Day 1, BluesFest 2018: I Got The Blues From The Monkey In The Music Room:


Chris Graham settles in for five days of music and mud at the 29th annual Byron Bay BluesFest.

Like all humans, I know a lot about music, because I’ve enjoyed it for years. So obviously I feel qualified to write about it. Also, I studied it for a long time, and would have been a musician if I’d turned out to be any good at it.

I wasn’t, as stints in the Bankstown City Boys Choir, the Bankstown City Concert Band AND the Bankstown City Brass Band (whereupon I won the Junior Bandsman Of the Year in 1985… I know, there’s soooo many layers to me) clearly showed. My point being, I’m obviously an expert on ALL forms of music. Expert enough, at least, to have strong opinions. Like everyone else. Which I plan to inflict upon you now. So, over the next few days I’m going to blog from the Byron Bay BluesFest. After all, I own a magazine, and can write what I want. You’re welcome.

The price of admission to BluesFest – which ain’t cheap, depending how long you go for (and whether or not you camp) – was worth it, purely for the first act we saw last night, The New Power Generation. They’re the band that used to tag along with Prince, also known as ‘The Artist Formerly Known As Prince’, and then, simply, ‘The Love Symbol’.

It was a genuinely exceptional performance, even without Prince, who, for the older readers, died of an accidental overdose in 2016 and sparked a lengthy world-wide process of grieving among Gen-Xers. NPG, as they’re known, changes up lead singers throughout the set. Four or five different folk take over at varying points, and they’re all outstanding. Think ‘cool as shit’ and then triple it.

Purple Rain, arguably Prince’s greatest hit, was sung by a dude who would have looked more at home in a soft metal band like Def Leppard (he wore a ridiculous hat with a feather, sunglasses and a black singlet and skin-tight black jeans). That said, if you closed your eyes, you could almost hear Prince himself.

Which brings me to Tash Sultana, the second act we saw. A friend accompanying me to BluesFest had seen Sultana only a few months earlier in Queensland. She insisted that I ‘see Sultana before I die’, having described the performance as “like a monkey who discovered a high school music room, and wants to try everything out”. I say ‘high school music room’ because Sultana was wearing a cap on backwards, and looked about 12 years old. Or, as my friend added, “kind of like Animal from the muppets”.

Sultana likes to ‘mix things up’ a bit. Which is a polite way of saying, at some point in her life, she won a voucher to a music store and decided to buy every instrument. Because why play one, when you can inflict 20 on an unsuspecting crowd.

My friend, who described the performance as a “cacophony of musical chaos” suggested that I should also “write something nice, like, ‘She’s obviously really enjoying it’”. Which is true, Sultana obviously was. But then people who masturbate in public toilets also seem to be really enjoying themselves, and that’s kind of how I felt after 15 minutes of Sultana. A little violated.

Sultana’s ‘musical experimentation’, while obviously fun for her, wasn’t all that interesting for the punters if the size of the crowd in the quarter-filled Mojo musical tent (one of the main stages) was anything to go by. And indeed it wasn’t for me. It was the musical equivalent of watching paint dry… if the paint was psychedelic, and evoked confused, inexplicably angry emotions. Or as my friend also added, “I wonder if this is going to turn into a song soon?”

Tash Sultana, performing at the 29th Annual Byron Bay BluesFest.

By the time we left, it hadn’t.

Sultana is clearly a very talented young woman. But my personal view: she needs to keep the musical lab experiments to smaller, more intimate crowds. Like her family, who won’t hold it against her.

What reinforced that point was the next (and last) act we saw for the night – the Original Blues Brothers Band, at least one of whom played the trumpet really well. Sultana played the trumpet too, and she was okay. But it begs the question, why? Unless you’re doing Ska or big band, and surrounded by multiple other musicians, there really is no reason to own let alone blow on a trumpet. Because it’s a trumpet.

As for the band itself, two originals were on stage – ‘Blue’ Lou Marini and Murphy Dunne (of ‘Murph and the Magic Tones fame, from the original film). As you might expect, the band were old school tight and professional, and very entertaining. And unfortunately they took too long to play enough hits from the movie to keep me in the tent.

The Original Blues Brothers Band. (IMAGE” Chris Graham, New Matilda)

So we wandered back to the adjoining campsite early, defeated and broken… only to hear them play a succession of songs from the film to close out the set. To which my friend noted, “You snooze you lose, old man”.

She’s walking home.

On the way back, we passed the Wailers… yes, the Wailers… of Bob Marley fame, without Bob of course. Bob died in a spectacular sky-diving incident after smoking three tonnes of marijuana. Or according to said friend, he got his dreadlocks caught in a combine harvester while tending the summer crop. Or possibly a melanoma. So much for melanin.

And that’s the point about BluesFest. It is an extraordinary event. In the space of a few hours, we saw the band that played with Prince, some of the band that played with the Blues Brothers, and the band that played with Bob Marley. And we’re only on the first night. There’s another four days of this!

On that note, we’re still to see Lionel Ritchie, Melissa Etheridge, Lauryn Hill, Sheryl Crow, Robert Plant and Seal. There’s also the John Butler Trio, Jose Gonzalez, Michael Franti and Spearhead, plus the Teskey Brothers (an up and coming band from Melbourne who we’ve seen a couple of times… they’re pretty amazing). Finally, there’s Yirrmal, an Arnhem Land artist whose playing at the Boomerang Festival (an Aboriginal component of BluesFest which seems to get smaller every year).

Long story short, if you’ve never been to a BluesFest, you’re missing out. It is, in my very biased view, the premiere festival on the Australian musical calendar. So start planning for next year, or see if you can grab tickets to a night or two here.

Just bring gumboots. BluesFest is almost as famous for its mud as it is for its music… which just adds to the experience. More on that later.

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Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. In more than three decades of journalism he's had his home and office raided by the Australian Federal Police; he's been arrested and briefly jailed in Israel; he's reported from a swag in Outback Australia on and off for years. Chris has worked across multiple mediums including print, radio and film. His proudest achievement is serving as an Associate producer on John Pilger's 2013 film Utopia. He's also won a few journalism awards along the way in both the US and Australia, including a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards. Since late 2021, Chris has been battling various serious heart and lung conditions. He's begun the process of quietly planning a "gentle exit" after "tying up a few loose ends" in 2024 and 2025. So watch this space.