Byron Bay Bluesfest 2023, New South Wales, Australia, 6-10 April, 2023 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Monday, March 4th, 2024  

Buddy Guy

Beck, Frank Turner, Gang of Youths, Trombone Shorty, Buddy Guy

Byron Bay Bluesfest 2023, New South Wales, Australia, 6-10 April, 2023,

Apr 17, 2023 Photography by Celine Teo-Blockey Web Exclusive
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Gang Of Youths’ frontman Dave L’aupepe said out loud what many of us were thinking on the second day of Byron Bay Bluesfest 2023, “Elvis Costello cancelled and now you poor bastards are stuck with me, fuck that!” he said defiantly, “But we won’t let you down.” Indeed there was a big sense that we were let down when Elvis Costello, one of the festivals’ main headliners—and scheduled for two headlining nights, mysteriously dropped off the playing schedule the night before the 5 day festival kicked off on Thursday, April 6. But with a slew of tentpole Blues, roots and country stalwarts from the legendary Buddy Guy, to Mavis Staples, Eric Gales, Jackson Browne, Lucinda Williams, Bonnie Raitt and indie favourites Beck, the aforementioned Gang of Youths, Tash Sultana and Frank Turner —in the end festival goers went home more than happy with the acts that did show up and gave it their all.

Paolo Nutini
Paolo Nutini

The Elvis Costello news hit particularly hard, coming on the back of a handful of other dropouts due to a different kind of cancellation — cancel culture. Bluesfest was mired in controversy after their announcement that Aussie quintet Sticky Fingers had been added to the final bill. While this news was enough for some fans to bite the bullet and purchase tickets, other segments of the music industry were voicing their discontent after frontman Dylan Frost’s disturbing record of mis-steps which began in 2016 with an accusation of verbal abuse at a First Nations punk show. Bluesfest organizers stood by their decision to offer “rehabilitation” to Frost who had released an apology at the time and a statement that he suffered from mental health issues—but by that stage, Sampa The Great and King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard had dropped out. The former had tried to settle the matter behind closed doors before the official lineup was released with her name on the bill, and the latter as a protest “we are deeply disappointed to be in this position but sometimes you need to be willing to make sacrifices to stand up for your values.”

Femi Kuti & The Positive Force
Fela Kuti & The Positive Force

No significant acts were then added to the bill meaning festival goers who had purchased tickets were the ones that lost out. Rather than lay the blame squarely on cancel culture, we might have all benefitted from a more open and deeper discourse. We reached out to British singer/songwriter Frank Turner, who has written songs about his own mental health and other knotty issues that might give other musician’s pause. He said, while “the precise details of that situation are outside of my remit or experience, I do think that a culture that has no sense of forgiveness or growth, politically and socially, is in deep trouble. The alternatives are a little grim to contemplate.”

Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams

In the end, artists and bands are entitled to protest injustices in any way they see fit and at Bluesfest there were no shortage of acts speaking truth to power.

Paolo Nutini and Archie Roach tribute among highlights

Highlights of the festival included the first family of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti & The Positive Force bringing their colour-fused brand of Afro-rhythms, kinetic drums and political commentary. Tash Sultana showed how much she’s evolved from the flannel-hippie vibe of her first album, that came on the heels of her days as a Melbourne busker and the viral You Tube of funk-inspired “Jungle,” to an altogether more sophisticated and muscular sound skirting at the edges of dance, pop and indie rock. A Heartfelt Tribute To Archie Roach saw moving performances in memory of Australia’s biggest aboriginal activist and songwriter, Roach, who died at 66, last July. He spoke out tirelessly about the stolen generation — aboriginal children taken forcibly from their families, of which he was one — and collaborated with many First Nation artists to help shed light on various social injustices. He also championed new voices.

Tash Sultana
Tash Sultana

Eight years after the blue-eyed soul of his third album Caustic Love, Paolo Nutini returned last year with Last Night in the Bittersweet. At Bluesfest over two nights, he performed an eclectic range from his impressive back catalogue. Onstage with a mysterious red telephone, new songs best showcased a blossoming psychedelia. “Afterneath” and “Heart Filled Up” interpersed with tape recordings felt like conjurings. “Through The Echoes” took us back to his troubadour roots and “Radio” with its nihilistic refrain “There’s nothing on the radio,” felt resonant.

