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BLUESFEST BYRON BAY Day 1 Thursday,  6 Apr 2023
Review: Colette Imison Photos: Jason Rosewarne

After much anticipation the 34th Annual Bluesfest is back on in Byron Bay over 5 days this Easter Long Weekend. While the 2022 festival was a triumphant success (after Covid changed how festivals run and also considering that Byron Bay and surrounding areas were affected by tragic floods), it did miss having the usual swag of huge international artists. Bluesfest director Peter Noble has once again rounded up an  amazing line up for the 2023 Byron Bay Bluesfest. Sadly two acts had to cancel at the last minute, Elvis Costello and The Imposters due to a member contracting Covid and The Black Sorrows due to unforeseen circumstances.

This year also finds Noble expanding Bluesfest to other states for the first time. Bluesfest Perth kicked off last weekend, which was an ample warm up for many artists heading up to Byron. Bluesfest Melbourne also kicks off this Easter Weekend where Australian Musician’s Editor Greg Phillips will keep you all updated.

Our day started on the Crossroads Stage, where the Welcome To Country took place on Bundjalung Country. We were truly blessed to pay respect to the land and the Arakwal people (Bundjalung) of Byron Bay (Cavenbah). Delta Kay opened the festival with a heartfelt Welcome To Country, which connected all of us to country. The ceremony featured Arakwal Dancers and Arakwal man/musician Jarrod Hickling, who performed a stunning version of a Blues favourite Tennessee Whiskey.

Following the Welcome To Country, Nikki Hill took to the Crossroads Stage. North Carolina-born Hill gave the audience an eclectic range of genres all tied into one.  A gorgeous blend of roots, soul, blues and a whole lotta rock. Nikki Hills stand out vocals, energy, presence and a crazy amount of sass was the perfect way to to get the bluffest party started.

Next up we checked out The Bros Landreth and Frank Sultana. It was Frank Sultana’s first Bluesfest and he expressed to the crowd that he was absolutely loving it. Hailing from Kiama/N.S.W, Sultana won the International Blues Challenge in Memphis Tennessee this January, so it was no wonder Frank Sultana was invited to join Bluesfest’s massive line up this year.

It’s unbelievable that this well polished Bluesman only started writing and recording original pieces not long ago, where in 2011 found him debut his first album ‘Blues from the Lost Motel’. A stand out track was one that he wrote during lockdown from his Isolation Sessions, ‘Hell or High Water’ where Dan Sullivan brought distinct blues flavour with some outstanding harp playing.

St Paul and The Broken Bones at the Crossroads Stage saw crowds rushing to the tent to watch this 8 piece band from Birmingham Alabama swing right into a massive instrumental piece. Lead singer Paul Janeway has been well known (particularly at Bluesfest) to adorn himself with capes and outrageous glam. Today he kept his look tame, but the performance the band gave was insanely wild. Kicking some extreme notes, backed by a tight unit with a blasting horn section and some dance moves akin to the King of Pop; St Paul and The Broken Bones performance made me work up a sweat and found me leaving the tent on an absolute high.

As the sun set, the Mojo tent was full to the brim as LP brought her all to the stage.

Full of charisma LP’s (Laura Pergolizzi) unique vocals and outrageous falsetto range that shone out at intervals was mind blowing. Donning as she described as a ‘funky cowboy hat’ LP admitted that she isn’t much Blues, but I can vouch that she brought a ton load of Rock to the stage. The highlight song for me was ‘One Last Time’ where LP proved she was not only a skilled vocalist, but an on point whistler too.  She left the crowd eating from palms and scored some new fans for sure today.

I got sucked into the Juke Joint tent to check out Keb’Mo, even though he was on my planned ‘to see’ set tomorrow evening. Given that he was introduced as a Bluesfest national treasure I certainly anticipated staying a while. Having been on the Blues circuit for almost 50 years, it was clear to see why he was introduced in such a way. With quite a few guitar changes and some stand out Hammond Organ sounds chiming out, this 5 time Grammy Award recipient is a must see at Bluesfest.

