Nic Cester kicked off Sunday with an exciting and unexpected reinvention, trading in the relatively straightforward rock-riffs of JET for a fuller and more complex blues-soul sound. Joined by The Milano Elettrica, this was the band’s first live performance, but still displayed an impressive musicality; always complimenting each other and creating a complex but never overwhelming sound. Playing an hour set comprised of new material, particularly when it’s so different to what you’ve done before, could easily fall apart, but the band easily pulled it off and kept engagement up throughout the entire set. A customary cover of JET’s ‘Shine On’ featuring just acoustic guitar and keys was a welcome surprise for fans, but came across as somewhat basic and lacking compared with the adventurous set it was surrounded by. Outside of festivals, I can’t say I was ever a massive JET fan, but it’s safe to say I’m excited to see what this new iteration brings.
Bluesfest stalwarts Playing For Change were up next, bringing messages of positivity and world music diversity to the stage, and perfectly embodying all that the festival stands for. In keeping with the fluidity of their line-up, the band constantly traded instruments and brought guests musicians to the stage, resulting in an exciting and ever-changing sound.
It’s been awhile since the festival was only restricted to blues and roots, but hip-hop acts on the lineup still seem to be met with some apprehension. Luckily, as with what seems to happen with every hip-hop set, REMI and his band quickly demonstrated an impressive musical prowess that drowned out any naysayers. With a drummer, percussionist, bassist, keyboardist and guitarist joining him, REMI‘s jazz/funk influences were obvious, and he felt truly at home at the festival. Old school drum/percussion breakdowns were aplenty, and made sure that the rapper delivered on his promise to “party and make you dance!”. It’s difficult to pick a highlight, but second last track ‘XTC Party’ got the most energetic response and easily featured one of the funkiest basslines of the day.
World music legend Santana assembled one of the biggest crowds of the festival so far, proving the cross-genre and cross-generational appeal of his music. Plus, he’s an act that truly needs to be seen live, and studio recordings just don’t do the jamming style of his music justice.
From the opening bongo solo onwards, it was clear this was going to be an energetic set. The performance was perfectly put together, alternating between instrumental jams, classic Santana tunes (‘Oye Como Va’, ‘Maria Maria’ and ‘Black Magic Woman’) and singalong covers (‘Orinoco Flow’). What’s best about the set however, is that Santana knows when to sit back and let his talented band take control, making his own epic shreds feel all the more earned. Each member was given their time in the spotlight, whether it was to play a solo or lead a jam with the others. A particular favourite was Dave Matthews on keys, constantly proving his talent and having a great time doing it. He seemed particularly chuffed to receive a Birthday singalong and cake from Santana partway through the set. It’s an obvious pick, but ‘Smooth’ was a clear high point of the set, getting the entire crowd singing and dancing along. A beautiful sign of the harmony that Santana and his band strive to inspire.
The classic singalongs continued late into the night with ska legends Madness cracking out all the big hits. They gave an impressively energetic performance, commanding the stage and proving, as this festival has time and time again, that age really is just a number.
Billy Bragg took to the stage again on closing night, this time with Joe Henry by his side to play a series of traditional blues covers. As with Billy Bragg’s solo set a few days ago, the pair introduced each song with a little story about its history or how their cover version of it came to be, giving a sense of intimacy to the performance and harking back to the storytelling origins of the songs they covered. The two play naturally off each other onstage both musically (through well-practiced harmonising), and in between songs by finishing each other’s sentences and stories like old friends. This comfort perfectly translated into the music and made for a unique set.
Booker T brought the old school soul vibes, following in Buddy Guy‘s footsteps and giving the crowd a schooling in music history. Joined by a full backing band (including his son on guitar) and two vocalists, the renowned keyboardist played a selection of classic covers from across Stax Records, including ‘Gee Whiz’ (Carla Thomas), ‘Respect’ (Otis Redding), ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ (Albert King) and ‘Hold On I’m Coming’ (Sam & Dave), all of which got the crowd singing and dancing along. Booker T also intro’d each song, usually explaining how he’d been involved in its original recording. A particular highlight came with ‘Green Onions’, a Booker T original featuring what has to be one of the world’s greatest organ riffs. The instantly recognisable tune immediately packed out the tent and ensured that he scored the crowd he deserved.
Crowded Horse frontman Neil Finn closed out the festival, and delivered the biggest singalong of the weekend. Opening with a spacey, muted trumpet-led rendition of Crowded House’s ‘Private Universe’ set the perfect tone for the evening; fresh takes on old classics. All the hits were still there and recognisable enough to sing along with, but reworked just enough to keep them exciting.
The crowd had multiple attempts to work their vocal pipes, particularly with the inclusion of favourites ‘Fall At Your Feet’, ‘Four Seasons In One Day’ and ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’. Finn understands the importance of the singalong at a festival, and plays to the audience’s knowledge of his songs, often dropping out or cutting back to acoustic guitar to let them temporarily take over.
It truly was the perfect end to a perfect weekend, bringing everyone together in harmony for one more time, reminding us that despite all the messed up shit happening across the world, we’ll always have music to bring us together. Bring on next year.