Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Muddy waters

Bluesfest turns 20

On about day three of this year’s Byron Bay Blues Festival, I saw the guy with the world’s oddest job. He was part of a zydeco band. He wore a metal vest that looked a lot like Ned Kelly’s, although it was made of a shinier and less hefty element, possibly aluminium. The lower part of it was corrugated, so that from certain angles the guy appeared to be wearing a giant strap-on cheese-grater. His job was to dance around in front of a nipple-high microphone while hitting and stroking himself with a pair of wire brushes and generally looking like he was having a hell of a lot of fun. Looking like you’re having fun while listening to a piece of zydeco music for the thousandth time can’t be easy, but grater-boy did a pretty good job of it.

This is the beauty of the Bluesfest, which has just turned twenty. Part freak show, part musical cornucopia, part crash-course in things you never knew existed, it lets you stick your head in on a lot of stuff you wouldn’t otherwise get to see. Sometimes you stick your head back out again pretty fast. But now and then you’ll stumble in on a musician so brilliant – a Sonny Landreth, a Jon Cleary – that you’ll wonder how on earth you’ve managed to get through your life without having heard of him. The festival has six performance tents these days, going more or less simultaneously. If you can’t find something diverting in at least one of them, you’ve probably come to the wrong event. Even if you have, you can always repair to the food tent, where you can get an organic donut the size of a steering wheel, a crêpe served with authentic French insolence, or a Mayan hot chocolate hand-made by an actual Mayan out of small brown beans, at a pace that might well explain why Mayan civilization collapsed in the first place: maybe they all perished of thirst while waiting for their mothers to finish making their beverages ... [read more]