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From little things big things grow

Written by Richard Scott



As Bluesfest prepares to celebrate its 35th anniversary, we look back at the history of Byron Bay’s longest-running festival.


Today, the Byron Bay Bluesfest is big, big business.

An annual celebration of blues and roots music, attracting crowds of over 100,000 over five days, Australia’s most awarded music festival has long been responsible for bringing out such legends in the game as James Brown, Bob Dylan, Grace Jones, BB King, R.E.M, Paul Simon and Patti Smith to the Northern Rivers region.

This year, Bluesfest celebrates its 35th birthday with a jam-packed lineup that includes Jimmy Barnes, Tom Jones, Jack Johnson and Elvis Costello playing the Byron Events Farm (formerly the Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm) over the 2024 Easter long weekend.


But flashback to 1990 and the first ever Bluesfest (then the ‘East Coast Blues Festival’) was a somewhat humble affair indoors at, now legendary Byron backpacker haunt, the Arts Factory.


“It was really quite small. It felt like there were far more people there than could fit into the room,” says Dom Turner, whose Australian blues band The Backsliders played the first Bluesfest (and will play this year's too). “I can’t remember the exact number, maybe a thousand [but] it just felt like mayhem it’s impact. But, in many respects, that’s the kind of energy that aligns itself with pub rock in Australia, or southern juke joints in America. You’re up close with the band, it’s hot, it’s sweaty [and] that’s what it was like for those first few years. It was very much like one big juke joint,” says the guitarist and vocalist.


The festival was the brainchild of local promoters Dan Doeppel and husband and wife team Karin and Kevin Oxford off the back of successful gigs at the Arts Factory (then the ‘Piggery’) in the eighties.


Having purchased the disused slaughterhouse in the seventies for peanuts, Doeppel transformed the piggery into a thriving live music venue that hosted touring international and Australian acts including The Ramones, New Order and Midnight Oil, before morphing into the Arts Factory in the early nineties.

Held indoors over the Easter long weekend in 1990, the inaugural East Coast Blues Festival attracted a modest crowd of 6,000 punters with a lineup of American blues and roots artists, including Charlie Musselwhite, Canned Heat, and Big Jay McNeely, sharing the bill with Aussie acts such as Phil Manning, Dutch Tilders & The Blues Club and The Backsliders.


“What made those early days so great, for me, was the interaction between the American artists and the Australian artists,” says Turner of The Backsliders.

“There was a curiosity from the American [blues] musicians especially, who thought ‘now, what the hell’s going on with these [Australians] playing this style of music?’ It was peculiar because, naturally, it’s coming from outside of the tradition but it made it all the more exciting.”


Back then the area also had a slightly seedier reputation and, under pressure from local residents and licensing police, the festival was forced to leave the Arts factory, relocating up the road to the Belongil Fields campgrounds in 1993.

Bluesfest grew into its new home outdoors – billing itself as “the biggest blues event in the Southern Hemisphere” – before relocating to Red Devil Park in 1997, and finally settling at the Byron Bay Events Farm (on 120 hectares) in 2010. This year’s lineup will see over 200 performances over five days.


So, how has Bluesfest been able to attract such big names for 30+ years?

“Byron is such a beautiful area, and that was part of the appeal for international acts back then,” says Turner.


“I’ve met and had long conversations with [Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist] Ben Harper who played the earlier festivals and was learning to surf in the daytime. He has a deep connection here. For touring artists, it’s a welcome break from travelling from city to city, it’s such a beautiful town.”

In 1994, current Bluesfest director Peter Noble would come on board. In the years to follow, he would be awarded the Rolling Stone Australia Award for contribution to popular culture (2014) the Medal of the Order of Australia (2016) and the “Keeping the Blues Alive” award from the Blues Foundation (2017). To date, Bluesfest has become Australia’s most decorated festival, including seven wins at the NSW Tourism Awards.


Its founder attributes the festival’s continued success to its hometown.

“It should have been impossible in a small coastal town in northern New South Wales but the secret ingredient was Byron Bay,” Karin Oxford told the Echo.

“It was about the town; it was the place. We’d be driving down the old two-way tarred Pacific Highway with an artist and they’d ask where’s the freeway? We’d get to Byron and they’d go: shit… this is fantastic.”

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