After being postponed for two whole years due to circumstances beyond their control, Bluesfest is finally back! Woo-HOO! Bluesfest’s Festival Director, Peter Noble, has confirmed more than 101,000 tickets were sold for this three-times postponed, 33rd annual edition with $1 from every ticket sold going to flood relief. Also, hundreds of ‘flood heroes’ and victims were among Bluesfest 2022’s invited guests.

Header images by Tam Schilling. Artists L – R: Ross Wilson, Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram, George Benson, Emily Wurramara, Marliya chorister with Spinifex Gum.

On-site, there’s a delectable array of food trucks to choose from (the Byron Bay Organic Doughnuts stand is worth the trip up from Melbourne alone!) and the vast array of market stalls never ceases to amaze (chandelier from The Dancing Pixie, anyone?). Immune system-boosting, non-intoxicating elixirs are available at Asoma (Covid, begone!) and as more and more punters rock up to the festival site drenched, business at the hat stalls picks up.

We went into this festival feeling slightly concerned that we might have actually forgotten how to festival, but turns out it’s just like riding a bicycle. There’s no leg and glute workout quite like endless hours spent schlepping ‘round in the mud for just under a week. We would also really love to know how the lady who was spotted literally Sellotaping flip flops onto her feet on Day 2 got on.

Obviously the headliners across this five-day, multi-stage festival absolutely slayed – The Cat Empire, Midnight Oil, Paul Kelly, Crowded House and The Teskey Brothers (see photographic evidence in our excellent daily photo galleries) – but STACK delved deeper into the lineup this year, unveiling some hidden gems, emerging local and international artists plus a couple of iconic heritage acts that graced Bluesfest 2022’s smaller stages. What a vibe! Live music and multi-day, multi-stage festivals are back, baby!

Amadou & Mariam

Billed as “the most famous ambassadors for Malian music, and African music, all around the world”, Amadou & Mariam – backed by a fabulous band, including a bassist who not only slaps but also entertains – warm our hearts and souls while we boogie on down. Amadou Bagayoko (guitar/vocals) and Mariam Doumbia (vocals) have been blind since the ages of 15 and five respectively, and met at Mali’s Institute For The Young Blind – where they both performed in the Institute’s renowned Eclipse Orchestra – and their joyous Afro-pop is infectious. The pair fell in love through their shared passion for music and watching them perform feels like receiving a previous gift.

Bagayoko’s exuberant guitar playing and the warmth and joy of Doumbia’s singing give us the energy we need to party well into the wee hours. If you’re looking for an act to elevate your mood and put a pep in your step, Amadou & Mariam are the answer. And it just has to be said that Bluesfest is serving married-couple goals aplenty this year (also see: The War And Treaty)!

Clarence Bekker

Sweet Jesus, how are we only just discovering this exceptionally talented dude!? His honeyed, soul-drenched pipes have us whoopin’ and hollerin’ our appreciation throughout.

Clarence Bekker’s rendition of Try a Little Tenderness is next-level mastery and let’s talk about those dance moves for a sec: Bekker shimmies at such a rapid rate that we’ve surprised he doesn’t actually levitate or something! When Bekker introduces What’s Going On, we advance-swoon thinking he’s about to showcase the Marvin Gaye classic, but guess what!? He’s on about the 4 Non Blondes song (which is actually called What’s Up?): “And I say: ‘HEY! Yeah, yeah, yeeeee-aaaaah/ HEY! Yeah, yeah…”

Then just when we thought he’d reached maximum cheese level, Bekker segues into Don’t Worry Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin and then back again. Just, wow.

George Benson

While performing his smash hit Feel Like Making Love, Mister George Benson makes a lot of dreams come true tonight. That lipliner-thin moustache, though! And if Benson wasn’t wearing the shiniest of shiny black suits, we would’ve been thoroughly disappointed.

When Lady Love Me (One More Time) kicks in, we can’t help but wonder in advance whether Benson will go for this song’s soaring key change – YEAH, he does! And multiple times, no less. So sorry to have doubted you, Sir! Heck, we don’t even mind when he refers to us as “Aussie Land”!

