Most people have a ritual that signals the end of summer. For many roots music fans that rite is the Rhythm and Roots Music and Dance Festival held over Labor Day weekend at Ninigret State Park in Charlestown, Rhode Island. This year marked the 20th anniversary of the festival which blends a steady diet of Cajun/Zydeco dance bands with folk, blues, swing, and other roots rock acts into the most family friendly festival. The festival brings in a number of day trippers, but the heartiest patrons camp in RVs or tents in the field adjacent to the festival.
The second pillar is supported by the Cajun/Zydeco dancing community. These folks are easy to spot – they are the nicest and most uniquely dressed folks at the festival and all sport cowboy boots or other proper shoes suited for dancing on one of the wooden dance floors at each of the three stages. These folks may not all know each other by name, but they are all familiar with one another, and by the end of the weekend, many will have danced together. The dancers primarily congregate at the Dance Stage which kicks off each day at 1:00 with Zydeco or Cajun dance instruction, which surprisingly is full of beginners and experts alike. The dancers make it to other stages too, but primarily when a swing or other danceable band hits that stage. Many folks dance from one in the afternoon to midnight which must send their FitBits and other step trackers into marathon runner totals. Although the bands tend to repeat several times through the weekend, they (Steve Riley, Horace Trahan, Revelers, Pine Leaf Boys, and Creole Cowboys) keep the dancers satisfied.
The third pillar is the rest of the music. Rhythm and Roots features four stages, but with one being devoted to the Dancers and another devoted to kids, there are two main stages for the rest of the festival goers and they operate from 1pm until midnight. 2017 marked the first year that the festival expanded to three full days of music, and although there seemed to be less variety as many bands pulled two or even three time slots, there was plenty of good music to be heard. The early slots (1-5pm) at the Roots Stage were filled with instrument-specific workshops which were both interesting and entertaining. The workshops mixed musicians from several bands who discussed inspiration, influences and technique, and played a few unrehearsed tunes. Chas Justice, the guitarist from the Revelers made an interesting point at the Guitar workshop. He said, “I’ve done a few of these guitar workshops and the issue with them is that we’re all accompanist musicians which makes it hard to play anything.” Although I get his point, I have to disagree as I’ve seen a number of workshops consisting of lead players that essentially devolve into each artist taking turns doing solo performances. The guitar workshop was more entertaining because all the accompanying musicians were able to join in with an ease that was mindboggling. Case in point: Chas quickly related a lengthy and complex chord progression to the other three guitarists (Jordan McConnell, Max Baca, and Chris Hersch) and as quickly launched into his song which all three immediately joined in to accompany him.
Now for the music. There were eight bands that really stood out over the three-day weekend: MarchFourth; Shinyribs; Say Darling; Sara Potenza and Ian Crossman; Lilly Hiatt; Roseanne Cash; Big Sandy and the Flyright Boys; and Ten Strings and a Goatskin.
The MarchFourth marching band is a collection of 20 fun-loving musicians and acrobats that brought amazing energy, musicianship and acrobatics to the stag. They played two sets and got the whole crowd whipped up into a dancing partying frenzy each time. They wore fun costumes and played funky, high-energy brass band tunes. They interspersed their musical numbers with musician-backed, jaw dropping acrobatic performances by the three-person acrobatic team. They brought so much energy to the stage that at the last set of a three-day festival they had every person on the Roots Stage out of their chairs, dancing and screaming for more. With so many ex-marching band members out there it is a wonder that there aren’t more outfits like MarchFourth all around the country.
Shinyribs is a band that this reviewer was primed to hate. There is a lot of schtick to Kevin Russell’s band, and although the show consists of a lot of covers, somehow Russell makes it feel authentic. He shimmied, crawled, pranced and frolicked around the stage with a theatrical effort that would even make William Shatner blush. The songs ranged from country soul to New Orleans R&B to straight up comedic numbers, but no matter what the genre, he can flat out sing and knows how to entertain an audience.
Say Darling is what happens when a rock guitarist, Chris Hersch, hands an electric guitar to bluegrass star Celia Woodsmith. Celia, who is in the band Della Mae lends her superb voice to Chris’s reserved but purposeful guitar licks. The band – rounded out by a strong Hammond B3 organ, bass and drums – has just enough edge to stay interesting while Celia’s voice sounds like it was always meant for country blues-based indie rock.
Sarah Potenza brought her own brand of big-voiced country-based blues to the festival. She opened up to the crowd about her struggles with depression and body image issues, and explained that it was her faith in her vocal talent that pulled her through time and again. One of her sets seemed like more of a therapy session than a performance, but all is forgiven when she starts belting out songs like “Monster” and “Grandad” which contains the sage chorus “Don’t you trust the government. Always carry your gun. Stand up for what you believe whether you are right or wrong. But above all that he said, you gotta get through thick and thin. Don’t you every buy a car you can’t sleep in.” As their third set was about to start up, guitarist Ian Crossman left the stage at Sarah’s direction to “get his diva on too” and returned in a full body zip-up cat suit, complete with a painted cat face on the chest.
Lilly Hiatt also had a lot to offer. As the daughter of John Hiatt, she bears the brunt of the double-edged sword of name recognition and a gigantic shadow to live up to. After listening to her full set, she has very little to worry about. She writes authentic songs and delivers them with an honest purpose. Her music has a heavy dose of alt-country twinge to it, but transcends that genre with a bit of grit added in.
Rosanne Cash only played one set over the three-day festival, but it was outstanding. She took center stage, and although her songs and vocals were great, what really stood out was her phenomenal band. Although each band member had his moments, her husband and musical director John Leventhal’s lead guitar kept the crowd spellbound from one solo to the next.
Big Sandy brought his swing outfit, the Flyright Boys back to the Rhythm and Roots stages after a hiatus of several years. His warm voice and the band’s straight ahead swing style with just a splash of country seemed to hit all the right notes with the crowd.
Ten Strings and a Goatskin provided another pleasant surprise. This young trio from Prince Edward Island in Canada plays music rooted in Celtic and Acadian styles. But, don’t make the mistake of putting this trio away into a neat genre box, there is an improvisational tightness to this band that reminded this reviewer of the approach Bela Fleck and the Flecktones take to traditional music. The 10 strings portion of the band (do the math) is comprised of Jesse Périard on acoustic guitar and Rowen Gallant on violin. The goatskin is played by Caleb Gallant whose percussion comes from a traditional Irish, hand-held drum called the Bodhràn and an electronic platform that is played tap dance style. They are extremely warm, engaging and their music makes you feel like tiny pleasant sonic explosions are going off in your head rapidly. Even if you aren’t a fan of Celtic music, give this band a listen, you might be surprised. And as seemingly the youngest performers at any stage, they give hope that traditional music will continue.
Other bands included perennial festival favorites The Mavericks, who put on a professional, but reserved performance; Los Texmaniacs, who fronted by the Baca brothers played a spirited conjunto dance set; the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who, led by ringmaster, Jimbo Mathus, paraded their sense of revelry and musicianship across the stage and provided solid swing tunes for the dancers to enjoy; and Natalie McMaster and Donnell Leahy who put on a fiddle-playing display.
Although the festival’s line-up seemed weaker and more repetitive than in years past, it is still a great way to end the summer. And as we packed up our tents and loaded up the car in a beautiful green field on the last day of summer, we could not help thinking that we would indeed be back next year.