25 years of Bluesfest, 26 acts that stand out from the crowd

EVEN comparing this year's line-up of 108 acts to the 15 that started it, you'd be hard pressed to describe Bluesfest's beginnings as humble.

Founded by Peter Noble and Keven Oxford at the old Arts Factory in 1990, from the very first Bluesfest, or the East Coast International Blues & Roots Music Festival as it was then known, was pulling in outstanding acts from across Australia and across the world.

True, some of the names on that first line-up were less well known than say, the Doobie Brothers, who feature on this year's bill, or former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, who was on last year's. But that's more because that first line-up was more for the blues purists than the more eclectic mix that will take the stage next weekend.


   International Artists

  • Charlie Musselwhite
  • Canned Heat
  • Big Jay McNeely
  • The Paladins
  • Smokey Wilson
  • Lynwood Slim
  • Dr Ross & The Hellhounds

   National Artists

  • Dutch Tilders & The Blues Club
  • The Backsliders
  • Phil Manning
  • The Witchdoctors
  • Hip Pocket
  • Johnny Gray's Rockinitis
  • The Dynaflows
  • Feeling The Pinch

That said, there's no question the festival has grown, both in the size and variety of acts.

We've had a look over the past 24 Bluesfests and selected one stand-out act from each year (except for last year, where the combination of Iggy Pop, Robert Plant, and Paul Simon left us so flummoxed we chose them all). It's the first step in working out what has been the greatest Bluesfest moment so far.

Have your say on the best Bluesfest act. Have a look through out list and the accompanying videos and then take our reader poll at the bottom of the story.



YEAR 1, 1990: The Paladins

San Diego rockabilly band The Paladins were one of seven international acts at the first Bluesfest all the way back in 1990. This 1986 video shows them performing Daddy Yar.

YEAR 2, 1991: Earl King

The late New Orleans R&B legend Earl King is best known for his song Come On, which was covered by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

In 1991 he became one of four international acts to perform at the second Byron Blues Festival.

This video shows him performing It All Went Down the Drain at the 1993 NOLA Jazz Fest.

YEAR 3, 1992: The Blind Boys of Alabama

The Blind Boys of Alabama have become a staple of the Byron Bluesfest, but when they first made the bill  at the festival's third outing in 1993, they were called "The Five Blind Boys of Alabama".

This video shows them performing a version of Amazing Grace that puts the classic hymn to the tune of House of the Rising Sun.

YEAR 4, 1993: The Backsliders

Aussie blues band The Backsliders' played their third Bluesfest in the festival's fourth year.

The band, featuring Byron local and former Midnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst, remains a Bluesfest staple. The band's played most festivals, from the first right up to this year's event.

YEAR 5, 1994: Walter Trout Band

US bluesman Walter Trout rocked the Bluesfest in 1994. Trout's musical career stretches back to the 1960s and is still going strong. His last released an album in 2012.
Trout was to have played this year's festival but has had to cancel his Australian performances due to ill health.
The band is here playing Life in the Jungle at a performance at the Paradiso.

YEAR 6, 1995: Michelle Shocked

By 1995 Bluesfest had built a name for itself as one of the nation's top festivals.

It was also the year Texan singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked debuted at the festival. Here she is performing 5am at Amsterdam.

 YEAR 7, 1996: Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals

Ben Harper was just on the cusp of fame when he played his first Bluesfest in 1996.

Since then he has become one of the world's most celebrated singer-songwriters and still plays regularly at Bluesfest (unfortunately not this year, though). Here he is playing his 1999 song, Please Bleed.

YEAR 8, 1997: The Black Sorrows

The year 1997 brought a particularly strong Australian line-up to Bluesfest, including hometown favourites such as The Backsliders, but also some of the nation's biggest acts, including The Cruel Sea, Vika and Linda Bull, Christina Anu, and The Black Sorrows.

This is the official clip for The Black Sorrows' 1991 song Never Let Me Go.

