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Live Review: Byron Bay Blues and Roots Festival 2014 Part 1

The Byron Bay Blues and Roots festival is renowned for its legendary headliners from B.B King to Bob Dylan to Iggy Pop, which has always formed a significant part of the festival’s brand and its appeal to its largely middle-aged audience. 

This year’s Blues and Roots Festival proved to be one of the most controversial yet, with the first artist announcement strangely absent of any of the usual headliners, instead featuring the likes of John Mayer, The Dave Matthews Band and The John Butler Trio. Further artist announcements added blues legends like Buddy Guy and Boz Scaggs, amongst other renowned acts such as The Doobie Brothers, Gregg Allman and The Magic Band, but there was still the sense that the Blues and Roots festival was aiming for a younger and less blues orientated audience with the likes of Jack Johnson and Joss Stone also added as headliners. But if this year’s festival marked the arrival of young talent on the blues and roots scene, it certainly was not any of the over-promoted headliners. After checking out a variety of acts during the festival, the most promising young artists proved to be quirky genre-crossing Cambodian group Cambodian Space Project, Jimi Hendrix incarnate Gary Clark Jr and 19-year-old indie folk rocker Jake Bugg. In an era where blues music has sadly disappeared from the mainstream, the incredible talent of these three acts was a welcomed surprise.

It’s just past six o’clock on Friday night and the Bluesfest is at its peak of activity as crowds ambush their way toward two tents: the Mojo tent and the Crossroads tent. At Crossroads Buddy Guy’s roadies are setting up his gear, whilst a few tents down Gary Clark Jr, who is 48 years Buddy Guy’s junior, prepares to take the Mojo stage. It isn’t an easy choice between an absolute Blues legend and an up and coming young gun drawing comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, but having seen Buddy Guy a few times, I bite the bullet and make my way to the Mojo tent. Although Buddy Guy’s performances during the festival were as stellar as ever, with reports of the guitar hero moving directly into the audience and allowing one lucky boy to play his guitar, Gary Clark Jr’s show was sublime enough to eradicate any doubts I had.

The second Clark kicks off his set with soul influenced album opener ‘Ain’t Messin’ Around’, singing the opening lines, “I don’t believe in competition, there ain’t nobody else like me around,” it instantly feels as if we are all in the presence of a true rock star who truly isn’t like anybody else around. Clark continues his set with a handful of more traditional blues orientated tracks that set the mood well, but it is Clark’s divergence into heavy rock n roll and trance-inducing psychedelia on the song ‘When My Train Pulls In’ that really confirms his original claim that there is nobody else like him around, particularly the explosive ending, featuring a gut-wrenching guitar solo.

Proving just how gloriously unpredictable he is, Clark follows his killer ambush of psychedelic hard rock with a stripped-back blues ballad that nicely showcases the range of his voice, as Clark sings in a falsetto style on ‘Please Come Home’. This moment of quiet intimacy is then followed by one of the highlights of the entire festival, a downbeat heavy psychedelic blues track called ‘Numb’, in which we are privy to another killer guitar solo.  It seems as if it would be impossible to top these three incredible songs, but Clark has one more trick up his sleeve – ‘Bright Lights’, an incredibly catchy song that has the kind of cross-commercial appeal that could easily convert the uninitiated to the blues, reminiscent of The Black Keys. No other song could have perfectly ended Clark’s set like ‘Bright Lights’, with Clark repeatedly singing the line, “You’re gonna know my name by the end of the night,” which by the end of ‘Bright Lights’ is undoubtedly true for most people in the audience.

Judging by the hoards of bright young things who turned up for his set on Monday evening, Jake Bugg and his quirky inflection of indie folk and blues rock n roll could also be seen as another potential saviour for the blues. As Bugg takes the stage and sets up in his gear, it is difficult to match his pasty British baby-face with his raw country folk sound, but the second he sings the first few lines of ‘Seen It All’ in his highly distinctive and beautifully pristine voice, it is impossible to doubt the talent of the 19-year-old youth. The first twenty odd minutes of Bugg’s set drag a little, as he plays the bulk of his more subdued acoustic tracks, whilst the rest absolutely blows me away once Bugg ditches the acoustic for his electric guitars. Such was one of the notable differences between Bugg’s first record ‘Jake Bugg’ and his sophomore album ‘Shangri La’, which demonstrated an impressive transition from catchy country folk tunes to a more nuanced variety of folk, blues and rock n roll. 

