An afternoon run at Crossroads stage that starts with Ruthie Foster, moves into Taj Mahal and ends with a solo acoustic perfance from Ben Harper is pretty damn perfect, even by Bluesfest standards. Foster has quickly built a following and name for herself in several breakout performances at the festival in recent years. If it’s not that voice that gets you, or that smile, it’ll be that genuine humble and appreciative attitude.
Taj Mahal brought his trademark growl, facial expressions and enough blues songs about fishing to make anyone’s day. It never gets old hearing the likes of ‘Queen Bee’, ‘Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes’, and indeed ‘Fishing Blues’. Ben Harper got his start 20-odd years ago playing in Taj Mahal’s band, and it’s probably no coincidence that they’re often paired up at Bluesfest.
Ben Harper’s second performance for 2013 was a encore solo acoustic performance after a critically acclaimed solo tour near the end of 2012. With grace and the musical insight and talents that few can match, Harper bounced from Weissenborn to acoustic guitar delivering a tranquil afternoon set that spanned from some of his early favourites through to newer material and even a few unreleased tracks. Though solo and acoustic, even high energy anthems like Burn One Down — prefaced with a comment that this song has gotten him in trouble with a lot of parents and his own children — felt mellow and failed to get the crowd enthused quite like you’d expect from an at-capacity Bluesfest crowd.
At the same time Glen Hansard — reunited with his longtime band The Frames as well as a complete horns and string section — played perhaps the standout show of the day. A stunning rendition of Fitzcarraldo was brought to life by the fiddle tapestry weaved by violinist Colm Mac Con lomaire. A brief solo set in the middle saw Hansard perform a range of material that included a segue of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks into Pearl Jam’s Smile.
Jimmy Cliff got the crowd moving with a high octane show that belies his 64 year age. With jumps, kicks and coordinated dance moves that the crowd lapped up. Singalongs for The Harder They Come and I Can See Clearly Now moved some to tears but it was perhaps the soaring vocals of Many River To Cross where Cliff wowed the audience, before a pseudo-encore of Rivers of Babylon.
For middle-of-the-road easy listening rock, Mojo delivered Steve Miller Band had the baby boomers bopping to pedestrian rock and roll, while Santana followed on with his own brand of Latin-infused rock as the drizzled turned to downpour. Manu Chao also brought the Latin over at Crossroads with more energy and a more frantic crowd than Bluesfest has seen in several years.
The Bluesfest site — a converted tea tree farm (read: swamp) — held up quite well in the downpour, with the rain giving the dusty festival site a much needed wash. It rained so much, I wish I had my traveling fishing rod with me. The car park however was another story, with mud causing more than a few holdups for those driving or catching buses alike, but a crew of car-pushers and tractors helped where they could.