Words & Images by: Alex Anastas
Byron Bay Bluesfest :: 04.21.11-04.25.11 :: Tyagareh Tea Tree Farm :: Byron Bay, NSW, Australia
The Byron Bay Bluesfest brought expectations of the best music festival line-up Australia’s ever seen with headlining legends Bob Dylan, B.B. King and Grace Jones. A bonus day was added for the first time in the event’s 22 years, making it six days of “blues and roots” music at Tyagareh Tea Tree Farm, located in the lush green hinterland north of Byron Bay, a bohemian ocean-side paradise. Like any multi-day event with 110 acts, some playing at least twice, the best performances came from the most unexpected.
|Byron Bay by Alex Anastas|
Thursday, April 21
Kicking off at twilight, Michael Franti and Spearhead infected the crowd with an emotionally charged stage show. Not only was birthday-boy Franti serenaded by the youthful crowd, but he also managed to bring it to tears with the story of a teen who’d recovered from a coma-inducing stroke since the last time he was in Byron.
A difficult choice then had to be made between a unique trifecta: The Funky Meters then Ben Harper on the main Mojo Stage, Los Lobos then ZZ Top on the blues-centric Crossroads Stage, or Luciano then Toots and the Maytals on the Jambalaya Stage. Our posse managed to catch a little of each, with the standout being Harper’s rockin’ set of greatest hits, including jammed-out opener “Two Hands” and a sing-a-long “Sexual Healing.” Setting the tone for a good weekend, the California-native proclaimed, “Byron always did have the best singers.”
Friday, April 22
Not one to mess too much with a good thing, festival organizers left the ground’s layout much as they were last year - plenty of space to roam, an abundance of local eateries, multiple places to grab a cold beverage and five stages. Kicking off with Xavier Rudd and his new band, Izintaba, the barefoot Koonyum Sun juiced the Day 2 crowd with his declarative “Gift of the Trees.”
The standout surprise, leaving many in attendance buzzing all weekend, was Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue. Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and his Tremé disciples showered the crowd with their self-proclaimed “supafunkrock” originals and tasteful covers such as “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”
|Xavier Rudd by Alex Anastas|
Keeping the southern vibe alive was the stately gospel of the Blind Boys of Alabama with special guest vocalist Aaron Neville, and a disappointing set from an aging B.B. King.
The crowd’s thirst for energetic virtuosity was quenched by Rodrigo y Gabriela and their showstoppers like “Tamacun.” Having enjoyed the duo’s performance two nights earlier in Sydney, the sound quality improved but their anecdotal stories and their setlist remained the same. Keep your eyes and ears open for some soundtrack work from this duo, such as on the new Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides blockbuster and Shrek: Puss in Boots.
Saturday, April 23
After a much needed dip into town and the blue Pacific Ocean, we wandered back to see actor Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band croon, including troubadour covers of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Tom Waits’ “All the World is Green.” Although the Academy-Award winner’s vocals may at times be rough, he possesses exceptional passion and taste in music.
The mostly Australian audience didn’t know what had hit them next in the one-two punch of guitar slingers in Robert Randolph and the Family Band followed by the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Randolph did what he does best, i.e. wowing contingents with his sacred pedal-steel skills, while managing to throw a bit of masked Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” into his own “Squeeze.” This marked the first time I had seen the recently melded band of husband and wife duo of Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. Even though they managed to bring along some of the players from their original outfits, their honky-tonk/funk sound did not really enthuse the way it should in the large group format.
Sunday, April 24
Easter Sunday was awakened by the stomping growl of Australian Ash Grunwald, and then soothed by eclectic American heroes Little Feat. The recent Halloween set of Waiting for Columbus by Phish has brought some well-deserved adoration back to Little Feat’s music. But the band has also endured some hard times recently, losing founding member and drummer Richie Hayward to cancer last August. Soldiering on, the F-E-A-T delivered an awesome set including a raw “Spanish Moon” and a nicely placed segue of “Fat Man in the Bathtub > Scarlet Begonias > Fat Man” that had many heads smiling.
|Mavis Staples & Elvis Costello by Alex Anastas|
Remaining at the Crossroads Stage allowed us to be delighted by some of the only guests of the weekend during Mavis Staples’ set, which featured Trombone Shorty on her hit “I’ll Take You There” and the delightful surprise of Elvis Costello on the group gospel of “The Weight.”
Sauntering amongst stilt walkers and Mardi Gras style floats, we were front and center to enjoy the traditionals of Peter Rowan's Bluegrass Band. In addition to the vocal workout “Land of the Navajo,” Rowan engaged the diverse audience with his interesting political wit on “Panama Red > Tea Party > Panama Red.”
Monday, April 25
The last day of music for our crew - like many, we’d unfortunately only planned for five days before organizers announced a sixth day - Monday brought the Warren Haynes Band to the Mojo Stage. Sprinkling his set with Gov't Mule staples like “Beautifully Broken,” “Tear Me Down” and set-closing happiness-inducer “Soulshine,” Haynes garnered new fans with rarities like “Invisible” off his first solo album and new solo tunes “Man in Motion” and “Sick of My Shadow.”
The Allman Brother set the stage for the original bard, Bob Dylan. It was expected but many around me were surprised by Bobby’s cigarette scratched voice and weathered energy, meaning the “Never-Ending Tour” didn’t impress many at this stop. We cut our losses to venture over to see what Jethro Tull had cooking. Smiling ear-to-ear after another epic Bluesfest, we were sent off into the chilly Byron night with the frenetic “Thick as a Brick” and a delicate take on J.S. Bach’s “Bouree.”
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