Benson’s unparalleled mic technique and scat singing sure are impressive to behold in a live setting. We’re also stoked to have made the acquaintance of Benson’s backing vocalist/percussionist Lilliana De Los Reyes. She comes out from behind her percussion station to take lead vocals on Chaka Khan’s Ain’t Nobody, which Benson introduces as one of his favourite songs of all time, and is “fine” (Benson’s choice of descriptor) in every sense of the word. Other set highlights included Turn Your Love Around, Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You, deadset banger Give Me the Night and lofty ballad/vocal-gymnastics vehicle The Greatest Love Of All.

Bluesfesters

The Bluesfest massive is widely considered to be one of the most appreciative, music-loving crowds in the country, and we certainly experience some of the best singalongs and crowd-participation moments we’ve ever been a part of across the course of the Easter long weekend. Whether it’s waving arms overhead to beat from left to right, clap-alongs or spontaneously learning lyrics to shout back at the performers (shout out to Amadou & Mariam for ever so patiently teaching us some lyrics in their native tongue), Bluesfesters fully commit to giving it their all and it’s a damn impressive community to be a part of for the duration of the festival.

Special mention to the crews who helped this scribe push her bogged ute outta the quagmire at Day 2’s conclusion (and apologies to the kind gent whose white trainers were ruined as a result).

Bluesfest Staff & Vollies

Right from the first point of contact getting our parking ticket checked as we drive into Byron Events Farm on Day 1, every single Bluesfest staff member/volunteer we encounter across the weekend seems chuffed to be back and doing what they do.

Overheard: A volly wishing a middle-aged couple good night as they exit Bluesfest around 9.30pm on Day 4, to which one of the revellers responds, “Oh, we’ll be back! I just need to get some Nurofen.”

Cory Henry

The chuffed expressions on the faces of Cory Henry plus his two matchless backing players – bassist and drummer – while locking into the grooves give us life, and we can’t begin to imagine just how much not being able to jam-out with one another IRL during the various lockdowns hurt their souls.

Henry has the best eyebrow rhythm whilst keyboard soloing we’ve ever seen, and Waterfall is cascading brilliance. Henry’s bassist and drummer are so incredibly attentive, never taking their eyes off their bandleader and responding immediately to the subtlest of cues. “Go with love, go with peace, go with rhythm,” is Henry’s sign-off, and thanks to the soul medicine he’s delivered this evening we’re definitely floating on air by set’s conclusion.

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram

Not to be missed, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram embodies the healing power of blues. It’s impossible to soak up his guitar mastery without pulling an involuntary stankface, and Kingfish gets down off the stage to strut through the audience, giving even those hanging back in the crowd a front row seat – we can track his progress by the trail of smartphones held aloft trying to capture some close-up action.

His take on Hendrix’s Hey Joe is unbeatable and as for Ingram’s keys player, Eric Robert – we’re truly not worthy! We must also congratulate Kingfish on his first Grammy win – Best Contemporary Blues Album for his second record, 662 – earlier this month.

Ash Naylor

National treasure/ Even guitarist Ash Naylor receives our cross-pollination award for performing back-to-back sets on Day 2: first gracing the Mojo stage in vocal-powerhouse sibling duo Vika & Linda’s backing band (from 2.30 – 3.30pm) before hightailing it across to the main Crossroads stage to supply guitar majesty during The Church’s set (from 3.45 – 4.45pm) – someone give that man a slab of Red Bull immediately! Not to mention Naylor is also part of RocKwiz Orkestra, with RocKwiz Live thrilling Bluesfesters from 1 – 2.30pm on both Sunday and Monday afternoons.

Spinifex Gum

After parking the car, we hear some seriously heavenly harmonies floating by on the breeze. So as soon as we’re all wristbanded-up and onsite, we decide to investigate further and follow our ears like a cartoon character might follow the waft of a delicious pie. Voila! We arrive at Mojo tent just in time to catch the sublime Emma Donovan supplying guest lead vocals on a cover of The Warumpi Band’s My Island Home during Spinifex Gum’s outstanding set. The sound of Marliya – a 16-strong choir of young indigenous female singers from the Far North Queensland and Torres Strait Islands – would be enchanting enough on its own, but their show is also fully choreographed by Deborah Brown – what a spectacle!

