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Archive for the ‘Byron Bay’ Category

After almost five months in Australia, having sneakily avoided winter, I’m settling back into London life. When I think about my most recent travel adventure, I suppose I was able to see quite a lot of Australia, but really, I didn’t see half of it. This is one big country. I passed through five of Australia’s eight states and territories, saw cities, the ocean and the outback and I left thousands of miles uncovered. But what I did see, I’ll never forget.

I loved wandering through Darling Harbour or taking the ferry to Manly Beach in Sydney, exploring the great cafés and night spots in Melbourne, and hitting some of the fantastic museums in Canberra.

In the Northern Territory, I got a taste of what I’ve always imagined to be ‘real’ Australia (not that the cities are any less real) in the Outback. I walked around Ayers Rock and ran under its waterfalls after the rain, trekked through the Valley of the Winds in Kata Tjuta, and hiked around the rim of Kings Canyon. I drove past herds of wild camels, slowly backed away from a Western Brown Snake (one of the deadliest in the world), and evicted various lethal spiders that had found their way indoors.

On the coast, I got to see some music legends at the Byron Bay Bluesfest before heading up to the Whitsundays for a spot of sailing among these beautiful islands. I walked across pure white sand on Whitehaven Beach, and went snorkeling around the most amazing reef I’ve ever seen. The Great Barrier Reef isn’t world famous for nothing after all.

And finally I got to explore the famous Fraser Island – the largest sand island in the world, with its stunning freshwater lakes and abundant dingo population.

My list of Australian memories could go on, but the list of things I still want to see is even longer. It is almost impossible to really convey how fantastically huge and diverse this country is. I’m glad I got to see what I did, and I can’t wait for my chance to see more. The plane ride has never been more worthwhile.

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My last day at Bluesfest, I spent most of the afternoon enjoying the time with my friends before I headed off. After a few drinks at the festival camp site, Kat and I headed off to see Tribali and I’m SO glad we did. You already know that I enjoyed every day and every band of this festival, but nobody got me dancing and hyped up like Tribali. Absolutely stunning world-music band from Malta, with enormous amounts of energy and an almost equal amount of instruments. Guitars, bongos, didgeridoos, mouth harps, drums, even a conch shell at some point. They were a totally mixed bunch of people going nuts on stage and sounding great. And they’re the only band who popped confetti so they get points for that too.

Later on in the day, Kat, Danny and I went to meet Tribali which was great. We also met Nick Kickstand who gave me his CD after he jammed out on his bongos with the band.

After the energy of Tribali, we couldn’t help ourselves, so we headed back to the Narasito Pan Pipers yet again and jumped around to the pan-piping/blues singing bunch.

At night, we camped ourselves at main stage, seeing Blue King Brown, Fat Freddys Drop and Crowded House to round off the night. Blue King Brown sang their heart out – they were a band to make Bob Marley proud. A soul, a purpose, a message, and definitely some music you could sway and nod your head to. You know the kind.

After them it was Fat Freddys Drop. I hadn’t heard of them before, I have to admit, but Kat had assured me I’d love them. She was right. The highlight was probably the trombonist who came out looking FINE in an all white suit and an energy he seemed to have a lot of trouble controlling. In fact, he had a lot of trouble controlling the suit too… he ended up in a vest top and boxer shorts by the end, but to say he enjoyed himself would be an understatement. His enthusiasm definitely rubbed off. I’ll thank Kat for that one.

Finally was Crowded House. Ahh my last act. Another one I wasn’t too familiar with – they’re homegrown Australian. Although I did recognise “Four Seasons in One Day” and “Fall At Your Feet.”  My old boss from Longitude, Tapa, had recommended them so I thought I had to check them out. They were a great band, definitely of a different generation I have to admit, but I was just enjoying the time with my friends at my last day here before heading off for more East Coast fun. And I enjoyed it just as I wanted to.

So that was it, the Byron Bay Bluesfest was over for me. An epic four days in one of my favourite Australian towns. Even if I didn’t spend much time IN the town…small detail.

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Saturday at the Bluesfest I took a bit of a break from running stage to stage. When I arrived, Kat and I briefly met up with our new friends Ben and Danny, then I left them to head to the press tent as I’d been told I had an interview slot with Bela Fleck.