Paolo Nutini
Paolo Nutini

A firm believer that there is no greater act of revolution than joy, it was only good vibes at Michael Franti & Spearhead. The set began with a video of Franti recounting a difficult few years—losing his father, the climate crisis and pandemic. But he encouraged everyone to not lose hope. “I come here and see 10,000 other wierdos and know I’m not alone,” he said between upbeat and earnest songs like “Brighter Day,”and “Life Is Better With You”—where he invited his wife and son onstage. Ever eager to have fans join him on stage, he danced with the First Nations Wakka Wakka people, a boy with Down Syndrome who sang along to “Big, Big, Big, Big Love,” and a lovely woman dressed in a sheer skirt ensemble for “Happy Is The New Sexy.” Amazingly, she joined Franti on the chorus of the brand new song like a seasoned back up singer. While scores of children scrambled onstage for a joyful finale of “Say Hey (I Love You).”

Michael Franti
Michael Franti

Among veteran Bluesfest acts, there were also smaller names like independent artist Daniel Champagne, who grew up in country New South Wales but had lived in Nashville for six years until the pandemic forced him home. He charmed with “Supernova” and “Shimmer Through The Windscreen”— a song about falling in love with small, country towns around Australia that he had never visited previously. Champagne played the guitar percussively, slapping it so hard that it had been sent to a shop and re-inforced with wood to strengthen it. It gave his guitar a unique, deep timbre and he was mesmerizing to watch.

Daniel Champagne (Photo: Paul Blockey)
Daniel Champagne (Photo: Paul Blockey)

In the midst of a plethora of legendary and nascent acts over the five days, we found some clear standouts so here’s the Top 6 acts that we loved at Bluesfest.

The Top 6 Acts We Loved

1.Buddy Guy

At 86, Buddy Guy is the last of the Chicago bluesman still with us today and touring internationally. A vital link to the generation that gave us foundational greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and BB King, there’s a justifiable reverence given to Guy. But he wasn’t a heritage act that just phoned it in. Or could no longer hit the high notes. Guy’s vocal prowess, blues-deep and ever-honeyed is unabated. He electrified on the guitar and dared to venture off-stage into the crowd like rock stars half his age. Still, sharp as a tack and up with the culture he made jokes about hip hop and the blues. When his signature polka dot stratocaster—a tribute to his mother, (She’d suffered a stroke just before he left home, so he promised he’d be back successful and rich enough to buy a polka-dot cadillac) —was handed to him with a lot of static, he was clearly annoyed. But he kept the show running as the tech tried to fix it, cracking jokes and recounting heartfelt stories. Paying his audience and Bluesfest its biggest compliment, he said “Australia, I fuck with you.”

In his trademark overalls and polka dot shirt, Guy had the audience in a rapture from the moment he set foot on the stage whether he was playing the guitar with his teeth, a towel (yes a towel!) or simply standing still. When he did move - a cheeky pelvic thrust accompanied with the biggest grin - it would send the audience wild. He kicked off his set with “Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues” from his 1991 comeback album and sung a long time favourite, “Feels Like Rain,” the John Hiatt-penned hit from Guy’s 1993 album of the same name—which an enamoured audience didn’t need too much coaxing to sing along to.

Guy released The Blues Don’t Lie six months ago — a politically charged album that saw him team up with Jason Isbell for “Gunpowder Smoke” a track about gun control, and James Taylor for “Follow The Money” about the corrupt influence of money in politics. But a legend need not pontificate, he simply announced he had a new album and said “I’ll let my guitar do the talking,” before he made it wail with the flick of his wrist and sang “I Let My Guitar Do The Talking,”—an autobiographical stunner about his rise from Louisiana to a permanent fixture in Chicago, punctuated with signature wah, wah guitar solos, and backed by his blues-steeped band of rhythm and horns. Ever the ambassador of the blues, he took the opportunity to pay homage to Jimi Hendrix with “Voodoo Child,” Eric Capton with “Strange Brew” and John Lee Hooker’s unmistakable “Boom, Boom”—throwing in a history lesson on how the Blues crossed from the swampy South to British bluesmen and then spread further across the globe. In a set that only had highpoints, his covers of Eddie Cooley’s “Fever,” Al Green’s “Take Me To The River” and “Boom Boom” — standards immediately recognizable to the cross-generational audience of teens, middle-aged folks and grandparents—infused with stylings unique to an octogenarian virtuoso like Guy, made for a memorable blues tour de force.

