Byron Bay Bluesfest, Day 3


Day 3, Saturday 7th April, 2012 

Every patch of shade seems to be occupied by people munching waffles and sucking down black coffee. It’s the middle day of the festival, and this afternoon everyone seems a little…slow. Perhaps it’s the sweltering heat, or maybe it’s the slow, deadening indie tunes being rolled out by Yann Tiersen in the Mojo tent.

Tiersen scrolled through a catalogue of two minute soundtrack tunes, each one sounding like the one before, occasionally adding a glockenspiel or ukelele to distinguish one tune from another. The performance never really lifted above the ground, and failed completely to hold the audience.

Over to the Crossroads stage then, where the David Bromberg Quartet were slinging out free form poetry over a laid back blues shuffle. Bromberg railed against death and iPhones at a manic pace, with a speaking voice like Johnny Cash and a singing voice not unlike him too. An elderly lady and a young man with a cowboy hat began square dancing whilst Bromberg finished with a tinkly Mr Bojangles.

Everyone awoke sharply when soul diva Bettye LaVette strutted her way across the stage. Rollicking soul numbers were pumped out as she kicked and danced back and forth, ripping huge growls from her throat as she did so. Covering George Harrison’s Isn’t it a Pity , as well as numbers from Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams and Renee Geyer, she flicked and roared her way through a volcanic set. Possessed with a cutting sense of humour (“Just be calm and meet me outside later, preferably with a joint, then we’ll talk…” , “All these songs were written by white guys who were high, now they’re being sung by a 66 year old black woman…who’s drunk.” ) she exhibited a fair and square, old school showbiz performance.

An atom bomb of African rhythms, jazz, bollywood and fusion madness detonated on site, with the African Queen of music, Angelique Kidjo, at the centre conducting the furore. Jembeh’s, congas and bongos whipped the crowd into a frenzy as Kidjo taunted them with dance. She spins and whirls, grinning freakishly as she brutally crumped and swirled her way through a vigorous set- “HOW YOU LIKE THAT?!” She yells. Her strong, warm voice surges forth, whilst guitar gets brisk on the upstrokes and the bass thumbs along. She dropped back down to a bare, blue setting and sailed out Malaika, whilst the acoustic guitar gently plucks along behind. Only for a brief minute though, then we’re thrown back into a group dance off, people swarmed the stage and battled with the jembeh whilst Kidjo flew her way through ‘Agolo’ and ‘Tumba’. A Sun-like presence with spicy grooves and vicious attitude, Kidjo burned up the tent.

People emerged, sweating and gasping, into the now freezing night. Whilst inhaling noodles at the food court, the sound of a dirty blues stomp shocked my brain. It sent the cutlery rattling, and the crowds flooding to the Jambalaya tent to see the damage.

Joanne Shaw Taylor, blonde hair whipping around her face, stood wielding a Les Paul like a battle axe, unleashing shredding blues solos above a cranking Chicago blues backing. Molten blues licks were poured into gaping mouths, whilst the bass and drums kicked you in the teeth and punched you in the chest. The audience swallowed it whole and clambered for more. The inferno on stage ripped through Hendrix’s Manic Depression, crunchy guitar riding the thundering kick drum, whilst Taylor’s coarse ‘rum and coffee’ vocals just managed to hold on. She swamped it up on the finale, Dead and Gone, the drums and bass attempting to break the stage. Fingers were blistered in the last solo, flying over the fretboard, bending every last note from the strings. Her hand could barely be seen as it rocked back and forth, gouging every distorted, tangy sound she could. It was an unrelenting, unrestrained performance.

After the audience had retrieved their jaws from the floor, shook their heads and reset their sternums, it was time for a nice sit down. It was welcome then, that Donovan was being thoroughly pleasant (is he anything but), microwaving old classics to a ravenous crowd. John Fogerty ripped up the Mojo with a fiery band and old Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes.

Three days down now, two to go. Remember to bring earplugs and mittens…and maybe some strapping for your jaw.