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Eugene Hideaway Bridges

Bluesfest Melbourne, Melbourne Convention Centre. Saturday April 8,2023
Report: Greg Phillips. Photos: Mary Boukouvalas.

It had been 21 years since the likes of Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, John Mayall and Bob Dylan had gathered at Jeff’s Shed for a blues-based music festival. Back then, much of it was outdoors, punters had to tread all day on a gravel surface and bands competed with the sounds of city thoroughfare traffic.

Thanks to Bluesfest Byron Bay promoter Peter Noble and Melbourne-based promoter Neil Croker, a music festival has returned to the banks of the Yarra with Bluesfest making its inaugural two day visit to Melbourne. While the southern city delivered a wintery blast of weather, it made no difference whatsoever to those inside the Melbourne Convention Centre, as the promoters had deemed that comfort would be king. With 3 large stage areas available, plenty of room to find a seat around the venue and easy access to some fine food, you’d be hard pressed to complain. Ok, the food wasn’t cheap but that’s just the state of play everywhere now. And sure, it didn’t have the same tropical vibe that Byron Bay festival does but as featured artist Kasey Chambers told a daily newspaper, there was no mud, she could perform in a great room to an appreciative crowd and be in bed early!

One of my main concerns coming to Bluesfest Melbourne was what the sound quality would be like in the two newly prepared stage areas. The Plenary is purpose built, so no worries there. My concerns however were unfounded, as sound technology has come a long way and the audio coming off both the Music City and Naarm stages was impressive.

Then there’s the talent. What an incredible bill of artists Peter and Neil have put together for their first Bluesfest Melbourne. Local blues stalwart Rod Paine kicked off the festival before a moving Welcome to Country paved the way for everyone to begin their day in the right spirit. Frank Sultana, direct from his triumphant Byron Bay performances showed why he won the International Blues Challenge (Solo/duo section) in Memphis earlier this year. Mahalia Barnes and The Soul Mates launched proceedings on the main stage in The Plenary with an energetic set. Kasey Chambers followed and blew everyone away as always with her powerful stage presence. John Butler on the same stage was in a talkative mood, philosophising about all manner of things and in between playing stunning versions of his crowd favourites such as Treat Yo Mama and Better Than.

Kasey Chambers

Over on the Music City stage Russell Morris dazzled and proved he’s lost none of his vocal power. Guitarist Pete Robinson just gets better with each show too. Sweet Sweet Love and The Real Thing went down a storm. Over on the Naarm stage, Geoff Achison and Soul Diggers were ripping it up. It was this time last year that their bass player Roger Mclachlan failed to join the band in Byron at the last minute due to Covid and keyboard player Richard Tankard had to work particularly hard playing the bass parts as well. No such worries today as the full band, including Australian Musician’s Musician of the Month drummer Gerry Pantazis delivered a solid set. Geoff told me off stage later that he too was surprised and pleased by the quality of the sound in the room.

The 18 piece Melbourne Ska Orchestra is a sight to behold. So much brass! Their music is infectious and band leader Nicky Bomba knows how to work a crowd. If you’ve never seen this band live you’re really missing out on something special. Kee’ahn, Backsliders, Eugene Bridges, Xavier Rudd were all available to see throughout the day but the majority today had come for American West Coast royalty The Doobie Brothers.

On their 50th anniversary tour it was apt that they got the ball rolling with Nobody from their 1971 debut album, then straight into the classic Take Me In Your Arms. From there the hits and some wonderful deep cuts just kept rolling on. The Doobies Brothers are one of the most successful bands on the planet and you could say they’ve had two distinct lives, one as the fresh young band out of California featuring Tom Johnson and Pat Simmons as the vocal focus and two, the Multi- Grammy Award winning outfit with Michael McDonald as the focal point. Today we have the best of both worlds.

Our first chance to experience the golden voice of McDonald came with Here to Love You from the band’s all-conquering Minute by Minute album. The music came from all eras, Rockin’ Down The Highway, Jesus Is Just Alright, Long Train Running from the classic earlier albums and Real Love, Minute by Minute, What A Fool Believes showcasing McDonald, one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music.

At Tom Johnston’s request, the crowd surged to the front and The Plenary switched into party mode. China Grove ended the main set before the band returned soon after for a spirited all-in Black Water singalong. Takin’ It To The Streets has always been one of my favourite McDonald tracks and it defines a time when individual musicianship received the respect it truly deserved. It was a time when Steely Dan and their revered session guys ruled, when Stevie Wonder created his milestone albums and everyone knew who the guitarists and bass players, drummers and keyboard players on albums were. It was for those of my age, the soundtrack of our lives and it wasn’t computer generated, it was played by skilled musicians.

As with every Doobie Brothers concert, Listen to the Music finished off a magical night of quality music. For those still with gas in their tank, Ash Grunwald and Xavier Rudd were more than happy to rock your socks off on the Naarm and Music City stages.

Congratulations to Mr Noble and Mr Croker for producing a mighty fine day one of Bluesfest Melbourne and we look forward to seeing even more music legends today such as Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Eric Gales, Keb’ Mo’, Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram and on his final Australian tour, Mr Buddy Guy. See you there folks.

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