The Cat Empire, Vika and Linda, The Living End and festival devotees tell us why the return of the Easter Festival means so much
Whether you’re an avid music lover, acclaimed entertainer, or just a motley group of up-and-coming musicians, most people have strong memories of their first experience at revered Byron Bay. Bluesfest.
“When we first played here, we were an unknown band, playing at two o’clock in the afternoon,” The cat empireit is Harry James Angus says Zan Rowe of Double J.
“The stage was called the Jambalaya stage – not the big main stage – and there was no one in the tent. There were a few people sitting at the very back of the tent, which was very far away, eating their fish tacos and stuff over the hill.
“We had this thing at the time, because we were always the unknown band, I just had to play the trumpet as loud as I could. And it worked really well. You start playing the trumpet really loud and people came running.
“I remember starting with nobody and ending on this triumphant pinnacle of communion with the public. It’s just one of those crowds, every year.”
Bluesfest isn’t the first music festival to return since COVID began to take its toll in March 2020. Its return is significant, however.
What makes Bluesfest vital?
The festival, which started in Byron Bay in 1990, is on the bucket list for music lovers of all persuasions.
“What I love about Bluesfest is that we’re all in it together,” Vika bull said. “Isn’t it like a festival for young people. It’s everyone. All walks of life, all musical tastes.”
Vika and Linda have played the festival many times and watched it grow into the massive, internationally renowned event it is today.
“To see it getting bigger and bigger and to see people coming back year after year is lovely,” Linda Bull said.
“They have such loyal people who come to camp and hang out and enjoy the music, it’s just wonderful.
“They obviously feel comfortable,” adds Vika. “And that makes us feel comfortable.”
Unlucky timing has meant Bluesfest has faced COVID-enforced cancellations in 2020 and 2021. This extended gap means that music lovers’ appetites are particularly voracious.
On Good Friday, the second of the five days of the festival, the festival is in full swing.
The first thing that strikes once you get there is the smell. A heady combination of freshly cut grass that doesn’t turn so slowly into squelchy mud, and a cornucopia of different food smells that don’t clash so much or mix.
The sound comes next, far from overtones of reggae, blues and rock, mixed with the chatter of tens of thousands of avid music fans rushing from stage to stage. It’s only when you approach one of the tents that the sound of a particular artist becomes apparent.
A lot is wrapped up in these seemingly mundane sensory cues.
Each squelch of mud underfoot recalls a moment from a past festival, or a mash of memories that lie in the heart and gut.
Each new Bluesfest is also an opportunity to create new memories.
Festival lovers Andrew and Sam Pinchin were scheduled to attend Bluesfest in 2020 before its last-minute forced cancellation. Over the next two years, they had their first child, Jack, who joins them at the event this year.
“I got a little emotional yesterday, to be honest, in the first set we got to,” Sam said.
“I think the combination of a few years without festivals and that has been such a big part of my life. And then having [Jack] here with us… It was just awesome.”
The public’s enthusiasm is not lost on the performers.
“I think everyone is really excited to be at a show and see music,” Georgia Mooney of All of our exes live in Texas said. “No one really believes this is happening until it starts because everything is still on the razor’s edge.”
“I saw a woman running to the bathroom during our set, in the middle of the pouring rain, just smiling,” her teammate said. Katie Wighton adds. “That’s when you know you’ve missed a festival, when you run to a porta loo in the pouring rain with a huge smile on your face.”
get back to work
The return of events like the Bluesfest isn’t just a relief for those of us who love the experience of live music. Artists are equally thrilled to have the opportunity to get back to work.
On stage, the artists shine again in front of a large crowd, and cannot help but show their excitement or their relief to be back.
“To stand out on stage at a major festival after not doing anything for two years is more overwhelming than I expected,” Wighton said.
Peter Garrettthe first words from the crowd during midnight oilheadlining are simply “We finally made it! You finally made it!” before reminding the huge crowd of the fate of the arts through the pandemic.
In the middle of his emphatic and energetic set, Briggs laments the two years without the chance to play for the crowds.
Backstage, artists mingle and relish the chance to catch up for the first time in a long time.
“It’s a pretty happy space there,” Hoodoo Gurus‘ leader Dave Faulkner said.
“You hear all these excited voices and a lot of music seeping in. It’s just a really good vibe.”
Performing on such a large stage brings increased pressure. Regardless of the size of your group, there’s no avoiding nerves as you approach a set at Bluesfest.
“We’ve been doing it every once in a while since COVID has allowed us to, but it’s definitely the one with the most jittery feeling for us,” The living end drummer Andy Strachan said.
“It’s such a beautiful venue. You just want to play the best gig you can.”
“For me, it’s half nervous, but it’s definitely a party at this point,” the frontman said Chris Cheney adds.
“The fact that we’re here for the third time is incredible. And you can’t let the nerves get over the idea that this is a celebration and it’s this connection with the public. It’s what you expect from a show.”
A full loop moment
Most of us will always remember our first Bluesfest. Most members of The Cat Empire are in the unique position of knowing that this year was their last. On stage, at least.
On the opening night of the festival, the band as we know them said goodbye for the last time. Playing their last show at Bluesfest seemed like the right thing to do.
“It feels good,” Angus says of his last gig with the band at Bluesfest.
“It’s like coming full circle,” adds drummer Will Hull-Brown. “If we had to choose which concert we could do for our last, you are always going to throw these [festival] names… Bluesfest is the right one.
The Byron Bay Bluesfest continues until Monday 18th April. Head here to follow all the action happening on the ground.