Being the last day of this epic festival, where the 3 day campers are finished and people begin to make the trek home, you would expect Monday morning to be a tad quiet at Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm. It wasn’t at all! Monday morning saw the biggest crowds for the curtain-raisers out of any day at this year’s Byron Bay Blues and Roots Bluesfest. Partly due to the large numbers of single-day ticket holders who felt they had to make the most of their 12 hours and partly due to the amount of hype generated by opening acts who had performed on previous days, either way, it must have left food and market stall managers wondering if the crowds had camped at the main stages overnight.
While the first round of acts were largely take it or leave it affairs, from 1:15 punters had to make some difficult choices. Kim Churchill rocked the Crossroads stage with all the energy he brings to his one-man show. King Cannons were also rocking with a similar set to the day before, but this time on the Jambalaya Stage. Newton Faulkner was entertaining a massive crowd (who mostly set up camp to wait it out until Paul Simon) with his laid back folk tunes. Whilst over at the Apra Stage, Mason Rack was back again with his band. His set was also fairly similar to yesterday’s, though he left his family offstage until the end when they threw free gear out to the crowd. Instead he brought back his two musical visitors from yesterday, as well as inviting two young girls up on stage to try their hand at slide guitar. Another rocking show from a master performer.
Matt Andersen followed after on the Apra Stage. The Canadian guitarist brought some extra blues to this blues festival, delivering what can only be described as a barnstorming performance. A virtuoso on the guitar, Andersen also has a superb voice which brings out the narrative in each song he performs, the best of the night being his hypothetical story about watching a couple in a bar, the man losing interest until he pushes his chair back and launches into the final tirade of ‘Devil’s Bride’: “No soul on Earth could love you, no man can satisfy, only hell-born fire could ever warm you. You should be the devil’s bride.” A character himself, Andersen is a humble man who was clearly very chuffed to be playing at Bluesfest. He also doesn’t take himself too seriously, as we saw when due to a broken string he was forced to placate the crowd by promising “I’ll play Wagon Wheel as soon as I get my G-string on. I’m kinda glad that you’ve all got that mental image in your heads now.” A gentleman, a character and a fantastic performer, hopefully this won’t be the last time we see Matt Andersen at Bluesfest.
Veteran bluesman Tony Joe White had a lot of people talking yesterday after his three o’clock set and with that in mind we headed over to the Apra Stage to hear what he had to offer. Sitting easy at the front of the stage, White has a commanding presence despite his inactivity while he plays. As his ravaged voice drags itself over his powerfully raw guitar sounds, you can’t help but be drawn into his lyrical world and focus intently on his singing. It’s definitely still a show where you need to know a bit of the artist’s music to fully appreciate it, but even for those unititiated, Tony Joe White put the blues in Bluesfest while he occupied that stage.
The Zac Brown Band have a lot of accolades behind them and accrued a crowd pretty quickly for their set at the Mojo Stage. Most of those there were obviously fans, singing and bopping along to their favourite tunes. For this reviewer, their music this afternoon came across as a bit pedestrian, meandering along a well beaten track without any real purpose. Yes, Zac Brown can sing. Yes, there was some fantastic guitar work going on. No, I didn’t care. The chirpiness of their set bordered on evangelical and glossed over any unique personality their sound could contain. That being said, the many Zac Brown Band fans who were there loved the show, they’ve won a lot of awards and they’ve sold a lot of albums, so perhaps some people really like generic happy music. It wasn’t to be for this reviewer though.
I feel a bit sorry for Ben Howard, five years ago, he may have been accepted as a genuine musician and an appropriate addition to the Bluesfest lineup. However, since five years have passed, Ed Sheeran has arrived and ruined any chance he had of being taken seriously by anyone other than fifteen year old girls. However, despite early on thinking there might be more to Howard than the insipid Sheeran, as the first half of his set dragged on, I was less convinced by this optimism. My opinion of him was rescued a bit by his sprawling track ‘Oats In The Water’ and those which followed, all of which showed that he is capable of writing genuinely enjoyable songs grounded in the blues. Unfortunately for about half of his canon, he keeps this talent hidden, instead sticking to a generic (Sheeran) formula that only really places value on his voice. A bit more musicality and instrumental work would make a world of difference to what was largely generic pop buoyed up by the promise of some (largely hidden) blues talent.
Xavier Rudd drew the short straw of today’s set times, starting out just before, but mostly overlapping with Paul Simon’s set at the Mojo Stage. For what we saw though, he wasn’t fazed to be missing a chunk of the crowd, as he churned out an energetic start to his set. Throwing in a few classics form the start, ‘Food In The Belly’ was an early standout for the crowd assembled. Unfortunately we didn’t see much more of Rudd’s set, as we sloshed our way through the mud to weasel our way into the Mojo tent for the second main headliner of Bluesfest 2013: Paul Simon.
Much of the crowd at the Mojo Stage had been there long enough today to apply for permanent citizenship. Or so they thought: The Bluesfest staff grew in their diligence regarding chairs throughout the festival and tonight saw them more strictly policing the definition of ‘behind the sound desk’ to rapturous applause from those at the front of the stage. With some extra space thus opened up, it was onto the main event of a day that saw a huge amount of single day tickets sold. A lot of people thus obviously had a lot invested in this one day and this one performer. For those who wanted to hear the hits, there was a lot to love about this show. Basically breaking down to be about a third from his time with Garfunkel, a third from Graceland and a third career-spanning miscellany, this was a crowd-pleasing set. If there was any doubt as to whether the crowd was pleased, it was nowhere to be seen by the time he finished his first encore (Out of three. Yes, three!) with an incredibly loud singalong to ‘You Can Call Me Al’. It was an extremely vocal crowd to finish off this year’s Bluesfest, with rousing singalongs to ‘The Boxer’, ‘The Sounds Of Silence’ and ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’, which Simon dedicated to producer Phil Ramone (who died this week and who, as Simon explained, “helped create many of the songs you’re hearing tonight.”) Simon is a consistent performer whose voice has held up remarkably well for a 71 year old. He showed little trouble delivering solid vocals across his entire musical catalogue. Consistent is probably a good description of the night: Simon delivered all night but didn’t seem to go above or beyond in his efforts. Abandoning his microphone regularly throughout the set to wander amongst the band, this was a very different performance to that seen two nights ago with Robert Plant, whose presence dominated every instant of the show. Paul Simon knows what his fans want and knows how to deliver it without doing much more than is required. This was therefore a very good show but lacked the energy and risky feel that made Robert Plant’s show on Saturday so energising.
After all the performances had finished and the site was being abandoned, the Bluesfest crew capitalised on their Sunday night successes with evacuating the crowd. Bus queues moved smoothly and didn’t have the frustrating congestion of earlier in the weekend. Helped no doubt by a large number of people with single day tickets driving, nonetheless it was good to see the organisers learn from their mistakes and work hard to rectify them. An outstanding day of music all up and a fitting end to the most music-focused music festival in Australia at the moment.