I was pretty excited about my interview – Bela Fleck is arguably one of the best banjo players in the world, and had recently done a tour around various parts of Africa, studying the banjos origins and playing with local orchestras and village kids as he traveled. I saw Bela Fleck live back in Maryland when I was about 15, so I was really excited about the prospect of getting to meet him in person. I know he isn’t the most high profile musician of the week – but any interview was great for me, and this was a blast back to my high school days, plus I couldn’t wait to talk about his travels in Africa.

I was duly escorted backstage and shown to a table to wait patiently for the man to arrive. Delay after delay after delay later, it started to become pretty clear that it wasn’t happening. Mr. Fleck was running late and ran out of time before he had to get on stage. It was disappointing to have been missing so much good music in the meantime, but the silver lining was Poor Man’s Whiskey did a little improv jam session backstage after one of their interviews. So at least I got to see a little music, and hey, can’t complain about a more or less private backstage show, right?

After that, I finally made my way back into the festivals and located my friends again. I had time to briefly check out a bit of Bela’s set before we headed to the Mojo Stage to stake out our spots for the night. First one was the Buena Vista Social Club – a great latin orchestra that makes you wish you knew how to salsa. The problem I had with them was, that while they are GREAT musicians, and their music is top quality, it isn’t the type of music I particularly enjoy listening to for a full hour. They sing in Spanish, eliminating any chance of singing along, and maybe it’s my ignorance, but I simply cannot enjoy that chilled Latin beat for more than a few songs before I want something a little different.

Obviously this is a personal taste – and there were plenty of people in the crowd that would have vehemently disagreed with me. Unfortunately for us, everyone in front of us was there for the same reasons we were – to get as close as possible to the stage before the headliner. Jack Johnson. Yes, I know, I know, I’ve already seen him play once this week, but how can you say no to seeing him twice?? He was just as great the second time around too.

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Day Two of the Bluesfest, just as Day One, I spent my time moving between tents discovering a handful of fantastic artists. Kat and I also took a break from the main stages to explore the rest of the festival, including the Original Musician Competition. We took a seat on the grass to watch the Mojo Bluesmen – two guys, one with a guitar, one with a loudspeaker as a microphone and harmonica. The harmonica player looked a bit like a plump sheepdog, but other than that they were pretty great. At The Avett Brothers performance we met two brothers, Danny and Ben who we hung out with the rest of our time at Bluesfest. They were Australians who spend most of their lives skiing and snowboarding around the world. Tough life. When we met them, they were back in their home country for the summer tour season including, of course, Byron Bay.

I was definitely getting used to festival life.

Martinez Trio

Chilean band, the Martinez Trio are a father and sons group led by Victor Martinez. I have to say I didn’t know that when I saw them performing on the Apra Stage at Bluesfest, but it makes a lot of sense. It was clear that they were purely loving their time together on stage, completely wrapped up in their music.

The three men seemed to be improvising the entire performance, although I can’t believe this was anything but a well rehearsed show. I’m not a musician, but even I understand that for three individuals to play together so seamlessly at the sheer pace that these guys were playing at is damn well difficult. Their hands blurred across the guitar strings as they played separately, then two at a time, and finally together. And apparently a guitar isn’t just a guitar… it’s the percussion too. Who knew… With ‘nothing’ but three guitars, close your eyes and you could have a full band in front of you. This was a family purely loving their time on stage together.

Joe Bonamassa

I’ve already alluded to this, but while the Bluesfest was brimming with jaw-dropping talented musicians, the actual ‘blues’ musicians seem to be the minority. but Joe Bonamassa is certainly one of them. This really seemed to be what a modern blues and rock band should be, with real ‘blues-y’ lyrics (about losing things mostly…) fantastic guitar solos and a man who has clearly spent a lifetime loving and mastering his talent. It’s great to see someone of such renown and experience still putting everything into each and every performance.

At times, Joe’s hands were up in the air, eyes closed, totally focused on belting out his songs. Perfect Bluesfest band. Plus he was pretty grateful to be there since apparently it was his first time in Australia. “Anyone who knows my name in this country is a miracle, so thank you” he said.

