As the industry winds down after another hectic year, Peter Noble and his team at Bluesfest crank the gears for another big push.

The 29th annual Bluesfest is taking shape with a stacked lineup featuring Lionel Richie, Robert Plant, Kesha and scores more. Female artists are again prominent, with Tash Sultana, Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge high on the bill, though the addition of Kesha has been met with some scowls.

Noble has heard it all before. He took brickbats when he booked Kendrick Lamar for the 2016 event. Lamar wasn’t blues, the critics howled.  Soon after that announcement, the hip-hop star cleaned up at the Grammys, taking home five trophies for his politically-charged second studio album To Pimp A Butterfly.

Here’s someone who fought for her rights, lost her court case and still dropped a brilliant record… The media doesn’t pick it up

Noble brushed off the complaints then as he does now.

“We’re in this time when there are so many abuse allegations out there and here’s someone who fought for her rights, lost her court case and still dropped a brilliant record,” he says of Kesha. “The media doesn’t pick it up.”

TIO’s Lars Brandle spoke with Noble from his other home in Bali for a glimpse inside the evolving Bluesfest beast, and a lesson in trusting your instincts.

How’s the festival shaping up?

Pretty good. We just put up our latest merged post on Facebook; it’s a great bill of music. It’s one of the best we’ve had. I’ll never say it’s the best, but it’s up there with the best.

Every year you try to better yourself?

But that’s just impossible. Every year somebody goes, “how are you going to top this?” We don’t even try. We just go out there and book the best. Sometimes they come together brilliantly, other times artists aren’t as available as they are in other years. But it’s always going to be the best we can find.

I’m truly very proud of Bluesfest. It’s only one year to go until the 30th. My god, I can’t believe it. All those years and we’re still going while so many others have fallen by the wayside.

You’ve been getting backlash for booking Kesha. What’s your reaction to it all?

We haven’t copped nearly as much as when we booked Kendrick Lamar a couple of years ago. I just think there are a lot of people out there who aren’t up to date with what she’s doing, so they hear the word Kesha and they think of an artist five or eight years ago, and what she was doing then, and they’re not aware that she’s dropped this amazing record, Rainbow. I played it a few months ago and went, “Wow. My favourite album of the year.” She’s a creative artist, that’s what Bluesfest does.

If you tried appeasing everyone all the time, you’d come up with something pretty ordinary. I bet it wouldn’t be groundbreaking

There are always going to be people who think, because the name is ‘Bluesfest’, we should only do blues. Yeah, there’s blues but there’s a hell of a lot more than that going on. Major festivals around the world book great artists. If you tried appeasing everyone all the time, you’d come up with something pretty ordinary. I bet it wouldn’t be groundbreaking. There’s so much going on, if you don’t like an artist on one stage, you’ve got four or five other choices. What’s the problem? Bluesfest hasn’t been a strictly blues festival for nearly 20 years.

Has the criticism of Kesha really stung?

People don’t hear what she does now, they hear what she used to do and make judgements based on that. But you have to let artists grow. They need to be challenged. She’s come through some serious shit – sexual abuse claims – then she goes and drops the best album of her career, and gets more abuse.

There are some abusive people out there, and I’m over that on this planet. It’s about time people acknowledged the creative women doing great work and said, “Wow, you’re a great artist, you’ve just dropped a career-defining album.” People want to go out and abuse. What’s wrong with our society?

I think she’s a very talented artist. She’s an abuse survivor who has come out flowering and, to me, that’s a major story

If anyone has copped abuse, it’s this artist. She’s been [allegedly] abused by the owner of her record label, which refused  to let her release a record for five years while she fought to get free. Now she drops Rainbow and people don’t go, “Wow, this is a major abuse survivor dropping a major record.” They just see ‘Tik Tok’. Get up to speed people.

If you think you’re a music fan and you want to criticise an artist, try criticising her latest work. You can’t, it’s impossible. Rainbow is a work of genius. ‘Praying’, for me, is the song of the year. Show me a better one. Too many people don’t think about the big picture, they just react to everything.

I think she’s a very talented artist. She’s an abuse survivor who has come out flowering and, to me, that’s a major story.

You’ve got a very strong female lineup this year with Kesha, Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge and Tash Sultana near the top of the bill.

What I love about the Bluesfest, you go down to 16th line [of the lineup] and you’re still looking at (Hurray for the) Riff Raff and Benjamin Booker – there’s 40 artists in front of that. Show me another festival doing that in this country. We’ve booked Tash Sultana; nobody is selling more tickets than her right now. That’s the sort of stuff that doesn’t get focused on.

