Sunday, October 19, 2008

Singin' the Blues Fest

Why on Earth wouldn’t you pack a trailer full of camping gear and drive 800 kilometres overnight to have a five-day holiday? Every Easter a troupe of us goes to Byron Bay to attend the East Coast Blues and Roots Music Festival, a huge Woodstock-like affair that brings performers from all over the world to Australia. The festival is in its eighteenth year, and will see some 150,000 people from across the country flood through the turnstiles over a five-day period. It is an event of monumental organisation, preparation and execution. And the music is always superb.

But the Bluesfest itself is only part of the reason my family and friends have been going there for so long now. Every year we camp at Lennox Head, a picturesque and peaceful little hamlet on the coast some fifteen kilometres south of Byron. The very first time I went to Byron for the festival was with my son, Miles, when he was fifteen. A bloke to whom I’d taught music in gaol rang me, out of the blue, suggesting I come up to the festival. He offered me a place to stay – “Do you own a tent?” – and so Miles and I piled into the car one night and I drove the whole way in one hit, arriving at his place at seven in the morning. The two of us camped in an old two-man tent that threatened to blow down with every gust of wind, and leaked like a sieve whenever a shower hit it, which, at Byron, is often. Our camping organisation was primitive, to say the least – we took only the tent and a couple of sleeping bags. But the experience of a world of brilliant music meant that we were permanently and thoroughly addicted. And the number of attendees from our neck of the woods has grown geometrically with each year, as everyone who goes comes back to the mundanity of ordinary life exhorting all and sundry to make the voyage.

So now, this year, there are thirty-two of us, all travelling north. Firstly, let me give you some idea of the demography of our little company. It divides, roughly, into two factions: the “oldies” – people like I, my wife Chris and ten or so of our friends (and a few “littlies”) – and a group of Miles’ friends, most of whom, like Miles, are current or former students at the NSW Conservatorium of Music. Of course, it is the oldies, particularly my mate Greg and me, who do the majority of the organisation. Tonight, I’ve arranged for Miles and another couple of carloads of his friends to meet us on Sydney’s northern outskirts. The oldies’ cars and trailers are already in formation, travelling out from the Hawkesbury. We meet at the beginning of the Pacific Highway at nine p.m., with about eleven hours of driving in front of us. We’ll keep in touch by CB radio or mobiles. It’s no small measure, driving along this stretch of road. The busiest highway in Australia, the Pacific winds its way along the NSW coast, with its myriad of small towns. These days, for a large part of its course, the highway is four-lane expressway. But there are many stretches of the old two-lane road that have all the hazards of an era when automobile travel was, generally, a more sedate affair. Rough roads, heart-stopping bends and crests, and the greatest hazard of all: oncoming traffic. You have to keep your wits about you, the lack of which is part of the reason that thirteen people have died on a particular ten-kilometre section near Coffs Harbour in the past three years.

We navigate the 120 kilometre F3 freeway without incident, and have our first meet-up at a servo in Raymond Terrace, just north of Newcastle. It’s ten-thirty. As always, there is a clamour of excitement amongst the assembly; some have not seen others for the past year, and introductions are made around the “newbies” from both groups. Among the company are people from all walks of life – carpenters, landscapers, a psychologist, quite a few teachers, an electrician, a stone-mason, and, of course, some of the country’s best young orchestral musicians. Most importantly, though, is the collection of characters in the group: my mate Leigh, who you've already met, is a natural comedian, capable of keeping the entire company in fits of laughter for hours; Craig, the world’s most eccentric psychologist; Steve, an artist and jack of all trades; Ezmi, cellist and sick joke expert – all have become firm friends over the years. Full tanks, a quick coffee, and we are off on the next leg, a big one of about 300 k through to Macksville, where we’ll have a more extended break.

I’m driving at the head of the convoy for a while. I’m hoping to pick up a likely-looking semi heading our way, and stick on his heels. Just short of Karuah I come slowly up behind a big Kenworth pulling a standard-looking pantech trailer. I hail him on the CB.

“G'day in the Kenworth?”
“Got ya, you behind me?”
“ Yes mate – I’ve got about a dozen in convoy with me going up to Byron. Don’t mind if we tag along behind you for a bit?”
“No problems, mate. Might be a bit slow at times – I’m pretty heavy tonight. And I’m gonna stop for a bite at Macksville, anyway.”
“Perfect, mate – we’re doing the same.”
“Roger, have a good one – keep about a hundred yards behind me.”
“OK. Thanks”

Chris texts the rest of the crew that we’re following the semi. I’m relaxed – it’s almost effortless driving, just keeping an eye on the temperature gauge when we climb the bigger hills. Bulahdelah, Taree and Port Macquarie disappear in our wake. Just out of Kempsey it starts to pour, vision comes down to about fifty yards, and great swooping gusts of wind throw the Hi-lux and trailer around the road. I get Steve, who’s at the back of the convoy, on CB – he thinks everyone’s coping OK. We press on – the semi’s unfazed by the atrocious weather, and I’m glad we got onto his tail. At two in the morning, in these conditions, the landscape is surreal: a big full moon scuds in and out of the clouds while belts of rain come bursting across the road in intermittent blasts; even some lightning adds to the mood, for an instant illuminating trees and distant hills. It’s travel: unpredictable, sometimes eerie and ever exciting.

