We review Bluesfest Melbourne
Bluesfest Melbourne 2023
8 – 9 September
By Keiran Croker
The Easter weekend saw the first iteration of BluesFest Melbourne held at the Melbourne
Convention and Exhibition Centre. Attempts have been made before to establish a southern outpost
of the iconic Byron Bay Blues event. The Point Nepean Music Experience held twice in the mid 2000s
was musically successful though at an unsustainable site. While a Blues Festival was also run at the
Exhibition Centre site circa early 2000s as I recall. What I can clearly recall was that the sound in the
cavernous exhibition spaces was ordinary. So it’s with some nervous expectation that I’m off to this
weekend’s event courteous of my friends at Listening Through The Lens.
The weather in Melbourne is decidedly ordinary; like mid-Winter even though it is only early
Autumn. Thankfully the three music stages are all indoors, no outdoor follies. Arriving mid-
afternoon on Saturday, I’ve missed a few early acts and decide to orientate myself by drifting
between the stages.
First up is a few songs from Frank Sultana on the Music City Stage. Frank is an electrified acoustic
slide-guitar player with a tight driving rhythm section and an excellent harp player. Sound is good in
the big space. Frank’s swampy sound would translate nicely to a tropical pub. I wander around a
few expansive corridors to find the main Plenary Theatre for Kasey Chambers. This venue can hold
around 5,000 punters. It’s probably half full. Kasey is one of those artists where the songs to chat
ratio can be low. However I manage to hear a few songs, amongst the stories, which cover the
breadth of her styles from banjo country to driving rock. I head off to find the third stage Naarm,
which turns out to be not far from Music City and see Geoff Acheson and the Souldiggers. Geoff has
always been a favourite of mine with his driving funky blues and next-level guitar playing. I catch his
last few songs. He is as good as ever. Sound is good too.
There are plentiful food and drink stalls and break-out areas throughout the corridors. Crowds are
moderate, though the vibe is good. I return to the Plenary for John Butler, another favourite. He
does not disappoint with his extraordinary electrified acoustic playing. I move on after he plays his
epic instrumental “Oceans”.
I catch snippets of legendary artist Russell Morris and stalwarts The Backsliders. It’s always good to
make new discoveries at a festival and this time it’s Memphis band Southern Avenue. I only see the
last few songs of this impressive, sassy r&b style band, though it’s enough to impress. I’ll try and see
more of them on Sunday.
Saturday night’s feature ticketed concert in the Plenary is The Doobie Brothers celebrating their 50th
Anniversary. The band has many of their original and iconic members in the line-up with Michael
McDonald on keyboards supporting the three-guitar attack and harmony vocals of Patrick Simmons,
Tom Johnston and John McFee. Over nearly two hours they deliver a tight driving dynamic sound
covering all their memorable hits. Personally, I’ve always preferred the earlier incarnation with a
country rock/gospel feel with hits like “Listen To The Music”, “Jesus Is Just Alright”, “China Groove”
and “Black Water”. The Michael McDonald soul era also gets good coverage with “Takin It To The
Streets”, “Minute By Minute” and “What A Fool Believes” included. Overall an impressive gig for a
bunch of performers mostly well into their seventies. My only criticism is that the sound has been
very loud, even for a rock band. I hope it’s better on Sunday.
I arrive early on Sunday to meet up with mate Greg and to see headliners Steve Earle and Lucinda
Williams both scheduled early for the Plenary. I’ve been a fan of Earle since his mid 90s renaissance after his well-documented personal issues. I have a handful of his recordings and have seen him
quite a few times over the years. He is solo without The Dukes and delivers a strong show covering a
range of his material on guitar, mandolin and harmonica. He includes a tribute to departed son
Justin Townes Earle covering his song “Harlem River Blues”.
I’ve come a bit later to the party with Lucinda Williams, first seeing her at New Orleans JazzFest back
in 2007, and since a few times. I do have a few of her CDs however have always considered her an
acquired taste with her strong southern drawl. She has recently turned seventy and is still
recovering from a stroke last year. No longer able to play guitar she is backed by excellent band
Buick 6. She provides a strong performance with her voice as good if not better than ever. She is
supported on a number of songs by Earle, in particular on his “Your Still Standing There”. When
Lucinda shuffles to front of stage to dance during an extended instrumental section there is a tear in
my eye. This was indeed a moving performance. Great songs, great band and excellent sound. I’ll
look out for her new album due mid-year. I’ve joined the party.
Buddy Guy is also featured in a 75-minute set in the Plenary. He is a legend and into his eighties – his
playing is still impressive. He has a solid band supporting with a gun-backing guitarist. I’ve seen him
before a few times replete with his history of the blues lessons. Given this is probably his last visit
down under, it’s been worth seeing him.
I think numbers are up for Sunday and there is a good vibe around the food and drink outlets
adjacent to the Plenary. I manage to see a few more songs of Southern Avenue and am impressed
again. I finish up my day with bits of Melbourne twelve-person band FOOLS and Keb’ Mo‘. I’ve had
my fill and pass on a few headliners like Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Chain.
Overall I’d rate this first BluesFest Melbourne as very enjoyable and a success; a relatively good mix
of local and international artists in a nice comfortable environment and good sounds. Coupled with
the feature sideshows at venues like the Corner Hotel and the Palais Theatre this format may well be
a viable long-term alternative to heading north to Byron Bay. I hope so.
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We review Bluesfest Melbourne