The 2016 Rhythm and Roots Music and Dance Festival celebrated its 19th year in its current location, and it is hard not to conclude that it was the strongest year ever. The lineup was fantastic – a great mix of established performers (Lucinda Williams, Dave & Phil Alvin, Taj Mahal, Bruce Hornsby), it also featured a number of up and coming artists (Suitcase Junket, Dustbowl Revival, Hat Fitz & Cara, Guthrie Brown, Quiet Life, Honey Honey, Sarah Potenza) – but the real star of the weekend was the perfect weather which defied the gloomy forecast.
Temperatures were in the high 70s during the day with nights in the 60s featuring beautiful sunsets that actually stopped traffic. Despite the faultless weather, crowds were down largely due to predictions of a Sunday washout from Hurricane Hermine. It was surprising that a festival dominated by “crunchy” folks spent so much time watching the storm on their weather apps instead of just enjoying the present, but that technological horse seems to have already left the societal barn.
For those not familiar with the Rhythm and Roots Festival – it is a weekend festival held at beautiful Ninigret State Park in Charlestown, Rhode Island. There are two main genres of music: the “rhythm” part of the festival lives at the dance tent where Louisiana-styled Cajun and Zydeco dance bands play to a New England-based sub-culture of semi-professional dancers who twirl around the dance floor in colorful outfits and dance-friendly shoes or boots. The average age of this crowd is probably somewhere between 50 and 65, but after spending some time in the dance tent it is easy to see that that dancing may at least be a spring emanating from the fountain of youth. The “roots” part of the festival takes place on the other two stages and features roots music that spans the spectrum between blues and country with a firm center around folk.
A significant portion of the festival goers camp on the festival grounds which furthers the sense of community. Most attendees are white music loving New Englanders, many with their families. With only three stages, the festival is quite manageable and is probably one of the most family friendly festival around, without being kid-centric. Mostly unsupervised kids ride around the campground on their bikes and fall into age appropriate packs that put the playgrounds, swimming hole, and lawn games (giant jenga, the shoe toss, potato sack races, etc) to the test. In addition there is a Family Stage packed with kids events including world class storytellers like Len Cabral by day and age appropriate movies by night – It is hard not to smile and feel a little better about our country’s future when passing by a tent full of kids snuggled into blankets and laughing in the dark. The food selection is quality and local and includes such regional fare as Rhode Island clam chowder, stuffies, local oysters, lobster rolls and Del’s frozen lemonade (all tested and approved this year).
The other part of the festival experience that is a little magical comes from the campers. After the festival shuts down at midnight, the campground comes alive. Incredibly intricate and even luxurious campsites begin to glow with campfires that draw fortified campers with instruments looking for a place to play. One site had collected 7 guitars, 2 drummers, 2 bassists (one upright) and 1 flautist, along with assorted voices. It took them a while to figure out what song to play next, but we were all encouraged to sing along.
So what about the music?
The festival opens on Friday evening at 5 and goes on until midnight. The three bands that stood out were Dustbowl Revival, Matt Andersen and The Bona Fide, and Roomful of Blues.
Dustbowl Revival is an eight piece band from Venice, Ca. They are a party band fronted by Liz Beebe and Zach Lupetin. Their music has ingredients of bluegrass (Whiskey in the Well), swing (Ain’t My Fault), gospel (John the Revelator), roots rock (Hey Baby) and party folk (Lampshade On). And although this combination has been done before, they stand out because of the strong vocals, the kicking horn section and the amount of fun they have on stage. It is danceable, compelling and fun. Musically, their fiddle player stands out – although it is impossible to understand how he gets such soulful and energetic sounds from his fiddle while standing almost completely still. Drums, upright bass, mandolin, acoustic guitar, trombone and trumpet round out the instrumentation. The highlight of the show was a “he done me wrong” torch song sung by Liz who got so into the song that she seemed to actually get angry while singing something to the effect of “you don’t have anything if you don’t got me”.
Matt Andersen is a young Canadian blues artist that gives you hope that the blues is far from dead. Matt has a large powerful and soulful voice which is nicely complemented by excellent guitar playing. His solos stood out not only for the notes he played, but also the notes he chose not to play. He played a 75 minute set chocked full of originals. If he comes by your neighborhood and you like the blues, you should make a point of seeing him.
