FIELD OF DREAMS
There's a certain harmony about blues and Byron Bay, writes Debbie Kruger, that seems to find its expression in this laid-back festival
"All blues is happy blues," said Willie Dixon, the Mississippi-born legend known to many as the father of the blues. If Dixon were alive, he would probably be heading to Byron Bay this week for the ninth annual East Coast Blues and Roots Festival.
He might even have been on the bill. The festival, which had small beginnings in 1990 in the 1500-capacity indoor Arts Factory, now plays to about 12,000 people a day for four days on four simultaneous stages on a football field, and attracts names such as the Robert Cray Band, Steve Earle, Arlo Guthrie, Bruce Cockburn and Roger McGuinn. In recent years the festival has also featured the Neville Brothers, John Mayall and Taj Mahal.
In the world of music festivals, and specifically American contemporary music, Byron Bay is very much on the map, with the festival a sought-after showcase for international acts. For Australian performers, it is a holy grail. This is also an Australian festival," says Keven Oxford, the power behind the festival. "We have 20 American acts this year, but 35 Australian acts, too, and each year we are approached by acts who never would have considered playing the even before. Now it's like, well, hey, if the Cruel Sea played, it's got to be hip!"
The Cruel Sea keep coming back; this year they are joined by a diversity of local talent including the Black Sorrows, Billy Thorpe, Dirty Three and the Heavenly Light Quartet. Few of these artists are blues players although many have been inspired by that genre and, of the international acts, more non-blues players are on the bill each year. Hence the addition, two years ago, of the "Roots" tag, encompassing folk, country, jazz, gospel, zydeco and more.
"I was a blues fan, but that wasn't my thing; I have a very catholic taste in music," says Oxford, who has worked for three decades as a concert and festival promoter and producer in Sydney and on the NSW north coast. In 1988, during one of his regular visits to the US, Oxford was sitting on a grassy hill overlooking San Francisco, listening to the acts at the San Francisco Blues Festival. "I was suddenly struck by this overpowering urge to come up with a similar concert to stage in Australia. Everybody seemed to be really enjoying themselves and the vibe was unmistakable. This had to work in Australia, especially in Byron. The west coast of the US is really very much like the east coast of Australia."
Byron Bay is well populated with expatriate Americans, especially blues fans. Oxford estimates about 20 per cent of the festival's patrons are locals. The remainder come primarily from south-east Queensland, Sydney and Melbourne.
Oxford is an unlikely festival director but Byron Bay is definitely not Sydney or Adelaide. The festival is not high art and, despite Oxford's thorough knowledge of the history of the blues and respect for it, he is not a purist. "We try to bridge the gap between white blues and African-American blues, and to not be too focused on the question: is this real blues, is this not real blues?"
There have been one or two hiccups along the way. In 1993, as an experiment, a parallel event was staged at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney and the festival lost $85,000. For an unfunded, unsponsored organisation, that was big bucks. Oxford decided to stick with a larger, outdoor even exclusively in Byron Bay. "Byron Bay is really a big part of the equation, always has been. People now arrange for their annual holidays at Easter, have their Byron experience and come to the festival."
The event has grown by an average of 30 per cent a year since 1992, and in 1994 Oxford took on an equal financial partner and co-producer, Peter Noble. "There's every indication the festival's going to sell out this year; ticket sales are way up," says Oxford. The budget for this year is over $1 million.
"I used to sit here thinking, a couple years ago, like in the movie Field of Dreams: 'If you build it, they will come.' So I was thinking: 'If I spend it, will they come?' It has got to the position where yes, we'll go out and spend this money and hopefully more people will come because the acts are high profile."
With the festival taking on such a high profile, record companies are willing to spend the money to fly their artists from the US to Byron Bay. One this year is Kenny Wayne Shepherd, a teenage blues-rock sensation who has supported the Eagles and Bob Dylan across the US and Europe. Other artists such as Steve Earle and Iris DeMent are also coming with record company assistance. Working with other concert promoters also helps to defray the costs. Negotiations took place for Neil Young and Dylan this year but, ultimately, Oxford's decision was that too big might not be too wise.
Some leading artists want to play the festival for love rather than big money. Jackson Browne is a fan of the festival. Visiting the area in 1996, he tried to buy a ticket and sneak in unnoticed; Oxford's wife sighted him and insisted on letting him in for free, and the next thing Browne was on stage, jamming with Roy Rogers and Norton Buffalo.
Browne contacted Oxford a few months later and virtually invited himself to play at the 1997 festival, but logistics prevented it. "But he said he would be coming back out at around the same time this year, just to hang out again, so who knows?" Oxford says.
So what to do about a festival that seems too big for a small town? "You cut back," Oxford says. "You reach a plateau and you cruise; you budget your festival in such a way that you've still got a great festival in terms of the artists, but you scale it accordingly. That's maybe not the best way of doing it, but it's the most logical way to go. So that may be the future of the festival, that it'll reach that situation where by January each year it sells out."
As the festival's international profile increases, so too will the opportunities to book blockbuster artists. But Oxford says philosophically: "The best festival line-up is always the one that doesn't happen."
The East Coast Blues and Roots Festival takes place in Byron Bay, NSW, April 9-12.