35th Byron Bay Bluesfest 2024

(5 days of  live music reviverie)

words and videoby Mary Mackenzie / words and pictures by Anthony Moulay

Erja Lyytinen - Bluesfest 2024 (photo: Anthony Moulay)

Yet another Byron Bay Blues festival is over for the year, but there is currently an air of uncertainty around the festival world. What with the cancelation of another large local festival, Splendour in the Grass, and another pulled from going ahead this year, The Caloundra Music Festival. The Bluesfest team keeps on delivering a broad range of musical genres to meet the varying tastes of punters in challenging economic circumstances and it comes up trumps again. We are here and extremely happy to share some highlights from this ever-evolving five-day festival.  

Festival director Peter Noble stated in his post festival press release, “We’re still calculating the numbers, but we know the attendance for Bluesfest this year was at least the same as in 2023…We have held our position.”


Allman Betts Band - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

The Allman Betts family band kicked off our 35th festival on Thursday evening. Devon Allman & Dwayne Betts front this band with amazing linage which included stunning slide guitar from Johnny Stachela, Justin Dean Corgan on bass, Peter Levin on piano and organ, double drummers John Lum and Alex Orbison. Unfortunately, with only a one hour set each time they played, the special guests Ally Venable & the sweet voice and smooth guitar work of Larry McCray, only got one song each. The track Larry McCray covering was Warren Hayes’ Soulshine, which Larry recorded before either the Allman Brothers or Govt. Mule, and was an absolute stand out. All nine members got up on stage for the final all-in track.

Devon Allman & Duane Betts  watching on as Ally Venable lets loose - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

After popping the 2024 Bluesfest cherry with The Allman Betts Band we decide to check out the new VIP inclusions with several welcome additions including a viewing platform for both Crossroads & the Mojo stages. A new sponsorship arrangement with Ballina-Byron Gateway Airport resulting in some positive changes. We were also welcomed with small packets of flight snacks of pretzels when entering the lounge…just a little something to keep you going when running from one tent to another and not enough time to grab something substantial to eat from one of the numerous wonderful food tents dotted around the site.

Davey Faragher, Elvis Costello, Charlie Sexton - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

Elvis Costello, another of the big name international artists on the first night, seemed to somewhat struggle with the sound. With the band including Charlie Sexton on guitar and long-time collaborator Steve Nieve on piano and organ, Elvis still gave us a great rendition of his long career in music with many of his well known tracks. He was one of the few artists given the privilege of an encore. The advantage of being the final act on the Main stage, he was able to squeeze in another 4 or 5 songs, much to the delight of the crowd.

Friday saw us arriving for an earlier than normal start with festival Arts Director, Peter Noble, giving us a brief history of the festival which was originally started by Dan Dopel and Kevin Oxford back in the early 1990’s at what was then called The Piggery/Arts Factory.  The Festival Director also calling on the State and Federal pollies for a leg up for the Arts sector to keep it vibrant & thriving. A question was asked about Boomerang’s appearance in one of the many stalls surrounding the festival site and it was announced by Peter Noble and Rhoda Roberts that the Boomerang Festival of Indigenous World Arts will be restarting on the Bluesfest site in January 2025!

As announced by the MC from Jambalaya stage, which was echoed by other stage MCs throughout the rest of the festival, was the mention of a move to pull in the number of days back to a 4-day festival format starting in 2025 with Easter Monday being the day they will forgo. I was a bit skeptical until we continued to hear it from all over the next couple of days and sure enough was mentioned for the advertising of the “early bird” tickets for 2025. 

Leesa Gentz, Marshall Okell, Jon "Howler" Howell - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay) 

As per usual, the Friday saw a huge bump in attendance numbers, this was noticeable as we walked our way into and around the grounds. We caught local muso Marshall O’Kell with guests Minnie Marks & Hussy Hicks on the returned dedicated Busking stage. Daughter Rosey featuring throughout the set on the hula hoop much to Dad's and the audience delight with many other young children joining in at front of the stage.

If you wanted some blues/rock over the Easter weekend then Finnish guitarist Erja Lyttinen fits the bill. Her first ever visit to Australia, she played several times over the weekend starting off on the smaller Delta stage and by the end of the festival was commanding the audience in the large Mojo tent. Along with her drummer and bassist she certainly made her presence felt over the weekend with some slashing slide guitar.  Lyytinen has been acknowledged for her work by her fans, peers, and the industry alike with a treasure trove of accolades. This includes being ranked #2 on Total Guitar Magazine’s “10 Best Guitarists Now” poll as well as being awarded “Best Guitarist” at the 2017 European Blues Awards.