Roomful of Blues was a complete surprise. They are an American Swing band from Rhode Island that has been active since the late 60’s. Their set had all the ingredients for a tired performance, but they defied expectations by playing a fresh and lively set that showed they still have something new to say musically. (Incidentally, they were preceded by Duke Robillard, their original front man.)
Friday also featured performances by Donna the Buffalo with special guest Preston Frank, (their set on the main stage on Saturday seemed stronger) Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas (solid Zydeco dance band), Cedryl Ballou and the Zydeco Trendsetters, (good Zydeco energy) The Revelers (nice to listen to, but not quite danceable enough), Duke Robillard (basic blues), and The Honeycutters (pretty far down the country spectrum).
Saturday is the first full day of the festival running from 1 pm to midnight. Of the 23 bands that played, the seven stand outs were: Hat Fitz & Cara, Lucinda Williams & Buick 6, Taj Mahal Trio, Quiet Life, Guthrie Brown & the Family Tree, Sarah Potenza and The Huntress and Holder of Hands.
Rhythm & Roots marked the only US tour date for Hat Fitz & Cara and they made it special. They live in “the sticks” of Queensland Australia. Fitz plays two guitars that look as interesting and wild as he does. He plays stripped down blues that feel like they were excavated from a West Virginia coal mine. Cara is an Irish born singer, drummer and fife player who moved to Australia to marry Fitzy and live in “essentially a garden shed full of giant spiders” to the initial dismay of her mother. She complements Fitz in every way. Musically, she provides strong and beautiful vocals and drums which work perfectly with his raw blues guitar and rough vocals. She also excels at delightful stage banter (with bawdy interjections from Fitz) which highlights the charming nature of their relationship.
One festival goer summed up Lucinda Williams perfectly saying, “Lucinda is a lot like licorice, some people love it and some people don’t.” That statement makes a lot of sense as Lucinda’s twangy voice and casual garbled lyrics that you’d normally hear from a person who’s had a few too many drinks can be off putting, but there is something about the quality of her songwriting, her honesty and her band that is intoxicating. Her lyrics speak of lost love, missed opportunities, and unrealized dreams that evoke the lives of everyday people. Her backing band, Buick 6, released their own CD which is definitely worth picking up.
Taj Mahal took the stage as it began to get dark and absolutely lit up the crowd with his smile, songs and stories. In his 90 minute set, he played the gamut from the happy blues songs he is famous for like Fishin’ Blues to traditional blues songs like Ain’t Nobody’s Business to contemporary blues songs like Corrina. His fingerpicking was effortless and the warmth he emanated was enough to take the chill off the entire festival crowd. He was backed by Billy Rich who was excellent on bass and Kester Smith who played flawless drums even though he seemed to be mouthing words to his own songs. He’s worth seeing any time you get the chance
Quiet Life and Guthrie Brown & the Family Tree were two young roots rock bands that were mature beyond their years. Quiet Life is a folk rock band with a laid back, hazy Americana feel fronted by brothers Sean and Ryan Spellman who were born in NJ, moved to CT and now live in Portland. Their songs felt like warm and familiar travelling music with a slightly eerie edge to them. They feature three electric guitars, bass and drums. Their set was quite a nice surprise. Guthrie Brown & the Family Tree was another unexpected pleasure – Guthrie was born in Montana and moved to Nashville to pursue a music career. He plays acoustic guitar expertly and has a warm, soft spoken voice. The band’s sounds fall a bit on the country side of roots rock, but have enough folk, soul and roots to escape the pure country label. His songs were heartfelt and the sonic layering of his acoustic guitar along with John McNally’s Fender Strat was quite pleasing too.
Another standout was Rhode Islander moved to Nashville, Sarah Potenza. Sarah has a very powerful voice and stage presence which carried her through six episodes of NBC’s The Voice. She had appeared at Rhythm & Roots in years past with her band Sarah & the Tall Boys. The new iteration feels more honest and centers the band more about Sarah and her powerful vocal instrument which was evident on her cover of Hozier’s Take Me to Church. Many of her songs have a country blues tilt to them including the ballad Grandad written about her husband and guitarist Ian’s grandfather with the chorus “Don’t you trust the government, always carry your gun. Stand up for what you believe in whether you are right or wrong. But above all that he said you’ve gotta get through thick and thin, he said, don’t you ever buy a car you can’t sleep in.”