Buddy Guy
Buddy Guy

2.Beck

In a suede jacket and blue jeans, with long, Dylanesque curls, a hands-free harmonica holder and acoustic guitar, Beck shed other ironic alter-egoes to play the earnest, country and blues man. “The Golden Age,” opening track of his 2002 album of heartbreak and isolation Sea Change, nicely set the slower pace and intimate mood of his performance. He acknowledged the weather “It’s abit soggy out here but we’re good,” before introducing his cover of British band, The Korgis’ “Everbody’s Got To Learn Sometime” as a song that he did to help with a friend’s film: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry’s meditation on the erasure of memory and pain when a relationship ends, from Charlie Kaufman’s excellent script.

It was followed with the equally moving “Lost Cause” though he leavened the mood by first offering it as Goth Cause, singing a la Bauhaus as he strummed hard at the lower chord registers of the guitar.

Chatty and upbeat Beck shared funny stories of previous visits to Byron Bay in between performing favorites such as the disco-funky, Prince-inspired “Debra” from Midnite Vultures, Odelay’s groundbreaking “Devil’s Haircut” and “Where It’s At” — teasing out the inherent bluesiness of the sample-heavy latter two tracks as he performed with only an upright bass player and keyboardist.

He made the whole tent break out in hysterics with his rendition of an AI song. He recounted how a friend had told him that there was an AI song out there made in the style of Beck, “Should I do it?” he teased. And as he started reciting the cornball lyrics, he laughed, “If this is what the A.I. thinks my lyrics are, I’m in trouble,” claiming it sounded like “mid 80s Bon Jovi” or in “Boogie Nights when they (Mark Walhberg’s porn star character) go to try and record an album.”

He then did a Neil Young cover, “Old Man,” followed with “Sissyneck” new song “Thinking About You,” —which wouldn’t have been out of place on Sea Change. He ended with a parting shot aimed at America’s racist prison industrial complex, “Surely, there’s better ways to rehabilitate people than the fucking prison system” before closing out on harmonica with a deep cut from 1994’s One Foot In The Grave.

Beck
Beck

3.Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue

Having experienced the infectious buzz of New Orleans’ Second Line on street corners in the French Quarter, I was still left wholly unprepared for the pure blast of energy, virtuosity and camaraderie of Troy Andrews aka Trombone Shorty and his New Orleans crew. “Lifted” from his latest album of the same name—which features a photo of 4-year-old Shorty held up by his mom who he says “lifted me up my whole life”— was a funky jazz explosion of bass and horns with Shorty singing as comfortably as he played the trombone.

I’m not sure why he isn’t as big as Lenny Kravitz who he toured with as a teenager, because Shorty is in possession of a similar magnetism. And apart from his prowess on the trombone and trumpet, he also showed off a wide vocal range—and when he hit the higher registers, was reminiscent of Prince. Plus the man’s a saint, having set up a youth foundation to foster musicians coming up now in the changed landscape of New Orleans, after displacement wrought from Hurricane Katrina.

Apart from Shorty’s own “Come Back,” and “Might Not Make It Home,” they also did covers of “On Your Way Down,” by the late jazz and R&B maestro Allen Toussaint, and Green Day’s “Brain Stew” where the rock guitar played off Shorty’s trombone for a satisfying hybrid turn of the punk rock anthem.

Trombone Shorty
Trombone Shorty

4.Gang of Youths

Dave Le’aupepe burst on stage the image of a rock n roll Jesus - bearded, tossing his long curly locks into the air as he paced about, making it impossible to take a decent picture from the photo pit but a study in how the best performers can unleash a raw energy so potent it electrifies an already frenzied audience off the ground. “What Can I Do If The Fire Burns Out?” from their excellent second album Go Farther In Lightness, is written like a hymnal “This is the sound of a soul in tune/To a savage desire for a soul made new/It’s a savage desire for a soul untamed/The definitive cry in the present age” — a fitting ode to art and music. It’s chased with “The Heart Is A Muscle” based on advise given to a young Le’aupepe by his father and delivered in an equally franatic fashion. By the time, we hit the third song “the angel of 8th ave” from their most recent album angel in real time — written in the aftermath of his father’s death and news that he’d left a previous family behind in Samoa — we start to wish that our feet could touch the ground, if only to better hear the tender words that seem muffled coming from the muddy sound system.

