The 24th Annual Bluesfest got off to a rolling start yesterday, but it took today to really gets things pumping, as a huge array of talent converged on the Bluesfest site to give the massive crowd a taste of some excellent music this Easter.

Friday saw huge international acts adding some weight to an already hefty lineup: Santana, Rodriguez and Ben Harper were all there to show off their wares. One of the most impressive acts on the day however, was also one of the first: Jake Shimabukuro left the audience at his 2:30 afternoon show on the Apra stage bamboozled. The intricacy of his work on the ukulele is hard to describe but fits immeasurably well within the context of Byron Bay’s Bluesfest, as he performed intricate acoustic renditions of well-known songs including Adele’s Rolling In The Deep and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, interspaced with his own songs. It was impossible to avoid the joy shown by Shimabukuro onstage: He genuinely loves performing and that has a huge impact on the crowd. They were eating out of the hand of this fantastic showman who has a huge presence onstage and an endearing banter with the audience. This hit its peak as he spoke humbly about the YouTube video which launched his career, before performing a moving rendition of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’.

Glen Hansard took to the stage with The Frames in front of a large audience who, for the most part, appeared to be hearing his music for the first time. An experienced professional, he wasn’t daunted by the large crowd gathered though, stripping things back for a mellow set largely derived from his first solo album ‘Rhythm and Repose’. His use of a horn section is a great touch to ensure songs don’t drag on and to avoid the numbing sameness that affects many more recent folk-rock groups who lack the experience of The Frames.

It was clear that for much of the crowd at Bluesfest today, Ben Harper was a big drawcard. Filled to capacity and overflowing in every direction, if you didn’t get there early, you had little hope of getting into the tent, let alone to somewhere you could see. For those who could, Harper delivered a stellar acoustic set, starting off with a new song on the piano, before launching into a much-appreciated (but largely underwhelming) cover of ‘Hallelujah’. Strong as ever and in good spirits (which makes all the difference) he ploughed through a set filled with classics and fan favourites alike. Unfortunately, the show was marred by poor management. The decision to put the show on the smaller, Crossroads, stage was illogical and brought back memories of 2011’s placement of BB King on the same stage. Compounding this was the fact that the volume from the stage was kept ludicrously low, resulting in a situation where anyone out the back of the tent (of which there were many) couldn’t hear a word or sound from the stage. Balancing the playing schedule is a difficult job no doubt, but one which wasn’t very successful today.

Once you move beyond his preaching, Jimmy Cliff was the first act to bring the fun to Bluesfest today. As soon as he started, many of the crowd were on their feet and even more rose for his big numbers, including ‘Wild World’, ‘Many Rivers to Cross’, ‘The Harder They Come’ (complete with a reenactment of his scene in the film bearing the same name) and of course ‘I Can See Clearly Now’. His energy and enthusiasm is contagious, particularly when he goes to such lengths to interact with the crowd. Singalongs, bizarre hand actions and his continual preaching had the crowd watching his every move and listening to his every word. Unfortunately, there is only so much reggae you can hear before songs start to blend into one another and unless you were a dedicated fan, this show was just a bit too long. That being said, a master-showman, Cliff has a lot to teach some of the younger stars at Bluesfest this year, especially when it come to holding an audience’s attention.

The good news story of last year, Rodriguez’s return from obscurity has been met with rampant enthusiasm from many fans, both old and new, many of whom barely batted an eyelid when he last toured Australia in 2010. How the tables have turned, seeing the 70 year old Detroit musician enjoying more popularity now than ever before. Unfortunately, this newfound popularity led to his show being incredibly busy (also exacerbated by the beginning of the rain which also forced people to find shelter). Regardless though, the show found him in strong voice, enchanting the crowd and proving that years haven’t aged the man’s musical abilities. Age may have impacted on his health however, as he was forced to pull out of his signing appearance, a disappointment that left some fans in tears, having queued up for over half an hour to see the man in person. If the past is anything to go by, expect to see Rodriguez back here again soon and don’t miss out on tickets to catch a consummate performer.

The Snowdroppers’ second slot at Bluesfest delivered the most energetic show of the day. Introducing a lot of the crowd to tracks from their newly released second album (Moving Out Of Eden), the group approached the stage with reckless abandon. None more so than singer Johnny Wishbone, whose camp mannerisms owned the stage and gave the audience no choice about where to look or whether to join in or not. Spontaneous claps, singalongs and in crowd handshaking were all employed to make sure everyone felt included in this show. An incredibly tight group, The Snowdroppers are one polished act and are certainly one to keep an eye out for next year as they definitely deserve to return to the Bluesfest lineup.

As seems to be the trend for today’s Bluesfest experience, the act of watching Santana in action was hampered by overwhelming external factors. The usual (though not for the past couple of years) poor weather forced people to find shelter, whilst the tent itself struggled to accommodate the multitudes who chose to watch the guitar god wield his axe. Santana played with his usual melodic genius and sublime timing but it was nigh on impossible to enjoy for long unless you were able to get inside the tent to watch. A disappointing experience for one of the major drawcards to this year’s event.

Trombone Shorty enjoyed a more relaxed atmosphere resulting from Santana attracting much of the Bluesfest crowd at this time slot. Playful and as musically perfect as ever, he continued to build on the outstanding reputation he has built up over a couple of Bluesfest appearances. That being said, there was something lacking tonight in comparison to his previous visits to Byron: It seemed more like a job than we’ve seen before and unfortunately that translated to the crowd’s reaction. Without being up close to the stage, the intensity didn’t transfer to the audience, emphasising the small size of the crowd compared to Santana’s masses 100 metres away.

Today’s Bluesfest was filled with many world-class acts and many stellar performances. Something for everyone, spaced (as well as possible) throughout a whole day: Anyone with a single day ticket could go home feeling very satisfied with their purchase. It has raised one major question about the size of the festival though: What is the maximum number Peter Noble & co. can effectively cater for? Today saw many tents bursting at the seams and with Saturday tending to be the biggest night of the festival (especially with Robert Plant and Iggy Pop headlining) there must surely be a few people wondering whether the festival will buckle under its own weight before the end of this Easter weekend.
We should have faith, as the team at Bluesfest have orchestrated this event incredibly well in the past. Let’s hope they can continue this with such a huge crowd, especially given the pressure on Noble and friends to top this year’s effort for their 25th anniversary next year!


Live Marks 7 out of 10