The last Saturday standout was The Huntress & the Holder of Hands, a project by Morgan Eve Swain the surviving member of the duo Brown Bird. (Her bandmate and husband, David Lamb died of Leukemia in 2014 at the age of 36.) Her new band is mostly acoustic and seems amply fueled by the loss of her life and musical partner. The music is dark and powerful and explores themes of loss and emptiness and evokes those feelings so palpably that it her loss is prominent even if you never heard her story. She even played a few Brown Bird tunes to keep David’s work alive and captured that sentiment beautifully by introducing one song as “a cover of a song that I wrote.” The music was beautifully moving and required emotional involvement from the audience that not all were willing to commit to.
Of the other Saturday bands, HoneyHoney, a duo with solid harmonies, showed promise as did the Just Us Western Swing All Stars which featured the incredible Aurora Nealand on reeds from New Orleans. Uncle Earl, an acoustic quartet of women also played, much to the delight of some hardcore fans, but they seemed a bit unrehearsed and out of synch to me.
Sunday started off with low crowds as weather obsessed folks decided not to brave the storm that didn’t have the decency to properly introduce itself to Rhode Island. But as they say, that’s more music for the rest of us. One of the more manageable aspects of the festival is that some of the bands – particularly the Zydeco bands and the smaller roots bands have an opportunity to play more than one day. This gives the festival goer a chance to check out an act that you missed, but heard the buzz from neighbors about how good their set was, or see a second set of a band you really liked. Of Sunday’s 21 time slots, 13 were repeat performers. The MVPs (most valuable performers) of the day were: Suitcase Junket, Dave & Phil Alvin, Los Texmaniacs and Jim Kweskin & Geoff Muldaur. (Hat Fitz & Cara, Dustbowl Revival, Quiet Life, and Guthrie Brown & the Family Tree all played great second sets, but were reviewed earlier.)
One of the best sets of the festival was the opening set at the Roots stage played by Suitcase Junket, a one-man-band project by Matt Lorenz who constructed an entire orchestra out of found objects – a baby shoe, a cook pot, a circular saw blade, a box of silverware and bones, a distressed guitar found in a dumpster, a high hat, and of course, a suitcase. Matt plays roadhouse blues songs with extra teeth – the hardness of the sound kind of sneaks up on you. He has a very good voice and backs his playing with this two-noted throat singing/whistling thing he stumbled upon by accident one day and spent the next 5 years perfecting it. He combines energetic songs with witty stage banter and has an ease about him that is infectious. Before long, the entire tent was moving and tapping their feet to his songs, but nowhere near as effectively as Matt was tapping given all of the musical duty his heels and toes were performing. Don’t miss him next time he rolls into your town.
Meanwhile, long time folk performers Jim Kweskin & Geoff Muldaur opened the Rhythm Stage. In deep contrast to the novelty of Suitcase Junket, Jim & Geoff played a show steeped in the ease of an old pair of slippers. Their hour long show felt like an fireside chat with a pair of soft spoken folk music history professors – which in essence is who they are. They introduced each song with an interesting story or anecdote with a familiarity that made it seem like they were sitting right in the audience with you. One such exchange went something like this, “Did anyone see Taj Mahal last night? Wasn’t he great? I was so happy he played Fishin’ Blues. Then they told a little story about the song and played their version.
Los Texmaniacs kicked up the action on the Rhythm Stage and introduced yet another genre of roots music – TexMex Conjunto. A full band with a rocking party sound, they featured bajo sexton, accordion, guitar, bass, fiddle and drums, and their songs alternated between English and Spanish. They were proud to introduce their songs, sound, instruments and musical influences.
Throughout the weekend, a marching band, The Extraordinary Rendition Band, roamed the grounds breaking out in song, leading the kids’ parade, and filling the rare moments when the main stage was not in full swing. All in all the weekend was extremely enjoyable and is a great low-key summer festival. The camping setup, dancing culture and family friendliness of this festival really make it stand out – In addition, I’d find it hard to believe that anyone left the weekend without a few new bands to follow. See y’all there next year for the 20th RnR Festival!
Photos by Nancy Lasher