BluesFest 2011: Day 1 – Thursday 21.04.2011

Last year I went to BluesFest for the first time. I’d never applied to cover it before as being away from home for five days over a public holiday long weekend seemed a bit unfair and selfish. Plus the cost of being away down in Byron for five days always put me off. But last year I was in a position where being away for five days wouldn’t be a problem and having requested it they gave me a +1 anyway for the full days.

It was a great weekend and at the time I said that if I’d known they were going to give me a +1, I would have applied before.

Having been given a +1 meant applying to cover the festival in 2011 was a no brainer except having requested the festival I found that they weren’t giving photographers +1s this year. So there was a slight change in tact from last year in that instead of being onsite all day and photographing as much as I could (my usual approach to photographing festivals), I decided that I would pick and choose and only go in to the festival for a few hours each day, really only trying to photograph the bigger/overseas acts and spend the rest of the day relaxing, going to the beach and enjoying the long weekend. With Easter Monday and Anzac day falling on the same day, the long weekend was extended by another day to cover the Tuesday and the BluesFest organisers made the most of this by also extending the length of the festival from five days to a mammoth six day event.

The timetable came out and luckily the bands had been scheduled to make it easy for me to only be onsite for a few hours on most of the days. For the Thursday the acts only started playing in the middle of the afternoon and there was only one band I really wanted to see and photograph; ZZ Top.

We headed down to the coast just after lunch, and as last year were headed for Ballina. With media passes not being approved until late on, any accommodation near to the festival or in a reasonable price range is usually booked out months in advance (with tickets going on sale in something like October or November in the year before). Last year we got a very last-minute unpowered camping site in Ballina but decided we didn’t want to camp again if we could avoid it; camping and photographing music festivals don’t really mix very well.  We were looking for accommodation without much success, having decided that the place being rented out for more than $14,000 for the week was just out of our price range, and considered that the rates most people were wanting for accommodation in any shape or form was just obscene.   We were close to giving up and I was considering dropping out of covering the festival as it just wasn’t going to be worth it when the motor inns in Ballina suddenly started advertising their room for Easter. At $120ish a night it still wasn’t cheap; the unpowered camping site cost less than that for the whole 5 days last year and the nice hotels we stayed at in London and Paris when we were in Europe before Christmas also cost less per night.  But it was as good as we got and so we booked five nights in the Ballina Byron Motor Inn. It would be putting it politely to describe the room as “basic”. It was as basic as motel rooms come; a tiled floor, a bed, a TV, a fridge, and a small bathroom with a toilet and a shower unit; Luxurious it wasn’t.

Despite leaving just before 2pm and most of the journey going by quite quickly, the last few kms from just outside of Ballina to just the other side of the town centre took an eternity and in the end the whole journey took just over 3 1/2 hours.

After a lie down, a walk into town for food and the walk back it was time for me to head off back up the highway to Tyagarah, some 35 minutes north of Ballina.   Although I only wanted to see and photograph ZZ Top, I decided that I’d get there in good time, have a look around and, as I was there, make the most of the drive up and back by going to photograph Ben Harper on the main Mojo Stage.  Normally I run a mile from Ben Harper but it seemed like a good option as he was starting his set 30 minutes before ZZ Top and with needing to be assembled in the media tent 15 minutes before the start of act, it would give me something to do and give me a quick warm up before ZZ Top.

The 15 minutes meeting time before each act is a pain and one of the worst things about BluesFest. It means you spend a lot of time hanging around backstage in the media tent instead of getting to see the acts play. Festivals where you can just rock up at any time in the first three songs and flash your laminate to security are so much more enjoyable.

Heading backstage to the media tent for the first time this year, it’s clear that there are a lot more accredited photographers than last year. And of course everyone wants to go and photograph Ben Harper. There’s so many photographers that instead of getting three songs they decide they’re going to split the photographers into three groups and each group will get one song each (except for the FIVE photographers photographing for the festival who get to stay in the photo pit for the whole three songs).  It sounds like a waste of time to me especially as I’m not really that bothered with Ben Harper.  The main stage is also running at least 20 minutes late and even if no more time is lost in setting up the stage for Ben Harper, he’s only going to start 10 minutes before ZZ Top and then you’ve still got to wait for your one song before having to walk across from the Mojo Stage to the Crossroads Stage. So I decide not to put my hand up for one of the three groups heading off to Ben Harper and instead spend some more time hanging about and twiddling my thumbs in the media tent.

As most of the photographers went to photograph Ben Harper, there’s a small collective that head off to the Crossroads stage for ZZ Top. There’s no crush, everyone can move around freely in the photo pit, there’s no rush and I’ve got plenty of time to wait patiently for shots and even time to change lenses at the end of the first song. Then it all goes wrong as the photographers who had been off photographing Ben Harper suddenly appear and make their way into the photo pit. Suddenly it isn’t easy to move around or get into prime positions for the best angles. More and more photographers keep appearing and even before the end of the second song security have had enough and everyone is ejected. It’s infuriating; driving all the way down from Brisbane to Ballina, driving back up to the festival site, parking up and walking the 15 or so minutes to the main arena and all for less than 1 3/4 songs’ worth of photographing. It’s even more infuriating when some of the photographers in the pit have compacts and there’s even an iPhone in the mix. I tend to try to not get judgmental about photographers and their gear, after all I’m such a poor relation compared to most other photographers in Brisbane as my camera and all my lenses cost what a lot of photographers paid for just their camera, but I still think if you’ve got an iPhone you’re not putting in much effort.

Having come all the way I stick around and watch the rest of ZZ Top’s set from near the back of the tent. Although they were massive around 1984-86, when I was 12-14, it’s hard to quite work out the appeal of the band. For the most part it’s quite uninspiring and bog standard blues/rock. Billy Gibbons does play some really nice, tasteful solos, including an excellent one-handed solo that both looks and sounds great.  For the brief moment I was in the photo pit, there was something about drummer Frank Beard that just didn’t seem right (other than the fact he drums with his eyes shut the whole time) and it’s only when it gets to the latter stages of the set and they bring out the Eliminator big guns – Sharp Dressed Man, Legs and Gimme All Your Lovin – and play the accompanying videos of the screens that it becomes clear; he hasn’t got that classic 80’s perm anymore.

Watching the videos it’s also clear where the appeal of ZZ Top lies and why they made the name for themselves they did. Although they’d been playing and putting out albums for years, more than a decade, before they made it big, they’re one of the classic MTV bands, from the era when MTV actually played music videos and they could make and break bands. The fact that they’re headlining one of the stages at BluesFest 25 years on from their glory days is more to do with music videos that are indelibly imprinted in the mind of everyone who saw them on the TV more than 25 years ago. They’ve got everything; the iconic car, skimpily dressed women, mean bad guys, and the nerd who always gets the girls. And of course the band, with their beards, Frank with his 1980s big hair perm, and those fluffy guitars.   People say the 1980s was the time that fashion forgot but 25 years on everyone is still remembering it, more than will probably be said about the style and fashion of the 2010s.

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