You get the best artists from every generation, going back to the ‘50s. You’ve got the current blues Grammy winner in Bobby Rush. He’s 82 years old, yet he finally won a Grammy this year. There’s another thing about Bluesfest: When you see the legends, you don’t know if that’ll be the last time. I know it’s the last time for three of them – I just can’t say who they are.

You’ve surely got an eye on the 30th Bluesfest anniversary in 2018 – how are you planning to celebrate it?

We’ve been working on the 30th for a while. You can’t be working just on your current festival, you always have to be working one or two years ahead. We’re speaking with artists. Certainly, when a 30th comes around there’s an expectation that you’re going to deliver something great, and one of the things we’ll do is make it a bit of a best-of. Over the years we’ve had so many headliners, and we’ll try get a bunch of them to say, “That’s the year we’re coming back.” Hopefully it’ll happen.

Steve Romer recently came on board as Chief Operating Officer. How has he settled in?

What a great vibe he brings. Bluesfest isn’t a small company – we have at least 22 people working with us. Even that alone requires people there all the time, dealing with everything, and Steve is a great person at getting a company firing. Even in the months he’s been on board we can see that. I’m so proud of him. And it’s great that we’ve been friends for so many years before he came on board – we just have that rapport.

How’s the festivals market in general right now?

This year we’ve got a lot of people touring, so everyone’s struggling a little bit to get the numbers. I’m hearing there’s quite a late buy out there, and those people with the fortitude to be in the business will find, as long as they have the right event, they’ll be okay. If you’ve got the acts people want, you’re doing fine.

I don’t think the market is soft, I think the choices are huge. People only have so much money going around

From Paul McCartney through to Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran, those acts are going to sell a lot of tickets, and it seems to be a huge amount of touring going on underneath that. People say to me there’s more going on than in the last half a decade, at least.

Within that, some people won’t sell as many tickets as they were hoping for, although we’re not seeing any real issues out there for ourselves. I don’t think the market is soft, I think the choices are huge. People only have so much money going around.

With the big 3-0 on the horizon, have you ever considered taking a “fallow” year every four or five years, like Michael Eavis does with Glastonbury?

He does that because his site is such a shithole.  They have a fallow year because they have to let the land come back for all the damage done to it. I was there two years ago and I couldn’t believe that human beings would put up with that. It would take an hour to walk between the stages in the mud.

His site is such a shithole. I was there two years ago, and I couldn’t believe that human beings would put up with that

The Brits are stoic people, they put a smile on their faces and deal with it. But long drop toilets and no showers on site? I mean, you try to do that in Australia, and they ain’t coming – we get complaints if the hot water is going cold at 9.30am in the camp grounds.

We deliver a much better festival experience; maybe not in the way of talent, but in everything else you get at a Glastonbury. You get to a certain age and festivals need to be as comfortable as possible. We’re noticing our glamping sales this year are huge – it tells you people want to have a good experience.

The 29th Byron Bay Bluesfest takes place on March 29 – April 2, 2018, with Robert Plant, Kesha, CHIC feat. Nile Rodgers, Tash Sultana, Lionel Richie and more – tickets are on sale now.

Bluesfest 2018 third lineup announcement

Thursday March 29 – Monday April 2, 2018
Byron Bay, NSW

Tickets on sale now

Kesha
Sheryl Crow
Melissa Etheridge
Juanes
Seu Jorge
Ziggy Alberts
Ásgeir
Newton Faulkner
Afro Celt Sound System
Harry Manx
Harts
Holy Holy
William Crighton
Elephant Sessions

Joining…

Lionel Richie
Robert Plant And The Sensational Space Shifters
John Butler Trio
Tash Sultana
Seal
Jackson Browne
Michael Franti & Spearhead
Youssou Ndour
Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit
Gomez
Rag’N’Bone Man
José González
First Aid Kit
Morcheeba
Gov’t Mule
The New Power Generation
The Original Blues Brothers Band
Chic Featuring Nile Rodgers
Jimmy Cliff
The Wailers
Canned Heat
Walter Trout
Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real
Joe Louis Walker
Bobby Rush
Hurray For The Riff Raff
Benjamin Booker
Eric Gales
Dumpstaphunk
André Cymone
The California Honeydrops
Rick Estrin & The Nightcats
The Teskey Brothers