Peter Noble, Byron Bay East Coast Blues and Roots Festival Director.
Peter Noble, Byron Bay East Coast Blues and Roots Festival Director. Patrick Gorbunovs

Why the blues never faze a Noble

"NO. I'M taking it easy," Peter Noble says a little defensively.

He's sipping some sort of iced tea after talking for more than 90 minutes at the "wrap up" press conference on the last day of the 2013 Bluesfest, Australia's biggest music festival.

Flanked by the likes of newsman George Negus and environment minister Tony Burke, a panel led by Peter has been weighing into issues new and old.

But there is hardly a musician in sight.

Every now and again, crowd enthusiasm for the band playing on the stage next door spills into the Lotus Palace, an exotic, solar-powered timber structure that Yes's Jon Anderson did an intimate show in the night before.

The Palace is the latest, and smallest, of Bluesfest's seven stages spread over more than five hectares of Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, 11km north of Byron Bay, in the far north of northern New South Wales.

The panel talks about koalas, "Greenfest" sustainability, funding, car parking, handling big crowds and the new Boomerang Festival in October.

Music is hardly mentioned: it's a Bluesfest given. The crowd cheers again next door.

Performers love to play Bluesfest. It is one of its "secrets". Most Bluesfest artists you talk to cannot believe how well set up it is.

"I know how hard it is to tour," Peter says. "You play, pack up in the early hours of the morning and often drive for hours, you unpack and play again, it's bloody hard.

"From day one we've wanted to make Bluesfest the place not only the fans want to come to, but the place musicians want to come to ..."

It has worked.

Paul Simon, one of the headliners this year, came on the recommendation of Bob Dylan, who played Byron in 2011.

"They share the same manager in New York," Peter says. "What can I say ... word gets around." He shrugs and smiles.

Simon strode on stage this year, plugged his acoustic guitar in and said with conviction: "This is a great festival".

"Actually, this is the fun bit," Peter says mischievously. His eyebrows arch impossibly in synch with a broad smile.

He is talking about the five days of Bluesfest, bearing the fruit of more than 12 months of hard work putting it together, and heralding another 12 preparing for the next one.

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We are standing next to a white BMW four-wheel-drive parked behind one of the stages, waves of sound rolling over us.

Peter is both Bluesfest principal and a Bluesfest fan.

But the 64-year-old has been taking it easy, by his standards.

He and his partner Annika stay at the Tea Tree Farmhouse during Bluesfest.

They eat healthily, work a little, do some networking and a little catching up, maybe with a wine or two.

Every now and again someone walks up and gives him a bear hug and they chat.

And when he finds the time, he bobs up on stage to introduce a performer he thinks should be given a little more attention.

"Peter is amazing," one of his staffers says quietly. "He just keeps going and going ..."

On a typical day, he is in bed by 2am and up by 10.

A little perpetual motion is still a part of promotion, apparently.

But it is a far cry from the helter-skelter of 30 years ago, when he was touring with and managing bands up and down the east coast.

Though he says he has stepped away from the festival's day-to-day organisation, old habits do die hard.

Bluesfest has been his and Annika's baby for 24 years.

"I do like to do a check of the grounds before I go to bed," he says.

So out he goes, torch in hand, doing a final inspection. During the festival, the farm plays host to more than 1000 campers - customers as well as volunteers.

"We've got a wonderful Bluesfest team now," he tells reporters.

"They're great ... they know how to run Bluesfest and they do a fantastic job.

"And they free me up to let me do what I do best."

Peter shrugs off talk of retiring.

"I've got the best job in the world," he says quietly. "Why would I give it up?

"Look, seriously, age really doesn't come into it.

"My role is changing a little, yes, but I do what I do."

When they are not working, Peter and Annika divide their time during the year between Byron, with family in their Sunshine Coast home, and in Bali.

"Buying the house in Bali is the best thing we ever did," he says. "It's the place to get away and just chill.

"For me, it's made all the difference.

"It's given me a chance to look at things from a different perspective."

It gives him his "zen" moment.

And it shows.

During the festival, experts monitor how the animals in the area take to the five days of music.

"We were a little surprised - and pleased - that Bluesfest had relatively little effect."

Peter has brought in koala experts like Caloundra-based University of Queensland researcher Sean FitzGibbon to map, monitor and assist the koala population in the Byron areas, too.

And he and Rhonda Roberts, who helped to establish the Dreaming Festival at Woodford and was involved in the Sydney Olympic Games opening ceremony, have put together Boomerang, a "celebration of world cultures".

The first Boomerang, on October 4-6 at the Bluesfest site, includes music, ceremonies, dancing, visual arts and crafts, "knowledge" and information walks, youth and emerging artists programs, and forums and discussion panels.

"You know, two years ago, after Dylan played here, I thought we had a bit of a problem," Peter says.

"I wasn't sure how we were going to top it - it wasn't only Dylan: BB King, Elvis Costello, Ben Harper, Derek Trucks. It was that good.

"Last year, though we had some good musicians and I think the fans had a good time, the really big headliner was missing."

Bluesfest, in a tough financial environment, lost money, Peter says.

It meant changing in the business plan. This year, more artists did sideshows, touring as well as doing Bluesfest. Many played the Sunshine Coast.

"We've bounced back - we've made a good profit," he says

In fact,104,244 fans had a choice of 129 international and Australian acts playing more than 180 performances during the five days.

The artists were stunningly diverse, from Simon, Robert Plant, Iggy and The Stooges and Wilco, to The Lumineers, JD McPherson, Allen Stone, Roger Hodgson, Luka Bloom, blues legend Taj Mahal and rapper Grey Ghost.

But is it really blues?

"Yeah, if I had the chance again, I'd probably wouldn't call it Bluesfest," Peter says.

"But I guess we're stuck with it."

Another broad smile.

 

BLUESFEST 2012

  • 104,244 over 5 days
  • 129 bands and artists
  • More than 180 performances
  • Seven stages
  • 600 volunteers
  • 495 paid workers
  • 1127 room nights were booked by Bluesfest for its artists
  • 1925 room nights for Bluesfest's touring artists around Australia
  • 4000 early bird tickets were sold for Bluesfest 2014 during the festival
  • 120 individual Bluesfest touring shows drew another 93,698 people

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