Songs like ‘Messed Up Kids’ and ‘Simple Pleasures’ really show just how much the young artist has grown, sounding even better live; they strike the perfect balance of laidback sentimental folk matched with Bugg’s frenetic energy and angsty lyrics. Another standout song is ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’, which even exhibits some punk rock influences and certainly inspires some good-natured rowdiness amongst the crowd. Bugg’s voice is completely faultless for the entire set and he delivers his songs with true vigour, with soulful ballads like ‘A Song About Love’ demonstrating Bugg’s incredible range. Yes, Bugg’s robust talent is undeniable, but his stage persona was somewhat bland and uninspiring, as Bugg did little to interact and connect with the audience or even really move around the stage. Nevertheless, Bugg is young and will undoubtedly find his stage persona with age and maturity.

Whilst Cambodian Space Project displayed just as much song-writing talent as Bugg and Clark, even though many of their songs were covers, a large part of their appeal was their incredible stage presence and effortless repertoire with their audience. Perhaps this was in part because they played the smaller Delta stage, but whatever it was, it was unforgettable. The band take the stage, but leave a slight delay for the group’s dynamic lead singer to take her place centre-stage. Dressed in a form-fitting black dress, white high-heels and a matching white flower, Srey Thy certainly looks the part of diva-lounge-goddess, and she sounds the part too as, with a delightfully unique voice marked by her Cambodian accent. The band’s mid-sixties pop sound, recalling the likes of western groups like The Shangria Las, combined with the Khmer language Thy sings in, creates an incredibly fresh sound. Thy does not have the same kind of deep throaty Janis-Joplin-like voice many other standout female performers had at the bluesfest, such as Beth Hart and Joanne Shaw-Taylor, but that does not mean her voice is any less powerful. The combination of Thy’s distinctive vocals and powerhouse stage presence truly forms the heart of Cambodian Space Project and without her they would really just be a very talented covers band.

The group follow their upbeat start with a more subdued psychedelic track ‘Baby Lady Boy’ perfectly complimented by Thy’s majestic voice. The song nicely demonstrates the wide range of influences the group incorporate into their sound from surf pop to gypsy folk to dirty blues and psychedelic rock n roll, which always keeps things interesting. What is so great about Cambodian Space Project is how seamlessly they transition between all these genres, declaring next, things are, ‘going to get funky’, which they certainly do as Thy dances on stage like a professional sixties go-go girl. Both Thy and the band possess an exuberant force of energy on stage, but always maintain their composure, even when Thy is dancing crazily. Thy also makes an effort to interact with the audience in-between most songs and sometimes during the song itself, but unfortunately much of the content of Thy’s dialogue is lost due to her heavy accent, but she still manages to charm the audience. The group’s guitarist, Julien Poulson, also commands a wonderful stage presence as a perfect foil to Thy’s cheeky stage persona. He also shines on stage during the group’s many guitar solos, especially when he shows off a descending chromatic guitar scale on the song ‘Cut Your Beard’ and during a wicked surf guitar riff on ‘Dance Twist’.

Toward the end of the set the group move on from their sixties pop covers to more layered and dynamic original material from their latest album. The highlight of the set proves to be ‘Whiskey Cambodia’, an incredible slow-burning psychedelic song that displays the vast range of Thy’s voice. The downbeat mood of the hypnotic tune also provides an interesting contrast to bubblegum sixties pop tunes like ‘Dance Twist’, which are delightful, but not nearly as beguiling as their original material.  Cambodian Space Project prove they’re no generic covers band with the haunting song ‘The Boat’, which Thy introduces to the audience as a song she herself wrote about the hardships of asylum seekers. Brimming with emotional depth, the song would have been an astonishing finish for the band, but instead they follow with the conversely light-hearted cover ‘I’m Sixteen’, described by Poulson as ‘the Cambodian national anthem’.  The sixties surf rock tune gives the audience a more upbeat send-off, but ending with ‘The Boat’ would remind the audience that Cambodian Space Project are much more than a sixties tribute group.

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