The Avett Brothers

The Avett Bros were yet another band I didn’t know about, but they were one of my favourite performances of the week. A total mix of bluegrass, country, rock, pop and a lot more, this was sheer rowdy, infectiously crazy music. The brothers (Scott and Seth) plus standup bass player Bob Crawford along with the rest of their band have an electric stage presence. This was their first ever weekend in Australia and I’m certainly happy they came. Their most popular song and their big single is ‘I and Love and You’ but there was plenty to love.

Imelda May

I briefly stopped by the Jambalaya Stage to see a few minutes of Imelda May – an Irish woman with a rich soul voice that probably belongs in a different era, but sounded damn good in this one. She rocked out in her stylish tight black and white outfit, while her guitarist enjoyed the show in a rather loud Hawaiian shirt. But hey, the clothes don’t make the music. Thank goodness.

Jeff Beck

I left Imelda May’s stage early because I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to see at least a few minutes of Jeff Beck live. You couldn’t help but feel a bit humbled and in awe listening to this guy. He has influenced and inspired some of the most famous musicians of the last five decades. Now I get to say I watched him play, including all the greats. Even a rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow.’

John Butler Trio

This was the big event of night. Australia’s most successful independent musician, John Butler Trio was the local hero of the day. His set was great and he definitely knew how to get the audience moving. Personally, I loved the improv (sort of) drum session. I knew this was one of the ‘tricks’ of their show, but it was still fantastic. As was John Butler’s acoustic solo songs – just him, his hat and his guitar in a spotlight.

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In 1990 when the Byron Bay Bluesfest began, it was actually held in Byron Bay. Imagine that. The Arts Factory – a hostel/campground that is well known to any backpackers that pass through the town was the first site. These days the festival has far outgrown its humble beginnings. For over a decade the site has moved around, while the organisers search for a permanent home, which they believe they have finally found this year at Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm. Eleven kilometres away from Byron Bay, the 2010 Bluesfest was actually closer to Brunswick Heads, but I suppose changing the name now would just be confusing.

If you still chose to stay in Byron Bay (and who can blame you) then you had to be prepared to open up your wallet. Hostels were almost doubling their prices, as were all the campgrounds in town and anywhere along the road towards Tyagarah. I decided to take the hit myself and stay at Main Beach Backpackers, which cost me $35/night for a dorm bed. I couldn’t say no to staying 20 metres away from Byron’s gorgeous beaches, although spending my days at the festival meant not a lot of time for sand and surf. Oh well.

After reuniting with some fellow Poms, Day One of Bluesfest began with a 20 minute bus trip on the $4 Bluesfest Shuttle. I could go on about how if they’re going to take the Bluesfest out of its hometown, shouldn’t they at least help people get there for free to compensate, but I won’t…

After I arrived, picked up my media pass and found my way to the press tent, I finally had time to properly peruse the schedule to figure out who I would actually have time to see. Always a problem at festivals – multiple stages mean overlapping performances; picking and choosing can be a painful process.

This year’s fest was centred around celebrating great guitar music from legends like Jeff Beck to eclectic world music bands like Tribali. There were enough musical geniuses around to blow anyone’s socks off.

The day had a good start with artists from the Brushfire Records label – Zee Avi, Neil Halstead and Matt Costa. From there I got to rock out with Jen Cloher and the Endless Sea, jump around like a maniac with the Narasito Pan Pipers, stare in awe at Daniel Champagne, salsa to the Buena Vista Social Club and sing along to all my favourites by Jack Johnson. More thoughts on that in my Day One post.

What a great way to kick off the Easter holidays.

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Zee Avi

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

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.

Matt Costa

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

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.

Jack Johnson

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.

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Now that I’m in Byron Bay I’ll be doing my best to update you all on what’s going on at one of Australia’s biggest music festivals – the Byron Bay Bluesfest.

Yesterday was the first day of the festival so I spent the afternoon/evening trudging around in the muddy fields flitting from tent to tent to check out some of the amazing music that is taking place here this week.

The selection is amazingly varied; I’m actually curious to find out what the criteria for performing here is, since there are plenty of bands that certainly do not fall under the category of ‘blues.’

From solo guitarists to folk bands, traditional pan pipers to Cuban 10 piece bands there’s something for just about everyone here.

Keep checking back for more details of how I spend my days. But for now, I’ve got a bus to catch for Day 2!

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