BluesFest 2010 – Monday

BluesFest 2010 - Monday

Reaching the last day of the festival one thing is sure; 4 days (I missed the Thursday as everyone I wanted to see on the first day was playing over the weekend anyway, although I still managed to miss Dr John) is more than enough for photographing an outdoor, multi-stage festival, especially when it involves camping.

Monday has always been planned to be a fairly relaxing day and, in particular, an afternoon of old school (‘proper’) blues artists with consecutive sets by Peter Green, John Mayall and Taj Mahal on the Crossroads stage.

From one point of view, watching Peter Green play this afternoon is fairly depressing; a long-time schizophrenic, he has a touch of the ‘Brian Wilson’s’ about him, being largely uncommunicative and with most of the audience participation being carried out by rhythm guitarist Mike Dodd, who does his best to involve a mostly monosyllabic Green in the between song conversations.  However, from a second point of view he is the ‘right’ side of Brian Wilson and whilst he may not have much to say to the crowd, when he plays you can visibly see him light up (plus having watched a few clips on YouTube you get the impression that he was just having a bad day).  There’s still a fragility in his playing though; sometimes it’s still sublime and his guitar tone is still magical, but in the three Fleetwood Mac songs on offer today – Oh Well, Albatross and Black Magic Woman – he seems to struggle a bit with the speed and they sound a bit ragged.  Additionally, there is a fragility to his singing voice now, although this gives it a world-weariness that only adds gravitas to songs such as Help Me Through The Day and Dark End Of The Street.  For those interested, there’s a really good documentary, Peter Green; Man Of The World, that’s worth a look.

Legendary blues bandleader John Mayall is next up, looking ridiculously spritely and not a whole lot different from how he looks in photos from the 1960s, albeit with a lot whiter hair. Although his bands have always been about session musicians and discovering ‘new’ talent – Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, and Mick Taylor being among the Bluesbreakers’ luminaries during the 1960s before they found fame in their own right – today’s set is just too slick for my liking. Instead of having a real blues rawness, the sound is a much more of a polished LA-style of blues that leaves me fairly ambivalent, despite the obvious technical ability of the players that Mayall has surrounded himself with.

Seeing the energetic 76 year old John Mayall helps put the weekend into perspective. Whilst the festival has renamed itself from its previous incarnation of the East Coast Blues and Roots Festival to BluesFest, the golden age of the great blues players is slowly coming to an end, with this year’s old school heavyweights of Peter Green (63), Rodriguez (67), Buddy Guy (73), Taj Mahal (67) in the twilight of their careers and unlikely to be playing for much longer. It’s something that is increasingly seen in the BluesFest line up, with artists like Crowded House and Jessica Mauboy, artists with no real link to Blues (or Roots) or the dull, dreary ‘surfer lifestyle’, acoustic soft rock, exemplified by the likes of Jack Johnson, being afforded main stage slots .  Looking to the future you can’t help but think that the festival will eventually become yet another Triple J playlist festival, future line-ups dominated by bands who play acoustic guitars and are played on high rotation on the radio station.  In addition, with this being a Ben Harper fallow year, he’s a dead cert for next year’s festival.

And so Angus and Julia Stone are up next.  I did buy a twin pack of their first two EPs – Chocolates & Cigarettes and Heart Full of Wine – a couple years ago as it was reduced to something like $5.  I think I listened to it maybe twice; the second time just to check that I had actually listened to it the first time, so unforgettable it was.  Interestingly, I was looking on my blog for a link for a recent post and found that back in June 2008 I had requested to cover a show of theirs but that they couldn’t get anyone interested in reviewing them.  Am guessing that a couple of years on that’s probably changed and there would be no shortage of reviewers putting their hand up for it.

It’s one of the most attended shows of the weekend, and not just by the punters with the photo pit also being rammed. Whilst it doesn’t break Crowded House’s weekend record of 46 photographers in the photo pit, there are still well over 30 photographers in attendance and again it’s a fairly unpleasant photographic experience and so after two songs I’ve had enough.  As for the band themselves they’re spectacularly average. Angus Stone struts around the stage like a part bored, part petulant teenager in the first song, recent inescapable single And The Boys and after going to photograph and see a bit of Taj Mahal on the Crossroads Stage, I catch the last few songs, only to find that nothing much has changed, whilst the audience go wild at anything and everything they do. He mumbles something incoherent into the microphone. The crowd go wild.  She dances around the stage, doing some weird, faux mystical waving of her hands. The crowd go wild. He looks especially moody. The crowd go wild. She plays a trumpet.  The crowd go wild.

But when you scratch the surface, there’s nothing there; as The Sydney Morning Herald’s Bernard Zuel wrote in a recent live review, “musical beige”.  For all their good looks (although I completely thought he was wearing a hat with fake hair attached for a joke, only to be told later that no, that really is his hair) there is no substance in their songs and they’re incredibly bland and yet incredibly popular judging by the numbers in attendance, the crowd reaction, and that their latest album reached No. 1.  One final point to make about them is to mention Angus and Julia Stone-gate on Mess+Noise, where Triple J presenter Dom Alessio’s critical review of ‘Down The Way’ conflicted considerably with the review that he wrote for Triple J’s website.  As pointed out in the Mess+Noise thread, “an exciting new era of demographically-sensitive music criticism”.

And so to the final band of the long-weekend before a quick get away back to Brisbane, Gogol Bordello.  It’s crazy stuff, sounds great, is massively fun to photograph, or at least try to as everything on stage is happening at 100 mph and the lighting is disappointingly poor.  But after the three songs in the pit and watching a further 4 or 5 songs from the crowd you get the point and they don’t really add anything to what’s already been seen and heard; they’re really enjoyable but probably a much better Saturday night band than a Monday evening band after 3 nights of camping and with a 2 hour drive back to Brisbane to look forward to.

Despite all the negatives related to photographing the festival – all the waiting around to be escorted into the pit and the ridiculous number of photographers in the pit for most of the weekend – there was more than enough good music on show to already make BluesFest a fixture in my diary for next Easter, having broken my festival duck this year, and especially if the organisers can provide enough of the blues heavy weights that made me so interested in covering it this year.

More photos from the Monday of BluesFest 2010 on Flickr.

Gogol Bordello
Gogol Bordello

Gogol Bordello

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal

Angus & Julia Stone
Angus & Julia Stone

Angus & Julia Stone

John Mayall
John Mayall

John Mayall

John Mayall

Peter Green
Peter Green And Friends

Peter Green and Friends

Peter Green and Friends

Carney
Carney

Carney

Wilson Pickers
Wilson Pickers

Wilson Pickers

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