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Published: 2004/04/18
by Gabe Snyder

East Coast Blues and Roots Festival, Byron Bay, Australia- 4/9-11

The 15th East Coast Blues and Roots festival has just taken place in Byron Bay, Australia, over the Easter long weekend. This year's line-up was the most impressive ever.

Byron Bay is half way up the east coast of Australia, about 800km north of Sydney. Since the 1960's it has been a bit of a hippie and surfer town, but over the last 10 or so years it has become more and more mainstream for better or for worse. It does have great beaches, beautiful water and a great feel to it. This year's festival included many first-timers, but also a strong contingent of artists returning for the 2nd, 3rd or more time. Byron Bay is always full of travellers, and the festival goers were a mix of locals, Australians from other places, and a noticeable overseas contingent.

The festival started for me on Good Friday (there had been some music the night before). The first act I caught was Keller Williams. When you go into a show with no idea what to expect, and then you get what this man has to offer, it is a very pleasant surprise. I couldn't name any songs, and I don't know if the sound effects and loops he created were completely spontaneous or original, but the whole show oozed energy and spontaneity. Richard Thompson put on a solo acoustic show next, which he referred to the next day as a "greatest-hits show". 1952 Vincent Black Lightening got an extended work out and was followed by some of his new songs from The Old Kit Bag. Over the next few days I was to be blown away by amazing acoustic guitar playing, but at this point in his career Richard Thompson really is the epitome of virtuosity.

Next up on the main stage were the North Mississippi Allstars, who were making their first visit to Australia. Probably only 10% of the 4000 or so people in the audience had ever heard their music, although R L Burnside has been such a hit here in previous years, that any band with the name Burnside (not to mention Dickinson) in it has immediate credibility with a lot of people. The Allstars started off with some songs from Shakin’ Hands with Shorty that featured extended slide guitar solos from Luther. I'd heard people compare this band to the Allman Brothers Band, but it didn't occur to me that the one guitarist would be sounding one minute like Dickey Betts, and then the next minute like Duane Allman. Duwayne Burnside played some mean guitar too, although I did get the impression that he gave a lot more to the songs that he was singing or playing lead guitar on than to the songs that featured Luther. The highlight for me was the final song, with Cody playing guitar and Duwayne sitting in on drums.

The Allstars were followed for me by the John Butler Trio, this time on a smaller stage. The JBT have a huge following in Australia and have now officially hit the big time, after years of touring and doing it tough. To their credit they have done this with a new album that is still on their own independent Jarrah label, and without changing the sound or political themes of their music. John Butler gets a huge sound out of his acoustic guitars, especially the 11 string guitars. To me his voice sounds uncannily like Eddie Vedder's, but his guitar sound is completely original.

John Butler was followed by Mavis Staples, whom I was desperate to see after hearing her duet with Bob Dylan on the gospel album from a few years back. Unlike the other people from her generation that I saw over this weekend, Mavis and her band were a disappointment. Her voice just didn't have the power that it used to, and her band seemed to be just going through the motions.

The rest of the night was divided between Jackson Browne and James Brown, and two more different approaches to performing you could not possibly dream up. Jackson was Mr down-to-earth, in solo acoustic mode. He was playing in front of dedicated fans, and just seemed to enjoy connecting with the crowd. James, on the other hand, was over the top. With a large band with a horn section and three back up singers, and an MC who made sure we knew just how famous and important his boss was for 20 minutes before the man himself appeared, I just felt embarrassed. It is sad that although the band were so good, the dancing and energy level was so amazing, and that James Brown can still really sing, the show just seemed a bit ridiculous.

On the Saturday I went back for more Richard Thompson, which was the show he called his "B-grade show", with all the songs that never really "made it". Again the guitar playing and the song complexity were just out of this world. Richard Thompson was followed by the Robben Ford Band, whom I have seen before, and did not watch for long. The Waifs were on the main stage at this time another Australian band with a huge and growing following. This was their last few shows before heading back out on tour with Bob Dylan again. The Waifs are two sisters Vikki on vocals and harmonica (and some guitar), and Donna on guitar and vocals, a guitarist (Josh whose acoustic guitar playing is pretty impressive in its own right), and a bassist and a drummer. They sing great, original songs about life on the road, travelling around Australia and family events. Their shows are pretty similar from night to night, but on this night everything clicked and they really seemed to be enjoying being there. Along with the John Butler Trio, this is an Australian band with genuine talent who seem to spend a lot of time in America catch them if you get a chance.

