BluesFest 2011: Day 2 – Friday 22.04.2011

Until the evening before, I’d never heard of Fistful of Mercy. I can’t even remember taking it in when looking at the timetable and planning my long weekend down the coast. Either way it’s a terrible name. They were described to me as “Ben Harper, George Harrison’s son and some other guy”; it’s a fairly accurate description, although “the other guy” is singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur and George Harrison’s son is called Dhani. As I’d missed Ben Harper the previous night, or more rather declined the opportunity of having one song to photograph and the risk of missing ZZ Top, who I wanted to photograph, I decided to head in earlier than originally planned and get a few photos.

However, the same problems as the first night manifested themselves backstage in the Media Tent, with so many photographers with pit passes who wanted to photograph Fistful of Mercy that once again the group was divided into three; each group allocated one song each. Recalling last year, I thought that this had only happened once, during John Butler’s set on the Friday night.  I’m not 100% sure of this, however, as my posts from last year say that the photographers were split into two groups for one of the acts and that it wasn’t even a headline act.  It might have been Angus and Julia Stone.  It definitely wasn’t the festival’s main headliner, Crowded House though; I counted 46 photographers in the pit and commented that it took three songs to get from one side of the stage to the other.  A mere 46 photographers; that would have been great this year.  The rumours backstage were that the festival had accredited an absolutely ridiculous 120 photographers this year, and judging by the numbers about half of those had been given pit passes. I wouldn’t have even thought that there would have been 60 publications wanting/expecting to get photographer accreditation, let alone 120. Somewhat stupidly, as well as the festival having five photographers, most of whom seem to be photographing the same acts, they’ve also given some publications multiple photo passes, meaning that there’s a lot of doubling up in the pit.

I find myself in Group 2. The set starts and Group 1 are escorted into the pit, while the other two groups wait at the side of the photo pit. The first song finishes and Group 1 are escorted out and my group is led in. The second song is played, goes by in a flash and we are led out the other side and out of the tent. Although we only get one song, it’s not too much of a problem for Fistful of Mercy as they’re a stool rock band and so there’s not a lot of movement on stage. Obviously it would have been better to have had more than one song; you’re very much in the lap of the gods in terms of lighting when you’ve only got one song and an extra song just gives you the extra time to confidently know that you’ve taken some good shots rather than feeling rushed and worrying that you’ve not got anything good.

With some time to fill and nothing better to do, I end up going up to Jambalaya Tent for The Dingoes before heading off to the Blind Boys of Alabama with Aaron Neville. Once again we’re divided into three groups and once again I’ve got the second song, a cover of Spirit In The Sky. I’d be amazed if it lasted as much as three minutes; it was over in a flash. Again there was some fortune in that the band were mostly sat down but it still wasn’t an ideal situation. There’s no sign of Aaron Neville though; apparently he was ill, although he sings with the band when they make their second appearance of the weekend on the Sunday.

Next up are Toots and the Maytals and surprisingly there aren’t enough photographers to warrant them dividing us into groups so we get all three songs. it’s probably a good thing as the first song is his daughter singing a horrible cod-reggae version of John Waites’ Missing You and it isn’t until the second song that Toots appears on the stage. Even with two songs it’s a frustrating experience though, and I just can’t to get anything good. I don’t think the low lighting helped very much.

Obviously BB King was going to be one of the big drawcards and all the photographers can come out of the woodwork for him. News has filtered through from his Sydney/Melbourne sideshows that the band will come out and play a song before BB comes out, so we’re given four songs: Group 1 get the band and the first song with BB, Group 2 get the third songs and Group 3, which I’m in get the fourth song. As well as a stupid amount of photographers, there’s also a big group of VIPs watching from the side of the pit. It’s carnage. There are so many people there, the second and third groups of photographers are mostly having to wait outside the side of the tent. The band come on and start, then they play another song and another and another. As everyone is so far out the side of the tent or even outside it, no one knows what’s happening and no one can the video screens to see if BB has made it into the stage and whether we should be pushing the VIPs out the way to make sure we don’t miss our one song allocation. Eventually the first group move on and the second group get escorted in. By the time the third group make it into the pit to photograph, I reckon we’re up to about the sixth or seventh song. To be fair, one song is enough for BB King, at least to get some good photos of him as opposed to getting a complete set of his band; he’s sat down and the spotlight on him means he’s really well lit. BB King might be just about the last of the Blues greats but it’s fairly depressing watching him tonight.

The song, whatever number it is, starts, stops rambles on, at one point he seems to be remonstrating with his drummer, who looks a bit bewildered by the whole thing and just shrugs it off. When he does play the tone from his guitar is stunning but it’s evident that his voice doesn’t carry much power anymore and he’s being more than carried by the very good band he’s got around him. To be fair to him, he is 85 and if I’m going as strongly as BB is when I’m 85 I’ll be more than happy, but you can’t help but feel that it’s time for him to call it a day and enjoy his well earned retirement. Eventually, some considerable time later given the amount of music played in that time, the song ends and we’re escorted back out of the pit and back to the media tent.

Another three groups are assembled for Friday’s Mojo Stage headliner, Grace Jones, and this time I’m back in the second group. We’re all escorted to the side of the stage and told to keep the pathway clear as they’ve got a stage-wide curtain up whilst they prepare the stage and when it drops it’s going to be dragged out past us. The time for Ms Jones to start comes and goes. The end of each song being played over the PA is cheered, only to be followed by boos when it’s clear that she still isn’t ready to start. The original plan had been to photograph Grace Jones, then run over to Jambalaya for the Funky Meters and then run over to the APRA stage for Fishbone. Funky Meters are due to start at 10:15pm and there’s still no sign of Grace Jones. Rodrigo Y Gabriela are due to start at 10:30pm and as there’s still no sign of her starting a group head off to Crossroads to photograph them instead of waiting some more. Eventually Grace Jones starts just after 10:30pm, more than 45 minutes after she had been due to start. From where I’m stood at the side I don’t have a very clear view of the video screen but it looks like she’s elevated above the stage in some sort of cherry picker. The song ends and then it’s time for the second group to go. Except it isn’t as the photographers in the first group seem unwilling to move out of the way and let us into the pit. Most of the photos I take are from way out at the side while we’re waiting for the first group to shift.

And as quickly as that happens it’s all over. By this time it’s now way too late to go and photograph either of Funky Meters or Fishbone so instead I head back around into the Mojo tent and watch the rest of Grace Jones’ set. She might have kept everyone waiting for 45 minutes and the tent may only be about 1/3 full but she is pretty stunning. It’s a spectacular show and it was well worth the wait.  It’s a shame that we only got to get one song as she disappears off stage behind a curtain at the end of each song for an outfit and hat change. I’m watching from way back and don’t really want to push up further to get a better view and get some more photos though, even though I probably should have to make the most of having a camera with a large lens on me. Day 2 over and time for another drive back to Ballina.

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