About four hours after leaving Raymond Terrace, I see the semi pulling into the all-night diner in Macksville. It’s three-thirty, just the right time for breakfast! I walk over on fairly stiff legs to the semi; its driver is climbing down from the cab and we shake hands. His name is Kevin, and he’s taking foodstuffs to Brisbane, where he’ll pick up some beer for the return trip. He’s lucky – he has a good contract with a company that looks after him. I hear all of this over breakfast. Kevin (“Kev will do”) has been doing this run for ten years, and has been able to afford his own prime mover. He’s one of the lucky ones – many drivers are forced to work like navvies to pay for the enormous overheads involved in running a rig like this. He’s doing two trips a week, plus some local Sydney runs. He “only” works about seventy hours a week. Enough said.

Out of courtesy, I insist on paying for Kev’s breakfast. He grumbles a bit, but I suggest that the favour he’s doing us is worth at least a bite to eat. Mollified, he goes out to check his rig.

Under Kev’s guidance, the rest of the trip is pleasant and (almost) uneventful. Nambucca, Coffs Harbour and Woolgoolga glide by in the beautiful light of the pre-dawn. The sun is rising as we meander along the Clarence River between Grafton and Ballina. This is the danger time, for we have been driving all night, and it has all been a little too easy. Craig is driving my car, and I’m beside him, with my youngest son Blake, and Dylan, our friends’ thirteen year old in the back. Chris is with Tina and Greg, Dylan’s parents. Craig and I have been pointing out to the kids the proliferation of “big” objects along the coast road: the Big Banana, the Big Prawn we’ll see at Ballina, and so on. Craig suggests that what this highway needs is a “Big Arsehole” – a great big bare bum sticking out at you from the roadside. The kids are in hysterics, adding improvements to the concept, when an oncoming car veers into our lane. It’s tight – Craig can’t make a rapid correction because of the heavy trailer behind us, but is able to ease us onto the shoulder just in time. “Fucking idiot,” he growls. Still, it’s the only problem we’ve encountered, and we breeze into Ballina at seven.

Kevin hails me to say goodbye. I thank him for his guidance, and wish him a safe journey. We turn onto the coast road between Ballina and Lennox, only seven k to the north. This is my favourite part of the trip, swooping down into the town from the headland, with the stunning vista of Seven Mile Beach in the morning sunlight signalling the end of the first phase.

It’s too early to book into the camping ground, so we stop at the surf club and prepare for a swim. As usual, the water is beautiful, the surf is gentle, and the troupe is, in turn, exhausted and refreshed. The surf club café is opening for business, and thirty-odd people swoop on it for another huge breakfast. My god, travel makes a soul hungry.

We book in at Lake Ainsworth – the managers have known us for years, now, and are gracious in their welcome. Tents are pitched, in a fairly formal arrangement with the oldies having first pick of the sites. We call the youngster’s big site “Surry Hills”, partly because that is where many of them live, but also because their area tends to look like a dump by the end of the festival. Greg, Leigh, Steve and I erect the giant communal living area, which is nothing more than a ten by six metre tarpaulin with tables, chairs and assorted paraphernalia lying underneath. Steve is the kitchen whiz – the back of his Range Rover is fitted out like a chef’s paradise. He is the most organised guy I’ve met – after setting up camp, Chris is lounging in Steve’s blow-up sofa (I kid you not), and says “You know what I feel like? A chicken roll.” No sooner has she uttered the words when Steve appears with that exact item. He’s prepared several of them the day before, and kept them in his electric fridge. (Of course you take an electric fridge with you on a camping holiday!) He always brings a “homely” touch to our camping experience – last year it was one of those old-fashioned tall lamps, complete with 40’s style lampshade. Very art-deco.

Even though nearly everyone is knackered, we brush our tiredness away with a beer. It’s time to hit the festival!

We have to queue to get our tickets processed, and an armband fitted which will gain us entry over the next five days. The oldies can pack into Leigh’s van, and the youngsters will find their own way. This is one of the beauties of the trip – the two groups tend to look after themselves, and often meet up only at the end of a night back in camp to discuss the day’s events.
I’m excited as we enter the festival grounds for the first time this year. I’m looking forward to hearing some artists that have become favourites over the years, and there is always the certainty that you will see a performer, or band, that you have never heard before, who will blow your mind. This afternoon we’ll set our chairs up in the “Crossroads” tent, and listen to three or four acts.