Spinifex Gum began as a musical collaboration between The Cat Empire’s Ollie McGill and Felix Riebl plus the Marliya choir – Riebl also proudly taking the stage with them to supply some guest vocals tonight – and really needs to be experienced in a live setting to be fully appreciated.

Don’t be fooled by their divine wash of vocals, however, Spinifex Gum pack a punch and their excellent diction reveals themes of racial injustice within their songs: “Treat ‘em like that you just make ‘em better criminals” (Locked Up). The roar of the crowd at each song’s conclusion speaks volumes. And The Children Came Back when performed by Spinifex Gum, their en-masse harmonies creating an enveloping wall of sound, is moving beyond belief as the audience claps along to the beat throughout the song in a show of respect and appreciation.

CW Stoneking

Introducing his superb “toon” Goin the Country as “The only duet I ever wrote for myself,” CW Stoneking captivates the Juke Joint stage crowd by alternating between two characters in conversation – eg. “I’m goin the country”/ “How you gon’ get there?”/ “I dunno!” – while strumming a gorgeous, authentic, old-timey guitar and somehow sounding like three guitarists playing simultaneously.

Clad in trademark all-white ensemble accessorised with smart bowtie, Stoneking’s between-song banter is always worth shutting up for no matter how many times you’ve caught him live. And what is it about Mama Got the Blues that makes us feel so damn melancholy? Jack White has said of Stoneking, who covered The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army for triple j’s Like A Version and supplied guest spoken-word vocals on White’s Boarding House Reach track, Abulia And Akrasia: “He just sounds like he’s from a ghost ship in the middle of monster island to me. It’s just beautiful.”

We definitely feel like we’ve stumbled into a wild and wacky parallel universe. Stoneking just does his thing and his unique skillset wows us every single time.

The Bamboos feat. Kylie Auldist

Led by New Zealand-born producer/guitarist/songwriter Lance Ferguson, The Bamboos – a nine-piece soul/funk outfit featuring the sublime chanteuse Kylie Auldist – never disappoint. That irresistible brass hook during On the Sly gets us grooving, and we can’t believe the tunefulness of the harmonised whistling (Auldist plus one of the boys) during Hard Up – it’s off the charts and 100% live!

It’s definitely a case of, “Shut up, I’m dancing,” whenever The Bamboos hit the stage. The extended band intros allocate a solo to each musician, during which they’re given an opportunity to show off their mad skills – awe-inspiring. And Auldist (AKA Melbourne’s High Priestess Of Soul) is a shoo-in for Belle Of The Ball in that gorgeous, flowing, jade-green printed frock and flower crown.

The War And Treaty

Loved-up Nashville husband-and-wife team Michael Trotter Jr and Tanya Blount make their welcome return to Bluesfest – after wowing crowds during their multiple appearances at the festival’s 2019 edition – and to see them just once is simply not enough (we return for a second dose on Sunday having caught the duo in action the day prior). The couple’s lung-busting sustained notes lure passersby into the tent, but it’s their generosity of spirit that holds punters captive and keeps us glued to the spot.

They perform Till The Mornin’ while holding hands and then slow dance during this gentle ballad’s instrumental break. The upbeat Five More Minutes is almost too hard to hear once we’re made aware of this song’s inspiration: discovering her husband in a suicidal state – brought on by the PTSD he grappled with after serving in Iraq – Tanya found herself pleading with him for just “five more minutes” to convince him that her love would help him make it through the night.

The Trotters and co. are all about sharing the love, and it’s heart symbols held up high overhead in the crowd as far as the eye can see by set’s end. Michael says he hopes we won’t forget The War And Treaty “because we won’t forget you”, and we can confidently speak on behalf of everyone who caught one of their extraordinary performances across the weekend when we say that’s a given. They’re married and still visibly jonesing for one another – onstage in front of a live audience, no less – and we’re all for it!

