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February 27, 2021

Why I love Bluesfest

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When an event runs for a quarter of a century you can guarantee that it becomes part of the fabric of a person’s story. True love has been found here, babies conceived, friendships forged, others lost, careers inspired, heroes met, heroes lost. In the bog of mud and sweat, hundreds of thousands have marched to their musical Mecca: The East Coast Blues and Roots Festival aka Bluesfest… Here are a few reminiscences from loyal blues fans.

sista-mary-Sista Mary presents Mystery Train BayFM, owner of Polka Dot Productions

I moved to Byron because of Bluesfest.

Camping for five years (1997–2001) in Belongil Fields was enough…

It’s always arduous doing the full five days, like being in the trenches with a preselected racing form, making sure I don’t miss anything amazing! I still do it, but have slowed down a bit!

So many highlights – Kerri Simpson opening Easter Sunday with a Haitian Voodun chant, Wilco, Buddy Miller, Lyle Lovett and band’s superlative performance…

Event DJ/MC Beaver Suffolk Park relives his ‘Glory Moment’

It was 2001, it was a long time coming and crikey, we were ready! The Big Top was chock-a-block. I reckon about 10,000 had assembled. Midnight Oil had come out firing on Only The Strong and backed it up with Short Memory. There was something extra special in the air that night, the fact that Australia’s iconic surf rock legends had finally found its place on Byron’s biggest stage. It was an endurance performance that was supported by Byron’s biggest choir, the audience. Word for word in unison we worked our way through 25 years of songs that we’d grown with and had found their way into our DNA. I’d been a five-day Bluesfest fanatic for about 10 years but I peaked on that night. We united as ‘one’ as we celebrated Australia’s own identity in music among an international array of legends. These days you’ll find me on the Mojo Stage as Stage MC. Bluesfest is dedicated to giving you the safest and most enjoyable live music experience, so come help us celebrate 25 years strong and once again ‘the best lineup ever’.

Jim Stephens, glass designer, musician and original Arts Factory dweller

To my memory, the beginnings of the Byron Bay Bluesfest were quite humble compared to what the festival has become. I remember the event as just another great music offering from Danny Doeppel at the Arts Factory. There were so many great concerts and bands that they all tend to merge into one large party in my mind. All good, all the time. I lived at the Arts Factory during that era so I often just wandered over to listen to almost everything that happened there. When such luxuries are commonplace they are taken for granted.

From Danny D by Jim Stephens Music ©2013:

The first few Blues Festivals were much more a celebration of blues music than a more diversified music festival that the event became after adding roots to the title. The music at the beginning of the festivals was all about true blues music.

Word of mouth spread through the backpacker community about Byron Bay, the pristine little resort town with magnificent beaches, fabulous surf and unbelievable nightlife where you could see internationally renowned bands in an intimate venue at amazingly low ticket prices. All too good to be true!

Sadly, Danny’s efforts cost him dearly. He had no local support and faced openly hostile attitudes from existing music venues, local government and local business people. In the end, Danny lost his family fortune through his entrepreneurial efforts to bring world-class entertainment to Byron Bay.

He lost a fortune but, by God, he had a very, very (did I say very?) good time doing it.

Every day was Christmas.

Every night was New Years Eve.

BC Bill Connor – creator of BC Hats and musician Will Connor

I lived at the Piggery from around late 1979, I think, until about 1985. I was lucky enough to witness Kevin, Karin and Dan create a music venue at The Piggery (also called The Byron Arts Factory). This is where hundreds of national and international acts performed. Keven and Karin – with Dan’s help – turned this into the first Bluesfest in 1990. In my humble opinion, these first few years were the best!

Rusty Miller, seminal surfer and creator of the Byron Guide

My favourite music experience at the Bluesfest was watching, from the side of the stage, John Mayer the last time he played here, hands gripping the fence as he just got better and more magic as the set advanced.

