Bluesfest got skrillexed, as Gillian Welch might say.
The American singer-songwriter, who made a surprise appearance during the first week of RBC Royal Bank Bluesfest, last year found herself at the Austin City Limits festival, fighting to make herself heard over the bass-heavy sound of electro superstar Skrillex on a nearby stage.
That may have been the first time his name was used as a verb.
Conor Oberst used it again during his recent early-evening mainstage set at Bluesfest on July 6, opening for City and Colour. The singer-songwriter performed his sweet, sad songs as a duo with guitarist Dave Rawlings, battling the decibels that emanated from Canuck rockers Arkells on the River stage. Oberst said he felt like he was being skrillexed, and brought in reinforcement in the person of none other than Welch, who is Rawlings’ life partner and often travels with him. The trio played a few songs, resulting in one of the early high points of this year’s festival.
There were many other instances of artists being skrillexed over the long, hot days of Bluesfest 2012 before the real Skrillex obliterated what was left of people’s eardrums with his Saturday-night headlining mainstage performance on July 14, a concert that set a festival record for walk-up attendance. Organizers said more than 10,000 people bought tickets at the last minute, a wave that made up for a few slow nights early in the fest.
Festival boss Mark Monahan said Sunday that attendance over the 12-day festival is on track to match last year’s total crowd of 300,000. Although the throngs this year did not seem as thick in the main plaza, Monahan said the stage reconfiguration provided more space. The biggest nights of this year’s headliners were Skrillex, Iron Maiden, Snoop Dogg, Nickelback, LMFAO and Blue Rodeo. The underperformers were Bad Religion and Tiesto. In the middle were John Mellencamp, City and Colour, Norah Jones and Metric.
“I would say that Tiesto was probably not as big a crowd as I expected, and Skrillex was much bigger than I expected,” Monahan says, noting that he didn’t set out to put a DJ on the main stage. “It was just a function of what’s available.”
July 11, Bad Religion night, was particularly problematic, Monahan said, as the headliner changed several times. In the end, legendary punks Bad Religion stepped in with two weeks’ notice, and delivered a top-notch show for the few thousand in attendance.
Another challenging night was when LMFAO showed up with one man unable to perform. Redfoo carried the show without SkyBlu, and it was only a minor disappointment for the young crowd. More disappointing for older fans was the fact that John Mellencamp didn’t play an encore, although time allowed. His attitude was the opposite of Skrillex’s, who went eight minutes past curfew, continued the party until closing time at Ritual Nightclub, then transported it to his Full Flex Express train and took it all the way to Montreal.
Pleasant surprises came in discovering acts like rock goddess Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Willie Nelson’s guitar-slinging son, Lukas Nelson, Austin’s Bright Light Social Hour and New Orleans singer-songwriter Lynn Drury. Other outstanding performers I saw included Airborne Toxic Event, Hey Rosetta!, Good Old War, The Hold Steady, the Sheepdogs and Our Lady Peace.
As for the emphasis on electronic music, which divided music fans the moment the lineup was announced, it probably isn’t going away. The festival scored a big win with Skrillex, a loss with Tiesto, and a big win with the newly minted Electro stage, which was packed with sweaty dancing fans almost every night.
“In terms of the electro stage, I would say it’s been a resounding success in terms of attendance,” said Monahan. “People definitely responded to it, and it wasn’t really a teenage crowd. I’d say the bulk of the crowd was twentysomething. It did look like a big nightclub. When you came over the hill, looked like a big dance floor and people filtered up the hill.”
However, the electro content also brought a backlash from fans of blues, many of whom refused to buy tickets. Unfortunately, they missed fantastic performances by the many blues acts that were on the bill, including the Tedeschi-Trucks Band, Bettye Lavette and Johnny Sansone, who performed an incendiary set with Ottawa’s MonkeyJunk.
Monahan feels the festival’s marketing theme this year, Electro-fied, may have given the mistaken impression that Bluesfest had gone completely electronic. In fact, he says the business model guarantees that it will never be devoted to one style of music.
“We know there’s not enough blues fans or classic rock fans that would make this thing viable,” Monahan says. “So I’m trying to program this so that it will appeal to a certain audience, and bring them to the festival, whether it’s one night or 10 nights. My feeling is I’d rather be inclusive rather than exclusive. I hope that people don’t get offended because their kids want to go and see some shows.”