2019 Roots n Blues Takes Columbia by Storm—Literally
Day 1 By sharon stone & Day 2 Jennifer Rolf and cory weaver
Prior to September 27th, I was a virgin to the Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival in Columbia Mo., possessing no frame of reference and no pre-set expectations. This was also my first time seeing all of the Friday night artists live.
The weather was unseasonably hot and the air thick but the crowds happily rolled in, pulling wagons full of chairs, blankets and children. As soon as I entered the park, a smiling volunteer offered to take my photo in front of the artsy metal festival sign. I felt welcome. I mingled with the crowd, talking to local folk as well as festival goers who traveled from states far away to attend this event. I chatted with Seattle residents Greg, Marcha and their daughter Alex (a recent Mizzou graduate)—this was their sixth year attending the festival. They rally a group of friends from across the country to meet here each year.
I toured the festival grounds at Stephens Lake Park, taking in the variety of pop-up shops, t-shirt vendors, handcrafted artisan jewelry and soaps, Indian Motorcycle tent, sponsor tents, and perused the array of beverage and barbecue options (I went for fish tacos with some twisted pineapple salsa topping).
The sun started to set halfway through Americana singer-songwriter icon Patty Griffin’s performance, taking the edge off the heat and casting a softer glow throughout the park.
The transition into twilight shifted the mood and tucked the crowd in for the evening. Neon lights crisscrossed the trees and partied with the colorful backlit dragon tunnel, Ferris Wheel and glow-in-the-dark hula hoops. I give the magical atmosphere an “A+”.
I secured myself a comfortable hay bale to sit on to catch the beginning of Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, experiencing none of the usual “sit” or “stand” concert drama that I encounter at other venues. Music lovers who prefer to stand gathered in front of the stage. Music lovers on “Team Sit” found an unoccupied hay bale, picnic bench, leaned back into their lawn chairs or cozied up with a partner on a blanket. Or, for the younger music crew, curled up in their strollers. There was a place to keep everyone happy. Even though start times at each stage were staggered and sets overlapped, the music from the two main stages was acoustically distinct.
The band came out strong, playing both new music and familiar favorites like “Die Alone,” “Fool Me Once” and “Four Letter Word.” Nelson reminded the crowd that John Prine would be starting his performance about halfway through their set. He said, “I will not be offended if you walk over to the other stage! He. Is. John. Prine.” Classy move. Nelson and his band offered some of the best guitar work I have ever experienced in my years of concert-going. This band’s music took my soul into the stars and kept me dancing there. I had a VERY hard time coming down to earth to head over to the Great Southern Bank Stage to catch the opening of John Prine’s set.
John Prine opened to a wave of cheering. One female voice rose from the crowd, “Here he is!” when he stepped on stage. Prine responded back “Hello, how you doin’?” More cheers. Prine opened with “James Dean/Picture Show” followed boy “Caravan of Fools.” Then he mesmerized the crowd by commingling his music with storytelling. He shared details of a fishing trip in Arkansas that did not yield much fish, but inspired a song. Prine said the fish must have gone to Texas for the weekend but that gave him and his buddy time to talk story.
His buddy chatted about going to his favorite roller rink and selling eggs on Thursday nights. Prine turned this true tale into “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska 1967.” Then “Crazy Bones” inspired an audience sing-along and lots of clapping—this was clearly a festival favorite.
Prine is the writer and original artist for one of my favorite folk tunes, “Angel from Montgomery.” I have listened to Susan Tedeschi’s cover of that song a hundred times (maybe more…). Before hitting the first note of this classic song, Prine gave a solid nod to Bonnie Raitt (who has famously covered this tune) then added, “This is for all the women in the room–thank you!” Hearing this song from the source was priceless.
I headed over to catch Maren Morris midway through “The Feels.” Then she chatted up the crowd, thanking everyone for being there. She said this was her first time at the Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival and was looking forward to ending her night with some ribs.
She also asked the crowd, “Did anyone see John Prine?” Clearly Prine is a legend at this festival and beyond. She rocked “80’s Mercedes” then, like Prine, mingled some storytelling with her music. She said as a music artist “You have a lifetime to make your first record, then a year to make your second.” She added that she wrote most of the songs for her second album in the back of her tour bus, inspired by road signs, nostalgia and memories of growing up. Then she performed “A Song for Everything,” one of those pieces inspired by her tour bus journey.
Her storytelling got more personal as she shared that after surviving a really bad “Ex,” [to quote her, the ex was an “asshole”] she got married last year to a fellow songwriter and that they have written more than 100 songs together. She said her husband is the muse who inspired “To Hell and Back.” The relaxed and attentive crowd welcomed her “To Hell and Back” performance and the rest of her set. Morris continued to connect with the crowd with her stage confidence and the way her voice and body moved delivered her lyrics. The audience stayed with her to the very last note as she closed out Friday night’s festival lineup.
I left my first RNBNBBQ grateful for the shared experience with the artists and the crowd, and feeling that the personal musical soundtrack in my mind was rearranged.