I should explain the layout of the festival site. It’s held at the Byron Bay “Red Devils” rugby league ground, and is dominated by three enormous marquees, the biggest being about eighty by sixty metres, and holding about twelve thousand people. A gigantic stage is situated at one end of the marquee, with all of the paraphernalia associated with a big concert venue: huge sound system, lighting gantries, curtains, video screens etc.

We get our position, and some of us wander off to get a beer and have a look around. The first act - Marva Wainright and her band - won’t be on for a little while, so Leigh, Craig, Greg and I go for a stroll around the festival. Byron’s a funny place – a mixture of new-age hippy, and a cranking entrepreneurial flair. Everyone has something to sell, and the festival is almost as much a marketplace as it is a music venue. We ignore the fashion stalls, the jewellery outlets, and the arts-and-craft markets, and look for the beer tent.

We head back to the Crossroads. There are, by now, thousands of people inside. After coming to the festival for many years you get to know how to navigate your way into the best position, and we have done that successfully, setting up a row of chairs right in front of the mixing station in the centre of the tent, about twenty metres from the stage. It gets awfully crowded in these tents, especially after about six o’clock each night, and you need to stake your claim on a piece of real estate ASAP.

Marva’s band comes on and starts a big, bluesy intro for her. These guys play hundreds of shows each year in the States, and are a very cool, professional blues and soul band. As a muso myself, I’m always intrigued, not by the way the musicians play, so much, as by the interplay, the dynamics of the performance. For some reason, the Yanks seem to be awesome at this. But they’re not the only ones. Later on tonight we’ll head over to the Mojo, the biggest tent at the festival, to hear Angelique Kidjou, the great singer from Benin. I’ve heard her twice before at the festival, and have become a big fan. Can’t wait.

But before Angelique, we get an astonishing performance from Robben Ford, the American guitarist/singer. He and his band come out and play a set that has the entire 8,000 or so in the Crossroads screaming for more. What can you say? Exquisite, sublime blues guitar. This guy has got to be about the best there is in his genre.

Hyped up after Robben Ford, we head to the Mojo. It’s tough finding a good spot, as already there are about ten thousand people crammed into the marquee. The air is electric; at her last performance, two years ago, Kidjou brought the house down with her mix of Afro/Latin/Euro (God, how do you describe music like this?) rhythms and melodies. Her band comes on – big, powerful drums and bass kicking along a song that has everyone in the tent jumping, as the diva herself waltzes onto the stage. We are not disappointed – she is the best contemporary singer in the world today. We listen in rapture as she performs “Hallelujah”, which I’ve not heard before. And then, straight into “Africa”, a rejoicing, rollicking singalong – at one point, the band stops, and you can hear 10,000 people all singing their lungs out on the chorus. It’s got to be the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

She’s finished, and we turn to each other with looks of indescribable emotion. This is what we’ve come for – the experience of hearing music so uplifting, so imaginative, and so soulful. The campsite will be buzzing tonight.

But it’s not over yet. The last act for the night comes on – it’s the Nigerian singer Femi Kuti with his band, Positive Force. It’s their first appearance at the festival, and there has been plenty of buzz about him. He’s the son of Fela Kuti, the activist/musician who died a few years ago. Knowing a little of Nigerian politics, I’m interested to see how his songs reflect his peoples’ struggle against the Nigerian regime which has, more or less, sold its peoples’ birthright to Shell Oil.

Onto the stage comes a huge band: six-piece brass section, drums, two percussionists, bass, guitar and keyboards. They set up a blistering intro, and are joined by three female dancers who – now let’s put this in politically correct terminology – are supremely confident of their own sexuality. Dressed in traditional (i.e. next to nothing) style, they start to dance. Femi himself appears, and suddenly, he is singing about struggle. I begin to realise that this is the African way: the message is hard; it is confronting and challenging, but it is delivered within an idiom that rejoices in rhythm, movement, colour and harmony. Sublime, and at the same time kick-arse!

We’re back at camp, and full to the brim with the greatest music in the world. My son and his friends appear; he walks over to me and says, in his dry, laconic way: “Africa wins.”

It’s two a.m., and we’ve all been more or less awake for the past thirty-six hours, but it’s difficult to go to sleep while the experience of that time is still fresh in our minds. People begin to drift off to their tents, and I am left, finally, with Leigh, Greg and Craig sipping a nice red and winding down. I just know I’ll find myself waking to the lorikeets in this same chair in about four hours from now.

And I do.


phil said...

Great story Laurie, I am a devotee of road trips. A mate and I used to entertain plans of making it to Byron but never got sufficiently organised (ie a year in advance).

I've got a Robben Ford CD somewhere, now I'll have to find it and bung it in the car hifi.

Laurie said...

Hey, Phil - you have GOT TO get yourself to the Bluesfest; it's awesome!