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BLUESFEST MELBOURNE DAY 2 SUNDAY

Report: Greg Phillips. Photos: Mary Booukouvalas.

Melbourne dwellers woke to an arctic blast on Easter Sunday. Thankfully the Melbourne Convention Centre and in particular Bluesfest Melbourne provided not only a dry and comfortable alternative but also a day filled with performances from a string of music legends. Imagine a festival opening with Steve Earle! Leaving his band The Dukes back at home for this tour, Steve took to the Plenary stage solo with an array of guitars stationed behind him. Earle is the ultimate story teller, a craftsman who creates musical novellas in which you follow his characters with intrigue. Take Galway Girl for instance, played on his Victorian-made Steve Gilchrist mandolin.

“And I ask you, friend, what’s a fella to do
‘Cause her hair was black and her eyes were blue
And I knew right then I’d be takin’ a whirl
‘Round the Salthill Prom with a Galway girl”

Listening to his stage banter is like kicking back and letting your favourite old uncle regale tales of an extraordinary life. Galway Girl segues into Copperhead Road, his biggest Australian hit. Then describing the grief of losing his son Justin Townes Earle to a drug overdose, a father lays it all bare in song and he knows he can, especially today as he’s clearly amongst friends. Many had come to Bluesfest Melbourne specifically to see Steve and nobody would have left disappointed.

Speaking of friends, over on the Naarm Stage crooner Henry Wagons and band were laying down their passionate brand of alt country rock. On the Music City Stage, Grammy-nominated Southern Avenue made a bunch of new friends with their vibrant mix of RnB, blues and gospel music.

Back at The Plenary, Lucinda Williams and Buick 6 arrived to a spirited greeting. Since suffering a stroke in 2020, Lucinda has been unable to play the guitar and her memory ain’t what it use to be, hence the large teleprompter sitting in front of her. However none of that stopped the Louisiana-born singer-songwriter from being able to connect with her audience and her character-filled voice is as effective as ever. While she opens with Can’t Let Go, and the repeated line ‘Well, it’s over I, know it but I can’t let go‘,  it’s most certainly not for Lucinda, especially with a new album out in June. Protection showcases both the looseness and control this band brings to the table. Stolen Moments, a track from the upcoming album is dedicated to Tom Petty. Drunken Angel brings her mate Steve Earle to the stage to contribute harmonica and is met with thunderous applause. A rousing version of Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World and for many in the crowd, their Bluesfest Melbourne bang for buck quota had already been met.

Eric Gales had already left audiences breathless up at Byron Bay, so we knew we were in for a hell of a ride. Surprisingly this was his first trip to Melbourne and he seemed genuinely chuffed at the crowd’s frenzied response to his firebrand guitar licks. Wearing his Hendrix and Stevie Ray influences proudly on his sleeve, he’s developed his own sound and style and has risen to be one of the greatest guitar performers on the planet. Taking things down a notch and delivering The Storm, a passionate political message on the racial divide, he sings ‘How can you love what I do but hate who I am?’ Eric had the crowd in the palm of his hand and whatever he asked, the audience gave. He complimented the audience for not shouting out Hendrix requests but then playfully proceeded to skip through a string of Jimi licks before arriving at a fierce and fabulous full version of Voodoo Chile, stumbling into Kashmir, Back in Black and a little Beethoven. Eric thanked the audience and wondered why he’d never been to our southern city before. I’m sure he’ll be back real soon.

Keb’ Mo’ is such cool cat, his blend of blues and RnB is so smooth and it’s easy to get bewitched by it all. He enjoyed another packed house in the Music City stage area. In fact the festival numbers today would have been double that of the day before. CW Stoneking is one of the most unique artists to come out of Australia and he’s become a festival fave all around the world. His 1920’s pre-war blues and jug sounds went down treat at the Naarm Stage today too.

Then there was Buddy! It’s the ‘Damn Right Farewell’ tour, Buddy Guy’s final Australian tour and after this week, we’ll no longer see him back down in this part of the world. No surprise that he was greeted with deafening applause by a solid Plenary Theatre crowd as he launch into Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues. At 86 years old, he still pulls a savage sound out of that Honey Blonde Fender Strat and his ever-alert band know exactly wheres he’s going, as they watch and wait intently. There’s music history happening before our eyes and Buddy further educates us along the way with references to his blues icon pals. There’s Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Want To Make Love to You, Got My Mojo Working, and Take Me To The River. With the beautiful ballad Skin Deep he tells the story of how his mother urged him to be a better person inside. Fever took it up a notch with a smokin’ version connecting deep with the already-enamoured audience. Longtime side guitarist anda accomplished fretboard champion Ric Hall did a lot of the heavy lifting tonight too, allowing Buddy to step aside to take a breath and wipe his brow. In regard to Buddy’s retirement from touring, the great man suggested that flying was now too much, adding that if they dug up his long departed grandma and told her she’d be flying for so many hours in a 747, she’d say put me back in the ground now! Mr Guy is playful and cheeky as all hell, he would have been trouble to hang out with as a younger man I’m sure. There aren’t too many of the real authentic blues guys around now and we were honoured to have experienced one of the best today. He’s also left behind a great legacy. Guys like Christine Kingfish Ingram and Eric Gales wouldn’t be what they are today without the likes of Buddy Guy paving their way.

Paolo Nutini was the second specifically ticketed event for the festival and a decent-sized crowd filed into The Plenary to see what all the fuss has been about this gifted Scottish singer. Amid a haze of red strobing lights and psychedelic guitar distortion, Paolo growls and wails to Afterneath, the opening track of his 2022 album Last Night In The Bittersweet. The most immediate realisation is the power of the man’s voice. It’s so strong and cuts through his rocking band’s rhythms like a razor blade. We’re going to have fun tonight Melbourne he tells us and he’s good to his word. Scream (Funk Up My Life) gets a might fine groove going. Paolo brings us up and takes us down at will, all the while his hypnotic voice mesmerises everyone the room. Clearly there were many passionate Nutini fans in the crowd tonight but I’m sure he created a heap of additional ones too, an absolute rock star.

Left to close proceedings were Australian blues legends Chain on the Naarm stage and the magnificent Christine Kingfish Ingram over at Music City, where I’m sure he blew everyone away like he does every time he steps onto a stage.

Kudos to promoters Neil Croker and Peter Noble for debuting Bluesfest Melbourne and opening our eyes to the possibilities that the Melbourne Convention Centre presents for the local music industry. I’m sure we’ll all be back again next year. While outdoors the weather can throw whatever it likes at us, indoors the music will always be red hot and cosy!

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