Following a wild and wet night, Bluesfest was looking a bit sad and sorry for itself this morning. With the bus drop-off zone resembling a swamp and each tent ringed by a mud moat, it wasn’t surprising to see the masses rock up dressed a little more appropriately for today’s festivities.
First up today we caught Melbourne’s King Cannons at the Mojo stage. Playing three times at this year’s event, their fan base is sure to grow as quickly as the crowds did this morning. Very synchronised and with a powerful sound, rounded out with Luke Yeoward’s fantastic vocals, their set delivered on the potential their debut album (‘The Brightest Light’) introduced everyone to. Sounding very polished and confident, this was a local band setting out to prove themselves amongst the internationals and prove themselves they have: A powerhouse live act who know how to get the crowd involved, if you missed them today make sure you see them at one or both of their remaining shows at Bluesfest.
Skipping Girl Vinegar attracted a big crowd today off the back of a well-received set on Friday and we were one of those who made the trek over on the basis of reviews we’d heard. They are an enjoyable listen, combining a great blend of all five members’ vocals with endearing indie melodies and some tight backing, especially from drummer Chris Helm. That being said, on the whole their sound is largely underwhelming and overly familiar. Their onstage setup doesn’t help this image, as their use of an old telephone, bird cutouts attached to keyboards and other assorted items make the whole show seem like they are trying too hard to be cool. Some desperate spruiking of their CD added to the mix and it all became a bit much for us, tainting whatever value they may have had initially. A great group for the two dozen hipsters at the front (especially those wearing green Ray-Ban knockoffs) but otherwise just a mediocre way to kill time in-between quality acts.
SOJA have received a lot of press at this year’s Bluesfest, particularly with the regular advertisements for their latest album on the side of stage big screens. With that hype, there were obviously a lot of people who came to see them, intrigued about who SOJA are. It didn’t take long for them to discover what they’re about, with the group’s sound being so consistent and their politics on display from the get-go. A calming combination of reggae and rock, their sound is perfectly suited to the afternoon slot at Bluesfest. Unfortunately for anyone beyond the closest crowd, their live presence wasn’t quite felt by the whole audience, a fact not lost on singer Jacob Hemphill, who was almost apologetic in his requests for people to see them tomorrow for their show at “one of these tents around here” (Jambalaya), because “we’re a lot better in a smaller space”. It’s easy to see how that would be true, so hopefully those who didn’t catch them today or who were underwhelmed will take his advice and catch their funky set in a more appropriate setting.
It must have been a difficult job to decide who to schedule on a festival day where Robert Plant is headlining. How do you precede one of the greatest, most distinctive and powerful voices in rock history? Peter Noble and co. decided to use The Blind Boys of Alabama to build a spiritual atmosphere before the religious experience many would enjoy during the great man’s set. Had he decided to play upon people’s enjoyment of Plant’s voice, he would surely have enlisted the help of Grace Potter, with her stellar accompanying group, The Nocturnals. Powerful, intense and endearing, Potter had the audience on tenderhooks for much of her Bluesfest set today. Capturing the urgency of Plant’s vocal delivery, it became increasingly clear throughout her set why USA Today referred to her as “The greatest female rock singer in the country”. An utterly enjoyable experience, especially with the knowledge that Robert Plant was coming later to build on the foundation she laid, the hardest thing about watching this group was knowing that, at least for this writer, there was ten years of history and five albums of music to catch up on that had somehow slipped under our radar.
Performing their set on the smaller, Jambalaya stage, Mark Seymour and the Undertow still managed to attract a huge crowd to see them play a tight set spanning the entirety of Seymour’s career. The undoubtable highlight was, as expected, ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ but for fans there was a lot more to love. Seymour’s invitation for his daughter to share the stage was enthusiastically received by the crowd but ultimately her performance didn’t add much to the group’s sound. It’s Seymour’s prerogative obviously, but were it not for the fact that immediately following her entrance they played one of his biggest hits (Throw Your Arms) there would have been a number of people leaving. As it was, he managed to hold onto an impressively large amounts of people until Wilco’s set started.
A lot of people had obviously pencilled Wilco into their planners, as the Mojo tent filled rapidly in the lead up to their 5pm set. Their meandering country-tinged rock delighted much of the crowd who had gathered to hear them. With various members, the group has honed their craft for nineteen years and their live show remains as strong as ever. An unspoken understanding binds the six members together and keeps them on track throughout their set. For this reviewer, they remain a little bit too close to the track, lacking the immediacy that brings excitement to so many artists’ sets at Bluesfest. Undoubtedly enjoyable, exactly what fans expected, but a little too safe in the context of the rest of this remarkable festival.
