With near perfect weather, Bluesfest kicked off its 24th year with the usual sort of laid back atmosphere that permeates day one. Early birds are treated to a spacious festival site, bar queues waiting for the 4pm opening go from amusing to bizarre as the number of people waiting grew from half a dozen to a hundred-odd. As music kicked off it was a breezy afternoon spent equally divided between the stunning vocals of Grace Potter, a decidedly generic blues set from William Elliott Whitmore and perennial Bluesfest performer Hat Fitz.
Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly, belted out an hour of rock n roll classics — and obscurities — with the gusto of someone twice her size and half her age. Off the back of a career resurgence pushed by a Jack White produced album, Jackson navigated her way through new and old, including a truly shakin’ rendition of Shakin’ All Over, Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel and a .
Counting Crows delivered a mesmerising set. Opening with rendition of Round Here that was epic by any standards, and from there the 1990s band blasted through a set devoid of hit songs but nonetheless met with a crowd response that seemed to overwhelm the band.
Fuelled by the recent Oscar-winning documentary Searching For Sugarman, the general consensus seemed to be that Rodriguez had been plucked from anonymity and obscurity to perform at Bluesfest. That Rodriguez has well and truly become a Bluesfest regular over the past six years and that his career has been on a resurgence with world tours long before the documentary appeared doesn’t quite gel with the hype that preceded his performance. Visibly frail as he’s aided onto stage, Rodriguez makes a Willy Wonka-esque recovery as he soon loses himself in some of the most tripped out and haunting folk music ever crafted. Pulling material from his very limited 1970s album and mixing it with covers like Blue Suede Shoes and a delightfully meandering rendition of Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone that made no effort to try and get words or verses in the right places.
Ben Harper appeared in his fourth incarnation at the festival in almost as many years — fifth if you count this afternoons solo acoustic performance — collaborating with blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite for a blues album and limited world tour that has stopped by Bluesfest. Together things quickly heated things up at a packed Mojo stage with call and response harmonica vs. slide guitar like you’ve never heard. While a musically rich affair, the whole show seemed to lack the heart and soul that has been the backbone of so many performances by Harper in the past. As crowds streamed out of the packed tent you have to wonder if their disappointment at not hearing the likes of ‘Diamonds On The Inside’ would be averted with a bit of research. Over the course of the set Harper and Musselwhite navigated through tracks off their new album, a select number of older Harper tracks and a handful of blues standards.
Chris Isaak made his debut appearance at Bluesfest adorned in a diamond-studded red suit to a crowd that seemed consist of equal parts swooning 50+ women, men who can look past his cheesy stage act to get to the heart of some of the finest country-meets-rock-meets-anything-and-everything-Americana, and those confused by the whole thing.The latter streamed out, the former had a glazed look on their face that you probably see at Justin Bieber concerts. The in-betweeners enjoyed a solid musical performance and showmanship that is more than a bit tongue-in-cheek.