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Bluesfest wrap-up

Fairfax's Ed Gibbs speaks with some of the standout artists from this year's Bluesfest

PT4M26S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2h4wa 620 349

Reviewer rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Reader rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (93 votes)

March 28 to April 1, Byron Bay

Every festival has one: the performer who transcends mere reputation to deliver a great performance – a stand-out, knock-down, jaw-dropping show that remains a talking point for weeks.

This year's 24th Bluesfest at Byron Bay gave us a galaxy of stars (mostly formed a long, long time ago), most of whom emerged with reputations in tact (distinctions: Robert Plant, Carlos Santana, Iggy Pop, Bettye LaVette, Jimmy Cliff; pass marks: Paul Simon, Ben Harper, Steve Miller, Supertramp's Roger Hodgson, Robert Cray and folk's Man in Black, Rodriguez).

Grandpa from Playing for Change. Click for more photos

24th Annual Byron Bay Bluesfest

Grandpa from Playing for Change. Photo: Edwina Pickles

But the act that came from left-field to wow audiences was Vermont blues-rock four-piece Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.

With stagecraft somewhere between Iggy and Betty, Potter played like she was trying to stop her "flying V" guitar from taking off. She drew the audience in through her curtain of blonde hair, the quintessential hot rock-chick, but sexier still was the whole band's music, a swaggering brand of hooky, hard-driving blues-rock delivered at volume. Potter played literally the first set of the festival, on Thursday, then again on the main stage on Saturday afternoon, drawing a huge response both times.

It would be absurd to suggest Potter was the only act to tear up the stage, although she was undoubtedly the cult hit. Detroit soul diva Lavette, Santana, freakishly talented husband-and-wife team Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, Irishman Glen Hansard (and his Frames), Canadian Matt Andersen, Trombone Shorty and New Orleans Avenue, Melbourne's Cat Empire and Kiwi dub reggae act Fat Freddy's Drop all played special shows, drawing spontaneous cheers en masse throughout.

Lavette was the most compelling vocalist at Bluesfest, a big call with blues voices as good as Tedeschi, Plant, Zac Brown, Bonnie Raitt and Ruthie Foster also present. Lavette's soulful storytelling made you forget you were watching with another thousand or so people and her standouts included Neil Young's Heart of Gold, and Renee Geyer's Heaven (the Closest I'll Get).

Of the megastars, Plant's set worked best. His rock-frontman presence was enormous (if the messiah-like introduction was over-the-top) and his voice has retained enough warmth as well as grunt to carry the Sensational Space Shifters' world music take to an array of Led Zeppelin material. "This is the blues," Plant told the crowd, "although it's been messed with a bit. Fancy that."

By contrast, Paul Simon's voice sounded thin at times, and he was carried to some extent by a fantastic band and beautiful harmonising around him. Notwithstanding, Simon's show felt like being part of pop history: his timeless songs provoked the weekend's biggest crowd-singing. Simon had some of the most moving moments, too: an acoustic version of Sounds of Silence and his dedication of Slip Slidin' Away to the late producer Phil Ramone.

Even at 65, Iggy Pop was delightfully delinquent. His Stooges played a relentless mix of old and new punk songs, avoiding his poppier solo material while Iggy played demented ringmaster.

"Turn the lights up!" he commanded. "Now that we've got to know each other, why don't you come up and dance with the f---ing Stooges," whereupon the band launched into Funhouse as he coaxed at least 50 people on stage, while one poor security guard tried desperately to stop them manhandling their hero.

Carlos Santana quickly assuaged any fears of guitar noodling – he came to rock and delighted a huge audience on the main stage on the Friday.

Bluesfest was generally well-run and drew few complaints (despite two days of heavy rain), although the estimated 100,000 total audience felt like a conservative number. Crowds seemed bigger than last year, evidenced by at-times uncomfortable tension between Bluesfest's traditional army of audience members who watch from fold-up chairs, and the younger gig-goers used to standing for the best view possible. One wonders if this was the year Bluesfest got too big for the traditionalists.

Still, the 24th Bluesfest delivered some stunning shows by its best-ever line-up. How can organisers possibly top that for its quarter-century next year?

Still to come: the pick of the remaining bluesfest sideshows

Iggy & The Stooges, Hordern Pavilion, Tuesday

Paul Simon, Sydney Entertainment Centre, Tuesday

Robert Plant and Sensational Space Shifters, Rod Laver Arena, Wednesday

Bonnie Raitt, Enmore Theatre, Wednesday

Betty LaVette, Corner Hotel, Richmond, Thursday; Factory Theatre, Marrickville, Friday

Roger Hodgson, State Theatre, Thursday and Friday