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The idea of throwing a massive birthday party is my worst nightmare. So it should come as no surprise that when the time came for me to plan my 21st birthday, I avoided giving anyone who asked a straight answer. Mum wanted a party, I wanted out. I wanted to run away. I was enrolled in an MA I didn’t want to do, I was restless and I needed some fresh air if only to preserve my sanity. Don’t get me wrong, I love an old fashioned hoedown as much as the next person, hell, I’m one of the biggest extroverts I know, but not this time.
Cue the Google search, “gigs happening around the world over Easter.” I was led down a bleak path; there were several of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds gigs, a bunch of old crooners touring around Australia, and a few really big names hitting our neck of the woods either side of Easter, seeming to strategically avoid the long weekend. I was puzzled. With my senses heightened, it occurred to me there might well be some kind of event drawing them together in Australia. But what kind of event would draw Kendrick and Kamasi as well as Jason Isbell, Tom Jones, and The Wailers? An angel answered my prayers and I found it—the Byron Bay Bluesfest. A five-day indulgence that would restore my faith in music festivals and to some extent, humanity. I rallied some troops—fellow music lovers—and got to work selling everything I owned to get me a ticket to the Promised Land.
I’m gonna be honest here, the trip got off to a hella underwhelming start. The Wellington International Airport departure lounge was so dimly lit we may aswell have been in a preschool nap-room. So that’s what I did. I napped and I waited. When we finally stepped off the plane in the GC, I was overcome with disappointment. What a shit airport. It was like a scene right out of The Walking Dead, only the walkers were unhelpful grumpy old white men. But we were there. We had bid John Key adieu and entered into Turnbull territory, ready to show our Aussie siblings what this riff-raff trio of Kiwis had in us.
It was on the flight over that we uncovered a grave miscommunication, we had just one $16 Necessities brand two-person tent to last six nights in the middle of the New South Wales storm country. Rad. As someone with so much chill it can get me in trouble, I just shrugged it off as something we would figure out. “Surely Byron would be big enough to find a tent? They host three major festivals a year,” I naively told myself. It wasn’t until we landed and entered into conversation with our shuttle driver called Phil, Roger, or Nigel that I realised the enormity of the fuck up. When I asked where we could acquire a tent, he simply shook his head with the air of a disappointed parent. He proceeded to quiz us on whether or not we had done any research before coming over (we hadn’t). Phil/Roger/Nigel was concerned because despite there being more surf shops per capita than any other place in the entire world, there were no camping stores in Byron Bay—a real gap in the market in my opinion.
Upon arriving at the walk-in camp area, we were greeted by high luxe four-person tents. Some of them were so big you could stand up in them. We were disheartened—our tent taking just 90 seconds to assemble—but we soldiered on. Luckily for us, our new family of fellow revellers welcomed us with open arms, and more continued to over the coming day. A wide-eyed, slightly drunk, 18-year old called Maddy offered to let me stay in her huge tent for the entire festival. I’m sure she lived to regret this—particularly when I snuck a ‘special friend’ in one night—but we are now great friends and I don’t think this would have happened had we not been forced together in such a situation. Sam and Joseph survived six nights, including one storm, in the world’s smallest tent. Said tent was sacrificed on day six, left to die in a NSW landfill. They went home with back pains, and I went home feeling as though I’d spent a week glamping at Coachella.
* * *
On day three a major shift occurred. The sky had been looking particularly moody, and festival veterans had been warning that “it wouldn’t be Bluesfest if there wasn’t a storm.” Fuck. Being the shit packer that I am, I didn’t bring gumboots, a rain jacket or any kind of practical rainwear. The closest thing I had to a jacket was denim. D-E-N-I-M. What rational person does that? I prayed for the clouds to blow over. Surely there was a desert somewhere that needed some rain? Australia lives in drought this time of year.
Fast-forward to 6.00pm that night at the Crossroads stage. I was sipping on a Gordon’s Gin & Tonic with a couple of beautiful frenchmen, we were grooving unexpectedly hard to the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band, and all of a sudden the heavens opened. It didn’t rain, it poured. The crowd became tighter as those on the fringe attempted to seek shelter under the giant tent above us. Before long, the weight of the rain on the tent became too much. The ceiling tore, causing a gushing waterfall to rain down around us. Anywhere else this would have been a crisis, but not here, the incident was more than accepted, it was embraced. Within seconds people were taking their clothes off and dancing under the waterfall—one of the dreamy Frenchmen included. We danced in the rain with people our parents’ age, not an unhappy face in sight.
Rain does funny things to people. Kids will do anything to play in the rain, but as adults we spend most of our lives trying to avoid it. In the festival environment, the rain let everyone become someone they’re very rarely able to be. Strangers embraced, couples slow-danced, mud was spread across bodies in places mud should never go, and for that night we stood united.
Between Hiatus Kaiyote and Tom Jones, I was most looking forward to an opportunity to meet veteran of the American country and folk scene, Steve Earle. Festivals like this give diehard fangirls, like me, the chance to meet their heroes. I grew up listening to Steve Earle, because my dad, Dave Robertson, loves Steve Earle. Like, really loves him. He bought a weird thumb pick because that’s what old mate Steve uses and he owns a set of dvds in which Steve teaches you how to play guitar just like him. He’s purchased most of his back catalogue on iTunes and more recently, a hard copy of his latest album The Tennessee Kid (read: very good). It should come as no surprise that after a childhood of being subjected to his music against my will, he would come to be one of my must-see acts.
