When Bluesfest booked Kendrick Lamar in 2016, there was a backlash. The Byron Bay festival had been operating for more than two decades and it had never been headlined by a rap act. It was a groundbreaking moment for the festival which forced festival director Peter Noble to consider what made an act worthy of a spot on the Bluesfest lineup. In a video defending the decision, he called Lamar’s new release at the time To Pimp A Butterfly, “a work of genius.”
“I couldn’t deny the genius of this album… I realised I was listening to a work of greatness and I had to jump over my own shadow and go, ‘It doesn’t matter what form it’s in — it could be in Klezmer music — if it’s a work of genius it’s a work of genius,’” he said.
The fact is, rap may have been a stranger to Bluesfest lineups of the past but genius certainly was not. Blues is the festival’s titular genre but over the years it had become multi-dimensional, hosting artists, both old and new, who were making music that would stand the test of time. While artists like Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and Ms Lauryn Hill had already proved their timelessness, the festival’s greatest achievement has been pairing these artists with the new classics. The decision to include Lamar may have been a highly publicised one but the festival had been booking new, boundary-pushing artists for years.
Kendrick Lamar at the 2016 Byron Bay Bluesfest. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
2014 marked a particularly revolutionary year for the festival as it opened its doors to a slew of new international talent. Up until then, it had formulated its lineups out of legendary bands and voices, peppering it with a strong local contingent. On a lineup headed by John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band and Erykah Badu, a number of new names were showcased on arguably the festival’s biggest bill to date. There was British musician Jake Bugg who had just created buzz with his self-titled debut album the year before and English singer-songwriter Passenger who had broken through with All The Little Lights featuring ‘Let Her Go’ which would go on to top charts globally. On the local front, Matt Corby and Kim Churchill, who were yet to see their biggest successes, were billed high, highlighting the festival’s growing openness to young talent.
It’s a move that only continued as the lineups kept diversifying in the following years. In 2015, Alabama Shakes, who had only just released their second album Sound & Colour, stepped up to headline, marking the newest headliner the festival had ever booked. They were joined by Irish newcomer Hozier, Texan musician Gary Clark Jr. and Kiwi artist Marlon Williams.
Bluesfest is one of the only festivals in the country that spends big money on legendary artists who aren’t clocking hits or nabbing triple j airplay. While Australia’s other large camping festivals like Splendour In The Grass and Falls Festival have hosted some of the most impressive acts of all time from Outkast to Vampire Weekend, they typically keep to artists who have made a splash within the lifetime of their audience. Bluesfest, however, has cultivated a wide-ranging demographic that is welcoming of acts like Tom Jones, Lionel Ritchie and The Doobie Brothers.
It’s difficult to think of another festival in the country that is able to house English ska band Madness on the same lineup as Nas, as Bluesfest did in 2017, but that’s exactly how it’s become known for memorable and unpredictable lineups. Lamar may have captured more attention for his inclusion but it’s just one example of how adventurous the artist bookings have become.
“The bills that I put on are engaging and creative. It’s finding that line of doing a commercially successful event and an event that’s challenging,” Noble told the AU Review back in 2017, adding, “You have the headliners but you also have artists who will become your new favourites.”
He admitted that sometimes he gets it wrong, although over the last few years, particularly, he’s had a high strike rate. The 2017 lineup, in particular, houses a great example of just how effortless that pairing of old and new had become. Patti Smith headlined the first night of the lineup after Courtney Barnett who had generated worldwide hype off her debut album Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit. Despite decades of difference in age, Barnett had drawn loose comparisons to Smith. While on that tour, the pair shared the stage together multiple times showing just how powerful it can be when two artists from different generations come together.
In 2018, Noble threw one of the biggest curveballs by booking Kesha on a lineup that included one of her heroes Robert Plant. She was mostly known in Australia for being a party pop singer with huge chart hits like ‘Tik Tok’. Bluesfest had been typically shy of pop music, however, Kesha changed Noble’s mind with her third record Rainbow. It was a blues and rock-inspired project that saw her deal with the events of the past few years which included alleged abuse by her former producer Dr. Luke. She was forced to cancel her appearance at the festival due to injury but her inclusion showed Noble’s persistence to keep evolving the lineup. As he did with Lamar, he referred to Kesha’s most recent album as “a work of genius” and challenged the audience to try criticising it after listening to it.
Ms Lauryn Hill at the 2018 Byron Bay Bluesfest. (Photo by Nikki Williams for Music Feeds)
The 2020 bill has begun to filter out and already it’s highlighting several different decades of music. Smith is returning for the second time as are Eagles Of Death Metal but there are a number of notable names making their debut. Jenny Lewis, one of the most prolific alt-rockers of this millennium, has played Splendour in the past but she’ll make her Bluesfest debut this year. Blues and country singer Brandi Carlisle is also making the trip down-under after a landmark year that saw her take home three Grammy awards for her album By The Way, I Forgive You. Announced just this morning, Guy Sebastian, fresh from his double ARIA wins, will be taking to the Bluesfest 2020 stage as will multi-faceted US artist LP who will be making her Australian debut via the festival next year.
While we’re yet to see what else the festival has in store, it’s almost guaranteed that you can expect legends alongside legends-in-waiting. Bluesfest has expanded itself over the years to showcase artists who have already made their mark as well as artists that are still carving their legacy. By not simply focussing on the former, the festival has found a way to appreciate the timeless nature of great music. It seems the blueprint for being booked on the festival is releasing “a work of genius” and it doesn’t matter if you did it this year or 50 years ago.
The 31st annual Byron Bay Bluesfest will run from Thursday, 9th April til Monday, 13th April 2020 at Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, with promoters promising “the best festival yet”. Head here for the latest lineup.