Bluesfest 2016 Review
Some Things Old, New & Blues.
By Brian Wise.
While the addition of Kendrick Lamar to this year’s Bluesfest line-up caused a few raised eyebrows here, it was hardly a surprise for those of us who have attended blues, jazz or even folk festivals overseas.
For a decade now, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has turned to commercial headliners to ensure its continuation and, while there are a few grumbles from local musicians, this has hardly dented the event’s importance or reputation.
This is also true for Bluesfest, which this year presented one of its most eclectic line-ups since Pharoah Sanders appeared back in 2004!
The fact that Lamar was a multiple Grammy Award winner this year add to the event’s prestige and opens the way for bigger acts in future across a whole range of genres. And surely part of the brief for any festival is to introduce new elements to the audiences so that renewal can take place. Events that don’t do this quickly die (are you out there Big day Out?).
Talk to any international artist these days and they all know Bluesfest and want to play it. Those who have played it want to return. Jackson Browne is just one of this year’s artists to endorse the event – he declared it the ‘best festival in the world.’
Anyway, if you were not excited about Kendrick Lamar, then you should have been excited, as I was, about saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who not only played on Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly but is also a jazz star (maybe legend) for the future. Then there was D’Angelo, whose R&B/neo-soul album Black Messiah from last year was one of the most exciting and innovative releases of the year.
If this wasn’t your bag then you had the usual complement of genuine music legends from the old school. How about a closing afternoon and evening on the Mojo Stage that featured Richard Clapton, Russell Morris, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Brian Wilson and Tom Jones (who won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1966!)? Add the Original Blues Brothers Band and Taj Mahal on the Crossroads and you have a fair share of legends right there!
The debates about the line-up were largely academic for me. Due to work commitments I couldn’t get there to see Lamar anyway; but I did arrive in time to be knocked out on Saturday by sets from Kamasi Washington and D’Angelo, both of whom added valuable musical elements to the event.
Washington is a physically impressive presence with his colourful Kaftan, beard and Afro. His very demeanour demands your attention and his playing keeps you enthralled. Having won the John Coltrane Award at the age of just 17, the now 35-year-old is just hitting his straps. His credentials in jazz are impeccable and the fact that he has genre-hopped into Lamar’s camp no doubt brought him a new audience, most of whom stayed for the entire set as he wandered through modern jazz, soul and funk. When keyboardist Professor Boogie laid on some think funk with his keytar the result was electrifying. It is a mighty outfit with bassist Miles Mosley, twin drummers and Patrice Quinn’s engaging vocals. Assisted by his father Ricky Washington on soprano sax, Kamasi left no doubt that he is a major star of the future.
Soon after Washington started to pay, the skies opened to deliver one of those famous Byron downpours and for most of the set I watched a lake creep closer to my chair, threatening to strand me. However, when the rain ceased the waters fell so quickly that it made me think that they have spent some really serious money on the drainage here. This is no longer like the days when you stood ankle deep in a river gushing through the tent!
If Washington’s large ensemble is an impressive jazz outfit, then the Tedeschi Trucks Band is like the V12 Ferrari of blues bands. This is one powerful outfit that combines the jam band approach of the Allmans (featuring Derek Trucks’ guitar mastery), with the family feel of Delaney & Bonnie & Friends (with Susan Tedeschi’s great voice and guitar work).
With a horn section in tow, there is a lot happening on stage and, while Mike Mattison adds another vocal element, there are many guitar solos framed in really long songs.
Recently, the band took part in a tribute to the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour which no doubt spurred their great version of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends,’ featuring an impassioned vocal from Tedeschi. Similarly, the Derek & The Dominos song ‘Keep On Growing’ was a highlight. The fact is that that the band shone most brightly in these more focused moments. Susan Tedeschi has enough great songs in her own catalogue to add a bit more light and shade. Of course, guitar freaks might not agree with this assessment.
Dressed in a black vest with feathers D’Angelo looked every inch a star and came over on his first song like a cross between Prince, Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix, though not quite approaching the individual brilliance of any of them. The opening song was a long rocking funky workout that was one of the best opening songs of any set I have seen at Bluesfest. It is hard to sustain that intensity but that was memorable.
My Bluesfest this year was determined by mobility that has been severely curtailed due to a motorcycle accident so I decided that spending some time at certain stages was going to be much more enjoyable than trying to see everything. So Sunday afternoon was spent at the Crossroads stage. Good decision.
Graham Nash is promoting a new album, to be released soon, and his set was liberally sprinkled with at least four of its songs. However, Nash has no problem dealing with his past and, assisted by guitarist Shane Fontayne – who was also part of Jackson Browne’s band – he offered ‘Marrakesh Express,’ ‘Immigration Man,’ ‘Critical Mass/Wind On The Water’ (dedicated to the Japanese whalers), ‘Our House,’ ‘Chicago’ and ‘Teach Your Children.’ That was more than enough to keep most CSN fans happy.
Nash’s appearance was seemingly a cameo for a return with a full band to next year’s festival.
The Blind Boys of Alabama started with ‘People Get Ready’ and the mood stayed inspirational for the next hour. It is amazing how the group, now with only one original member, has managed to regenerate itself through a carefully curated list of old and new songs. Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ stood alongside Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit In The Sky’ and ‘Uncloudy Day.’ Robert Randolph’s appearance on pedal steel was an unexpected and delightful treat. The encore of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’ was superb.
When Jackson Browne took the stage a heated discussion took place amongst some of the ladies behind me as to his age. I needed to settle this by telling them that he was 67, which elicited a stunned disbelief. I suspect that if I had told them I had interviewed him a few days earlier they would have fainted!
