How Bluesfest came back from brink
ON the picturesque greens of the Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, the anticipation is palpable.
As fairy lights are strung, and tents, fences and stages go up, hundreds of workers - many out of a proper job for more than a year - are daring to hope for a return to normality.
This is Bluesfest 2021, where organisers have managed to pull together a scorching line-up of Australian talent for a 15,000-a-day crowd in the middle of a global pandemic.
For founder Peter Noble, it's the crest of a mountain of work that 12 months ago seemed almost insurmountable.
"We're already into the site build and the site manager came to me and said he'd never felt a better vibe on this site - ever," he said.
"All the people who put up the tents, the fencing, the toilets, showers - everything - they're all saying it's just great to be working again."
On March 22, 2020, as the trucks lined up at the front gate to set up for last year's Bluesfest - COVID-19 entered the vernacular, and the live music scene was squashed indefinitely.
The change happened in the space of a few days - there was a festival in Adelaide on the weekend, a day later Melbourne's F1 was called off as fans lined up to enter, then Prime Minister Scott Morrison shut down major events altogether.
"We were reeling," Mr Noble said.
"People were walking around wondering how they were going to pay their mortgage."
Staff gathered in a field and were told they would keep their jobs, albeit on reduced hours and working from home.
Then Mr Noble and his management team began the task of creating Covid-safe plans to make Bluesfest 2021 happen. It was very much a 2021-or-die scenario.
"If it was going to be 2022, it would have been two years without trading.
"We made very quick decisions."
It took three attempts before a plan was approved, and the result will be a festival like none before it.
There will be three stages instead of the usual five, patrons will be required to check in and follow social distancing measures, regularly sanitise their hands and will have to remain in or in front of their seats when watching acts.
Crowds will be able to move freely around the festival and will not be required to wear face masks.
However, the restrictions are still a moving feast, with circus tents that were not allowed a week ago, just being approved.
Organisers still hold out hope for further easing of restrictions - maybe even permission to dance, as is enjoyed a few clicks north in Queensland.
It won't just be the Bluesfest team celebrating its return this Easter, with most of the artists also out of work for most of the year, and many unable to rehearse with band members who live in different states.
Tickets are close to selling out, with Jimmy Barnes, Tash Sultana, Ocean Alley, Ziggy Alberts, The Teskey Brothers, John Butler, Xavier Rudd and The Cat Empire among a line-up studded with old and new favourites over the five-day Easter weekend festival.
It's not just fans that have seen the value of Bluesfest - prospective buyers of the festival itself have also returned.
Mr Noble hinted a pre-Covid offer to buy the event, and possibly its prime location near Byron Bay, may still be in play.
"I had an offer on the table to sell my event, which I may or may not have taken, but it was very quickly withdrawn (when Covid hit)," he said.
"I spoke to the person (who offered to buy it) just this week to let them know there's now two others interested."
Mr Noble said Bluesfest could be sold "if that magic number was there".
"But certainly Bluesfest is not an event that will ever be sold at a fire sale," he said.
He said fellow music industry counterparts see Bluesfest as a bit of a test, urging him "Peter, don't blow this".
"We're not there to yell and scream at people, we want them to have a great time," Mr Noble said.
"(But) if they can't figure out how to act responsibly, they will have to leave.
"I just hope everyone comes along with a good attitude, enjoy themselves and do it responsibly."
Originally published as How Bluesfest came back from brink