We examine Bluesfest Melbourne 2023
8 to 9 April, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre
Images by Jim Jacob
Words by Rob Dickens
The Listening Through The Lens team has done a consecutive run of Bluesfests in Byron Bay, 2010 through to 2014. Here’s our last review – day 5, 2014 and, as we were being mesmerised by Gary Clark Jr in our last set that day, I had a strong feeling that this was going to be my last trip to Bluesfest Byron for a long time, if ever.
Well, it’s quite a trek from Melbourne and a substantial financial and time commitment to be doing annually, not to mention the downside of large-scale events, so we have since turned our attention to more accessible and affordable events.
Imagine then, our reaction to the announcement that a chunk of the Bluesfest line-up was coming to Melbourne, over two days and performing indoors in the middle of Melbourne.
Here’s our comparison synopsis of the Melbourne festival extension:
Albeit a smaller program, but still an imposingly damn good line-up
Sheltered – no rain, mud, cold (it rained over the weekend regularly and reportedly was the coldest Melbourne Easter in eighty years!)
Three stages close together
Plenty of seating
No sound bleed
Top food and beverage options
Public transport access
No mega-expensive airfares and/or accommodation gouging
Great facilities (the most toilets per person at any festival in the world?!)
More mannerly patrons
Short lines for everything
Missed a small number of really-wanted-to-see performers only in Byron
A little sterile environment (you didn’t hear any music unless you were in, or very close to, the three performance spaces).
I hadn’t seen Lucinda Williams since her stroke and was concerned that she might not be able to match past performances from one of my favourite artists of all time, particularly after her rather unsteady entrance onto the centre stage (This was the fourteenth time I had seen live over the years). I needn’t have worried. Her voice was outstanding (better than she sounds on her most recent records, somehow). Her preferred band for almost ten years Buick 6 were beautifully augmented by the silky country skills of Doug Pettibone (I recall the exact personnel when I saw them at Bluesfest 2012). The set list including two songs with Steve Earle was unbelievably good, just bloody perfect –
“Can’t Let Go”, “Protection” “Stolen Moments” (new – Tom Petty tribute), “Drunken Angel”, “You’re Still Standing There”, “Lake Charles”, a smouldering “Are You Down”, “Let’s Get The Band Back Together” (new), “You Can’t Rule Me”, “Out Of Touch” and a regular closer, Neil Young‘s “Rockin’ In The Free World”.
This Sunday set was worth the admission price for the weekend alone. Period. A triumphant.
The guitar touch of Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram was both sublime and explosive at the same time. With a band that was equally comfortable with muscle blues and delicate soul, Ingram led with the deftest feel and sweet vocals. His was a clear command but he generously shared the stage with all players, not looking for flashiness (a too common phenomenon with blues guitarists) and overly garnering attention on himself. His sensitive playing was reminiscent of Mark Knopfler and the acoustics were the best I experienced at the Music City Stage all weekend.
I am definitely in the minority when it comes to Buddy Guy‘s live shows. For me, there’s too much fiddlin’, jokin’ and boastin’ and I prefer his recorded material. BUT he is unquestionably a landmark blues artist, one of the greats whose career has been remarkable for its quality and consistency and this trip to Australia needs to be respected more than ever (it’s billed as ‘Damn Right Farewell’ The Final Tour of Australia which, at 86 years old, is pretty likely to be the case. His show in the Plenary Theatre was warmly embraced and his appearance added a fair amount of gravitas to the lineup.
Memphis-based and Grammy-nominated Southern Avenue started in front of a small gathering which thankfully grew significantly early on in their set. They were one of the great pleasures of the weekend, with their dynamic funk and deep groovin’ soul. Lead singer Tierinii Jackson was a standout, like Tina Turner on stage – power dancing, jigging and grinding and the B3 organ playing of Jeremy Powell was a delightful counter punch.
Other highlights over the two days were:
The opportunity to see Steve Earle again and he put in a usual spirited solo acoustic set, including a harrowing and emotional tribute to his late son Justin Townes Earle.
The ebullience of Kasey Chambers and her excellent band provided some alt-country highlights covering her extensive career which launched with her debut album The Captain in 1999.
Geoff Achison is one of my favourite Australian guitarists. It’s been a while since I’d seen him in full-band mode with The Soul Diggers and they cut an imposing presence on the Naarm Stage.
The Melbourne Ska Orchestra put on a lively, jumping turn which thrilled the crowd.
The alluring voice of Kee’ahn.
The might and spectacle of The Doobie Brothers and Paolo Nutini in their separately-ticketed events in the Plenary Theatre.
From all reports, there were around 10,000 punters over the two days (there certainly seemed to be more on Sunday but the layout made crowd estimation difficult), the organisers were happy with the outcome and the event seems to be going ahead next year.
Interesting whether the Melbourne event will take numbers away from Byron Bay or both can co-exist successfully. I think the latter.
As mentioned up front, I did five Byron Bay events on the trot. If Bluesfest Melbourne becomes an annual event, I suspect that achievement of five will be well and truly smashed as it becomes an essential part of the Listening Through The Lens music calendar.
More Music Adventures Await!
We examine Bluesfest Melbourne 2023