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Live Review: Bluesfest Day Two (Friday, 29 March 2024)

30 March 2024 | 11:39 am | Jess Martyn

The Friday line-up was everything a mud-loving punter could have asked for – and it only heightened the appetite for what was still to come.

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson (Credit: Joseph Mayers)

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Celebrating its 35th anniversary, Bluesfest is back for another round with an utterly un-cancelable line-up and a plain as muddy as ever.

Day two kicked off with fabulous opening performances by virtuosic youngster Taj Farrant and “blue-billy-grass-rockin’-roots” band 19-Twenty before Clayton Doley took things up a notch with epic organ melodies, accompanied by blasting brass riffs. The crowd was strong despite the mud and rain, soaking in Doley’s passionate keys riffs as well as the smells of sweet and salty afternoon snacks. Each song was punctuated by soulful vocal fillers, courtesy of spirited backing vocalists who put every bit of their “swing” into it and a walking bass line that could be heard from across the festival.

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Over on the busking stage, Dingo set the bar high with his tunes Compassionate Man and River Song, each filled with ripping guitar melodies. Perhaps better known as the long-time guitarist for Kasey Chambers, who made a modest appearance on the stage to sing a duet with him, Dingo seemed thrilled at such an opportunity to establish himself as a solo act.

Mid-afternoon as the weather calmed, Velvet Trip was there to warm up the crowd with a set that comprised textured surf rock, glimmery pop synth and all the in-between. The band’s frontman was decked out in a glittery top and tight leather pants, a perfect match for many of their Tame Impala-esque tunes. All in all, they expertly walked the line between the dreamy synth of their latest release, Harmony Blooms and the 2023 track Moving On and the harder rock guitar shreds.

The rain was slowing, and punters of all ages and fashion senses ventured between stages, trekking through the mud in everything from fringes, leather, glitter, and banana costumes—gumboots were the only near-universal outfit staple.

Coterie proved an early afternoon highlight, drawing a crowd with a cover of the Dave Dobbyn classic Slice Of Heaven that lived up to its name and keeping them there with effortlessly cool chemistry and stage presence. Smooth and soulful, they had the crowd revelling in their unreleased track, of which their frontman remarked, “It’s called Feeling Amazing…at least I think it is.” Playful and confident, they looked right at home on the stage in their bright clothes and epic afro hairdos – and in a sense, they were.

It was clear that these brothers, with their father at the helm, had spent their lives making music together. They were confident and comfortable enough to play with the crowd, firing out quips – “Can I tell you a story real quick? Some people saying no as if you have a choice; shush, listen.” They even managed to make well-worn classics like Sweet Caroline sound like new, and the crowd responded in kind with an epic sing-along.

Another highlight on the bill, The Paper Kites brought a unique softness and warmth to the stage with a handful of sad songs like Hurt So Good (“not to be confused with the John Mellencamp song”), mixed in with harder rock edge (“this is a song about a girl who stole a car”).

Frontman Sam Bentley quickly established his expertise in three things: closed-eye crooning, captivating a crowd, and introducing his bandmates in creative ways – drummer Josh Bentley was described as “the caresser of skins”, while singer Christina Ricci was dubbed “Tambourine Queen”. Their final track, Electric Indigo, was a cathartic release for long-time fans of the band, sounding note-perfect to the recording and no doubt winning over a crew of new fans.

Next up, L.A.B. were set to play to a packed out tent as the rain started up again, merging funk and soul with classic blues flavour. A sheen of sweat came across frontman Joel Shadbolt’s face, a reflection of the energy going into his gutsy vocals – and of the need for the cloth he held in his hand throughout the set. The guitarists flirted naturally with the crowd, dancing and showing off their best guitar faces. The iconic riff of Stand By Me transformed the crowd into a choir, warming up for a satisfying follow-through with originals Controller and Yes I Do, the latter of which could be fittingly described as a musical sermon. The band left the stage suddenly, but many in the crowd stood rooted in wait for everyone’s favourite alt-crooner.

Matt Corby opened his set with Carry On, accompanying himself on the keys, and it was immediately clear that there was something different about him – his often-reserved stage persona was markedly brighter and more confident, his strut and gestures holding the crowd’s gaze.

The warmth of the layered harmonies in All Fired Up lived up to the song’s name, enveloping the subtle piano like a haze around a campfire. Throughout Monday, Corby seemed loose and comfortable, and by the time they kicked into Resolution, the joy emanating from the stage was palpable.

His trademark passionate vocals paired perfectly with the driving instrumentation. The thrills continued into No Ordinary Life, with impressive fluttering piano melodies and Reelin’, featuring restrained vocal runs, leading into a stripped-back cover of No Scrubs that got the crowd singing. For all of that excitement, there was still no question as to the highlights of the set—Brother had the whole tent bustling with energy, while Miracle Love could have been likened to a cathartic release.

In terms of visual spectacles, few things could have been more intriguing than a set by Here Come The Mummies. Whilst it was the sweet sound of saxophones that pulled people in, the sight of the mummy costumes on stage and coordinated dance moves gave the performance that “can’t look away” quality. Just when the crowd might have thought it was over, they launched back into it with a cry of “Let’s do it again”.

The Mummies might have won the costume competition, but when it came to vigorous banjo playing, The Dead South went uncontested. The sight and sound of the foursome strumming, singing and picking at their instruments in perfect unison were near-hypnotic, and their costumes did a lot of legwork to add visual intrigue.

Beyond all of that, the strength required to lift and play a cello made the set more than worth a watch! The tambourines strapped to their shoes were a particularly ingenious addition, adding a great deal of percussive colour to their tunes – which could often be loosely described as “Mumford And Sons marinated in prison blues”.

Celebrating 23 years since his Bluesfest debut, headliner Jack Johnson didn’t waste any time getting down to business, launching into his crowd favourite, Taylor by song number two. He followed it up with a cover of Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got to Do With It? that morphed into Sitting, Waiting, Wishing, his pianist tastefully filling in any and all gaps between his smooth guitar melodies. His trademark reggae feel ran through Hope – so much so that we could have been in Hawaii were it not for all the mud.

The thing that stood out about Johnson’s set was its ease—after many years on stage, he looked perfectly at ease. In fact, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say it felt like an invitation into Johnson’s home, with the added bonus of earthy visual projections.

He was more than happy to delve into his back catalogue for the long-time fans, calling for requests and obliging with a set comprising classics like Upside Down, Inaudible Melodies, and Middle Man.

All in all, the Friday line-up was everything a mud-loving punter could have asked for – and it only heightened the appetite for what was still to come.