Story Chris Dobney Photos Eve Jeffery
As we arrived, around 7pm, the moon was rising over the tents. It was a beautiful sight and a great way to start my Bluesfest.
After a little bit of window shopping we headed to Mojo to see Jason Mraz. He started with a reggae inflected upbeat number that we didn’t recognise but it certainly got the crowd moving. From there on he had everyone captivated. His simple songs, with messages of love and self acceptance, in lesser hands could be sugary and trite but they were performed with such finesse and genuine intention that they lifted the audience up with them.
Our second event was not quite so fabulous. Ben Harper is often considered the poster child of Bluesfest and has played more years than I can recall. Tonight he was playing with blues legend Charlie Musselwhite. I say ‘playing with’ rather loosely. Apparently they bonded in a recording studio: maybe there was a panel of glass between them – there certainly felt like there was one at times on the stage tonight.
We quit Mojo after a couple of numbers and headed for Crossroads and Chris Isaak. His Elvis wannabe shtick was popular twenty years ago, along with his wry ‘I’m so handsome and I know it’ looks. He still trotted out the same songs but the impression was he was bored with doing it.
But despite these minor disappointments we were buoyed by the great first performance of our evening, Jason Mraz, leaving us feeling so contented we didn’t mind the half hour wait to exit the carpark.
Whatever Ben Harper seemed to lack with Charlie Musselwhite last night he clearly seemed to make up for today as he Burned One Down for a hugely appreciative audience late this afternoon. Maybe it’s my problem that I find it hard to relate to singers with their eyes closed. With the possible exception of Blind Boys of Alabama.
Jimmy Cliff is not just another reggae artist. He’s written songs that have become part of the soundtrack of our lives over decades. Which is why I went to see him. But I got a hell of a lot more than I bargained for. His voice is still powerful and pitch perfect. He’s a consummate showman but who knew the guy had dance moves! And on top of foot tappin’ back catalogue comes a new suite of songs about the environment – and even Afghanistan.
Rodriguez may have been all but forgotten by his countrymen after two albums but he was warmly received by the Bluesfest crowd some 40 years later. They were all Waiting for Sugarman and went wild when it was finally played. Like a Rolling Stone was also a poignant choice given the bizarre circumstances of his recent rediscovery.
Black clouds rolled in and the skies opened up ahead of the real Black Magic of the night: Santana. I thought I had a front and centre seat for the gig until I realised I was in the wrong tent! Mojo was already packed out when I made it there after a jog across the festival site in the rain – and for good reason. From the second the band struck up I was in a trance. Starting with the pulsing rhythm section, next the characteristic organ and then the soaring trademark guitar sound that many have tried so hard to emulate. Since Jimmy died, Carlos remains the unsurpassed axeman (in my humble opinion). Then, as if that wasn’t enough, here comes the horn section, like some manic mariachi band on acid. Two songs into the set and I have lost control of my actions. I’m bopping and whooping like the 18 year old that I must have been when I first heard his music.
Santana remains my standout of this year’s Bluesfest – and any I’ve been to so far.
Ruthie Foster is one of my partner’s favourite female singers. And it’s true she does have the voice of an angel – if only she didn’t sing about them so much. For all his aversion to Christianity, Wayne seems happy to overlook the happy clappy nature of her music – and I can understand why. It’s just that I can’t do the same. When she sings Joy on the Other Side, I think, ‘why not here’? And when she gets to God’s on the Water, I realise there is going to be no getting away from him unless I get away from her!
I hightailed it instead to the cute confines of the Lotus Palace – and confined it was. Jon Anderson was playing. I remember him as the elfin frontman of Yes back in the day. Now he looks more like Bilbo than Frodo but still sings in that piping, trilling falsetto. It was the esoteric poetics that first drew me to Yes, which is just as well because if I’d been hoping for Wakemanesque keyboard gymnastics I wouldn’t have been impressed. But the sounds Anderson coaxed from a nylon guitar, keyboards and a ukulele were perfect for the situation. And rearranging Close to the Edge as a jazz ballad was a remarkable achievement, even for its composer.
Then it was back to Crossroads for Taj Mahal. Anyone who complains there’s not enough blues and Bluesfest didn’t see the blues master in action. On Sunday, Peter Noble talked at Rhythms Q&A about the sheer pleasure of bringing blues acts out to Australia’s initially unsuspecting audiences over the decades. And you can fully understand it. As much as we would love to emulate the sounds of the likes of BB King and Taj Mahal, it’s just not part of our Aussie DNA. But we can certainly rock out to them.
No, I didn’t stay for Iggy Pop or Robert Plant. Neither were on my must see list, although I know they were for thousands of others. But this is my Bluesfest I’m recounting.
Today is a work day for me so I reserved my listening time for just one artist: Rufus Wainwright.
All credit to Peter Noble for making space in his program for the plush, operatic sounds of this new generation of singer songwriter. The son of Loudon Wainwright II and Kate McGarrigle, Rufus could as easily be the love child of Elton John and Lou Reid. His Baroque style is evident in everything from the flowers on the set to the stylized irony, verging on self parody of his presentation. There were some great numbers in his set, not least his unabashed love song to the late Jeff Buckley, Memphis Skyline. But where Buckley’s Hallelujah brings me undone, Wainwright’s version felt like shades of grey. Even his comedic My Phone’s on Vibrate somehow failed to leaven the mix for me.
My festival is not over yet. I’m still looking forward to Monday’s program. And with the likes of Paul Simon and Bonnie Raitt on the program I’m sure plenty of others are too.