Having last graced Bluesfest back in 2017, Steve Earle took to the stage with his acoustic guitar whilst being welcomed by a huge roar from long time fans. He brought some classic songs such as ‘Guitar Town’ and ‘My Old Friend the Blues’ out and told the masses that ‘It was sure good to be back’ as Bluesfest is one of his favourite festivals ‘without a doubt’.

As soon as he commenced chatting about Jerry Jeff Walker, he relayed a story about how singing this song made him popular in High School, finding the audience cheer as he delivered ‘Mr Bojangles’.

He paused for a moment to seriously discuss the passing of his son Justin three years ago, who overdosed on Fentanyl. Earle preached to the crowd that ‘This thing is killing people everyday…So stay away’.  He went on to introduce a track written by Justin and dedicated ‘Harlem River’ to him as it closed. Gripping onto his banjo, he finished with a stunning rendition of his classic hit ‘Copperhead Road’.

Straight after Steve Earle’s set crowds rushed in droves over to the Crossroad Tent to catch ‘The Angels’. One of Australia’s most epic rock bands proved, that after nearly 49 years in the industry and minus the majestic Doc Neeson, they still have it and with Dave Gleeson now out front, have mastered their craft. It was hit after hit, featuring songs such as ‘No Secrets’, ‘I Ain’t the One’ and ‘Dogs are Talkin’ only to name a few, but unsurprisingly it was ‘Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again’ that had us all singing like a fowl mouthed choir.

Lucinda Williams fans enjoyed her set on Delta Stage where she pleased her fans with some of their favourites and a heartfelt track called ‘Stolen Moments’ that she penned not long after her friend Tom Petty passed away.

Sister’s Rebecca and Megan Lovell who form Larkin Poe were a crowd pleaser, with a notable mention going out to Megan Lovell who blew us away on her Lap Steel Guitar especially on track ‘Kick The Blues’. From ‘Summertime Sunset’ to ‘Strike Gold’ be sure to catch these girls in Sydney on Easter Sunday at The Metro Theatre and in Melbourne on Easter Monday at The Croxton Bandroom, and The Corner Hotel the following day.

As I was walking to the stage to catch Beth Hart, she walked passed me like a boxer preparing for a fight, fisting pumping the air and psyching herself up for her set. She nailed her set from start to end. Fierce, sassy with so much spunk and attitude, Hart’s strong stage presence was a sight to behold. She took control of the whole stage and played it right up for her fans, where John Nichols had some defining moments on guitar.

From tracks such as crowd favourite ‘Delicious Surprise (I Believe It)’, to her stunning version of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ that was made popular by the legendary Etta James, Beth Hart was simply sensational, and made even more sensational when Eric Gales joined her on stage.

The absolute highlight for me and given by the chatter of those in attendance, was without a doubt guitar extraordinaire Eric Gales. Only confirming a week ago that he could still attend Bluesfest after facing some difficulties with visas and getting out of the States, fans were relieved he made it.

Gales tore the canopy apart, ripping out guitar licks that had to be seen to be believed. It therefore comes as no surprise that Gales has been tagged as one of the best Blues guitarists in the world. Joined by his five piece band, featuring his wife Ladonna on drums. Gales took the audience a massive journey into his soul through his music and musicianship.

With 19 albums to date, his 2022 album release ‘Crown’ which was co-produced with Joe Bonamassa and guitarist Josh Smith features a track that brought the tent to a stand still, ‘My Own Best Friend’.  If there was ever a moment where the onlooker got taken in by a moment that was obviously so personal to the artist, it was during this song; which found Gales sitting on the edge of the stage at the end in absolute tears. Respectfully the audience stood back in silence as Gales was present within himself. Compounding that music is a true vessel to heal.

All I can say is, if that was only Day 1 of Bluesfest we are going to be in for a big ride this Easter Long Weekend.



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