YEAR 9, 1998: Michael Franti and Spearhead

At their first Bluesfest outing in 1998, Michael Franti and Spearhead was still just "Spearhead".

The band was a huge hit and Franti has since been more-or-less adopted as a son of Byron Bay. Here the band is playing The Sound of Sunshine.

YEAR 10, 1999: Paul Kelly

If there's anyone out there who'll argue Paul Kelly is not the nation's greatest living songwriter, they're keeping their head down.

Kelly led a compelling line-up at the 1999 Bluesfest, including the likes of Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs and Angelique Kidjo. There is, however, only one Paul Kelly.

Here he is performing Deeper Water at Toowoomba's Empire Theatre.

YEAR 11, 2000: ZZ Top

The men with the beards made first, but certainly not their last, appearance at Bluesfest in 2000 at the top of a list that included the likes of Neil Finn and the Robert Cray band.

Here they are performing their classic song La Grange at the Crossroads Guitar Festival.

YEAR 12, 2001: Joan Armatrading

UK singer, songwriter, and musician Joan Armatrading released her first album in 1972 and her latest album in 2012.

In 2001 she lit up Bluesfest with a songlist that crossed generations and is another major international act to make repeat trips to Byron Bay for the festival.

Here she is performing her 1983 hit (I Love It When You) Call Me Names.


YEAR 13, 2002: John Butler Trio

The John Butler Trio always puts on a great show and they made a stellar debut at the 2002 Bluesfest. 

Here the band is performing their new song Only One. (Warning: Video contains Zombies.)

YEAR 14, 2003: The Cat Empire

In 2003 a new Melbourne band was breaking onto the international music scene, packing out venues across Australia and overseas with their fun, high-energy jazz-based rock.

Of course, The Cat Empire was booked to play Bluesfest and of course they've played there most of the years since.

This is the official clip for the Brighter Than Gold, which the band released last year.



YEAR 15, 2004: James Brown

As blues legends come, they don't get a whole lot more legendary than James Brown.

By 2004 the East Coast Blues and Roots Festival was huge and bulging at the seams of Red Devils park on Byron's southern outskirts, and that was the year Brown honoured the festival with a performance.

This footage is of Brown performing Papa's Got a Brand New Bag/I Feel Good on the Ed Sullivan show in 1966.

YEAR 16, 2005: REM

A truly stunning list of acts in 2005 was topped by one of the world's greatest bands - REM. 

Sharing the limelight with Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry, were the likes of George Thorogood, Bo Diddly, Tex Perkins, Don Walker and Charlie Owen in their Tex, Don, and Charlie guise, Missy Higgins, The Waifs, John Lee Hooker, and Jack Johnson, to name just a few.

Bluesfest's 16th outing was a highlight year, but it was still getting bigger.

Here we have REM performing Losing My Religion at their Perfect Square concert in Germany in 2004.

YEAR 17, 2006: Bob Geldof

The man who made Irish rock famous long before U2 hit the stage - and then went on to be the conscience of rock and roll, Sir Bob Geldof was amongst another packed Blues line-up in 2006.

By now the festival that started with 15 acts had 80. If you can't remember why Geldof coming to the Blues was exciting, reminisce over this clip to The Great Song of Indifference.

YEAR 18, 2007: Wolfmother

Brisbane band Wolfmother had just hit their stride when they arrived at Bluesfest in 2007.

A little over a year earlier they had dominated Triple J's Hottest 100, they'd picked up a Grammy Award and were being asked to provide songs for blockbuster movies and video games.

The band was keenly anticipated at the Blues. Here the band is playing Joker and the Thief live on JTV.

YEAR 19, 2008: Sinead O'Connor

Bluesfest left Red Devils Park in 2008 to return to Belongil Fields for the first time since 1996 as it waited for its new grounds at Tyagarah to be finalised.

However, moving house didn't slow the festival one bit, with Sinead O'Connor heading over from the Emerald Isle, along with musical icons such as John Fogarty, Don McLean, the Black Crowes.

