Bluesfest 2016 – Day Two, Friday 25 March
When a festival has 82 bands on its Schedule playing over 5 days, it is impossible to see them all. Schedule clashes will arise and hard decisions will need to be made. Ultimately, the measure of a truly great festival is the terrific acts you didn’t get to see. One small way of trying to maximise the range of music you get to experience is to move from stage to stage catching partial sets of many artists. It’s all about balance though. I decide that this afternoon would be an opportunity to do this.
Eugene Hideaway Bridges (Delta Stage)
Bridges is an American blues singer and guitarist in the mould of BB King (whom he supported on King’s final tour of Australia a few years ago). He has been a frequent visitor to Australia in the past and always puts on a great performance of authentic blues. Today’s performance is no exception and made special when Kasey Chambers comes on stage for a duet. Kasey is not scheduled to play this year’s Bluesfest and is only there as an attendee so its nice to see the spirit of collaboration which allows her to take the stage and bring an extra element to Bridges already solid set.
Lord Huron (Mojo Stage)
I don’t know much about Lord Huron when I walk in. First impressions: good looking, finely coiffed dark hair and beard, caramel pants and blue jacket give him a slightly preppie look.
He stands in front of a backdrop panoramic of blue sky, clouds and scorched earth. His voice is effective, the songs are fine enough with the occasional nice atmospherics on some songs being the only distinctive touch keeping them from sliding towards bland.
I can see what makes people like Lord Huron (despite the awkward name) and why the record companies might think he’s got potential to sell big. But for me, he’s sort of like Ryan Adams if he really cleaned up. He makes you appreciate Ryan’s rough edges all the more. Stay cool Ryan. Stay prickly. Stay real.
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real (Jambalaya Stage)
I’m back for a few more tracks from Lukas this morning. A similar but shorter set which Nelson finishes off, like yesterday, with a couple of covers – Paul Simon’s ‘Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes’ (a repeat from yesterday but played so well its good to hear it a second time) and Neil Young’s ‘Cinnamon Girl’ which confirms the connection this band has to Young. Great cover. Worth catching another glimpse.
Frazey Ford (Delta Stage)
A former member of the well regarded folk trio ‘The Be Good Tanyas’ whose 2000 debut album ‘Blue Horse’ made a few ripples at the time. I didn’t know their music well but recalled it being pleasant harmony folk and a mate told me her solo stuff was worth checking out. Unfortunately her set was my first disappointment of the Festival. The songs were pretty but lacked distinction and Frazey’s performance was tentative and didn’t command the small Delta stage afternoon slot. Maybe in another setting her small folk portraits might hold subtle delights. Today on an outdoor festival stage they eluded me. Her attempt to spice up her performance with ludicrously bright pink top and mirrored skirt, then adding a bright blue gown over the top, did little to further endear her. I last only a few songs.
Archie Roach (Crossroads Tent)
Roach is an Australian legend. Coming to attention with his debut album courtesy of the deeply affecting, autobiographical ‘Took the Children Away’ Roach continued to release a string of high quality albums each containing consistently good songs and a few stellar tracks. Roach is not looking all that well these days and that reflects in long spoken word introductions to his songs which, while endearing, break the momentum and seem primarily designed to allow him to rest before launching into the next track. He’s ably supported by a fine Australian band featuring familiar faces including the haunting violin of Jen Anderson (Black Sorrows, Weddings Parties Anything) and Craig Pilkington on guitar.
Although I only stay for a few songs, having seen Roach many times previously, I enjoy the short set spanning both tracks both new (‘Not Too Well’ – from his latest EP) and the old (‘Took the Children Away’).
Songhoy Blues (Jambalaya Tent)
Midway through Day Two and battling with a flu which seemed to set in hours efter my arrival in Byron as my body relaxed from its usual adrenalized ‘corporate warrior’ state, I take a seat on the ground inside the Jambalaya tent to relax and take in the cool rhythms of the Malian blues played by Songhoy Blues.
I manage barely two songs before I receive a text from a mate informing me that Graham Nash is on stage in the Juke Joint. Hold on, Nash isn’t due on for another 45 minutes. Has there been a change in the program?
ABC Radio North Coast (Juke Joint)
I hotfoot it over to the Juke Joint to find Nash being interviewed on stage by ABC Radio North Coast. He is polite, gently humorous and affable. Apparently I’ve just missed two solo acoustic songs. Never mind, he’ll be hitting the stage in the Crossroads in just over half an hour. Just time enough to hang around in the Juke Joint to hear solo acoustic sets by, and short interviews with, Lukas Nelson and Javena Magnes (who I have pencilled in to see later in the Festival).
Nelson plays striking acoustic versions of ‘Forget Georgia’ and two new unrecorded songs ‘Music to My Eyes’ and a song introduced as being ‘about moonshine’ – both excellent and bode well for the next album. The interview which follows touches, unsurprisingly, upon Nelson’s relationships with Neil Young (who he calls ‘Captain Destroyer’ and says that he belongs to ‘part of the same soul cluster’) and his father Willie (‘He was always out on the road playing. I learnt to play guitar so that I could spend more time with him’).
