Every year since 2011, my sister, eldest son and eventually daughter have made the 3 hour drive south to Tygarah, pitched a tent in a usually muddy field and spent the Easter long weekend at BluesFest – Australia’s top blues and roots (whatever that may be) festival, which has run continuously for 29 years.
2011 – ZZ Top
It’s not really a blues and roots festival anymore – this year we had Lionel Richie, Chic, hipster embarrassment Tash Sultana and Ke$ha, who had to drop out when she tore her ACL. I remember, in 2016, standing in the second row for Brian Wilson simultaneously thinking “this is the great gig going day of my life” and also “what does this have to do with the blues?”. But I have seen Buddy Guy, BB King and James Cotton there, so I can hardly complain in the wider scheme of things.
2012 – Lucinda Williams
While any extended trip away from home has a modicum of stress attached to it and any holiday has its disappointments, this years BluesFest was, by some way, the weakest edition of the series. A poor bill, the site beginning to show its age and lack of investment and the near completion of the evolution of the festival from an outsider’s celebration of outsider’s music to a middle class disposable income event/forum for any fashionable left wing political platform all caught up with it. The writing was on the wall last year and it rung true this.
2013 – Chris Issak
There were other factors beyond the festival’s control this year that had an impact – chiefly rain and illness. The last 4 festivals have been an opportunity to track the progress of the illness against probably the most strenuous physical test I’ll do. Last year was precarious, this year more so and we were lucky to make the full five days. But enough of the negatives – let’s focus on some of the positives that did come out of this year’s adventure.
2014 – Buddy Guy
Firstly, there were some undeniably great sets – Leon Bridges, Gov’t Mule, Lukas Nelson, the New Power Generation, Con Brio , Youssou Ndour, Jimmy Cliff, Robert Plant, Walter Trout, Morcheeba, Chic and Lionel Richie (or so I am told) all turned in first rate performances.
2015 – Nikki Hill
Secondly, the crowd this year was better – the vibe was tolerable (unlike last years toxic mess), with an abatement of the feeling that the festival was marketed towards and taken over by old farts in sandals and socks expecting a catered experience or some faux-utopia of second to third age hippie values. Certainly, spoiled rich kids, hipsters and people who think wearing a t shirt espousing a cause equates to having a soul are still irritants but as the blog tag states, curmudgeon is still my nature.
2016 – Grace Potter
Thirdly, there’s the joy of watching as your kids grow to take on new challenges. This year, with me being so frail, they took on the role of nursing me through some of the rougher stretches. Ike got me through 5 bad attacks during Jimmy Cliff and Robert Plant and Ivy was a constant lifeline. I know there’s a time coming, sooner rather than later, that my dancing days are done but it is nice to share them with the children while I can and to know, as they told me this year, they’ll still go dancing even if I can’t. It’s funny the questions you have to face when your own mortality is at issue – the one I have dreaded longest is “have I taught the right lessons?”. If the lessons were ones of character, then it would appear I may have.
2017 – Courtney Barnett
On day 2 I discovered a new, simple and fulfilling joy at the festival – using my new DSLR. or, more pointedly, learning to use my new DSLR. That, in and of itself, may be the deciding factor in whether or not I continue going to the festival – the opportunity it affords me to play around and learn. It’s all fairly primitive at the moment, but it was dashed fun and I could feel the potential to get better and do better with each set up. It’s a funny and unexpected thing to take away, but it’s the funny and unexpected things that make a life worthwhile.
2018 – Steve Cropper
Finally, I guess, there was a sense of a pilgrimage to be close to the gentleman in the photo above. I have been playing guitar for 40 years and I like to think it is in a large part due to hearing Steve Cropper play “Green Onions” on the radio in 1978. It may have been that I was to hear other records, probably punk, that would have started me on the same course, but I was obsessed with the sound and the sense of doing so very much with so little that Cropper got and that started me not only wanting to play the guitar and to get that raw, bare tone. Owing a debt to someone is one thing, owing a debt to a stranger is another – not that millions around the world haven’t also owed the same debt, so it was nice for me to be there and lend an ear in thanks as he snarled and howled his way through his timeless muse.
2018 – Walter Trout; Benny Walker and Jeff Lang
For all the good, BluesFest does yet have a lot of problems – some it can’t control, some are directly of its own making. Their choice to drive out of the small traders and food vendors for wine bars and beer gardens (there are 9 of them at the moment) has pushed up food prices, means that the food stalls can’t carry enough food to feed people for 5 days and led to the festival becoming an extended binge for 20-30 somethings (until the bars started running out of booze). Because the festival does not draw the volunteer base it once did, the basic sanitation and cleaning jobs are breaking down. The selling of pre-sold front row spaces at $300 a day was a disaster, with only one show (Robert Plant) being sold out, meaning performers had to play to 20 foot of empty space in the two biggest tents. Acts were stretched further, too, with fewer booked to cover more time. Also, the habit of artists bringing their politics onto stage, which broke into full bloom last year hadn’t entirely been snuffed out. I walked out of one set because I didn’t feel like getting a lecture on how it was up to me to stop American policemen shooting black people. In one tent, the audience was told to “fuck off an get out of my gig” if they, along with any other audience members were homophobic, transphobic, toxicly masculine or a racist. Now, I may or may not be any of those things but were I, I’d reserve the right to be those things with the same passion that she so-currently-fashionably claims not to be. Just shut up and sing your songs.
In the end, the festival has changed and so have I. When we first went, it was a cool road trip that kind of fit in with what I now see as my mid-life crisis ethos. As the years went by it became a comfortable routine, something looked forward to with excitement, each year another page in an unfolding narrative. But the last two years, that’s changed as the illness progresses and it’s now at best a chore and even a sense of dread to go. Whether I have another BluesFest in me, I don’t know – I love watching the kids grow into it and how much they enjoy it, I love using the camera and I love that feeling you get when the bass and drums first hit you in the front row and your heart stops for a second, you can’t catch your breath and your bones start quivering… it will be sad when that ends.