The band were headlining the Crossroads stage but knew disappointed fans that might have caught Elvis Costello on the Mojo stage would probably be present. Perhaps that influenced their decision to play the set at full pelt but it didn’t afford them the range of emotional troughs and peaks that I had experienced in their previous US live shows. The energy of the drum and bass-inflected “tend the garden” was high but I struggled to hear the words of his father’s quiet apology in a song that tries to make sense of a father’s mistakes and regret.

Still, “Magnolia” a song about suicide and self-loathing provided the most cathartic singalong for fervent fans starting slow with “Quit honking your horn there’s five other lanes…” and building up to the deafening crescendo and final words where everybody yelled in unison with Le’aupepe, “...we’re vastly outnumbered every motherfucking time!”

Tom Hobden’s violin then did well to bring a different tone and emotional color to “goal of the century” — which unlike the studio recording had included a Pasifika choir.

“When I was young I could never afford to come to Bluesfest and now look at me,” he said, before thanking everyone and doing the closing number “in the wake of your leave.” As the instruments faded at the end of the song, and the audience yelled “doo, doo , doo…” mimicking its melody, L’aupepe trailed off with “what’s my, what’s my scene…” a classic from Aussie band the Hoodoo Gurus—the satisfied crowd cheered as loud at they could as as the band took their bows.

Gang Of Youths
Gang Of Youths

5. Allison Russell

Allison Russell’s recent solo record Outside Child boasts her dulcet vocals on songs like “Persephone” and “Nightflyer.” Raised in Montreal, she also sings in French on “The Hunter” and the gorgeous “Poison Arrow.” But at Bluesfest, you got an altogether more fiery side of Russell, unafraid to ruffle feathers as she talked repeatedly about being stolen from a Sundowner town and raised by a white supremacist father who abused her.

Incensed by the current political goings-on in the US, she discussed the expulsion of the two Black Democrats in Tennessesse and the six killed—including three children—in the latest incidence of gun violence at a school. The average Australian festival-goer may not have been prepared to hear all this, but Russell’s experience predicates that she use her platform and every opportunity to hold truth to power as it intersects with her own life in very real ways. She also spoke out at Bluesfest for indigenous and trans rights, and called out racism in America.

She mentioned that unlike America, she was glad to hear that Australia was finally beginning to make amends with its First Nations peoples which was greeted with loud cheers. She performed with a trio of women on guitar, keyboard and percussion and whether it was on a pretty song like “Persephone,” powerful ones like “4th Day Prayer,” “The Runner,” “All The Women,” or new track “Demon,”— Russell and her band were an inspiration to behold.

Allison Russell
Allison Russell

6.Frank Turner

British punk-troubadour Frank Turner showed up for his 2750th show dressed in khaki shorts despite his own reservations. “But also it’s hot,” he joked, “so it’s an impasse.” An expert at engaging the room with his warm banter, Turner pulled from his vast catalogue with lively standards such as “I Still Believe,” “If I Ever Stray,” and “Photosynthesis.” After “The Road” where he sang of tour life and drinking with grifters, he added: “I’ve drunk with grifters, I literally have. But not last night!” On tour in Brisbane, the night before, he pointed out that an archaic Queenlander law from 1920 made it illegal to purchase alcohol. With a winking nod, he said: “it’s illegal to experience joy there but not here,” which brought chuckles and cheers from the knowing audience.

But it was “The Work” about the everyday effort that goes into a relationship and “Miranda” about his father’s coming out—from recent album FTHC—that struck an emotional chord beyond the barroom banter. “To say that my dad and I had a difficult relationship for the last 30 years would be putting it mildly,” he revealed. But since he came out to Turner as a trangender woman, things have improved. As he strummed his guitar and sung, “When I was young, he always seemed so filled with rage / Hе was angry at my clothes, my hair, my music, my teen age / But one sunny aftеrnoon she was dancing next to me on stage /I felt my anger drain away,”—the powerful resonance of his words were felt and many a dry eye teared up. So it begs repeating “I Still Believe”— that “in the end rock n roll will save us all.”

Frank Turner
Frank Turner



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