It’s not the best omen when – before even hearing the first chords and beats of music waft their way to your ear on the cool, Autumnal breeze – not one, but two of your party’s cars get bogged in the waterlogged, spongy turf of the 2015 Byron Bay Bluesfest car park.
This didn’t bode well.
But, in that heart-sinking, gut-dropping moment of despair, this minor catastrophe also bore the beauty of the festival, the spirit and sentiment that draws people back year after year after 26th year. No sooner had we relinquished to our plight than numerous pairs of hands were offered in support. Festival-goers ventured far away from their beeline to the event to give help. A push here, a suggestion there, someone had rallied a tractor, and before too long our troubles were over.
This little preamble is the perfect anecdotal metaphor of the Bluesfest; yes, there may invariably be mud and downpours, yes, several of the headline acts – the big names that some had bought tickets specifically to see – had regrettably been forced to pull out, but for the 105,000 attendees, these little imperfections made little, if any, difference.
Bound together by the quagmire and camaraderie, the crowds make the Bluesfest experience every bit as much as the sublime lineup and talents of globally renowned and sourced artists. Wandering past chai tents, clothing stalls, merchandise outlets, bars and an international smorgasbord of eateries, you feel a part of something larger, one of the family. It’s like going to your favourite bar of café, to be warmly welcomed by staff and presented with nods of acknowledgement by familiar yet unknown regulars.
This sets the Byron Bluesfest distinctly apart from other festivals. The punters aren’t fixated by their own, single-minded agenda, no one gets wasted-drunk (although many get happily and gently inebriated), and you get the sense that everyone is altogether more conscious and considerate of their part in the sea of people.
Under canvas, this expands and envelops you, every elbow-nudge or toe-trip greeted with smiles, apologies, forgiveness and laughter. There is no shoulder-barging cram for the front of stage and crowds make way like the Red Sea for Moses for their fellow music appreciators. The noticeably few offer around their funny-smelling cigarettes in kinship and kindness, but not a single soul succumbs too much or ventures to more antisocial chemical enhancement.
With such warmth and friendliness seeping from the rippling mass at their feet, artists too evoke a similar spirit. Alabama Shakes front woman, Brittany Howard, gushed with humility at the response from the Bluesfest audience during both of the band’s two appearances on stage. Xavier Rudd was overwhelmed with smiles and thanks, Ben Harper regaled fans with a mass of old favourites and Angus and Julia Stone chatted with their fans as long lost friends.
This permeates every aspect of the festival, from the smaller stages with diminished crowds to the sardine-can melee of headline acts. On stage and off, the atmosphere percolates, bringing with it friendships and handshakes between perfect strangers and smiles as bright as the near-full moon beaming down across the venue.
Returning to the Bluesfest once again, Michael Franti brought with him something just a little bit special, embodying the festival vibe with more than a hint of ‘Byron-ness’ thrown in.
Michael Franti’s Soulshine brought the 2015 Bluesfest to a close in spectacular style. Braving the swamp of the Crossroads stage, 5,000 yogis brought their mats and smiles for yoga and an acoustic jam, mixing asanas with songs in a practice as much fun as it was the seriously spiritual side to yoga. Sahara Beck, Rebelution and SOJA followed, preceding Franti’s finale. Whether you enjoy his music or not, Franti’s performance will always get you frenetic. A true showman, Franti has a oneness with the crowd, embracing them in the show, uniting with them and, rather than singing to them or for them, making each and every one of them feel a part of something bigger.
The clouds gave way to sunshine, the smiles never faded, the mud dried and the cars were un-bogged, and each one of the 105,000-strong crowd wended their way home carrying that message all the way; that they too had been a part of something bigger.
– This article first appeared on Common Ground Australia on Apr 12, 2015
All Photos: ©Kirra Pendergast