Almanac Music: BluesFest Melbourne Review


The Easter weekend saw the first iteration of BluesFest Melbourne held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.


Attempts have been made before to establish a southern outpost of the iconic Byron Bay Blues event. The Point Nepean Music Experience held twice in the mid 2000s was musically successful though at an unsustainable site. While a Blues Festival was also run at the Exhibition Centre site circa early 2000s as I recall. What I can clearly recall was that the sound in the cavernous exhibition spaces was ordinary. So it’s with some nervous expectation that I’m off to this weekend’s event courteous of my friends at Listening Through The Lens.


The weather in Melbourne is decidedly ordinary; like mid-Winter even though it is only early Autumn. Thankfully the three music stages are all indoors, no outdoor follies. Arriving mid-afternoon on Saturday, I’ve missed a few early acts and decide to orientate myself by drifting between the stages.


First up is a few songs from Frank Sultana on the Music City Stage. Frank is an electrified acoustic slide-guitar player with a tight driving rhythm section and an excellent harp player. Sound is good in the big space. Frank’s swampy sound would translate nicely to a tropical pub. I wander around a few expansive corridors to find the main Plenary Theatre for Kasey Chambers. This venue can hold around 5,000 punters. It’s probably half full. Kasey is one of those artists where the songs to chat ratio can be low. However I manage to hear a few songs, amongst the stories, which cover the breadth of her styles from banjo country to driving rock.


I head off to find the third stage Naarm, which turns out to be not far from Music City and see Geoff Acheson and the Souldiggers. Geoff has always been a favourite of mine with his driving funky blues and next-level guitar playing. I catch his last few songs. He is as good as ever. Sound is good too.


There are plentiful food and drink stalls and break-out areas throughout the corridors. Crowds are moderate, though the vibe is good. I return to the Plenary for John Butler, another favourite. He does not disappoint with his extraordinary electrified acoustic playing. I move on after he plays his epic instrumental ‘Oceans’.


I catch snippets of legendary artist Russell Morris and stalwarts The Backsliders. It’s always good to make new discoveries at a festival and this time it’s Memphis band Southern Avenue. I only see the last few songs of this impressive, sassy r&b style band, though it’s enough to impress. I’ll try and see more of them on Sunday.


Saturday night’s feature ticketed concert in the Plenary is The Doobie Brothers celebrating their 50th Anniversary. The band has many of their original and iconic members in the line-up with Michael McDonald on keyboards supporting the three-guitar attack and harmony vocals of Patrick Simmons, Tom Johnston and John McFee. Over nearly two hours they deliver a tight driving dynamic sound covering all their memorable hits. Personally, I’ve always preferred the earlier incarnation with a country rock/gospel feel with hits like ‘Listen To The Music’, ‘Jesus Is Just Alright’, ‘China Groove’ and ‘Black Water”’ The Michael McDonald soul era also gets good coverage with ‘Takin It To The Streets’, ‘Minute By Minute’, and ‘What A Fool Believes’ included. Overall an impressive gig for a bunch of performers mostly well into their seventies. My only criticism is that the sound has been very loud, even for a rock band. I hope it’s better on Sunday.



Steve Earle




I arrive early on Sunday to meet up with mate Greg and to see headliners Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams both scheduled early for the Plenary. I’ve been a fan of Earle since his mid 90s renaissance after his well-documented personal issues. I have a handful of his recordings and have seen him quite a few times over the years. He is solo without The Dukes and delivers a strong show covering a range of his material on guitar, mandolin and harmonica. He includes a tribute to departed son Justin Townes Earle covering his song ‘Harlem River Blues’.



Lucinda Williams


I’ve come a bit later to the party with Lucinda Williams, first seeing her at New Orleans JazzFest back in 2007, and since a few times. I do have a few of her CDs however have always considered her an acquired taste with her strong southern drawl. She has recently turned seventy and is still recovering from a stroke last year. No longer able to play guitar she is backed by excellent band Buick 6. She provides a strong performance with her voice as good if not better than ever. She is supported on a number of songs by Earle, in particular on his ‘Your Still Standing There’. When Lucinda shuffles to front of stage to dance during an extended instrumental section there is a tear in my eye. This was indeed a moving performance. Great songs, great band and excellent sound. I’ll look out for her new album due mid-year. I’ve joined the party.



Buddy Guy


Buddy Guy is also featured in a 75-minute set in the Plenary. He is a legend and into his eighties – his playing is still impressive. He has a solid band supporting with a gun-backing guitarist. I’ve seen him before a few times replete with his history of the blues lessons. Given this is probably his last visit down under, it’s been worth seeing him.


I think numbers are up for Sunday and there is a good vibe around the food and drink outlets adjacent to the Plenary.


I manage to see a few more songs of Southern Avenue and am impressed again. I finish up my day with bits of Melbourne twelve-person band FOOLS and Keb’ Mo.


I’ve had my fill and pass on a few headliners like Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram and Chain.


Overall I’d rate this first BluesFest Melbourne as very enjoyable and a success; a relatively good mix of local and international artists in a nice comfortable environment and good sounds. Coupled with the feature sideshows at venues like the Corner Hotel and the Palais Theatre this format may well be a viable long-term alternative to heading north to Byron Bay. I hope so.



All images by Jim Jacobs for LTTL .

Keiran’s piece was originally published in Listening Through The Lens.


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About Keiran Croker

Keiran is a lifelong Swans supporter, despite a brief dalliance with the Cats and Tigers in primary school years. Family connections to Port Melbourne and South Melbourne demanded loyalty to the Swans. The long wait for success was worth it.


  1. Daryl Schramm says

    Sounds like an interesting line-up and experience. And no mud to traipse through (not that I speak from experience).

  2. Hi Keiran

    Excellent write up mate. We attended on Sunday, principally to see Lucinda. I have been a big fan since the late 80s but have never seen her live. She did not disappoint. I’ve seen a few shows over the last month and Lucinda has been the highlight. Her new songs sound great. We stayed in the Plenary and saw Steve and Buddy as well. I was happy with just them. While the location was sterile, lacking the festival vibe, it did have very comfy chairs in the Plenary and the sound was excellent. My complaint was with the organisers. and the poor explanation of what ticket prices covered. But that’s a small complaint compared to the joy Lucinda, Buddy and Steve brought us.


  3. Luke Reynolds says

    Great write up Keiran on what sounds like a fantastic, varied event. Like the footy, it’s wonderful to have live music back.

  4. Went to Byron to see Eric Gales.

    Force of nature.

    His solo in Beth Hart’s I’d Rather Go Blind was off the charts.

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