By Kim Cheshire
Highlights from Bluesfest 2015
After my personal ordeal following last year’s Bluesfest that saw me carted away in an ambulance
suffering from a heart attack about a week after the festival, I was unsurprisingly a little cautious
about returning for what must be about my twentieth festival. Of course I don’t hold Bluesfest responsible for my predicament but I figured the five day music marathon might just have been the straw that broke the cowboys’ back. Things didn’t get off to a great start this year with the announcement that headliners The Black Keys and Lenny Kravitz were no longer on the bill. Although not my particular cup of tea these acts are obviously popular, can no doubt draw and entertain large crowds…unfortunately they both dropped out at the last minute with no real equivalent replacements. The festival nonetheless was not without its share of memorable and thoroughly inspired performances… from the familiar to the unknown and unexpected. This year, high on a heady cocktail of blood thinners and cholesterol lowering drugs I eased my way into the prevailing festival mood with some dub style reggae from Declan Kelly and friends presents “Diesel and Dub” and was most impressed, King Tide’s Tony Hughes and Emma Donovan made for an impressive festival introduction keeping the vibe aloft for this Midnight Oil covers done dub style session. Melbourne Ska Orchestra’s Pat Powell adding a little West Indian authenticity and some inspired vocalising to the proceedings to great effect over a plethora of cool beats and some of the Oils fiery politicised lyrical content. I was determined to check out Ruthie Foster, I think this is about her fifth time here and although I’ve been advised to see her many times I just never got around to it. Now I can testify I was the one missing out, she was my find of the 2015 festival, a short and stocky middle-aged black woman with a voice that could melt the Antarctic and a smile as wide as the Grand Canyon. After 45 minutes with this woman and her excellent band I wanted to jump up on stage and hug her, she was just sensational; great songs, great musicianship, awesome harmonies and Ms Fosters beaming presence, it was like being in church without the proselytising.
Fronted by ex Black Crowes singer and probably my favourite act of the whole festival was The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, featuring the wonderful ex Ryan Adams and the Cardinals guitarist Neal Casal. Now these guys were just sublime, right up my alley, a psychedelic frosted jam band with great musicians, great singers, cool songs and a distinct distaste for cheesy festival style cabaret (singalongs, well known covers, irritating call and response routines and relentless dance grooves.) These guys were the perfect antithesis to much that was on offer, eschewing entertainment for music and what a treat it was. An unfamiliar repertoire in no way affected my enjoyment of their all original material, the one familiar exception of course being the inclusion of The Black Crows biggest hit, the cover of Otis Reddings ‘Hard To Handle’. Their Grateful Dead style habit of using the extended fade outs to work their way into the next song with very few breaks was refreshing…there was barely any stage talk, mostly just deep concentration of each others’ playing, (the secret to making it all gel) and gel they did, magnificent stuff.
If there were any country music fans here you could pretty much guarantee they were here for The Zack Brown Band. I think I should first preface my comments with a disclaimer. I think this band are superb musicians, great singers who are a world class live act fronted by the highly personable southern style charm of the permanently beanied man himself Zack Brown. As for their show, a slick, professional crowd pleasing construction that no doubt slays them in the aisles back home, unfortunately came across like an alternative, roots style Las Vegas routine. A couple of their US hits preceded their launch into first Led Zepplin’s ‘Kashmir’ and then steaming into an overblown “look ma no hands” style version of ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’, a few more generic style Nashville meets the Bahamas Jimmy Buffett re-writes before they introduce both Keb Mo and Trombone Shorty for a rendition of Bill Withers ‘Use Me’ that merged into Outkast’s ‘So Fresh, So Clean’. They offer up one more of their own songs before they launch into an epic note for note cover version of Queens ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and before you know it Jack Johnson and G Love are up for a Bob Dylan singalong and I think I even remember a version of Van Morrison’s ‘Into The Mystic’ in there somewhere too. I closed my eyes and imagine I’ve been transported to Revesby Workers Club on a Saturday night for a tribute band eisteddfod. Most of the crowd who wouldn’t know real country music from a hole in the ground were lapping it up like it was manna from heaven, I slunk away pondering the difference between entertainment and art and once again why most Americans can’t tell sentimentality from sincerity. I remain perplexed.
I’ve been keen to check out Pokey LaFarge since hearing a snatch of him live on the ABC on his visit here earlier in the year and I was not disappointed. Although suffering from a sore throat, nothing was going to diminish his enthusiasm as he romped through a selection of material, predominantly from his last couple of albums, with the energy of a teenager. His mix of old time jazz, ragtime, western swing, vaudeville and country blues is an intoxicating brew this far from the 1920’s, and sitting amongst the myriad of hybrids available at the Bluesfest it sticks out like a breath of fresh air; up-beat, cheery and with a sly humour, sure it’s awash with a retro aesthetic but it never once felt like a nostalgic slice of cabaret, just real musicians under the influence of a style of music that has long since faded from fashion.
The Alabama Shakes were certainly the talk of the festival and the anticipation from a large
proportion of the genuine music lovers present prior to their appearance was palpable. I was curious but I have to confess I was not one of the salivating majority, I find their albums interesting but not overly captivating. The live version I have to say was way more impressive, not that it endeared me to their music particularly but more because of how committed, capable, and convincing they were.
Enigmatic singer and guitarist Brittany Howard held court with this expanded version of the band (nine piece…as far as I could tell) and led the crowd through a selection of material that favoured their recent Sound and Colour album. Dripping with sweat as she offered up every ounce of passion and power she could muster to deliver pumping old school soul workouts, heartfelt ballads and punk like driving rockers, with style, passion and a voice that is a wonder to behold, while the rest of the band held it together like a finely tuned ensemble of seasoned veterans.
British born pianist and New Orleans icon Jon Cleary along with his (reduced down to two for this visit) Monster Gentlemen held us all spellbound with his powerful spirit of New Orleans funk/jazz/blues/R&B repertoire, and the conviction of a tent show preacher. Along with a world class rhythm section, his lone piano and a voice that could tear down walls of resistance at a hundred metres he held us in the palm of his hand as we got taken on a journey through the roots of southern soul music that managed to transport this muddy field in northern NSW to the banks of the Mississippi…..well for at least 45minutes.