Largely confined to the history books, it took a divisive advertising campaign by Coles to bring Status Quo back into the realm of the living. The living jokes that is. Self-defacing and corny, the ads, which featured a rewording of Quo classic ‘Down Down’, made the group a laughing stock. The process was necessary though as it saw the group reintroduced to old fans and promoted to a new audience entirely. They capitalised on it well because despite of everything, they pulled off a stellar show that, although containing some corny dance moves, delivered on the promise of their musical canon. This, for many of the audience, was the highlight of the night. With a tent packed to absolute capacity dancing and at the end giving a total standing ovation, it is fair to say the Quo are back and deservedly so.
For Bluesfest regulars, there would have been no surprises with The Blind Boys of Alabama’s set tonight. Strong in voice and with their trademark youthful enthusiasm intact, their set charmed the crowd and showed they are still capable of performing a great show, despite having performed together for over 70 years!
The Dropkick Murphys’ set at Bluesfest was largely marred by a poor mix which saw the vocals buried so low they were largely indecipherable. That did little to hamper the crowd’s enthusiasm though, especially at the front where for the first time at this year’s festival a fairly ferocious mosh pit emerged. Energetic, brash and connected to the crowd, Dropkick Murphys delivered a strong performance but despite their best efforts they couldn’t overcome the obstacle that the Crossroads stage sound woes presented.
The highlight of the night was by far Robert Plant. The former Led Zeppelin singer had the crowd transfixed from the moment he was introduced. Charting a steady course through his vast musical canon, the rock n roll god reinforced the message of that O2 reunion show and Celebration Day film: That he still has one of the most incredible voices around and he is most certainly still a rock god.
They say you should start things the way you intend them to go, so by kicking off with Led Zeppelin’s ‘Friends’, Plant had everyone hoping this was where the show would stay. We weren’t disappointed. Playing just three of his own solo songs and two covers, this was a Led Zeppelin themed night. Goin’ To California, Bron-Y-Aur Stomp and Rock ‘n Roll were all performed as very faithful renditions of the classic Zeppelin tunes and were met with rapturous applause. Misty Mountain Hop, Friends and the first halves of Heartbreaker and Whole Lotta Love also stuck fairly close to the originals, but were slowed down, giving them a (fittingly) more bluesy vibe. The other halves of the latter two, as well as Four Sticks and Black Dog, were more radically transformed, taking on Indian or African vibes as Plant free-wheeled around the stage while Juldeh Camara broke it down with the exotic sounds of his ritti (one-stringed fiddle.)
Plant’s decision to only include solo tracks from Mighty Rearranger, rather than the rest of his eclectic catalogue, was an interesting one and disappointed some members of the audience. But this was quite clearly the minority, as solo tunes ‘Tin Pan Valley’, ‘Another Tribe’ and ‘Enchanter’ saw the crowd at its quietest, despite them being excellent, energetic renditions. The surprise standout track of the night (once you get past the expected brilliance of his Led Zeppelin material) was Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters’ rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Spoonful’, the first track where we saw Plant’s voice really warm up and take flight. This thumping cover showcased his voice brilliantly and gave blues fans some extra excitement from the show.
Plant enjoyed himself tonight. It was obvious to all from his dancing, singing and conversations with the crowd. He clearly felt at home at this, “hot and sticky, wet and fun” blues festival, as he regaled the crowd with stories of growing up, his favourite blues musicians and meeting Charlie Musselwhite backstage. As he explained, “This is the blues festival and this is blues: It’s been messed with a little bit but it’s still fun.” Messed with indeed, in some cases the label ‘blues’ is even misleading, but they still fit in at Byron Bay’s Bluesfest and this man is still amazing. A fantastic end to the night!
… Well almost…
Unfortunately the goodwill that left many festival goers walking around with huge smiles plastered on their faces didnt last too long. Yet again the shuttle buses failed to match the otherwise smooth operation of Bluesfest. After being forced to leave the festival grounds at 12:15, we were then made to wait in a queue until 1:45 for a bus. An hour and a half where we could have been seated and buying food/drinks while we waited for Peter Noble’s crew to sort their shit out. For a festival that costs this much to attend it’s not good enough. Whatever the reasons, for two nights running, punters have been left wanting when it comes to getting home. A sadly disappointing end to an otherwise fantastic day of music.