Bluesfest: a Noble pursuit

You can imagine the stories someone like Peter Noble could tell you about festivals. The highs. The lows. And all the in-betweens. He’s a passionate man – passionate about Bluesfest, but also about the people behind the event and the incredible musicians who’ve performed over the years.

When Samantha Morris spoke to the Bluefest Festival Director, he was putting the finishing touches on one of the dozens of tours that take place to make the event possible.
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“There were 39 tours for the last Bluesfest,” Peter tells me. “We’re only 26 or 27 tours into this one, but that’s hundreds and hundreds of shows just so Bluesfest can happen.”

I have to admit it’s an element to the festival I hadn’t really considered before, but of course it makes sense. I mean, you have all of these internationally renowned artists flying to Australia for a festival, of course they want a tour developed around their visit.

“We plan (the festival) every single day of our lives,” Peter said. “It’s a never-ending process. Of course the public doesn’t understand the process and nor should they be expected to.”

Noble has been involved in the festival since 1993 but he supplied acts as a tour promoter before then. He’s reflective about his time in the hot-seat.

“Everything grows, nothing stays the same,” he said before going on to tell me about the very first Bluesfest he worked at.

“The very first festival I ever worked on was ‘94 at Belongil Fields, which was later the site used by splendour,” he said. “And it was raining, like it felt like we had 30 days of rain going into the event.”

“I remember all the artists arriving and we’d take them out to the fields and they’d look like – is this festival going to be on? I remember calling my good mate Bill Hauritz saying we’ve got a real quagmire here what should I do and he said “duckboards! We’ve got a whole pile here, and straw in circus tents. It won’t be pretty but you’ll get through.”

“We got them on a truck while my new partners were in bunker mentality – locked in the office – and I went around to all the tents and found people to drive up (to Woodford).”

We gave away free tickets, spread out walk boards and put them out the night before the festival. And that’s how we ended up with the festival occurring, it didn’t rain for the whole festival but there was so much mud it didn’t matter anyway,” Peter said.

“That’s where we got the reputation that it always rains at bluesfest,” he laughed. “The next year it pelted down the whole festival.”

He tells me that he’s gone from pretty much being what you’d call a site manager and preparing all contingencies to 20-odd years later sitting in an office with 11 staff – the minimum at this time of year.

“We blow up to an amazing amount of people once bluesfest rolls around,” Peter said as he gives me a roll-call of some of the positions. 1000 paid staff with more than 300 of those in the bar. 600 volunteers. There’s drivers and recycling workers and people who look after those arriving in wheelchairs.

“ I think it’s fair to say that we’re the largest employer in Byron Shire. We provide something like 320 full time equivalent jobs in Byron. And Splendour wouldn’t be that far behind us.”

It makes sense in a regional community like Byron to share resources and that’s exactly what Splendour and Bluesfest do. There are 30 or 40 people trained up in parking management and both festivals share those folk.

“There’s not much argument that Byron is the festival capital of Australia,” Noble said. “And certainly the regional arts capital – and in that a lot of people get trained up in many job parts – my site managers work on numerous festivals.”

“They do Garma in Arnhem Land, Day on the Green, Island Vibe – and these are people who just started building fences on my site. Yes our job requires travel and it’s not always full-time work, but it is well paid work when you’re working and that’s one of the great assets in Byron Shire.”

Right there Noble reels off one of the best cultural events I’ve ever been to – Garma – and I ask him about what other festivals he’s been to that he could boast about. I’m surprised at the response – short and sweet.

“I never go to festivals, I don’t like crowds.”

I laugh but am even more curious about how he finds new talent. Again, short and to the point; “I have spies.”

So, how is the 2015 event shaping up? Oh man, ask Peter Noble a question like this and be prepared for a long list of artists, much excitement in his voice, and pure stoke at a job it’s very clear he loves. A lot.

“So far, we’ve captured the imagination of everybody under 40 – and our feedback is that this is magic festival – it’s compelling. Show me a better bill,” he said. “It’s as good as it gets. And we’re not finished.”

Lucky, because Noble says that some of his older fans are saying they haven’t heard of many of the artists included in the lineup.

“I’ve hit the nail on the head with getting one of our audiences excited – the slightly younger one, but people expect us to bring the Paul Simons and Robert Plants and Santanas of this world to the Festival. I need to do a bit of that and it’ll be the best festival we’ve ever done.”

One of the things that strikes me as unique about Bluesfest is the sheer volume of on-stage collaborations that happen – both spontaneous and planned. Noble sums this up nicely.

“Musicians love playing with musicians – if you get a musician’s festival, then they’re all sitting in.”

“Mavis Staples turned 75 in July and I guarantee there’ll be a line of musicians lining up to play with her,” Noble said.

“As creative festival director, I’m willing to say we hold up highly the artists who have reached those milestones of being 75 years old and still being compelling, still being great. You actually get better at it, to some degree, before things fail you – before your physical energy isn’t up to it. There are plenty of people playing into their 80s who I book.”

“Here’s a person whose career began in the 50s. She was actually a freedom rider – those buses going into Mississippi in the 60s where people were murdered and had dogs set on them – she was on those buses.”

“Then she had those classic songs like I’ll Take You There and Respect Yourself and then she goes solo only 14 years ago. She wins her first ever Grammy just ten years ago and this year she was THE artist that Newport Folk Festival dedicated the festival to her. She just headlined Chicago Blues Festival and she said Bluefest is her favourite festival in the world.”

“We’re not an old farts event,” Peter says of Bluesfest. “Although there are plenty old farts like me. Lots of young people, lots of families. You don’t see that at a lot of festivals. You can bring your babies and you can bring your grandparents.”

“Paolo Natini, Ben Howard and David Gray and Ben Harper? I don’t think we have much to worry about this year,” Noble says, going back to the lineup. “Paolo could be, the chances are, when he’s older, he’ll be like Rod Stewart. He’s got that level of talent and it’s just – to see these people when they’re in their 20s – I think he’s 27 – it’s just brilliant.”

“To go back to your question – I do get out there, go to music business showcases. I’ll be in Melbourne for Melbourne Music Week – I love hearing young talent and getting a feel for it and being part of introducing young talent. You don’t get that from going to other people’s festivals – that’s where you find them. Or up there at Bigsound.”

Noble wraps things up by reminding me that this festival will be the biggest Bluesfest yet. It just keeps growing.

“Like my belly,” he said. “From sitting behind the desk for 20 years.”

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