Zee Avi was the first performer on stage at the Byron Bay Bluesfest. Quite an honour. The petite Malaysian/American girl pulled the strap over her shoulder for a guitar that just about matched her in size. After playing Poppy, and a cover of Interpol’s Slow Hands Avi played her “only love song” Honeybee. She explained that the lyrics were about two non-conformists finding love. After a couple more tunes, she switched to an instrument much more her size – a ukulele. Zee Avi was a gentle, happy beginning to the five-day music celebration.
Neil Halstead added a drum beat to what had been Avi’s guitar only set. He rocked up to centre stage, thick bushy beard, fisherman’s hat, checkered shirt like he had just hopped off his fishing boat. Just like Zee Avi, and a lot of the Brushfire Records artists, his tunes are laid-back melodies that are easy to listen to without too much effort. Just smile, sway a little and maybe bop your head to the beat. Easy.
The third and final act from the Brushfire Records was Matt Costa. Just like his two predecessors, Costa was just another musician (okay, a really good musician…) looking to have a good time and share his music with a largely new audience. They played songs shouted out from the crowd, they told stories about their lives – like moving and getting random strangers knocking on their doors selling Bibles, and they drank beers on stage.
Jen Cloher and the Endless Sea
After a little wandering around, I found myself standing in front of the stage for Jen Cloher’s band. A big difference from the Brushfire beginning where jumping around on stage would definitely not have seemed logical. Not so in Cloher’s case who spent her set jumping around jamming with her bandmates for song after song. In keeping with the trend, Cloher listened to her audience and seemed to truly appreciate her existing fans showing up to the festival. She played Better Off Dancing requested from a man in the crowd called Sam (also the name of the drummer’s dog, but Cloher insisted that the dog was really cute so the connection shouldn’t be taken the wrong way).
Narasito Pan Pipers
I left Jen Cloher’s tent and went exploring again. I eventually found myself in the First Nation tent and I’m so happy I did. The Narasito Pan Pipers –farmers and fishermen from the Solomon Islands. They combine their traditional music and dance with contemporary styles to create some of the most fun, can’t-help-but-dance-and-feel-good music I heard at the festival. In fact, I saw these guys twice during my days in Byron Bay. The energy and fun that came from their performances was irresistible. Near the end of their set, they explained that since they were at a Bluesfest, they wanted to play a blues song. Sounds logical. Except that they’re pan pipers from the Solomon Islands. So what do they do? Invite Jeremy – a tall, blonde haired man on stage to help them out. Okay, it wasn’t as random as that, Jeremy has worked with these guys in their village and afterwards. He brought his guitar and played a true blues song with the band. Probably something about his dog, but I can’t quite remember.
Daniel Champagne was one of the Bluesfest lineup that is already well on his way to becoming a true guitar legend. I’m not a guitar player myself, but everyone, myself included, stood in awe in front of the Apra stage as his fingers moved across the guitar strings with unbelievable speed. During Pendulum, an instrumental song, Champagne’s face was clenched and his tongue was out with the effort. I wouldn’t have looked twice if the guitar had started smoking. Not kidding.
After Daniel Champagne, I had time to check out a little of the Buena Vista Social Club although I didn’t stick around because I knew I’d be seeing them later in the weekend. Then it was time to stake out my piece of grass at the Mojo Stage for the headlining act, Jack Johnson. What can I say? It’s Jack Johnson. He played all the crowd favourites, I sang along to every one, I got pushed and shoved, I was offered drugs. Everything I expected from the big act at the end of the night. I love live music, and I particularly love seeing the smaller lesser known acts. There’s that sense of intimacy and exclusivity that you don’t get anymore with a guy like Johnson. But you know, with all that, the night definitely ended in a high. Sometimes it’s nice to see a band play and sing along to all the songs with thousands of other people at the same time. A sense of collective appreciation.
Welcome to the Bluesfest.