Rhiannon Giddens kicked off Day 1 of Bluesfest with an eclectic fusion of typical folk instruments (banjo, double bass, fiddle), electric guitar and jaunty piano. The unique blend quickly pulled in a curious crowd willing to engage in a serious foot-tapping workout. Although the whole band gelled together nicely, a particular highlight came when just Rhiannon and her producer (playing fiddle) took the stage, letting her voice carry the song, and her honest, storytelling lyrics ring through.
Rhiannon Giddens did a great job, but Mavis Staples easily wins voice of the day, and perhaps the weekend. With a soulful, gospel and booming style, Mavis demanded everyone’s attention. Walking around the stage, leaning forward into the crowd, and calling out particular audience members who she made eye-contact with, Mavis truly owned the place.
She’s no stranger to Bluesfest and it’s easy to see why; she quickly won the audience over and had them clapping along with her raising their fists to her messages of unison and inclusion. The backing band were equally impressive, especially two vocalists who managed to hit the lowest lows and highest highs of the set, all to big cheers. All tracks were equally upbeat, but the simpler, catchy lyrics of ‘One Love’ and a cover of the blues classic ‘Wade In The Water’ had the crowd quickly and loudly joining in.
As a big Courtney Barnett fan, the announce of a one-off* performance from Courtney Barnett in the middle of working on her second album was a big draw. After releasing her acclaimed debut Sometimes I Sit and Think… in early 2015, the indie/grunge-y rocker had an intense year, touring relentlessly across the world, and admittedly seeming somewhat (and understandably) burnt out by the process.
After a well-earned break, it was great to see Courtney back in her element, rambling through her witty lyrics and shredding through her distorted guitar riffs. It was great to see her receive such an enthusiastic crowd, and she seemed truly humbled at the big ‘Depreston’ singalong which swept through the Mojo tent. There’s something oddly endearing about hearing hundreds of people describe percolator coffee. Several tracks were extended and given grungier intros and outros, especially the bass-heavy ‘Kim’s Caravan’. The whole set kept the crowd engaged, but especially the closing two-punch of ‘Elevator Operator’ and ‘Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party’ which saw some serious headbanging.
* Outside of a Patti Smith support slot
This was one special performance, and it’ll be a hard one for the weekend to top. Patti Smith’s 1975 debut Horses is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential albums of all time, and getting to hear the work in its entirety was an incredible experience, seemingly not wasted on anyone in the crowd. Every song received a thunderous applause and left a look of awe on all faces.
Nearly everyone knew the choruses of all songs and, as a result, the crowd were able to handle backing vocal duties throughout the performance, such as the iconic refrains of ‘Gloria’ and ‘Break It Up’. Presenting the album in this way also meant that Patti could also intro each song, often giving little insights into their composition, such as a bizarre dream about Jim Morrison which inspired ‘Break It Up’.
Most incredible about the performance was how well the album still holds up, and how relevant it still feels in today’s fucked up political climate. Patti constantly reminded us of this, literally shouting in our faces that it’s up to us band together and say no to these oppressive regimes arising across the world.
Unfortunately, Patti was battling a cold for the evening, which had given her a scratchier-than-usual voice, but if anything it just made the performance even more impressive. Every time her voice cracked, Patti would only shout louder and prove her ongoing commitment to her craft. “This isn’t a record” she exclaimed at one point when this happened, “it’s live!”
After Horses, we were treated to other classics from her catalogue including a fiery cover of ‘My Generation’ and crowd favourite ‘Because The Night’. Applause continued long after she had walked off stage, and cemented how honoured the crowd were to have witnessed such an influential and still clearly impassioned artist, even 40 years later.