Blues and roofs: Festival kicks off in style, indoors

It’s a music festival, but not quite as you know it.

In the cavernous, climate-controlled voids of the Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre at Southbank, the inaugural Bluesfest Melbourne kicked off on Saturday.

Kasey Chambers on stage at Bluesfest Melbourne on Saturday.Credit: Justin McManus

The indoor event was designed to combat grim weather that has disrupted other festivals. It’s an extension of the Byron Bay Bluesfest, which is holding its 34th edition this weekend.

While organisers told festival-goers north of the border to bring gumboots, Melbourne musos arrived to carpet and polished tiles.

Outside, of course, it was bucketing down, as Victoria experiences its coldest Easter in 80 years. Inside, the lines were small, the temperature perfect and the musical talent undoubtedly good.

Kasey Chambers, John Butler and the Doobie Brothers were among Saturday’s line-up across three stages in the expansive venue, slated to host up to 9000 people a day.

Mahalia Barnes belting out a tune.Credit: Justin McManus

Chambers, during her afternoon set at the Plenary Theatre, said: “I’ve been going to Byron Bay Bluesfest for 23 years straight. So, I love it … but this has no mud!

“This is like my perfect musical festival. It’s indoors, in a beautiful theatre, there’s no mud anywhere. We’re playing at 3.30pm in the afternoon. I can be at home in bed by 8 tonight.”

Bernardo Duarte and Natasha L’Aimable at Melbourne Bluesfest.Credit: Justin McManus

For an older crowd – at least compared with other festivals on the Australian music calendar such as Splendour in the Grass – the sentiment was well-received.

Bernardo Duarte and Natasha L’Aimable arrived in time for Shaun Kirk’s opening set at the Music City Stage on Saturday.

They saw the positives of the indoor festival’s accessibility and protection from Melbourne’s fickle weather, while noting that spreading it across Jeff’s Shed changed the atmosphere.

“It’s just a different festival vibe,” L’Aimable said. “It’s more like a Sunday afternoon concert.”

Crowds, at times, appeared thin early on Saturday, but the vastness of the venue meant numbers were hard to gauge. Once the bigger names took the stage, there were plenty of toe-tapping blues fans at the front.

“I always wanted to go to Bluesfest Byron and just didn’t make it. And when it was here, I thought I’d come down,” L’Aimable said.

Fans watch Kasey Chambers.Credit: Justin McManus

Mandy and Michael Bennett, both in their 60s, travelled down from Tallong, in the NSW Southern Tablelands, for the festival.

They said the set-up wasn’t what they were expecting.

“For some reason, I’d imagined that you’d wander in, and you’d hear music. Someone would be playing, then you’d move on and hear someone else. Almost like busking,” Mandy said.

But both were looking forward to the Doobie Brothers on Saturday evening.

Acclaimed musicians Lucinda Williams, Buddy Guy and Paolo Nutini will lead the Bluesfest lineup for its final day on Sunday.

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