Here you can see O'Connor giving a live performance of her song The Emperor's New Clothes.

YEAR 20, 2009: Tijuana Cartel

Australian act Tijuana Cartel cartel were far from the biggest name to hit Bluesfest when they performed there in 2009, but their energetic Latin-flavoured dance tunes made a big impression.

This video is of a live performance of their song Tempest at the Peats Ridge festival.

YEAR 21, 2010: Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson was well and truly familiar to Bluesfest fans and, like Michael Franti, beloved of Byron when he again took to the stage in 2010.

Johnson's mellow tunes invited fans to dance and relax at the same time. This is the official music video for Johnson's song Taylor.

YEAR 22, 2011: Bob Dylan

It was another big year for Bluesfest in 2011, with acts such as BB King, Grace Jones, Elvis Costello, and Jethro Tull taking the stage along with old favorites such as ZZ Top, Michael Franti, and Ben Harper.

However, the of the moment was Bob Dylan, who was returning to the Byron Shire a decade after his ill-fated attempt at a concert in 2001 was rejected by Byron council and held at Ballina instead.

Dylan's performance had a mixed reaction, with the ABC and Sydney Morning Herald proclaiming he let down fans with a poor show. However, the intense excitement at his appearance may also have had expectations running a little high. This is footage of one of his Bluesfest sets.

YEAR 23, 2012: Weddings Parties Anything

Given they'd broken up more than a decade earlier, it's probably not surprising news Australian folk/protest band Weddings Parties Anything was getting back together for Bluesfest got a few pulses racing.

The reunion gig was one of a few they have done around the country over the past few years. Here you can see a 1993 live performance of their song Monday's Experts.

YEAR 24, 2013: Iggy Pop

Iggy Pop, Robert Plant and Paul Simon.
With acts such as Ben Harper, Counting Crows, Beasts of Bourbon, Robert Cray, Joan Armatrading, and newcomers Saskwatch on the bill, last year's Bluesfest would have been amazing anyway.

With them it made for an unforgettable experience (and a lot of running between tents).

As it's impossible to single out one of these rock legends for a video, I'm going to cheat and do all three. This one is an old live recording of Iggy Pop performing Lust for Life in Paris. [LANGUAGE WARNING - Iggy swears, like, a lot]

YEAR 24, 2013: Robert Plant

Iggy Pop, Robert Plant and Paul Simon. 

With acts such as Ben Harper, Counting Crows, Beasts of Bourbon, Robert Cray, Joan Armatrading, and newcomers Saskwatch on the bill, last year's Bluesfest would have been amazing anyway.

With them, it made for an unforgettable experience (and a lot of running between tents). As it's impossible to single out one of these rock legends for a video, I'm going to cheat and do all three. This video shows the former Led Zeppelin frontman in his heyday performing Stairway to Heaven at Madison Square Garden.

YEAR 24, 2013: Paul Simon

Iggy Pop, Robert Plant and Paul Simon.

With acts such as Ben Harper, Counting Crows, Beasts of Bourbon, Robert Cray, Joan Armatrading, and newcomers Saskwatch on the bill, last year's Bluesfest would have been amazing anyway.

With them it made for an unforgettable experience (and a lot of running between tents). As it's impossible to single out one of these rock legends for a video, I'm going to cheat and do all three. This video shows Paul Simon last year performing The Boxer.

Pick the best act in Bluesfest history (so far)

This poll ended on 17 April 2014.

Current Results

The Paladins


Earl King


The Blind Boys of Alabama


The Backsliders


Walter Trout Band


Michelle Shocked


Ben Harper


The Black Sorrows


Michael Franti and Spearhead


Paul Kelly


ZZ Top


Joan Armatrading


John Butler Trio


The Cat Empire


James Brown




Bob Geldof




Sinead O'Connor


Tijuana Cartel


Jack Johnson


Bob Dylan


Weddings Parties Anything


Iggy Pop


Robert Plant


Paul Simon


This is not a scientific poll. The results reflect only the opinions of those who chose to participate.

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