Bluesfest 25th Anniversary
This Easter long weekend Bluesfest sparks up in Byron Bay for its 25th consecutive year. Beginning in 1990 as a single-day indoor event, the 2014 installment will sprawl out over five days and welcome more than 100 performers to the Tyagarah Tea Farm festival site. Expanding the festival certainly hasn’t diluted the calibre of the performing artists. Bluesfest continues to showcase acts from all over the globe, with this year’s crop including Dave Matthews Band, Joss Stone, Tim Rogers, Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, Cambodian Space Project and Buddy Guy. Given this impressive diversity, festival director Peter Noble is forgiven for his smug tone when speaking about the 25th anniversary.
“I look at Bluesfest this year and go, ‘I’ve never booked a festival where you can get to the 18th or 19th line of the artists list and there’s still bloody great, well known artists," he says. "So I’m pretty happy with it.”
Over the last few decades, Bluesfest has reliably provided a mammoth list of artists from a collection of loosely associated genres. Noble’s task to recruit such a wide range of performers is made slightly easier by the affection many acts feel towards the festival. For instance, John Butler Trio, John Mayer and Steve Earle are just some of the artists returning for an encore Bluesfest performance this year.
“[On Twitter] Charlie Musselwhite said we’re the best [festival] in the world and he’s not the first guy to say that,” Noble exudes. “I think that’s because they realise we’re a real music festival. They get there and the dressing rooms are great and the restaurants backstage feed them really good food and they get on the stage and the production is great.”
Although a number of performers come to Bluesfest every other year, Noble clarifies that he wouldn’t try to precisely repeat a lineup that’s formerly proven successful. “Some people go at the moment, ‘Gee, last year you had Iggy Pop and Santana and Paul Simon and Robert Plant – a lot the older legends and this year there’s not as many.’ I certainly came out this year and targeted another audience that we probably hadn’t targeted so hard in the last four or five years: the Edward Sharpe/Morcheeba/Jake Bugg kind of audience. I’ve always known that there’s younger people who don’t just want to see metal. [Bluesfest is] keeping that contemporary feel, and yet underneath it’s a bloody blues festival.”
It makes sense to tinker with the programming in order to lure in a younger audience, but this is inevitably going to turn-off some previous attendees. Nevertheless, it's a risk Noble knows he has to take. "Some people will say some years, ‘Oh, it’s not as good,’” says Noble, “but that’s because they’re not feeling that their taste is being quite as catered to as it was on another year. Whereas, another part of the audience goes, ‘Wow it’s even more what I’m into.’ I just think you have to do that, you’ve got to keep slightly changing your event all the time, keeping it relevant, but really just keeping it interesting.”
At a time when so many Australian festivals are either struggling or no longer tenable, Bluesfest maintains enormous consumer interest. So, what’s the essence of this unrivalled appeal? It could be the exclusive Tyagarah Tea Farm environment, the wholesome community atmosphere, the organic culinary options, or perhaps Byron's summer heat in mid-autumn.
“It is pretty much an event where hopefully the vast majority of people are only there for the music,” Noble says. “That’s what it’s all about. There’s not an awful lot of other effects happening at Bluesfest. I realised a long time ago it’s a music festival, that’s all it is. It’s not about prettying the site up and all that. We put our money into musicians.”
BY AUGUSTUS WELBY
THE 25TH ANNUAL BYRON BAY BLUESFEST runs from Thursday April 17 – Monday April 21, featuring a mammoth lineup including Jack Johnson, John Mayer, Jeff Beck and many, many more.