The Byron Bay Bluesfest has been kicking along for 26 years now. And in that time, it’s evolved into Australia’s third biggest music event.
Director of Bluesfest since 1993, Peter Noble yesterday spoke to a tent full of media about the festival, where it’s at, and where it’s headed.
“This is the media, so I guess you just want me to say something outrageous,” he grinned, as the clicks of cameras gave way to chuckles. “I feel like I’m finally getting good at it.”
Noble is an extremely approachable man in his large red shirt and jeans, his large frame only adding to his jolly aura. As for the grin; it stayed on his face almost the entire time. What’s been created over the last 26 years is largely due to Noble’s perseverance and vision. He “believes in the festival”, a statement he repeats more than once.
His passion for directing the festival was tangible in every answer he gave. When talking about lesser known artists, he enthusiastically told us “they have the most incredible voice” and how we “must see them”.
Even away from the media, it’s hard to imagine him saying anything other than such positive and genuinely enthused things about even the buskers performing at the festival. “That’s what makes Bluesfest, the great acts that are on their way up,” he said.
It’s not just up and coming musicians that help make the festival what it is however. Bluesfest’s philanthropic social and environmental approach provides an immeasurable number of opportunities for local charities and tradespeople alike, funding over $40 million per year of development to the NSW economy. People respond to this, and is a large part of the event’s loyal, cult following.
Though while the passion for Bluesfest is more than palpable, the same cannot be said for other Australian music events. As the Bluesfest spark continues to be stoked, the flames of festival durability continue to flicker off around the nation. The commercial Big Day Out and Harvest festivals have recently joined several other local boutique festivals on the chopping block, while just this week it was announced Future Music Festival had also hosted its last rave.
With declining ticket sales and the rising costs of staging them, Noble thinks certain festivals no longer make pecuniary sense.
“Previous governments have been a bit better and have had members more openly support the arts, [but] it really is difficult to get funding for arts now. It’s a fairly brutal business we work in. I think Big Day Out lost its audience,” Noble said.
Having been around the festival grounds for a few days now, it would be safe to assume Bluesfest is not in danger of losing theirs. Everywhere you look, smiles and laughter are being shared between ticket holders, stall owners and the musicians themselves, and this cheerfulness is one such reason why people will most likely continue to return.
Diversity and change each year is another factor holding the broadminded Bluesfest’s lofty, revered status in place. Noble says it’s not really about whether or not someone fits into the scope of what the festival’s contemporary “blues & roots” tag. The artist just needs a certain feel about them.
“I could replicate each festival each year, but I don’t,” he said. We’ve ended with it being a little bit more contemporary this year and that’s just the direction it’s ended up heading.”
Bluesfest bills continue to combine both new age roots/indie with timeless tradition, though without forgetting its roots, to collate an eclectic group of acts who are just as palatable for newbies as for long term admirers.
In just one of yesterday’s clashes of old and new timers, SOJA and Jimmy Cliff took to the Mojo stage one after another. Metres away Paolo Nutini gave a fantastic genre spanning show in his first of the festival, while a captivating Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue performance threw some energetic rock spice into the Bluesfest melting pot.
The festival’s progressive nature is further highlighted by the country’s most diverse racial and gendered makeup of artists. Noble cites the lack of equality as a big issue for music festivals, explaining Bluesfest has the most female and acts of non-white origin in Australia.
Last year’s event had more female artists than male, while in the last few days Beth Hart and females of colour Nikki Hill and Alabama Shake’s Brittany Howard have been arguably three of the best received performers. “I don’t know what the other festivals do,” Noble said. “I don’t care, if you’re female, black, white, hermaphrodite. If you’ve got it, you’re in.”
But what Noble really believes separates his festival from the rest, is the middle tier of acts. Despite losing two headliners in Lenny Kravitz and The Black Keys in the last few months- an estimated drop of ten percent on day ticket sales, or approximately 400 people- Noble firmly believes that having a strong and interesting middle band is what keeps the rate of return to Bluesfest so high.
“When you’re looking at the tenth line and you’re seeing Charles Bradley, you know you’re doing it right,” he said. Bluesfest’s 2015 line up depth goes far and beyond the headliners, with the likes of Donavon Frankenreiter, Augie March, Xavier Rudd and Band of Skulls all sharing enormous fan-bases.
When it opened its doors in back in 1990, crowds packed into Byron Art’s Factory Lodge. A football field made up the adolescent stages of our baby blues, and now, it’s grown hair in places it didn’t realise it could. 100,000 people will dirty their gumboots in its paths this year, and by the look of things, Bluesfest, Noble and the people he bring through the festival gate are looking forward to growing old together.
“I’m enjoying it more than ever”, Noble said, adding that he’ll be back for at least the next five years. Bluesfest aims to bring infectious smile to peoples’ faces, and admiring the fruits of his labour yesterday afternoon, Noble’s was big as they come.
Photo by Nathan Brown
You can read more of Nathan and Evan’s Bluesfest coverage here.