Noble's committed to Bluesfest
NO faster than a heartbeat.
It is this philosophy, held by Bluesfest director Peter Noble, that has catapulted a blues gig held at the Byron Arts Factory back in 1990 to a five-day premier international music festival that showcases established and up-and-coming blues and roots artists from all across the world.
Noble doesn’t book bands that play music faster than a heartbeat. He believes all great music, like the greats of black blues, is slower than the beat of a human heart.
This belief has seen Noble steer away from partnerships with powerful industry promoters, protecting Bluesfest from becoming too commercial in its line-up. It saw him leave Australia back in the ’70s so he could play with black musicians in America – a country where he would go on to discover his aptitude as a promoter.
But it has not always been an easy philosophy. It has not brought Noble the riches many people speculate he is rolling in, nor has he been given an easy time of it – local environmentalists have frequently warned him out of the Byron Shire.
Noble swears he’s got debts that will endure for years and, although Bluesfest has turned a profit four out of the past five years, he was deliberating recently if he could afford to raise his weekly wage from $500 to $600.
So why does he do it?
Partly because of The Beatles.
“The Beatles were the biggest thing that ever happened,” Noble says.
“I picked up a guitar, the same as everyone, after The Beatles came out to Australia in 1964. I went and saw them at Sydney stadium. After that, every kid wanted to be in a band. They reckon after The Beatles came to Sydney, 4000-5000 garage bands sprung up. That’s what we were – a garage band. I don’t know how I afforded the ticket to see The Beatles, my parents might have given it to me.”
Noble grew up in the working class suburb of Croydon Park in south-western Sydney. He went to Belmore Boys’ High School but left early to pursue his dream of becoming a professional musician, his love of music already sparked by parents with an extensive record collection.
Noble remembers jumping up and down to Yes, We Have No Bananas, and being bowled over by the first blues song he ever heard – Blues in the Night by Bing Crosby.
He joined his first band at 15, left school, and by the age of 16 he was a professional musician.
“In the ’60s, I was the only Aussie in an all-Brit band,” Noble recalls.
“If you remember, we used to have all the £10 Poms arriving in Australia. The band was called Clapham Junction – and we were making real money.”
It also increased their chances of geting girls. “We were terrible. We would section the audience off and the 20 girls in your section you would stare at them and make them think you were really into them. We would roll up towels and put them down our pants,” he says. “Rude bands like the Masters Apprentices were after us. They wouldn’t even share dressing rooms with us. We would get our sound guy to pull the plug on them. They would come out and we would be standing on the side of the stage, saying ‘do you want a fight?’ We were better than them, but we just didn’t make it.”
After Clapham Junction broke up, Noble ended up in Thredbo Alpine Village as a band leader with the newly arrived Marcia Hines as his singer.
But Noble’s dream was still to play with a band full of black musicians, so he left Australia for the promised land of blues and roots music; America. He landed in Portland, Oregon, where he married but was soon off touring in the all-black band he joined – Stormy Weather. But things soon turned even stormier.
“I was living with one of the singers in the band. She and I had a break up which wasn’t good,” he says. “I got fired from the band and had to make my way back to Portland and beg my wife, even though she knew I was unfaithful, to let me stay. She did, for three nights, for which I thank her still to this day – I was not a faithful man when I was young!”
With no money he was walking down the street and he saw a sign that said American Entertainment. “I went in and said ‘I can book bands, I’ve worked in a band. If you give me a job you don’t have to pay me, you just need to give me a room’ and, God bless him, the guy said ‘yes’. I was an agent for commission only – but he bought me a hotel room.”
His skill as a promoter quickly emerged. Within weeks he was turning over a commission and within months he had booked his first big show with the legendary blues master, B.B. King.
Noble made his way back to Australia, moving to Byron Bay where The East Coast Blues Festival was already under way at the Arts Factory in 1990.
Noble began to provide the talent for founder Keven Oxford during the early years of the festival, becoming partners in 1994. He quickly ‘agitated’ to have the festival expanded from a strictly blues experience.
“Because I lived in the USA and made many contacts – I started bringing blues, jazz and reggae artists out to Australia,” Noble says.
“I knew the blues market was a finite one ... so I started agitating very quickly to widen the event and Keven Oxford, my partner embraced that, too. By 1996, Ben Harper had played the festival, so within two years; we had gone from being a blues festival to roots. I think ’97 was when we first called it a blues and roots festival because JJJ refused to present us.”
Shortly after ARIA changed their category to blues and roots. “There is not a blues and roots Grammy, nor is there a blues and roots Brit Award,” says Noble. “All these bands like John Butler said ‘we never thought we were a blues act’ but they could see themselves under the blues and roots banner. It led to us introducing a lot of new talent.”