Javena Magness has been recommended to me and I can see why. She’s blessed with a natural blues style and a strong melodious blues voice and is backed by a strong band. The short acoustic set ‘Everything is Alright’, ‘I Won’t Cry’ and Creedance’s ‘As Long As I Can See the Light’ whet’s my appetite to see her full blues set later in the Festival.
Having come across to see Graham Nash, I realise that I’ve become entranced by Javena and that Nash has now started over in the Crossroads tent. So I sprint back across the Festival site…
Graham Nash (Crossroads Tent)
I last saw Graham Nash a few years ago as part of a Crosby, Still & Nash show at the Royal Albert Hall. The first half of the show featured each of the members presenting a short selection of their solo material. The second part of the show was a straight run-through their classic self-titled debut. At the time, I noted that Nash was in fine voice and probably more so than the others during the solo part of the show (though the harmonies of all 3 remained superb in the second half of the show).
Nash stands on the stage accompanied only by the great Shane Fontaine on guitar. Together they create a sparse but pristine sound with Fontaine’s intricate guitar work providing the perfect foil for Nash’s still warm and generous vocals.
His set balances the present with the past. Classic songs from his past including CSN’s 1969 hit Marakesh Express, ‘I Use To Be A King’ (from his 1971 solo debut) and Immigration Man (Crosby & Nash 1972) are followed a selection of the songs from his new album ‘This Path Tonight’ which themselves contain elements of the past (Golden Days’ “I used to be in a band made up of my friends” and “What happened to ‘All You Need Is Love’”), the present (‘Myself At Last’ which celebrates Nash’s new love) and a combination of the two (the title track ‘This Path Tonight’ starts with the line “Where are we going?/ where have we been?” and buoyantly, but uncertainly, declares “I’m stumbling to my heart’s desire/ on this path tonight”). It must be said that the present looks pretty good with the new songs stacking up well in the set particularly ‘This Path Tonight’ which is the best of the new lot on show tonight.
Naturally, Nash then returns to his classic material – and to the grand piano occupying centre stage – for the final four songs of the set each of which are given an introduction to place them in their historical context: ‘Cathedral’ (a song about taking acid at Stonehenge and then tripping in the nearby Westminster Cathedral), Our House (about domestic bliss with Joni Mitchell), Chicago (in which a solo Nash entreats the other members of CSNY to travel to sing at a benefit for the ‘Chicago 7’ arrested for inciting a riot at the Democratic National Convention in 1968) and ‘Teach Your Children (which he dedicates to ‘all the teachers in the world’).
The Crossroads crowd sang along blissfully to the final songs and rightly gave Nash a standing ovation both in recognition of his contribution to musical history and the fact that he can still put on a great show and produce strong new material. I will certainly be rushing out to get the new album once it is officially released.
Tweedy (Crossroads Tent)
Generally I like to move between tents during band changeovers rather than spend 30 minutes in a silent tent knowing that there’s great music playing somewhere else onsite that I’m missing out on. But then there’s other times where getting a position front and centre for an artist takes precedence. Jeff Tweedy is one such artist.
I became a fan on first listen to Uncle Tupelo’s The Long Cut I on a CD- Sampler from an import US magazine. That track, from Uncle Tupelo’s final album ‘Anodyne’ led me to their entire back Catalogue and, subsequently, to Jeff Tweedy’s band Witco and Jay Farrar’s Son Volt. However, it was eventually WiIco that won my heart with the trio of albums, ‘Summerteeth’, ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ and ‘A Ghost is Born’ followed by a period (following the addition of Nels Cline and Pat Sansone in 2004) with a legitimate claim to being the best live band in the world. Unsurprisingly then, and despite the Tweedy album leaving me slightly underwhelmed when compared to the Wilco canon, I found my way to front and centre of the Crossroads Tent for Tweedy’s set.
Jeff Tweedy takes the stage first and begins to strum his guitar and is quickly joined by the rest of the Tweedy touring band, including Tweedy’s son Spencer Tweedy, on drums, Darin Gray on bass, Jim Elkington on guitar, Liam Cunningham on keyboard/guitars and Sima Cunningham on backing vocals. The latter two youthful band members are introduced by Jeff Tweedy as ‘school friends of Spencer who are there to keep him company and will be turned down in the mix anyway so you can’t hear them’. That, of course, is not true and the band arrangements of the songs fleshes out the songs giving them an extra dimension to the sometimes under-developed version on the album. During the first part of the set, the band works its way through the better tracks on the Sukierae album including ‘Summer Noon’, ‘High As Hello’ and ‘Low Key’ (which is ironically probably the least low key track on the album). It’s a pleasing, if not overwhelming first act.
Then the band abruptly exits leaving Jeff Tweedy alone on stage with just his acoustic guitar and a batch of stripped back solo re-workings of some of Wilco’s finest tracks. In this beguiling solo set we are treated to ‘Via Chicago’, ‘I Am Trying To Break Your Heart’, ‘One Wing’, ‘Hummingbird’ (complete with whistling), ‘Passenger Side’ and ‘I’m The Man Who Loves You’. It would be hard to match this set for quiet intensity, songwriting brilliance and rarity (despite frequent visits to these shores over the last 15 years this is the first extended solo performance by Jeff Tweedy on these shores). It is worth bottling and one of the highlights of the Festival.
