Over the years we have come to expect a lot from Byron Bay music festival Bluesfest. The festival has earned a reputation for huge headliners, undiscovered gems and an inclusive environment that sees boomers, Xers, millennials and plenty of little ones all grooving together. But the 30th birthday edition faced some unusual struggles well before doors opened.
Loyal patrons were underwhelmed as the line-up was progressively announced. Recent years have seen some enormous drawcards for the older crowd – Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Tom Jones, Brian Wilson, Patti Smith – and for the younger crowds – Kendrick Lamar, Lauryn Hill, Nas, Mary J Blige, Fat Freddy’s Drop and Erykah Badu. This year’s headliners – Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Iggy Pop and Paul Kelly (big names no doubt) – all felt a bit familiar. The late addition of ‘genuine headliners’ the Saboteurs (a renaming of Jack White’s supergroup the Raconteurs) did little to remedy the disappointment. Maybe if it was the White Stripes…
Punters were further put off by the announcement that on-site parking would no longer be free. After much uproar, the offer was postponed to 2020. And then there was the forecast. It called for rain. Lots of rain.
Yet, the vibe inside was still an event at the top of its game. The ground underfoot stayed solid, the grass sittable, the beer lines swift, the food stalls pumping, and the crowds, across all five stages, singing and dancing and seemingly bloody loving it.
Current keepers of the Hottest 100 crown, Ocean Alley, closed a packed out stage on opening night. Although, the stage show itself is a touch green – a largely front-lit and deadpan performance made for some dull moments – their near-perfect sound suggests they will definitely have the staying power to become a great Australian band.
Some near-cyclonic downpours sent everybody a bit turbo. So much so that there was some crowd crush during the ultra-placid Norah Jones set. But the site, and punters, recovered beautifully for a sunny and spectacular Sunday.
Chicago Rocker Melody Angel, complete with mum on stage, blasted some iconic covers and retro-tinged originals to start the day. Meshell Ndegeocello’s entrancing set traversed hip hop, reggae, R’n’B, soul and some truly hard-to-describe moments. The small, but fascinated, crowd got a real all-in moment to her downtempo rework of TLC’s ‘Waterfalls’.
Overall, Bluesfest pulled it off. Walking around the bluestone covered grounds, pale ale in one hand and delicious local snack in the other, still gives you a buzz. Musically, there are still moments that’ll grab you and expand your musical horizons, but days leading up to the festival were that bit longer without that buzz of anticipation to see a big star for the first time. Let’s hope next year sees a return to form.