Devon Allman - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

Erja Lyytinen - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

We went to check what all the talk about Sweet Talk was about next. They are a Melbourne southern rock outfit which was gaining a bit of a buzz around the festival. Smooth guitar from David Turner (who happens to be Dom Turner’s nephew), along with the lead singer and rhythm guitarist brothers, bass player, drummer and keyboard player, they are certainly worthy of the praise that they were gaining over the two days they played. As an acknowledgment of their  growing prestige, Casey Chambers guests to sing The Bands’ anti-war song, The Night They Drove Old Dixie down.  The heavens opened during their set which caused chaos, concern & confusion, but the regular Bluesfest patrons knew just to wait it out and go with the flow, so to speak. It continued bucketing rain which caused a very soggy end to the night and a quite a few stranded and bogged cars in both carpark areas...but that’s another story best left for another time.

Next on the Mojo Stage was The Dead South, a folk-bluegrass musical ensemble based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada in their old-school Mennonite dress code. Many in the cosplaying crowd demonstrating their loyal following of the band with wearing their signature look or band  t-shirts worn as their badge of previous recognition and proceeded to sing along to many of the tracks.

Jack Johnson - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

Jack Johnson drew a large crowd to the Crossroads tent. He swayed and strummed his acoustic guitar, and the crowd loved him for it. Joined by several band members as he played his only show in Australia…a Bluesfest exclusive.

We awoke Saturday to sunny skies, well at least to start with. After getting ourselves safely onto the bus from our home village we travelled with a group of happy Bluesfest punters regaling each other with their tales of woe of getting out of the carpark from the night before…3-hour traffic jams! We take the advice of the Bluesfest crew, who had sent out messages to avoid bringing in cars today as the carpark was not in a suitable state. The bus turned out to be a pleasant way to arrive and also surprisingly easy to leave at the end of the night with only a wait of about 10 minutes before a comfortable and rather speedyride home.

Taj Mahal  - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

We made it in time to witness Blues Arcadia’s debut at the festival - with their own brand of dirty soul/rock/R‘n’B and blues influence music on the Delta. They got everyone moving & into the party mood picking up a host of new fans in the process. The next time they play is early Sunday afternoon on The Mojo and they certainly take up to another level. 

Deva Mahal and Zoe M Mahal  - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

At almost 82 the incomparable Taj Mahal graced the Crossroads stage. As one of the few pure blues acts at the festival this year, he took us through a number of rural blues songs before moving into onto further musical journey as his varied palate dictates. His special surprise for Australia was having two of his daughters Deva and Zoe Moon join him on stage for extra vocal duties. 

Phill "Billy" Jenkins & Fiona Boyes - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

Fiona Boyes and the 3 Fortune-Tellers play their infectious blues. Always great to witness the infectious joy of Fiona plying her music on the varied stringed instruments, some of which have been handmade by The Preacher. Accompanied by Tim Neal on Hammond, Phill-Billy Jenkins on bass and Tuba, and Mark Grunden on all things percussive. As Fiona mentions, any saucy double entendre originals in the set are her attempting a respectful nod to the spirit of the classic era blues-women. 

Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

Tedeschi Trucks Band, what can be said about this band that hasn’t been made decidedly clear previously? All 12 band members talents were showcased in a stellar performance that extended to nearly two hours. Skilled vocals & guitar highlights of the festival by a mile, Susan bringing forward her wonderful guitar chops to match Derek’s. Their performances on both Saturday & Sunday were sublime and utterly outstanding.

Tedeschi Trucks Band - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

We revert to arriving on the Sunday by car as we missed the bus collection. We thought we’d risk it and had no issues even at the end of the night in the car park. Matt Taylor from legendary band Chain, joined Rockwiz hosts Julia Zemiro, Brian Nankervis and all the other contestants for what turns into a rather amusing appearance. He blew some harp & sang a couple of Chain numbers – Black and Blue and I Remember When I Was Young. Haley Mary, lead vocalist from The Jezebels sang the Sinead O’Connor song, Nothing Compares to You as a tribute to all the musicians who died, especially all the Australian female musicians, since the last time Rockwiz graced the Bluesfest Stage. We left (I am still yet to get a whole Rockwiz show in, maybe next time) to head off to catch some of Clayton Doley’s set over on the Jambalaya stage.