The next best was last year. We were in Melbourne the week before Bluesfest and had the fortune to meet Paul Simon at a charity talk he gave. During conversations later I mentioned that I played the blues harp and he said he didn’t. I replied that I thought how can Paul Simon not play the harp? It’s so simple and I would be most honoured to give him a lesson. After his knockdown jaw-dropping show in the big tent at Bluesfest we got a message from his stage manager to come see him in his dressing room before his group left for their night flight to Sydney. When we met I kiddingly mentioned that I suppose he would not have time for his harmonica lesson. To my surprise he said he did and went over to his travel bag and pulled out a Hohner C… Time was going on and I thought we best consider that he was preparing to be on the trail soon. So after thanking him for the great show and invitation backstage we went back into the blues masses…

Elayne Mitchell – Bluesfest Trouper

Elayne Mitchell and her husband have been to every single Blues Festival, right from the beginning. And she has plans of course for doing it all again this year. When asked to tell a story of Bluesfest, Elayne admitted, ‘there are so many amazing experiences it is hard to choose just one. I was at the very first one in 1990 (hugely pregnant!), and have never missed one ever since. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to expose my four children to the best music from all over the world. My two boys have both become fantastic musicians and I’m sure the music they have experienced at Bluesfest over the years has had a significant influence on them.

Our son Jai was at the 1996 festival and became a huge fan of Ben Harper. At the 1997 festival, my husband and I were helping our friend who was the backstage caterer and we were able to get our daughter Yani, and Jai, backstage one night. We went for a walk and saw some people standing near a caravan.

Yani said, ‘Mum that’s Stone Gossard.’ I said, ‘Who?’ She said, ‘you know, from Pearl Jam’. He was talking to Dean Butterworth, the amazing drummer from the Innocent Criminals. They called us over and asked us where we were from and were keen to meet some locals and hear all about our hometown Mullumbimby and the north coast.

After a few minutes, Dean took us over to the caravan and opened the door and said, ‘Ben, meet Elayne and Jai,’ (Yani was having a long chat with Stone!). So Ben Harper opens the door and says, ‘Hi, come on in!’. At this point Jai, who was only 15 years old, was completely starstruck and speechless, so I started chatting with Ben, Juan Nelson and David Leech. They were all lovely and asked all sorts of questions.

Ben asked what the vibe was like in the festival grounds, so we described it to him and said, ‘there are some dodgem cars, why don’t you come for a ride with us?’ Once he realised we meant ‘bumper cars’ (the USA term) he was excited and agreed to come for a walk with us, but was a bit concerned that people might recognise him. He said, ‘It’s hard to walk around out there without people gathering around’. I said, ‘Just put your hood up. Jai can be on one side and I’ll be on the other. Just keep your head down.’ So, we set off, with Yani, Dean and Stone following behind.

We got to the dodgem cars and Jai and Ben hopped into cars and off they went – they were like two little boys. Ben was laughing and whooping; they had a ball together! A small crowd started to gather, so Ben, Dean and Stone had to head backstage quickly. They hugged us and left.

Gayle Cue – onetime Bluesfest owner, music lover and longtime local

In 1992, Clide and Gayle Cue, along with Peter Noble, became partners in the Blues Festival. When Clide heard that Keven was looking for investment capital, he stepped right in without a moment’s hesitation. This allowed the festival to expand to an outdoor setting with multiple stages. 1993 was one of those non-stop-rain festivals. From day one we were scrambling to get bales of hay delivered to the site and distributed over the biggest of the mud bogs. It barely made a difference. By day two we were on the phone to the Woodford Festival, arranging to borrow their sidewalk pallets, organising delivery over Easter weekend, and putting pencil to paper trying to keep track of how much the weather was costing us. As I recall we spent about $12,000 trying to keep Belongil Fields from turning into a sink hole. That seriously cut into the profit of the festival that year but we managed to come out debt free and that was a big improvement over the previous years. The East Coast Blues Festival was off and running! Clide and Gayle sold their shares back to Keven and Peter for health reasons. Clide died in 1998.


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