Roots & All – Issue 85

With Kim Cheshire

Byron Bay Bluesfest 2017

Having recently survived the worst flood here in the region since the 80’s, completely devastating the town of Lismore and many of the outlying communities, Bluesfest was a welcome respite from the weather and the woes of the massive cleanup, to have five dry days of glorious sunshine and inspirational music from all over the world to heal our hearts and lift our spirits. With the usual eclectic variety of headliners, primarily from the 70’s and 80’s featuring New York punk poet indie goddess Patti Smith, Woodstock veterans Santana, 70’s California stoner band The Doobie Bros, beach culture hedonists Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band, blues aficionado and slide supremo Bonnie Raitt, cockney music hall frivolity from Madness, master songsmith Neil Finn, country crossover act The Zac Brown Band and countless lesser known acts, there was certainly plenty on offer.

My first musical treat was Texas, jazz/funk revisionists Snarky Puppy, an eclectic collective of A grade musicians who impressed their relatively sparse crowd with their often complex arrangements and challenging improvised forays. I took in a little of Eric Gales, the phenomenal Memphis born (Jimi Hendrix influenced) guitar player and his band as they managed to build a sizeable crowd from what was initially just a small but curious gathering with sheer musical skill, Gales incendiary shredding and charismatic stage presence. Trombone Shorty and Orleans Ave who have become a festival staple over the last few years held a massive crowd captive with their energetic Jazz/funk workouts and audience participation routines. LA retro rock-n-soul revivalists Vintage Trouble on their third visit and having already garnered a healthy following of willing participants didn’t really have to work too hard to achieve an enthusiastic response. Probably the best dressed band of the festival, they managed to both look great and offer up some memorable tunes to ultimately deliver an energetic and passionate performance. One of the most surprising highlights of this years lineup for me was the inclusion of Kentucky born, New York based Joan Osbourne. The eclectic Osbourne best known here for her one big nineties world wide hit ‘What if God Was One of Us’ was a real treat, bringing her Bob Dylan tribute show. What started out as a cabaret show for New York’s Carlyle Hotel had been stripped down to a three piece with piano, guitar and voice for what was a gorgeous and eclectic selection of interpretations of some of Dylan’s finest moments. Relatively unknown to the majority of festival patrons 77 yr old Roy Ayres, vibraphone player and pioneer of the acid jazz genre, (mixing Jazz, funk and hip hop) managed to persuade a reasonable gathering to sway to his mellow grooves. Having missed her electric band spot on Thursday I settled for what was an incredibly committed and inspiring acoustic performance by Patti Smith and band. Standing alone onstage looking like a ecumenical apparition with her long flowing wispy grey hair, glowing purple from the lighting she kicked off her set with a passionate rendering of an old Alan Ginsberg spoken word piece and set the scene for what was a thoroughly captivating festival highpoint. Along with covering Bob Dylan’s ‘Hard Rain’, a spoken word version of her own ‘People Have The Power’ a chilling ‘Ghost Dance’ she also managed to include a couple of readings from her own semi-autobiographical Just Kids book, a passage from the Bible (Matthew: 26) and ending with a spine tingling rendition of ‘Beneath The Southern Cross’. With what felt like going from an episode of The Twilight Zone to The Waltons, Jimmy Buffett followed. I was curious but not completely convinced I was up for the beach side singalongs, yet keen to see how it all works having never witnessed Buffet live before and not having heard an album since his second A1A in 74’; there’s been 36 since! Considering his absence from my consciousness for the last 43 years he was surprisingly just like I imagined he would be, suntanned, smiling (all the time) wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts and fronting a big colourful band featuring a fine selection of players and backing vocalists. Other than the reliance on numerous covers (not another version of ‘Brown Eyed Girl’!!) he couldn’t have been more predictable. The usual selection of his biggest hits were trotted out, mostly inciting singalongs amongst the easily spotted “parrot heads” (as official Buffet fans like to refer to themselves) a virtual army of garishly coloured, cocktail bearing grey nomads with pencil thin pony tails and oversized earrings accompanied by their chardonnay sheilas in woefully undersized pedal pushers and lurid polyester mumu’s. The band were excellent, Jimmy was warm and affable, he sang well and generously offered up his praises for many of the other acts on the bill ….oh, and the crowd was huge!

Festival veteran Bonnie Raitt was in top form (is she ever not?) and can blow you away with consummate ease, without cheesy audience baiting, video backdrops or even the biggest light show, but with sheer outstanding talent, a classy band and great songs…just superb! Ricky Lee Jones middle aged and almost completely devoid of her elegantly wasted boho chic/schtick and armed with just a drummer/percussionist/vibraphone player and guitarist managed to offer up selections of her back catalogue and a few from her most recent ‘The Other Side of Desire’ with relative ease, I suspect the crowd probably only knew her enormous 70’s hit ‘Chuck E’s in Love’ and most likely thought she was covering Daryl Braithwaite when she launched into her own ‘Horses’. Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuru managed the virtually impossible-by holding a capacity crowd captive with just his instrument a whole heap of talent and charm! Billy Bragg and Joe Henry currently touring their Shine a Light album, a homage to the great US railway era, were a special treat indeed, weaving their eloquent storytelling and folkie camaraderie into an unexpected festival highlight, peaking with Henry’s prescient reading of Alan Toussaint’s stunning ‘Freedom For the Stallion’. Sadly 70’s prog/folk titans Jethro Tull were a disappointment, primarily due to Ian Anderson’s unusual vocal approach, rendering their classic songs virtually unrecognisable by a distinct lack of vocal presence and over-reliance on his hyper-animated whispering vocal style. Madness although in fine musical form eventually wore me down with their cabaret like presentation and Suggs half spoken monotone vocalising. Biggest disappointment once again was The Zac Brown Band… to see such a fine bunch of musicians and singers reduce their oeuvre into a crowd pleasing cover band pastiche was decidedly depressing and judging by the diminishing crowd on night two I suspect I was not alone. Neil Finn on the other hand, just a stage away was the complete antithesis, where the former, a slick, road tested, tight, super professional yet eminently forgettable band was pleasantly upstaged by what was a warm, rough around the edges but nonetheless thoroughly captivating and joyful musical experience by Finn and his band. The crowd was in raptures, singing along to his wealth of extraordinary songs, charmed by his unassuming demeanour and more than willing to respond to his reckless sense of fun and adventure.

Among my 2017 festival discoveries were British rock band Turin Brakes who I knew very little about but after only a few songs had me spellbound; what a great combo! Great ensemble playing, great vocals and well constructed memorable songs. Max Jury, piano playing singer/songwriter from Des Moines, Iowa held me captive with his wistful and sensitive ballad dominated set of 70’s style original songs.  Probably my absolute favourite new discovery for this year was the magnificent California Honeydrops. From what apparently started out as a San Francisco street band has now fully morphed into an eclectic, multi talented, high calibre, New Orleans style, swinging/soul/funk and blues outfit. Led by the indefatigable and charismatic trumpet playing vocalist/guitarist Lech Wierzynski, this amazing collective of musicians and singers will do whatever it takes to break down the barriers between the band and the audience. Utilising a fine collection of originals and classy obscure covers, they won over their exponentially expanding crowds each day with sheer musical exuberance and an unstoppable sense of fun….absolute magic!

Honourable mentions must also go to Mavis Staples, Jeff Lang, The Wilson Pickers, Dumstaphunk, Kasey Chambers, Ray Beadle, Miles Electric Band, Lloyd Spiegel, Glen Cardier and the Sideshow and The Suffers who all delivered inspiring performances…so much great music, so little column space!