Steve’s first set was on Friday night, and we strategically arrived at the Jambalaya stage just as Blackberry Smoke finished up, to secure a spot on that goddamn barrier as their fans dispersed. In hindsight, I probably didn’t need to be so eager—the youngest people nearby were older than my parents and weren’t really the moshing kind. When the overweight, plain-looking bearded man walked onto stage, the crowd erupted. Anywhere outside of that venue and you wouldn’t have known him from a bar of soap, but right there, in that moment, he was our everything. And so for 60 minutes, we were treated to everything from the classics “Copperhead Road” and “Galway Girl”, right through the his Tennessee Kid club bangers.
I’d purchased myself a Copperhead Road t-shirt—the only merch Steve’s had for the past 30 years—and was on a mission to get it signed. With my fuckboi cap on backwards (I meant business), I patiently waited in line to meet the man himself. Those around me were puzzled, “why are you here?” they asked, to which I responded “I just really love Steve Earle.” When my moment came, my hands were clammy, I felt like I might swallow my tongue if I wasn’t careful, and I had the woman I’d befriended in line two minutes prior ready to take a sweet pic. I have enough experience to know that these situations never play out as cool as you imagine, but true to what my Dad had told me growing up, old mate Steve was one of the kindest, most genuine musicians I have ever had the pleasure of interacting with. We talked about my Dad, the new album, and Steve apologised for not being able to make it to Christchurch this time round. He said he was off to holiday in Titirangi. Dad told me later he likes fly fishing. He was going to go fly fishing in Titirangi. Never have I met an international act and left liking them more than I had when I walked into the situation. I always leave feeling like a bit of a dick, but this was an exception. If you’re a fan and are ever so lucky as to cross Steve’s path, go and say hello, trust me.
* * *
Every act I saw in one sentence, because it was a festival:
The National played for two hours and their set included every single one of their coffee shop bangers—I mostly just made googly eyes at frontman Matt Berninger. Mick Fleetwood kept touching and talking about his “package” and I felt my vagina dry up like California in a drought. Kamasi Washington’s double bass player Miles Mosley’s original song “Abraham” will change your life. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds were meh, but seeing a Gallagher brother in life was a pop-culture dream. Kendrick is a baller and his set was tight, but too many people sang along when they shouldn’t have—if you don’t understand what I’m saying here you’re part of the problem. Jason Isbell closed the festival on my birthday and I almost cried because it was so beautiful, but also I was very hormonal and very alone. Playing for Change made me feel like I lived in a hippy commune, but in a good way, not a Home and Away circa 2005 way. Blind Boy Paxton is the funniest person I’ve ever not met. I would’ve had more fun shovelling shit than I did listening to Graham Nash’s lengthy anecdotes. Cold War Kids frontman is a bae. The better half of UB40 touring the world right now are great to dance to while tanked up on Gordon’s Gin & Tonics. Steve Earle confirmed that I was infact my father’s child. Modest Mouse were so Portland it hurt and I relished every second of it. Nahko and Medicine for the People let me live the flower crown Snapchat filter in real life. City and Colour looked like he needed to sleep for a week. D’Angelo made me thirsty as fuck for I don’t even know what. Harts’ music has a lot of Hendrix parallels. Hiatus Kaiyote deliver a big set and are so ‘Melbourne’ they put even the most ‘Wellington’ of us to shame. Lukas Nelson is not as exciting or interesting as his dad Willie. Shakey Graves was cool, but then I met him and he was a bit arrogant. The Cat Empire had me dancing so hard my feet ached. The Pierce Brothers brought me more joy than I’d possibly ever felt in my entire life you should google them. Blind Boys of Alabama are hella cute. One of the guys from Bob Marley’s band The Wailers is so old he has to perform reclining on a beanbag—it warmed and broke my heart all at once. Tom Jones is still a sex bomb.
* * *
On the other side of the six day high was the inevitable, earth shattering, come down. Packing up camp was a deeply bleak moment; each mud encrusted, slightly ripped or dented item seemed important. It dawned on me that everyone in our multicultural haven was heading off to a different part of the world, and it wasn’t mine they were headed for.
A person I consider a mentor once told me not everyone loves music as much as I do. For 20 years of my life I’d taken it for granted that everyone was consuming it in the quantities I did. Turns out I was a special breed, and the more aware I became aware of this, the more isolating I found it to be. Bluesfest allowed me to be on that level, with people like me, for five days straight. The energy you feel is indescribable. My peers weren’t there to do drugs, get the best Instagram, or to be able to say they “went to a festival.” They were there for the music—for the late night jam sessions, for the chance to consume 14 hours of music a day, for the enriching conversations, for the dancing, and for the freedom music gives people.
Music is a deeply intimate and personal thing, and when you a let a stranger into that part of your world, you jump right to the top of the intimacy pyramid. It allows you to see so deep into someone’s soul that you can know more about them in one day at a festival than some of their closest friends and most immediate family. They became my family, and I theirs—their smiles, conversations, and presence growing to become something I’ll always remember.