Clayton Doley's Bayou Billabong - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

Clayton with his Bayou Billabong brings in the Sunday afternoon, 10-piece band including a 4-piece horn section and Tina Harrod and Mahalia Barnes on backing vocals. Wonderful performance by Clayton as he switches between a couple of different keyboards. The rest of the band certainly bring forward a wonderful full sound and even each of the horn players get their opportunity to dazzle in the short solos.

The Blind Boys of Alabama - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

The Blind Boys of Alabama, always a joyful, exuberant and uplifting performance. They gave us a sublime rendition of Amazing Grace with guest appearances by Susan Tedeschi and Sir Tom Jones on extra vocals for a track or two. Always wonderful to see and hear these amazing voices sing together.

Jimmy Barnes puts on a star-studded return to the stage after some major surgery. The crowd at the Mojo stage know they are extremely lucky to have experienced such a wonderful show that including special guests Ian Moss, Josh Teskey, Tommy Emmanuel, and Bernard Fanning who also got on stage. Barnesy finishes up with a three song encore of Cold Chisel classics, When the War is Over, Flames Trees and Khe Sanh, much to the large audience approval who join in for a massive singalong.

Ben Harper mentioned on his website - “I am excited to return to what is my favourite blues festival on the planet in what is one of my favourite cities on the planet.”

To a packed tent Ben Harper and band members launched into an acapella version of Below Sea Level. They then take their respective places on stage with instruments and launch into Diamonds on The Inside. Ben sincerely thanked Peter Noble for bringing him to Bluesfest again and acknowledge how the festival had changed his life. For the set Ben reached into his back catalog including Steal my Kisses, Walk Away, Mommas Tripping among many others in the one-and-a-half-hour set.

The perennial crowd favourite, Burn one Down, a song from another time gets a wonderful response and along with an extended Leonard Cohen track Hallelujah on the slide, which lurches in and out and sometimes morphs into other tracks. He finishes the set with extended version of early track Faded/The Ocean which left the crowd pressing for an encore that sadly never eventuated.

Ben Harper - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

Blues Arcadia - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

It was Blues Arcadias’ first time at Bluesfest and today was their first ever Mojo Stage appearance and they really brought it home. Chris Harvey’s guitar chops were firing on all cylinders and the energetic front-man, Alan Boyle kicked it into the stratosphere. Casper on drums, Paula on keys and Jeremy on bass had grins as big as the main stage permanently pasted across their faces. With their obvious enjoyment of being on the big stage and their lively set of mainly wonderful written self-penned tracks they also included a brilliant version of Portishead’s Glory Box. The number in the tent quickly climbs as the infectious sound spilled out of the large tent to coax in the punters for a boogaloo!

Tim Finn - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

Tim Finn on the Crossroads revisits early Split Enz, he weaves through the discography of his recording career covering Enz classics My Mistake, Nobody takes me Seriously, and Six Months in a Leaky Boat; his own tracks in Fraction too much Friction, as well as the Crowded House tracks, Everywhere you Go, and Chocolate Cake. The elder Finn wraps up a truly enjoyable show with the encore, I See Red.

Dom Turner & Nicky Brown - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

The Turner Brown Band is the last blues/Gospel act to wrap up the 35th Festival in the hot & steamy Jambalaya tent and rounds out the 5-day festival very well indeed! Sacred Steel doyen Nicky D Brown busting a few dance moves. Dom Turner has appeared so many times in numerous guises at this Bluesfest, I think probably the artist who has appeared the most…The Backsliders, Supro, Dom Turner and Ian Collard, The Angry Tradesman. Have all these iterations of Dom Turner and compatriots made an appearance at some time over the 35 years? Joining them on stage are Tamika Webb on bass and Roscoe Clarke admirably holding together the bottom end with aplomb.

Nicky Brown - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

Playing for Change gave us a worthy finalé, we danced our weary feet out the gate to the high energy afro grooves of I Shot the Sheriff.

Jackie Venson - Bluesfest 2024 (photo Anthony Moulay)

Here we leave the 35th Bluesfest and the last time as a 5-day festival, well for the foreseeable future at least.

35th Byron Bay Bluesfest

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