The Waifs were followed by the Black Keys. I had never head of this band before, and they created an amazing sound for only two people. They were loud and in your face, and I think most people really got into them. They played some songs like She Said that invited obvious comparisons with Gov't Mule. This is one band that I would love to see again in a smaller club show.

The Black Keys were followed by Michael Franti and Spearhead. Ben Harper is a frequent visitor to this festival, and in his absence this year Michael Franti seems to have taken on his "sex symbol" and general hero role. The buzz about this show was amazing, although I didn't watch much as I wanted to catch some of Taj Mahal. On previous visits Taj has always been with some sort of "concept" band or supergroup. This time however he played straight-ahead blues in a trio setting, and I enjoyed him far more.

Steve Earle and the Dukes were next. Steve is huge in Australia. His solo acoustic shows two years ago were reminiscent of a young Bob Dylan, but with more anger. This time he was in full-on rock star mode. His guitarist played a Les Paul at full volume, and Steve swapped between acoustic guitar, mandolin and electric. I had seem him a few weeks earlier in Melbourne, and he played a similar selection on this night some songs from Jerusalem, some old songs like Taney Town and My Old Friend the Blues, and the odd Nirvana cover. This is a man bursting with creativity and energy, and a band that can keep up. His politics are not too in your face just articulate and honest, and his songs about prisoners on death row are incredibly moving.

Sunday was my last day of the festival, and I saw what I would call my dream run of music. It started with Shemekia Copeland raw, authentic blues . . . . . lots of talent and no bullshit. Next up was the 2nd half of Keller Williams. I thing that if Keller came back to Australian and did a full tour he would really take off. He is talented and inventive, and his enthusiasm and self-confidence are rally uplifting. Keller was followed by a very special John Butler solo acoustic show. I hope this show was recorded for future release. There were extended versions of old songs, and newer songs with finger-picking and slide guitar playing that is just so complex and original that it is impossible not to appreciate.

In one of the great bits of festival programming, John Butler was followed by the Pharoah Sanders Quartet. This set started with two John Coltrane numbers My Favourite Things and Giant Steps and I my heart sank at the thought of this man not trying to leave the shadow of Coltrane's sax. I could not have been more off the mark. The set was introduced with the words: "Be prepared to have your mind blown away", and that is what we got! Pharoah Sanders can sound like John Coltrane, but his attitude and style is more like Ornette Coleman at his best. A few bars later he can sound as smooth as Dexter Gordon. The rest of the band were more than up to the challenge, with William Henderson on piano putting in some amazing solos.

After Pharoah Sanders came the String Cheese Incident. It may sound odd to Americans, but very few (as in you can count them on ten fingers) people know anything about this band. And what did the SCI do when playing their first of only two shows on this continent? Devote the show to extended jams and bringing up special guests! Xavier Rudd (a guitar/percussion/didgeridoo player) laid down some very nice didgeridoo (and let me say that most didgeridoo players that get up with rock stars sound like crap just ask anyone who has seen Santana on any of his trips here!). Michael Franti then came out for a short rap, and then played some didg himself! Next up was Keller Williams, who stood their smiling and with barefeet, while playing thru a very fast "Hell's Bells". The SCI were very well received. The mixture of acoustic guitar, soaring electric guitar and violin and great funky songs went down a treat.

Fittingly the last show of the festival for me was Dr John, whom I have seen a few times. In the past Dr John has also played the same sort of James Brown / Solomon Burke casino-style shows, but tonight it was pure New Orleans funk, with no bullshit. Aiko Aiko, Walk on Gilded Splinters, Goodnight Irene . . . . it was all there.

The list of artists I didn't see, which includes Femi Kuti, T Model Ford and Robert Belfour, the Paladins, Kelly Joe Phelps, Harry Manx, Burning Speak and Toots and the Maytals, is also pretty impressive. This is one hell of a festival in one hell of a place! It is on every Easter

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