I've gushed about Byron Bay for so long, but until this Easter I had never been to Bluesfest, the most celebrated of Byron's festivals.
The traffic congestion between the Gold Coast and Byron was the worst we've ever seen in Australia, but all the world is put to rights with one glimpse of this upon arrival...
We headed off to the festival around 3. It was cloudy, with the forecast threatening showers. We went on the shuttle bus: no driving through lots more traffic, queueing to find a park and then the risk of getting bogged in mud. (They say it nearly always rains at Bluesfest.) From midday to midnight the buses ply backwards and forwards to the festival, which used to be at Belongil in town but since 2010 has been held at Tyagarah, a few kilometres north between Byron and Brunswick Heads. Next year will be the 25th East Coast Blues and Roots Music Festival, and if that's not a reason to party I don't know what is.
If you buy a 5-day ticket for next year now, you'll get it for a special price, but you won't know the line-up for a while. The best thing to do, especially if you only want to attend for one or two days, is to sign up on the Bluesfest website. Regular emails will update you about who's appearing and ticket availability. We signed up last January, the full line-up was known by the end of that month and we had our tickets booked shortly afterwards. I suspect more people than ever will want to go next year, so you know what to do to avoid disappointment. Ticket buying in Australia is usually something of a nightmare: a couple of agencies share the monopoly; many tickets are released selectively before the general release date when websites crash with high demand but tickets are in fact in short supply. Bluesfest tickets are available on the Bluesfest website.
The mastermind behind this festival is Peter Noble who has been in music all his life, first as a bass guitarist and later as a concert and festival promoter. The latter is a risky business but Noble has been very successful. Byron Bluesfest attracts big names from all over the world – this year's line-up included Paul Simon, Santana, Rufus Wainwright, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Plant, Madness, Steve Miller Band, Jon Anderson, Iggy Pop, Manu Chao and Jimmy Cliff. Over the years, many artists have rated the Bluesfest gig among the best they've ever played. Audiences are appreciative and there's a great sense of camaraderie among like-minded souls. Byron's culture of individuality is omnipresent: the man in stripes would get up every now and again to dance minimalistically in his own little world.
When we first arrived, we wandered round from arena to arena, catching Ben Harper first in Crossroads, then drifting from stall to stall, and listening to Pasión Flamenca in the busking tent. We've seen them before, at Byron Sunday markets. The singer's voice sends shivers down my spine.
Meanwhile the sky grew greyer.
You can't just wander from venue to venue and expect to be able to see anything other than on the big screen. Festival goers bag their spots from early on and stay there, operating relays and leaving guards if they have to visit the loos or the booze tent. Large areas at the back of each arena are for the folding chair brigade. When the heavens opened early evening I sympathised with those pressing in at the back of the tent while lots of people spread out on their chairs in the dry.
I wasn't interested in chairs. I was there to dance – on and off for at least five hours – to ska from Jimmy Cliff, blues-rock from Steve Miller, Latin rock from Santana, and alternative stuff from Manu Chao that I've no idea how to label. The programme ran like clockwork: bands came on stage when they were supposed to and went off in order to allow the next act to set up and do likewise.
Talking of the booze tent, there was, as you might expect in this land of Aussie rules, exceptionally strict control of sale. First you had to queue for tickets, and know what you wanted to drink then and later if you were buying more than one ticket. (You'd be mad not to: cans of beer, for example, were very small, and you wouldn't want to keep leaving your spot.) So you couldn't buy a premium beer ticket and decide a couple of hours later you fancied a different tipple. The staff issuing tickets were behind bars with a little hole through which to conduct the transaction. If they had to leave their station to get more tickets, a tiny gate closed the hole so the dosh was safe from The Borrowers.
To collect the drinks in an adjoining area, you were funnelled through a narrow gap guarded by burly bouncers before approaching 'the bar'. All drinks were opened for you, presumably to prevent resale. That does speed up consumption, however, because you don't want flat beer or the cans kicked over. All in all, far from ideal. But more drinking means more toilet trips and less dancing, so I didn't really care.
Ensconced in Mojo, cans in hand, we rocked on.
I want to go again. I loved it. Naturally, I got the T-shirt.