Live at The Plenary 8-9/4/23
After a couple of years of frustrating interruptions due to pandemics and weather, the folks at Bluesfest decided to run a simultaneous and paired back version of the festival in Melbourne in 2023. Located at Melbourne’s Convention Centre in the heart of the city, the festival featured 3 stages running music at staggered intervals, so punters could experience at least some of every performance if they chose to.
As far as the venue goes, Melbourne’s Convention Centre certainly had the goods as far as location and easy accessibility from one stage to another. The Plenary Theatre was a perfect location for bigger-known acts, and two other exhibition building spaces were decked out with a stage, limited seating at the back, and heavy black curtains to absorb the boomy sound that such cavernous rooms can elicit. It worked. The Convention Centre has a very ‘corporate’ feel about it, and the atmosphere and festival vibe could have been enhanced with a few small ‘busker-style’ areas in the concourse, as well as some festoon and wall lighting to create some mood. However, as far as hosting a Bluesfest in Melbourne goes, this was a solid first effort, that has the potential to grow a significant following.
Rod Paine kicked off the Saturday afternoon on the Naarm stage, and Shaun Kirk shortly after on the Music City stage. When Mahalia Barnes & The Soul Mates took to the stage in the Plenary theatre the venue was in full swing, with non-stop music options for the rest of the night. Mahalia’s killer performance left the crowd buzzing and filled with expectation for a great weekend. She was on fire.
Russel Morris was understated as usual, and delighted the crowd with ‘The Real Thing’ which featured an insane guitar solo by Pete Robinson to finish the set with a bang.
John Butler opened his solo set on the Plenary stage with ‘Better Than’ to great applause. Quipping to the crowd that it was not a good idea to stay if we didn’t want to hear ‘swearing, or about politics, drugs, or the environment’, the warning was fair… his set could’ve been 4-songs longer without the rhetoric. However, the instrumental looped tunes with lap-steel were fantastic. True musicianship on show.
Competing for our ears in that same time slot were Southern Avenue, direct from Memphis, TN. These guys rocked the house. They performed twice in the weekend, on Saturday doing a number of soul/rock covers including Aretha’s ‘Rock Steady’, and on Sunday with more originals, the energy this 5-piece band brought was phenomenal (including Tierinii Jackson lead singing and high-energy dancing in 5 inch heels)!
Continuing to bring the energy were the massive Melbourne Ska Orchestra. These guys are pure fun from beginning to end. From messing with the audience with a ‘freeze pose’ competition, to playing a funk version of the ‘Get Smart theme’, their whole dynamic demanded participation, butt-shimmying, and a whole lot of grins. The crowd adored them.
Saturday night’s headliner were The Doobie Brothers. Extra tickets had to be purchased by punters if they wanted to see either of the weekend’s headliners (Paulo Nutini on Sunday night) as part of their Bluesfest experience. This caused headaches for both attendees and security, and this writer would advise no limitations on tickets for future Bluesfests.
The Doobie Brothers performed a massive set over 2 hours long, the first hour being their lesser-known tunes (not a great decision), with the odd audience member who wanted to dance being told to sit down. It was a strange vibe that was totally out of keeping with the rest of the festival – a bit of a staunch theatre show – until lead Tom Johnstone invited everyone to their feet, at which point the second half of the show was a pure celebration with dancing, singing, and all the greatest hits. The song of the set was ‘Jesus is just Alright’ due to the flawless vocal harmonies and full sound. Welcomed back for an encore, the exceptional Michael McDonald led a short instrumental of ‘Amazing Grace’ before kicking into ’Taking it to the Streets’, before the group welcomed back John Butler to join them for ’Listen to the Music’ for a big finish.
Enter Sunday: which felt a whole lot more genuine ‘blues’ than Saturday in Melbourne’s festival.
The afternoon began with Kee’ahn on the Naarm stage, for his second set of the weekend.
Steve Earle then drew the crowd to the Plenary theatre. The program advertised The Dukes as his band, but they were nowhere to be seen. It didn’t matter as Earle filled the massive room with his presence and captivated this writer with ‘[Mama says a pistol is] The Devil’s Right Hand’ as his song of the set.
Lucinda Williams, looking frail but still with her distinctive vocal style, invited Earle (who delightfully calls her ‘Lulu’) back to perform a couple of songs with her later in the afternoon.
At the other venues, Eric Gales bluesed it up left-handed on his right-hand-strung guitar asking ’How can you love what I do but hate who I am?’ on the Music City stage, while Henry Wagons delighted the audience at the Naarm stage with his upbeat music, jokes about bain-maries, and tributes to Justin Townes Earle and Waylon Jennings.
FOOLS followed with their cool vibes. FOOLS are the Tedeschi Trucks of Melbourne… this 13 piece band fills the room with colour and blues rock. A particular treat for this writer was Jess Fisenden’s smooth gospel vocals, which were a great compliment to lead singer/songwriter Luke O’Connor.
Buddy Guy took to the stage in the Plenary and dropped into his classic ’Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues’ to great applause. Guy’s manner with the audience elicited infectious giggles throughout his show, with a segment beginning with him announcing he was going to ‘play something so funky you can smell it’, then attempting to play his guitar without hands, dragging his sleeve down the frets & flipping the guitar to shimmy it against his torso. He sure knows how to entertain.
On to CW Stoneking and his fabulous band. Always the entertainer, Stoneking had the crowd chuckling with his observations, and entertained with his New Orleans Street Jazz feel. This act never disappoints.
Sunday night’s headline was Paolo Nutini in the Plenary. This alternative soul performance was a feast for the senses, with a rotary phone and various other equipment being used to elicit new sounds and experiences for the audience. The theatre was pumping throughout.
Saved for a last mention, but performing earlier in the day on the Music City stage, was this writer’s performance of the festival: Keb’ Mo’. If anyone arrived at Bluesfest Melbourne looking for pure, unadulterated blues, Keb’ Mo’ brought it. Performing with a band for most of his set, but also solo for a couple of songs, he delivered blues in the traditional southern style. I could almost hear the chirping of crickets and imagine the rocking chair on a porch in sweltering heat. The stand-out tune for me was ’Suitcase’, a truly blues song that described the bitter-sweetness of life. Keb’ Mo’ was mesmerising as a performer and kept me spell-bound to the very end of his show.
Bluesfest Melbourne was a great success first year round. A few organisational tweaks and atmosphere enhancers for next year have the potential to make it a long-term triumph for the music business for years to come.
Words – Heather Packett
Photos – Lucas Packett