Tijuana Cartel

Vocalist/guitarist/harmonica player Carey O’Sullivan commences this Gold Coast four-piece’s set solo on guitar, flexing his rapidfire, flamenco-style riffing. Once he’s joined onstage by the remaining members of Tijuana Cartel, the entire Mojo tent transforms into a giant dancefloor as punters remove their outerwear, tying jackets around waists and fully committing to busting out some serious moves.

The band’s psychedelic-spiked soundscapes – with added sprinklings of Middle Eastern, Indian and Spanish flavour – call to mind a Cirque Du Soleil soundtrack on occasion. She-J’s percussion/bongo contributions elevate the energy, Eamon Dilworth’s trumpet playing further exacerbates the mayhem and Letting it Go hits the spot with its extended breakdown and quirky hook.

Ross Wilson & The Peaceniks

“Now listen/ Oh we’re steppin’ out/ I’m gonna turn around/ Gonna turn ‘round once and we do the Eagle Rock.”

It’s more than 50 years since one of Ross Wilson’s legendary bands, Daddy Cool, formed and hence the lead singer (and mad harmonica player) sports a spiffy, half-decade-anniversary-appropriate gold jacket. The hits come thick and fast – Come Back Again (with its quirky chorus melody that sounds like a tween dude’s voice breaking – “…I’m just CRA-zy ‘BOUT ya, BABE!”); Chemistry, resplendent with Doctor Who-channeling synth wizardry; and Cool World, which is a contender for audience singalong of the festi and shows off Wilson’s effortless upper register with aplomb – he’s certainly still got it!

In between this fine selection of songs from his Daddy Cool, Mondo Rock and solo catalogues, Wilson – a two-time ARIA Hall Of Fame inductee (individually and with Daddy Cool) – tells amusing autobiographical anecdotes (including the fact that their American label wasn’t too keen on the album title for Daddy Cool’s second album, Sex, Dope, Rock’n’Roll: Teenage Heaven, which they suggested should be shortened to the way-more-innocent ‘Teenage Heaven’) and it’s a big ol’ party up there on stage.

Then Wilson & The Peaceniks launch into their penultimate track, Mondo Rock’s Come Said the Boy, and the Bluesfest massive absolutely lift the roof off Delta tent with their enthusiastic “WOAH-OH-OH-OH!” singalong as all arms sway overhead, left-to-right, in unison.

Nothing could top that, right? WRONG!

After Wilson quickly demonstrates how he came up with the cheeky, circular guitar riff that inspired Daddy Cool’s most iconic song, Eagle Rock, we clap along and bust out the daggy dancing, collectively losing our sh-t in appreciation for this irrepressible banger from The Great Australian Songbook. Then Wilson encourages the crowd to take a chorus, a cappella, and we’re reminded just how much we’ve missed this kind of joyous community spirit.

Hot tip: There are still several upcoming dates on Ross Wilson & The Peaceniks’ Eagle Rock 50th Anniversary tour – we strongly suggest you get involved!

Emily Wurramara

After admitting she’s “really f-cking stoked” to be performing her debut set on the Bluesfest stage, Emily Wurramara – a Warnindilyakwa woman from Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island in the Northern Territory – opens solo with Carry Me Home, a song that she wrote for her mum when she was only 14 years old. She is soon joined on stage by an ace three-piece backing band. Wurramarra then points out she’s clocked some Aboriginal elders, her old school teachers and vice principal in the crowd.

After dropping an f-bomb during one of her yarns, Wurramara jests, “Sorry if there’s any bubba young-ones out there, but I’m 26 and I don’t really care anymore.” She then shares Dance On My Own’s backstory – it’s about attending a social and getting sick of waiting to be asked to dance by a fella, so deciding to unite as sisters and dance the night away, unaccompanied, anyway – before encouraging us all to act out this song’s title; her own spirited dancing makes us get into it even more. Wurramara’s empowering track inspired by a douchebag she went on a date with – who claimed she was “too pretty for an Aboriginal girl” – incites a mass singalong. Wurramara creates the kind of music that saves lives.