Five Days At Bluesfest: No Distractions, No Gimmicks, Just Excellent Music

In 28 years, the Bluesfest logic hasn't gone wrong yet.

Bluesfest is a test of endurance and decision-making. For a start, there’s the length of the thing – it’s five days of music, spread across five stages, each operating for 12 hours a day.

A schedule that rammed means there’s an eye-watering amount of acts to see. With all stages powering at all times, planning your day becomes an exercise in weighing up your options: Do I go see Gregory Porter now or when he plays on Saturday? Can I catch 30 minutes of Courtney Barnett before running to Nas? How many times can I watch Mavis Staples? Those tough calls are part of any festival experience, but the sheer scale of Bluesfest means this happy problem is magnified five fold.

You might expect to be frantically sprinting from one stage to another, but the opposite occurs. You can sit for a while, stirring a mid-afternoon coffee, comforted by the knowledge that there is always plenty of music waiting for you when you’re ready.

Because the other thing about Bluesfest is it’s as much about discovering new artists as it is about seeing the legends — it wants you to take it slow, in the hope that you’ll overhear a voice wafting from a nearby tent and decide to check it out.

Even the lay out of the site encourages this — the smaller stages are positioned near the gates, meaning that the moment you wander through there’s the potential for being whisked away into a tent. The set-up works: the most common thing you’ll hear being said at Bluesfest is “Oh have you heard of so-and-so? I just stumbled upon them yesterday! You have to go see them.”

And the funny thing is you actually do go and see them, and then tell everyone else about them. And so it goes. You might come for the big ticket acts, but you’re guaranteed to go home with 10 new favourite bands. Which is just the way it should be.

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Photo credit: Joseph Mayers Photography

So, What About Those Legends Then?

Rock icon Patti Smith made her Bluesfest debut on the opening Thursday night, playing her record Horses in full. 42 years after its release, it still packs a head-spinning emotional punch.

Smith is an explosive performer, and her voice has lost none of its potency: she rips and tears through the words like she’s half in battle with them, her flow frequently sparring against the song’s rhythm. She ekes out the intensity of ‘Birdland’, and conjures up a vicious crescendo during ‘Land’, spitting on the stage after screaming “I’ve got my freedom/and that’s all I fucking need.”

“Patti Smith is an explosive performer, and her voice has lost none of its potency”

The Horses closer, ‘Elegie’, was heart-cracking. Originally written after the death of Jimi Hendrix, it has only grown more poignant as more icons have passed. Over the lilting backing she began to list their names: Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Joey Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone, Tommy Ramone, Kurt Cobain, Robert Mapplethorpe, Amy Winehouse, David Bowie, Prince, and finally her husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith.

You’d need a heart of stone to not have been moved by the pain in Smith’s voice.

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Patti Smith / Photo credit: Tao Jones Photographer

A legion of Hawaiian shirt-wearing persons showed up for Jimmy Buffett the next day, who playfully worked through ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, ‘Margaritaville’ and ‘It’s 5 O’ Clock Somewhere’. Later, blues legend Bonnie Raitt delivered exactly the set the audience wanted: ‘Angel From Montgomery’, ‘Hear Me Lord’, ‘Something To Talk About’ came early in the set, with guitar solos spread liberally among them.

For some bewildering reason, organisers decided to bill Santana on only the second biggest stage, meaning that for about two hours leading up to his Sunday night set it was an absolute pain to move anywhere on that side of the site. Even with an expert amount of wiggling and weaving between the crush, it was impossible to get within 30 metres of the edge of the tent.

Santana may have been playing the same set for 20 years, but with good reason — it’s tight as all hell. Hit, after hit, after hit was played practically verbatim from their original recordings. ‘Soul Sacrifice’, ‘Maria’, ‘Sail Away’, ‘Smooth’ were all there, played with a sly wink and a cheeky grin by the guitar king. It was relentless, and impossibly fun.

The Locals More Than Held Their Own

Courtney Barnett’s live prowess is only increasing with time. It’s been two years since her debut album, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, but the songs are as electric as the day they were taped.

They take on a completely different role when live: where on record a track like ‘Depreston’ is subdued, when taken to the stage it becomes a ballsy, lighters-in-the-air power ballad. ‘Pedestrian At Best’ is even more frenetic, as is the highlight and closer ‘Nobody Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party’, with Barnett whipping up squeals of guitar feedback before flinging her axe at her feet and exiting stage right.

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REMI / Photo credit: Bluesfest Facebook

Remi’s sideways slide from hip-hop maestro to all out funk lord is in progress. Now performing as REMI, his project with collaborator Sensible J, they’ve filled their sound out with a full band, giving the clanging rap cuts a new skeleton of funk and soul. The evolution has worked – there were just as many young hip-hop heads in the crowd as there were older folks who wandered over to hear some R&B grooves.

The final night brought two favourites to the Crossroads stage: Kasey Chambers and Neil Finn. Chambers, having played Bluesfest many times over the years, didn’t mess around – playing ‘Not Pretty Enough’, ‘Pony’, and ‘Rattlin’ Bones’ right up front. “I’ll play you a couple of new ones,” she jokingly warned the crowd. “But mostly it’ll be the oldies.”

Finn’s strategy was much the same. If you wanted Crowded House, you got it. ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, ‘Better Be Home Soon’, ‘Four Seasons In One Day’ were all deployed faithfully to a crowd desperate to sing along.

The First Timers And The Discoveries

This year’s ‘Have you seen them yet?’ award belonged to Gregory Porter. The Californian is firmly established in his own right, having won Grammys in 2014 and 2017 for Best Jazz Vocal Album – but this was his first appearance in front of the festival crowd, and only his second tour of Australia.

You’ve definitely heard him before — his is the incredible vocal on Disclosure’s ‘Holding On’, a song he played at both his sets over the weekend, although this time it was underscored by big thwacks of bass and pulsing jazz piano rather than blistering house beats.

Beefy jazz tracks ‘Don’t Lose Your Steam’ and ‘Work Song’ followed, before he closed out with 2016 cut ‘Take Me To The Alley’. The crowd was practically empty when he started, but by the end the biggest tent on the site was packed to the brim.

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Gregory Porter / Photo credit: Joseph Mayers Photography

Elsewhere, Houston band The Suffers pulled some serious Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings vibes and mostly pulled it off, while Bonnie Raitt’s support band The California Honeydrops garnered a hefty amount of fans in their own right with big cuts of funk and southern soul. Acts like Beth Hart and St Paul & The Broken Bones made triumphant returns to the festival, this time around promoted to bigger stages.

These days, Bluesfest is almost an anomaly in the Australian festival landscape. While other festivals fill out their schedules with performance art, circus acts, water parks and whatever else to try and tempt the punters, Bluesfest has always stubbornly resisted this trend. It offers no distractions, no gimmicks, nothing to take away from what’s on stage.

Their logic is simple. Put on excellent music — just excellent music, and nothing else — and the people will come. In 28 years, Bluesfest haven’t gone wrong yet.

Jules LeFevre is Staff Writer at Music Junkee and inthemix. She is on Twitter

Header photo: Vintage Trouble by Bruce Davis/Bluesfest