Beating the Easter Blues: Bluesfest Byron Bay

DCIM101GOPROEaster has mostly been one of those holidays for which I rarely had firm plans. As it happened this year, I found myself in Byron Bay, in northern New South Wales, Australia. Its natural setting makes it one of the most beautiful places in Australia, and its people make it one of the happiest, “hippiest” places on Earth (more on that in another post).

As it turns out, Easter is a huge weekend in Byron with everyone on holidays visiting, and the Byron and East Coast Blues and Roots Festival on. “Bluesfest,” as it is known, is a massive music festival, and one of the very best I have ever attended. This year happened to be the 25th anniversary of the 5-day event, and featured headliners such as Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews Band, Erykah Badu, Jeff Beck, the Doobie Brothers, Gregg and Devon Allman, Buddy Guy, Gary Clark Jr., Ian Butler Trio, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Joss Stone, and so on, as well as dozens of smaller acts. In the past they have had a who’s who of names (King, Simon, Plant, etc.) Since I was there, I had to get a ticket!

 

 

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Carnival-esque puppets at Blues Fest
I looked online at the prices on the website and they were not cheap. Fortunately, I got a tip to look in the town paper classifieds out every Tuesday, and found about two dozen listings from sellers. I lucked out and found a 3-day pass for well below face value, albeit the seller was in a town about 20 minutes north of Byron, called Brunswick Heads. Drove up there one afternoon, got the ticket, and explored the town a bit. It proved to be a beautiful little place by a river mouth and the beach had great views of Byron, about 15km away to the southeast.
From what I gather, Easter weather can be spotty in the area, and the Blues have turned into the Muddy Browns in the past. No such misfortune this time, and the weekend weather was absolutely perfect. On Friday we rolled up just before sunset in a spectacular, lush valley setting. Skydivers floated through the air as the sun set and lit up the white tents in golden colors. A few days earlier I had befriended some girls from Argentina and Uruguay who were backpacking through the area on their way from New Zealand to Bali and we went together.
The Wailers (sans Bob Marley, of course) got the peace, love, and happiness vibe going; Friday’s headline act Jack Johnson sounded just like his studio recordings and seemed to be a pretty cool person (He was out teaching his sons how to surf near where I happened to be out for a paddle on Thursday). The evening had such a nice vibe to it, everyone happy and in a good place— right up until midnight when it was time to go home. Due to poor planning by the event and subsequent traffic issues, we didn’t get on a bus back to Byron until 1:40AM. That was pretty much the case for everyone who stayed ’til the end. Gross!
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Jack Johnson croons for the Blues crowd
Saturday evening I went back alone, with the South Americans having departed that afternoon. This day was great as I went to go see some smaller acts on my own. Nikki Hill blew the tent off her stage with a powerful voice ripping up-tempo, original rock songs and Chuck Berry covers that had everyone dancing and jumping. The North Mississippi All Stars, down to a trio on this night, showed off their musical versatility, rotating through a plethora of different instruments. I saw the Allman father and son play because you just have to at this point in their careers. Later on, I went and gave Dave Matthews a try for an hour, but I’ve never really caught on to his music and thus it was perfectly fine, but nothing special for me. Fans of Dave seemed to be enjoying themselves. Capped the night by listening to the soaring symphonic guitar instrumentals of Jeff Beck, who brought Joss Stone onto the stage for the encore. As Beck ended a half hour before DMB wrapped up, I was able to catch a bus almost straight away this time; however, we then got stuck in traffic getting out of the parking lot and the 20 minute journey turned into an hour-plus. Gross!!
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Dave Matthews Band working hard
I never really explained where I was staying during my time at Byron, but during this period, I moved into a 2nd floor apartment across from the farmers’ market grounds, just a 2 minute walk from the main street in town. Downstairs two couples living in Melbourne moved in for the long weekend, and they were kind enough to see me eating breakfast alone on my balcony and invited me down to join them. Over the next couple of days, we became fast friends. And Malcolm, Loic, Rachel, Michelle and I went to the Blues together on Sunday. This day had a more Aussie flavor to it. C.W. Stoneking was quirky and memorable, mixing Louisiana style blues with his stone faced expression and unique back story featured in his lyrics (shipwrecked on a desert island, living in the jungle, etc.). Saskwatch mixed a big band format with more modern music. But the highlight of the night—and probably of the entire Blues weekend was San Francisco’s Michael Franti & Spearhead. To be honest, I had never heard of them before walking into the “Crossroads” tent that fateful evening. As I am writing this entry, I am listening to his studio albums, and while the tunes are pleasant enough, they don’t pack the energy of the live performance. Franti absolutely brought down the house that Sunday night. I’ve been fortunate to have seen play live the likes of McCartney, Elton, Pearl Jam, the Chili Peppers, AC/DC, Van Halen, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Clapton, Derek Trucks, Pearl Jam, Black Crowes, etc., in my life— Franti’s Sunday performance was among the most memorable. It will never translate into text here—it was a “you had to be there” moment, but within the first song, he grabbed the audience’s heart and soul and did not let go for the next two hours (running 30 minutes over his allotted time). He spent more time in the audience than on stage, had children from the crowd up with him at one point singing and dancing to his songs, and the usually very obnoxious calls of “Put your hands in the air,” and “Jump up and down” were in this case not obnoxious at all, and heeded by everyone young and old. As our group debated an early exit to go see Erykah Badu, and then later to go beat the bus line, we all agreed we couldn’t leave. Moments later, Franti came by our section and we gave the hard-working man a much-deserved pat on the back. So glad we didn’t leave! The night ended with his band bringing a notebook computer on the stage and pumping through a mix of club hits, with Franti on vocals in the middle of the crowd, leading everyone in his own personal night club. Exhilarated from the performance and from jumping up and down for two hours, we ran to catch the bus with everyone else. This time, we managed to get on within 10 minutes, and there was almost no traffic. Not gross!!!
DCIM101GOPROMichael Franti and Spearhead…and children from the crowd
When I look back on that weekend, I had been nursing a bit of a surfing injury, but it was the perfect tonic for it. Sure, the beers offered on the grounds were watery and flavorless, and the buses were a hassle. But I had a great time all three days, whether I went with friends who had never heard of any band in existence in the last millennium and were there almost just to see Jack Johnson, or I went alone and got my fix of smaller acts and old school legends in, or with different friends who introduced me to acts like Stoneking and Franti, whom I would probably never have seen were it not for them. Add that to perfect weather, great food, and a beautiful setting, and there’s no reason why you should be bored with nothing to do next Easter. Get over to Byron Bay for the 26th annual Bluesfest!
Disclaimer: I would have posted some video clips of the artists performing at Bluesfest, but I did not want to infringe upon their copyrights (still photographs permitted).

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