Longtime ND photographer Steve Ford recently attended the Bluesfest Byron Bay, Australia's premiere blues and roots festival that features many American artists. This year's lineup included Patti Smith, Mavis Staples, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Rhiannon Giddens, Kasey Chambers, Hubby Jenkins, Andrew Bird, Billy Bragg, and much more.
Here, now, in his own words, is some highlights from Steve's report:
“We are the real American ambassadors,” Rhiannon Giddens said, referring to her multiracial, multi-cultual band. She could well have been speaking for all of the US artists who dominate Bluesfest Byron Bay, year after year.
As much as anything, this sprawling marathon of a festival is a celebration of American music forms -- blues, soul, gospel, all kinds of rock, country, jazz. Of course, it’s not only Americans playing those genres. One of the biggest “country” names on this year’s bill was home-grown hillbilly, Kasey Chambers. Among the younger artists putting their own spin on '70s soul was Michael Kiwanuka, a Londoner of Ugandan background.
After the stunning success of last year’s Bluesfest, 2017 at times looked headed for trouble. The early cancellation of Neil Young was a blow. Closer to the festival, Cyclone Debbie caused havoc down the Eastern seaboard. The Northern Rivers region of NSW missed the destructive winds, but not the deluge, and nearby towns recorded their biggest floods for more than 40 years. It looked like we were in for a mudfest, at best.
However, as it turned out, the five days of the festival were held in glorious weather.
There were fewer Americana artists than usual and – happily – much more jazz.
A highlight was Patti Smith, who is revered in Australia. Despite a cold, her voice sounded as strong as ever. Her mix of bravado and vulnerability was compelling. Lenny Kaye and company provided a chugging rhythmic framework while making themselves invisible.
Rhiannon Giddens was back for a second year, with a new lineup and new material from Freedom Highway. The album’s producer Dirk Powell, an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist, was along for the ride, along with her frequent sideman, Hubby Jenkins. “Freedom Highway” is an old Staple Singers song and it was fitting that the ageless Mavis Staples followed Giddens on the Jambalaya stage on Thursday. Staples and band are Bluesfest regulars and I never tire of hearing them. As always, their version of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” got the adrenalin pumping. .
Kasey Chambers made her first Bluesfest appearance with the Dead Ringers almost 20 years ago, and played her first solo gig here. She happily professes her love for the festival, always attending regardless of whether she is on the bill. She was in good spirits for her set this year, mixing old favourites with tracks from the new Dragonfly album.
Billy Bragg, meanwhile, was a first-timer, although he has long been on many fans’ wish lists. His solo set on Saturday included all the classics. On Monday he teamed up with Joe Henry to showcase songs from their collaborative 2016 release, Shine A Light.
The pick of the jazz acts was the Miles Electric Band, an all-star group paying homage to the electric era music of Miles Davis. Albums such as Tutu and Amandla were ignored or derided by the jazz police at the time, but remain hugely influential. Christian Scott took the trumpet role, copying Davis’ cool demeanour without imitating of his sound. More popular was Grammy winner Gregory Porter, and the much-sampled Roy Ayers also drew enthusiastic audiences.
At 80 years of age, Buddy Guy both thrills and frustrates me. His playing and his on-stage energy seem at the same incredible level they were 15 years ago. Unfortunately, his show is the same “blues vaudeville” act he has plied for years. Only once during his many trips to Bluesfest, in 2006, Guy came out and just played, without the gimmicks and pop music allusions. That was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and I pray he will repeat it.
As devotees of major festivals know, you can’t see everything. With five stages operating concurrently, there will always be worthy acts overlooked. Nonetheless, I’m already looking forward to 2018.
Now, here are Steve's photos. I have never seen a more stunning collection than what he has put together for us. Many have that unmistakable "wow" factor.