Yes, Browne looks just like he did way back then – and his voice and band sound just as good. The sound was the best I heard all weekend. Shane Fontayne’s guitar was augmented by the brilliance of Greg Leisz on lap steel, acoustic and electric guitars. It was worth the price just to hear Leisz play! A guest spot by Swedish guitar prodigy Hans Kristian Nordin, fell a little flat in comparison.
Like Graham Nash earlier in the day, Browne peppered his set list with songs from his most recent album, Standing In The Breach. But, of course, the audience responded to the classics: ‘For Everyman,’ ‘These Days,’ ‘The Pretender,’ ‘I’m Alive,’ ‘Looking East’ and ‘Your Bright Baby Blues.’ An encore of ‘Running On Empty’ followed by ‘Take It Easy’ (his ‘Eagles cover’ dedicated to Glenn Frey) and ‘Our Lady of The Well’ was a brilliant finale.
I caught the end of the The Cat Empire’s set in which they had everyone up and dancing then settled back to enjoy The Decemberists who did not disappoint at all. This was one of those bands that you hope people discover at a festival. Their 75 minutes was marvellous and included a Hoodoo Gurus cover, their hit single ‘Down By The Water’ and the amusing, bizarre closing song ‘Mariner’s Revenge Song,’ complete with cut-out whale. I am not sure everybody got it but I thought this was one of the highlights of my weekend.
Richard Clapton made an excellent attempt to open with a song from his new Pledge Music-funded album The House of Orange but immediately conceded, “Why don’t we do a song hat we all know, including me!”
“Listen you old farts,” Clapton snapped good-naturedly at one point to some requests. “You’ll get that in a couple of minutes.” And we did.
Clapton’s catalogue of great songs that are etched in everyone’s mind including his own is impressive and the old farts got them: ‘Capricorn Dancer,’ ‘Deep Water,’ Blue Bay Blues,’ ‘Distant Thunder,’ ‘I Am An Island’ and, of course, ‘Girls On The Avenue’ – all of which got people singing along.
Nevertheless, Clapton did persevere with the new material, playing a couple more that were impressive – ‘Carry Me Home’ and ‘Dancing With The Vampires’ (dedicated to Charlie Sheen. “It’s not easy remembering all those new songs,” he confessed, “that’s why I prefer to play with young people, except the bass player!”
It was nearly 40 minutes into Russell Morris’s set before he played an ‘old’ song, preferring to dip into his recent trilogy of songs about Australian history. No one complained at Morris reborn as a blues man. Then it was onto ‘Black Dog Blues,’ dedicated to the late Jim Keays, ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ and ‘Hush.’
I presume Morris also did ‘The Real Thing’ but I was on my way to catch a little of the acoustic Taj Mahal – not long enough to give a verdict other than he has aged – before seeing the sensational St Paul & The Broken Bones whose charismatic lead singer Paul Janeway captured the audience from the very first song.
At one point Janeway walked down into the crowd to deliver a ballads and then emerged muddy-faced and smiling. Half The City has been out for a while now so the band previewed several new songs from their forthcoming album and threw in some tasteful covers. There was a great version of Sam Cooke’s ‘Shake’ and a fabulous version of The Beatles ‘I Want You.’
Seeing Brian Wilson on stage is a little like watching your child appear at a school concert for the first time: you really want them to succeed simply because of the emotional investment. Wilson has such a legacy and has been such a large part of contemporary music for over 50 years that you cannot help but urge him on.
Objectively, however, Wilson – seated at a grand piano – is the figurehead of a great Beach Boys cover band. It was pleasing to see Al Jardine back in the fold and he was assisted by Blondie Chaplin along with members of the Wondermints.
The opening of ‘Heroes and Villains,’ maybe my favourite Beach Boys song, was a treat and promised great things. The song catalogue is tremendous and there is no one other than the Stones and Paul McCartney who can offer such a wealth of songs that have the audience singing along. Jardine was terrific on ‘Shut Down’ and ‘Little Deuce Coupe’, Chaplin less so on the messy ‘Wild Honey’ and ‘Sail on Sailor’ (my other two favourite Beach Boys songs) ‘Dance, Dance, Dance,’ ‘I Get Around,’ ‘In My Room,’ ‘Surfer Girl,’ ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and ‘Darlin’’ all rolled by beautifully sung by various member of the ensemble. They recalled golden days and what could be better than these songs in this location?
Then, after brief confusion on Wilson’s part, they launched into the 50th anniversary performance of the entire Pet Sounds album with ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice.’
If you didn’t watch Brian Wilson then the performance, apart from a few wobbly songs, would have been a treat. If you did watch him them you might have noticed him in various stages of engagement, prompted by other band members, occasionally singing flat and trying hard to live up to our impossible expectations. I do hope that he wants to be there; it certainly seems to give him a purpose and has given him the kudos he deserves.
When a few friends noted that Wilson seemed to be the weak link, I was prompted to ask them how they would react if someone said Shakespeare was going to appear and read from some of his greatest plays but he was a slow reader and had a stutter. You’d still want to just be in his presence, right? Right.
I left Brian Wilson to catch the end of Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats and was suitably impressed, especially by the closing song, his hit single, ‘S.O.B.’ Like St Paul & The Broken Bones this 7-piece looks like it might break big this year. Their encore of The Band’s ‘The Shape I’m In’ was terrific.
Shakey Graves won the Emerging Artist Award at last year’s Americana Awards and I had high hopes for his set which was at times like some sort of psych-rock workout as if he had been hanging around in Austin a lot with the members of White Denim.
Finally, Tom Jones restored order with his fantastic voice, highlighting songs from his three recent Ethan Johns-produced albums, bringing up the Blind Boys of Alabama as guests and allowing me to leave with the sound of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower of Song’ ringing in my ears.
Bluesfest 2016 had something for just about everybody. It will be fascinating to find out next year’s line-up – this will be hard to top.