Byron Bay Bluesfest 2015 – observations from an every day attendee

Buesfest

My posse and I decided to go to Byron Bay Bluesfest 2015 for a heap of different reasons: one is addicted to reggae, dub and ska music and thankfully Bluesfest is still strongly influenced by roots music; a couple of others are regular festival goers and have, over the years proved their dedication to the festival scene by spending a lot of hard earned cash on festivals both here (Splendour and Laneway) and there (Coachella and Sziget); the 16 year old member of the group loves live music but is limited to all-age gigs which are few and far between so any chance to see live music is met with a resounding ‘Hell, yeh!’ Me? I simply wanted to step into the shoes (or gumboots in this case) of a regular, every day attendee and soak up the atmosphere and whatever else the most successful and longest running music festival in Australia happened to chuck at me.

Jimmy Cliff

Jimmy Cliff at Bluesfest – Image by www.nataliegrono.com

First up, here’s what I found out about Bluesfest:

  1. Bluesfest is a big deal. And when I say big, I mean BIG. The festival owned site at Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm on the NSW north coast consists of 300 acres of open green fields just waiting to get muddy. Five, huge all-weather stages and surrounding tents host 89 bands, 908 artists and over 100,000 patrons. Performances are held over 5 days from 12pm until 12am; big days of music in anyone’s language.
  2. The music at Bluesfest is diverse…from blues to gospel to rock to reggae to ska to rock to folk to country and all the way back to blues, there’s something for everyone (well, sort of. If you’re into thrash you might be disappointed).
  3. The crowd are renowned for being music appreciators of the serious kind. Meaning that they care much more about the music than being seen by the right people in the right place or about their choice of festival attire. I actually have proof of this from at least two sightings of people wearing sox with their crocs. What the?? The crowd also are peace-loving but not to the point of being part of hippiedom, polite, very chilled and open to exploration, discovery and acceptance of the new. I had a lot of conversations with people I didn’t know which is always refreshing coming from Sydney where strangers tend not to talk to each other—and they weren’t even inebriated!
  4. Bluesfest started in Easter 1990 as an itty-bitty music event called the East Coast International Blues & Roots Festival at the Byron Bay Arts Factory. It attracted a modest 6,000 locals and has since experienced huge growth and popularity to become one of the premier cultural events on the national calendar. Co-founder Peter Noble, who’s as passionate about the festival today as he was back then now owns the whole shebang and has just been honoured with a Rolling Stone award for life-long contribution to Australia’s live music scene.
  5. Bluesfest now has major cred internationally and can and does attract some pretty big names. Some to perform in the last 25 years have included: Bob Dylan, BB King, Crowded House, Crosby Stills and Nash, Jack Johnson, John Legend, Rodriguez, Ernest Ranglin, Jeff Beck and the Doobie Brothers.
Nikki Hill

Nikki Hill at Bluesfest – Image by www.evanmalcolm.com

Second up, here’s are some observations that I discovered during my fun time at Bluesfest:

  1. The older the performer the more joyful and energetic they seemed to be! Seriously. Jimmy Cliff, 78 year old reggae legend had everyone jumping up and down with sheer happiness and smiling so hard their faces ached. John Mayall, 81, also had the crowd on their feet showing deep appreciation of dedication and talent. Mavis Staples, 75 years old, gospel diva and American civil rights activist showed why she has often been likened to Aretha Franklin by belting out a bunch of up lifting and thoughtful tunes. And we missed George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, 74 years old but I hear that his brand of funk was as hot and strong as ever.
  2. Rock n Roll is not dead but more dynamic than ever. By blending rock with a bit of soul, a touch of R&B and a hint of blues, artists such as fireball performer from Carolina, Nikki Hill and innovators of originality Alabama Shakes showed a new brand of hard-hitting, entertaining and rootsy rock. This is a good thing.
  3. Younger peeps seem have a new appreciation for reggae. Personally I thought unless you hung out in Kingston, Jamaica and your surname name was anything but Marley you kind of didn’t know reggae existed much. And maybe it was just because we were in Byron where the dreadlocks come thick and fast, and maybe it’s because the whole ‘one love’ message is more relevant than ever before in Australia but there was a definite sense of ‘yes, we’re listening and yes, we’re loving this thing called reggae so where do we sign up?’
  4. Music brings people together. I know that’s a big, fat cliche but it really does. It makes people happy, it helps people experience emotion without the bad bits, it can sooth a wounded heart and can make a mood soar. And when it’s done en masse in a festival atmosphere with a whole bunch of strangers it’s even better because we can experience those things together and in my books you can’t get better than that.

I experienced no sense of disappointment after the festival had finished, in fact everything bad I thought was going to happen didn’t happen and with the exception of the Black Keys pulling out and Ben Harper being really boring, everything good that I thought was going to happen did happen. It’s an expensive week so it’s not something you could afford to go to every year unless you lived in God’s country but we will be going back one day. Hopefully not too far away.

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