The Countdown is now on to the 27th Byron Bay Bluesfest. On 26 January festival director Peter Noble, who ironically describes himself as ‘an old angry motherfucker!’ was awarded the very prestigious OAM – Order of Australia medal for his services to the music industry.
With fifty years plus in the industry the man and his event have garnered a lot of awards. You’d need a trailer to move them.
Just last year there was the Best Major Event for North Coast Tourism and Festival of the Year at the Pan Australasian Award. There have been not one, or even two, but four Helpmann Awards for Best Contemporary Music Festival, a Rolling Stone award back in 2007 for Contribution to Australian music and even a Grammy Award in 2008 for Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album for Terrance Simien & The Zydeco Experience. Something like 28 awards in fact, and numerous nominations, the most impressive being on the global stage alongside festivals such as Glastonbury for International Festival of the Year Pollstar Awards.
So how does an ‘angry old motherfucker’ celebrate his OAM?
‘Annika [his partner] went to the opening of Elements the night before so my family celebration in the morning didn’t happen because they couldn’t get out of bed! Must have been a good opening! So I went down to the Arakwal celebration on the beach, and then on to the RSL where I found the local mob and Delta getting her Citizen of the Year. By the time I got home the family were still asleep!’
With the event just six weeks away, everything is in full swing, including something like 30 tours that ride on the back of Bluesfest.
‘There wouldn’t be a festival in Australia that didn’t have one of our acts,’ says Peter.
Noble is a master of managing complex artistic personalities. His secret?
‘They are working with a complex personality! I was watching a Tarantino film the other day and it occurred to me that I am a bit like Tarantino in one way. He is the director of a movie and I am the director of a festival – we put together a group of musicians/actors and he goes back to the same actors regularly.
‘I do the same, because I know what really works. Acts such as Playing for Change are building schools in Third World countries; they have 12 schools going already; people are really getting it now.’
Noble believes Australian radio, particularly the youth arm of our public broadcaster, could play a bigger role in the music development.
‘If Australian radio played a bit more of what appeared at Bluesfest, which you would hear on radio in the UK or the US, it would be great, but Triple J has a tight programming policy that may or not be good for Australian music.
We are the event for 2016, but we can’t get presented on Triple J because we put on a festival that attracts older people. They say, ‘it’s against our charter’; as taxpayers we have a right examine those sort of ideas.
‘I am not saying what they are doing is awful but it could be more inclusive, especially at a time when our industry is having difficulty. I have Kendrick Lemar as my headliner; he is up for 11 grammy nominations – there are no festival in Australia that has ever gone near that.’
So what does Noble bring to Bluesfest every year? ‘I get paid for my ears,’ he says simply.
‘I am not afraid to change with the industry, to go out there and introduce new elements. I think Australia is able to have a festival like that, not just the blues and roots, but alt country and reggae and I also book the artists who are happening right now.
‘Every year I challenge myself with Bluesfest. It’s a creative music festival. If you come at 12 noon there will be no filler; it’s a family event; we are proud of that. We make it easy for families to attend with their children. We put on real music that will get you… musical appreciation is learnt through events such as Bluesfest.’
The 2016 lineup is impressive, with a few surprises in store.
‘We have reached about 75 per cent of sellout. I will be watching TV closely next week to see how many Grammys Kendrick gets. When we baby boomers feel we have a privilege above every succeeding generation, that our influence should never wane, we changed the world and we won’t let anyone else do that. We still sold more tickets to the 50-plus group than any other group this year.’
Blues zealots have questioned some of the lineup, in particular the inclusion of Tom Jones.
‘He is a great singer,’ says Noble. ‘People say – Sir Tom Jones, why did you book that guy? He’s a Las Vegas guy! But his last albums have been rock and soul and blues!’
This year also sees Boomerang programming included within the greater event of Bluesfest.
‘Boomerang would like to be a standalone event. Rhoda Roberts wrote 92 submissions to corporate sponsors and arts grants last year. It’s like a maze; you go into the maze, but pretty soon you realise there is no cheese.
‘I believe a number of those reconciliation action programs are all about trying to look good, but they have little or no intention of awarding any money – each one of those applications takes many hours of doing. It is a lot of work. Some investigative journalist should find out just who actually awards any grant money!’
As he has just returned from putting some final touches on his Bali villa, I ask Peter if he has any intention of retiring.
‘As soon as I get tired of it I will retire. But right now I am enjoying it more than ever!’
The 27th Byron Bluesfest runs Thursday 24 till Monday 28 March. Tickets and program information at bluesfest.com.au.