Saturday, April 29, 2017

Put my clarinet beneath your bed til I get back in town

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Mavis Staples

This Easter we went to Bluesfest in Byron Bay, for the first time. This meant I had to miss out on the National Folk Festival here at home (literally walking distance from home), which was actually a tough decision. I've gone on here before about how I love the National. Plus this year would have been the first since I've been learning to play fiddle and I knew there would be lots of inspiration to be found.


Bluesfest is a massive, legendary event that has been running for almost 30 years. It attracts a lot of very big acts. I'd always thought maybe I'd check it out one day. The inspiration finally came when I heard that Patti Smith would be there. She was announced for Bluesfest long before any of her separate shows were announced, so we decided to just go for it. And if we were going to travel so far, we were going to do the whole thing - five days! At that stage Neil Young was supposed to be coming too...he pulled out after we bought our tickets, which was disappointing, but not a deal breaker.

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Patti Smith

The whole time I was there, I couldn't help making comparisons between Bluesfest and other festivals I've been to. Overall it felt like quite deliberately focused on the music, not much else. The site felt plain and undecorated. The five stages are all in huge tents with some small national flags on top of these. Nice, but nothing like the large, gorgeous flags by Angus Watt which decorate the Womadelaide site. Both the folk festival and Womad also always include various community art projects and exhibits, art and craft demonstrations, and roving theatre/clowning performances. Bluesfest did have some art projects going on and a weaving workshop, but there really seemed to be little emphasis on this side of things.

Jethro Tull
Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson. Plus someone's phone.

People also seemed to be mostly more straight in the way they were dressed - not really a lot of 'hippie' looks in spite of the location (Byron Bay is still holding out against McDonalds, KFC and fluoride in the water, and the broader region attracts a lot of alternative culture/communities.) At the festival I only saw a few groups in costumes, including a group of four men with disco costumes with mirrorball helmets.

Another group had costumes that included cheap native American style headdresses. I had seen them earlier in the day boarding the bus. They bounced, Tigger-like, as a group down to the front of the crowd late in Irish Mythen's set (a thing such groups do to call attention to themselves) and this didn't go unnoticed: she called them out for cultural appropriation - "That's not cool guys!"

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Irish Mythen - incredible voice and stage presence.

I saw a couple of cellos and couple of fiddles, but this more than anything else, this was the festival of the guitar. (But also Roy Ayers' electric vibraphone - woo!)
Roy Ayers
Roy Ayers

Roy Ayers

On Friday, and especially Saturday and Sunday, there were SO. MANY. PEOPLE. Trying to filter in or out of the main venues between popular acts was extremely crowded and quite unpleasant. The organisers need to make some better crowd management arrangements because there were a few points where it felt like any kind of panic could have lead to a dangerous crush. There were also times when it was really difficult to walk into/around one of the big tents because so many people had parked their chairs outside to watch the big screens - then once you got inside there were relatively few people actually in front of the stage. In spite of the crowds, the queues for food and toilets and even for beer never seemed to be really bad.

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I did some knitting - of course - at various times and had some nice interactions with a couple of people about it. Also one weird/annoying one (Are you knitting? Yes. Why?? Um, I like it?) The odd thing is I didn't spot a single other knitter in the whole five days at that big festival, whereas I would always spot a few knitters or crocheters at the National or Womadelaide.
Tenzin Choegyal
Tenzin Choegyal

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Billy Bragg and Joe Henry - bloody good separately and together.

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I'll always take an opportunity to see Jeff Lang. Incredible guitarist. And the drummer here is smacking a cardboard box. (He did have a kit too).

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Melody Angel. A fantastic discovery. Incredible rock guitarist and singer. Bluesfest did well with including a decent proportion of women-lead acts, but there was still a much greater proportion of male musicians overall across all bands. So I'm always looking for the women wielding instruments, especially when they own it completely like Melody did.

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Round Mountain Girls. No girls in the band though.