Many credit Noble with ‘discovering’ acts like Ben Harper and Jack Johnson. When Noble first booked Johnson in 2002, he was ‘delivered’ to Bluesfest for $7500. He will be delivered this April for significantly more.
Australian acts have also benefited from Noble’s vision. The Cat Empire, who have gone on to world fame, had their first big break with Bluesfest. Noble first spotted Kasey Chambers on the steps of the Brunswick Hotel. He reports Chambers calls him every year, politely asking if she will be included on the bill.
But as Bluesfest grew into a premier international music festival, tensions increased in the already ‘spirited’ relationship between Noble and Oxford.
“The real low was the break-up with my partner Keven Oxford,” Noble says. “We both signed a document stating neither of us would talk too deeply about certain aspects of it. We created this event together, something occurred and one of us had to leave. It’s a pity.”
Noble then moved into a partnership with Michael Chugg and Glenn Wheatley.
“Glenn was only a partner for a short time and Chuggy and I have a love/hate relationship,” he says.
“Having these partnerships taught me I am up there with the big guys but it also taught me I don’t want to go too commercial. I had to buy these people out – even though it put us in debt. I remember sitting down and asking if we could afford to increase our wages from $500 to $600 a week and at the same time everyone thought we were making millions. But people don’t realise that it costs millions to run Bluesfest. Talent alone costs millions.
“There are people in the arts who are involved because they kind of have to do it and there are people who just want to get their hands in your pocket. That is not the Bluesfest ethos.”
Noble prides himself as part of the counter-culture movement, many of who moved to the Northern Rivers to live in harmony with the land.
Noble himself bought property at Binna Burra near Bangalow in 1991 and, instead of chopping down trees to clear it for agriculture, he planted more.
His regard for the environment has spilled over into the organisation of Bluesfest. Last year, Bluesfest was recognised internationally for its efforts to protect the environment, winning The Greener Festival Awards.
Bluesfest has received this award for the third year in a row, more than any other Australian festival. But this hasn’t stopped detractors from sledging the festival – warning it out of the Byron Shire.
“I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘why don’t you move your festival to Kyogle’,” Noble says. “I’ve had a Byron Shire councillor say to me ‘We love your festival but this place is getting loved to death and you are one of the causes’.
“We created this so we can support and enhance the arts. We are the regional arts centre of this country and I’m including Tweed, Murwillumbah and Lismore in that.
“When we did our DA for council for the new site at Tyagarah, it was a 1000-page document ...We have kept it local. We are part of this community and want to be a part of the conversation.
“I look forward to the new events policy and to create a level of agreement where everyone can get what they want. I still put it to you now that if Bob Dylan wanted to come and play in Byron Bay it would take three months before they would know if they had approval when it can be got in 48 hours in Ballina. That needs to be addressed.
“I would hope any consternation about our new Bluesfest site, after we have done one or two events there, will dissipate.”
He laughs. “The Mongols will not invade.”
But it hasn’t all been fear and loathing for Noble. Bringing interesting acts from all across the world made for some interesting antics, such as those of Shane MacGowan, lead singer of The Pogues.
“We always knew Shane had his ‘foibles’,” says Noble. “So the plan was to bring him in three days before the first date in Sydney at the Gaelic Club.
“The first day he rolls up to Qantas in London, they wouldn’t let him on the plane ... The Pogues called and said we tried, we weren’t drunk, they just wouldn’t let us on. The second day he rolls up to Qantas and they wouldn’t let him on because of how he looked – Irish people always drink but it doesn’t mean they are drunk. Then they called and said if we change the ticket to British Airways it would be okay. They’re used to us, they said!”
There was no sign of MacGowan on the morning he was due to play Bluesfest, so Noble sat down with his manager, telling him if he didn’t show up, he wouldn’t get paid.
But MacGowan somehow found his way to the Bluesfest site: “MacGowan walked on stage, sat down in his chair and said, ‘I’m here – good evening New Zealand’.”
Then there’s the story of an unnamed artist ... “He fired his manager in a very unique way. He, ah, entered his site van dressing room with his manager’s wife and made love with her.”
But Noble also prides the festival on its professionalism and the calibre of artists that perform.
“If you are being negative or if every second word is f***, or if you’re music is misogynistic you have no place here,” he says.
“We are about taking you higher and I can go right into that. We don’t present music that is faster than a heartbeat. That creates tension. James Brown and all those guys had this awareness. So does Bluesfest.”
Bluesfest 2010 will be held at the new site, Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm from April 1 to April 5. Tickets are on sale now. Call 6685 8310 or visit www.bluesfest.com.au.