As the band files back on stage, I wonder where they can possibly go that won’t be an anti-climax after Jeff’s solo set. However, they pull it off with great style giving us two Uncle Tupelo era songs – a cover of Neil Young ‘Losing End’ and ‘Give Me Back The Key To My Heart’ and close out the performance with the jaunty ‘California Stars’ from the Mermaid Avenue project.
Steve Earle (Jambalaya Tent)
Steve Earle has been a frequent visitor to Australia in recent years frequently performing at this Festival, so when he shouts, mid-set, ‘This is the greatest music festival in the whole world’ it sounds more than just your typical keep-the-locals-happy lip service. And we’re glad to have him back.
When he was last out two years ago I found his performance strangely lacklustre – as if he was tired, depressed and just going through the motions. Sure it could have been jet lag, or just age, but given he had recently separated from wife number seven Allison Moorer, it seemed to be more than that. Then there was the desolate (but incisive) tone of the album he was touring at the time ‘The Low Highway’.
So when Earle took the stage, I was hoping to see the Earle of old days stepping up to the plate with his full band behind him. Reports from friends who attended his Sydney show (and who had shared by 2014 reservations) were promising. However, initially I found him flat – not helped by (rare for Bluesfest) sound issues with his microphone for the first track and half. Songs from the new blues album ‘Terraplane’ made up the first part of the set and, while the band was in blistering early form, Earle himself seemed to be tossing off the vocals with less than full commitment – which is a shame with material as strong as the opening ‘Baby, Baby, Baby’ and ‘You’re the Best Lover I’ve Ever Had’.
But Earle soon settles in and by the time he gets to the track ‘My Old Friend The Blues’ he’s fully engaged giving a tender emotional undercurrent to this superior love-song to traditional blues. It’s that track which marks a turning point from which he and the band launch into a blistering second half of the set featuring such Earle classics as ‘Someday’, ‘Copperhead Road’ – given a twist by the introduction of coda featuring Earle on mandolin (made for him by Steve Gilchrist in Victoria), Galway Girl, Johnny Come Lately, Tennessee Kid, King of The Blues and finishing up with Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’ featuring a fine solo from Chris Masterton (though one which can’t compare to that of ‘Cool’ John Ferguson at last year’s Bluesfest – then who could?).
Despite the slightly distracted start (or was I still just reeling from the quiet intensity of Jeff Tweedy’s solo set?) Steve Earle and his Dukes/Duchesses ultimately deliver in spades. I suspect that the full set from his Sydney shows would have really been a sight to behold.
I’m starting to flag slightly by this stage having been hit by the onset of the flu shortly after my arrival at Byron and pushing through buoyed by the great music, the energy of the festival and some cold & flu tablets. So I take a bit of a breather with friends in the main food tent near the Jambalaya/Crossroads tents enjoying the traditional Festival mainstay of a Fish Taco – not only a fantastic tasting meal but the perfect way to observe my childhood upbringing which forbade meat on Good Friday. One Bluesfest I managed to take the record for 18 of these babies over the 5 days of Bluesfest, a record I have no intention of trying to beat this year. As we eat we take in the sounds of St Paul & the Broken Bones from the Crossroads Tent a band many are tipping to be a highlight and which I have pencilled in for Monday night.
Mick Fleetwood Band (Crossroads)
Earlier in the year I’d had tickets to see Fleetwood Mac but had to travel to London for business so missed those shows. So it was great when Bluesfest confirmed the Mick Fleetwood Band for Bluesfest particularly as I’d always been a bigger fan of the earlier bluesier Mac (the Peter Green Mac) than the later pop band that soared to popularity with Lyndsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.
I move to the front of the seats in the Crossroads tent to watch the Mick Fleetwood Band. Centre stage is guitarist and vocalist Rick Vito himself a bona fide blues legend in his own right having won a coveted W.C.Handy Blues Award. Vito took over Fleetwood Mac guitar duties when Lindsay Buckhingham left in the late 80’s and has played sessions or in the touring bands of such artists as John Mayall, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Bob Seger (to name a few). With Fleetwood set behind a huge drum kit to the centre rear of the stage, the superb band is rounded out by Mark Johnston on keyboard and harmonica, and Lenny Castellanos on bass.
Mick Fleetwood makes a pleasing and avuncular MC and his drumming is, as expected, superb but he allows Vito to prowl the stage soloing and hollering through a series of blues numbers drawing predominantly from the band’s 2008 Blues Again life album (which itself incorporated early Fleetwood Mac numbers). Early highlights are Peter Green’s ‘Looking For Somebody’ and Vito’s ‘Fleetwood Boogie’.
About two thirds of the way through, I finally succumb to the flu and promise myself that I’ll catch the remainder of the set tomorrow after a good night’s sleep. It’s been another superb day but the Festival is a marathon not a sprint so if I’m going to shake this flu I’ll need to get a good ten hour sleep before tomorrow’s kick off.