaps around like a fox on fire, he knows no boundaries, his energy is immense. Exhausting to watch, but exhilarating.
Rating 9.5 Len's rating 9.8 (wow!!)

Surprise of the Festival
10cc. What? Yup this pop rock unit from the 70s was the Big Surprise. Smart lyrics and harmonies, clever musical structure topped by the ability to effortlessly reproduce music which is light years away from Justin Townes Earle, yet although arty pop, still rocks with resonance. Well it did for us and the audience. To tell the truth I would not have bothered going to see them, although I loved Une Nuit a Paris from The Original Soundtrack LP way back in the mid seventies, but we were settled in the marquee and couldn't be moved. So. We experienced a sensational show. Tops. All respects to them, bro.
Rating 9.5 Len 9.8 (wow again!!)

Kev Carmody
Kev never fails you. He's so humble about his musical ability, yet his lyrics and delivery are passionate, his communication skills well honed. Kev sits down and chats away, it's like being in his lounge room – sure it would be no different. Well this time on From Little Things he was joined by his guests, a whos who of Aussie music including Troy Cassar Daly, Dan Sultan, Blue King Brown. It brought a tear to a glass eye.
Rating 9 Len 9.5

Rockwiz ran for three afternoons with the alluring and entertaining Julia at the throttle. The show is great fun, the presenters, guests and audience all contributing to the carnival. A couple of the guests were impressive singers, particularly a woman from Adelaide – I hope they put it on TV.

Dynamites feat. Charles Walker Rating 8 Lens rating 8
The Snowdroppers 8 9
Joe Bonamassa 7 9
(Joe was technically excellent, but subtlety is not his middle name – too much flash and clamour for my taste, metal would welcome him but.....everyone else seemed to enjoy him. Maybe I should give myself a good talking to.....)
John Cruz 7.5 9
Narasirato Pan Pipers 7.5
Ozomatli 9
Renee Geyer 9
Galactic feat. Cyril Neville 8 8
The Flatlanders 7 7
Next year?
Maybe, if we're lucky...
Kings of Leon, Hazmat Modine, Burning Spear, Robert Plant and The Strange Sensation, Mike Henderson & the Bluebloods, Legendary Shack Shakers, Detroit Cobras, Sierra Leones Refugee Allstars, Ska Cubano, Salif Keita, Issa Bagayogo, Baaba Maal, Ba Cissoko, Martha Wainwright, Richard Thompson, Wayne The Train Hancock, Jo Jo Zep, Neville Brothers, The Pogues, Graham Parker, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Daddy Cool, Buddy Holly



richardact said...

Good stuff Baz. Love the reviews. Did Kev Carmody do "Droving Woman"? Surely one of the best Australian folk songs ever written!


Hey Richard, great to see your comment and glad you enjoyed it. Since returning I've been so busy that I have not had the time to post the review so it had gone up yesterday minus the photos which I've just finished now. Also added a few words to Taj Mahal.

I don't recall Kev doing Droving Woman, certainly not this time - a long song which may have tested the audience, but yes the lyrics as with most of his lyrics, are so evocative. I've been meaning to buy the 2 CD tribute with the originals and the covers. Those I've heard are really good.
We'll have a beer when O and Deb return Rich. Cheers, Baz

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