In late September, Missouri usually gets a respite from the heat. The days are sunny and pleasant and only a light jacket is needed in the evenings. But every once in a while, Mother Nature has other plans, and the weekend of Roots N Blues N BBQ was one of them. Strolling into Day 2, the sun was unforgiving, and it kept beating as the day wore on, reaching a heat index near 100 degrees. Cloud cover was scarce, and fans were melting. But that didn’t stop them from swarming the stages to see some of the best roots, blues, Americana, bluegrass, rock and country artists from Missouri and beyond.
Saturday’s early lineup included some of Missouri’s finest. First up was St. Louis’ husky-voiced John Henry, who has never shied away from singing about newsworthy topics that command attention in his hometown and beyond. Another St. Louis act, the Mighty Pines, melds musical genres to deliver a sound that fits the roots and blues bill. The band is spot on when they brilliantly harmonize that “Mother Nature has no mercy” in their song, “Satan’s Word.” Amen. Kent Burnside and the Flood Brothers was a no-miss if you were looking for a strong dose of the blues. Burnside, the grandson of legendary blues musician R.L. Burnside, literally has the blues in his blood, was raised in Mississippi, and knows his way around a guitar. He’s been touring with the Flood Brothers, who are legendary in their own way. A couple of guys from Columbia via Hannibal, they also are skilled in the deep blues of North Mississippi and have played their way around some of the major blues joints in the South.
The National Reserve, a Brooklyn-based four piece led by the gravelly voiced Sean Walsh. The group’s multifaceted style mixes Americana, blues, roots, rock, and a dose of soul, achieving a sound just right for Roots N Blues. Their first appearance at the festival, they performed a mix of new, old and cover songs, including some in support of their latest LP, Motel La Grange.
And then there was a showstopper: the Black Pumas, a.k.a. vocalist Eric Burton and Grammy-winning guitarist Adrian Quesada. The band, already a fan favorite in their base town of Austin, gained more attention in 2019 as they launched a tour in support of their self-titled album and had their song “The Power to Be Me” appear in a bank advertisement on television. The duo, who was recently nominated for a best new artist Grammy, combines ’70s soul, serenading guitar riffs and brooding vocals that they unleashed on the crowd, who was loving every minute of the set.
Doug Kershaw with the Dave and Deke Combo. Storms cancel your flight on the day of Roots N Blues? No problem if you’re Doug Kershaw. The 83-year-old fiddle player jumped in his car and made the 6 ½ hour drive to Columbia from Nashville, just in time for his set. The Louisiana fiddler brought his signature flare and pizazz to the stage, joining Missouri natives Dave and Deke one song into the set. The sound the three produce together is a blend of Cajun, rockabilly, hillbilly and blues. Kershaw and the combo played favorites from the bygone era of the Rusty and Doug days and beyond. They opened with “Diggy Liggy Lo,” and continued with old hits like “Bully of the Bayou” and “My Toot Toot,”—an old collaboration of Kershaw and Fats Domino. It was a good ol’-time country music hour, filled with stories and comedic banter.
The National Reserve, Black Pumas, Doug Kershaw and the Dave & Deke combo, Nick Lowe & The Mavericks
Photos: Cory Weaver
One act that had certain audience members reminiscing about their new wave days was Nick Lowe and Los Straightjackets. But don’t assume Lowe is stuck in the past, even though he busted out “Cruel to Be Kind” and “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” He has a new album, new music and a new backing band in the form of the Mexican wrestling mask-wearing Los Straightjackets. The collaboration offered a fun, poppy vibe that kept the crowd entertained.
The Mavericks have been festival mainstays for years and have amassed a loyal following over their three decades on and off as a band. But don’t try to label them. While their sound has a country base and they’ve had a number of country singles, including “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down,” they adeptly bridge rockabilly, Cuban bolero, R&B, blues, country and rock—and they draw in new fans every time they perform. Steady rain began falling during their set, and their dedicated fanbase stayed put, securing their ponchos and ducking under blankets.
The rain got heavier, and it was soon time for the highly anticipated Saturday headliner, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals. With lightning on the scene, the festival committee held out as long as they could before deciding to cancel the set and the rest of the evening. Fans were clearly disappointed as they sloshed through the mud toward the exit. Many had traveled long distances to see the performance and questioned the festival’s “rain or shine” policy. But better safe than sorry with relentless lightning strikes.
Sunday brought clear skies and sunshine, with scattered clouds and manageable temps to start the day. But as the hours wore on, the heat crept back, although the fans just fanned themselves, sought shady spots and generally seemed happy that the rain had moved on.
The first act we caught was the Burney Sisters, the indie folk/pop girl duo made up of Olivia and Emma Burney. Backed by members of the Kay Brothers, you’d have no idea that these talented sisters were half or even a fourth of the age of many of their counterparts in the festival. They can work a stage, can expertly play the fiddle and guitar (and tambourine) and have the vocals to match. It’s evident that if they choose to continue along this path, that this is just the beginning of a long career in music.
The Kay Brothers, I’d venture to guess, is a favorite of many an attendee at Roots N Blues, which the mid-Missouri band has played for two consecutive years. Stopping short of calling their music bluegrass, they McGyver’ed their percussion game (using a wine crate as a stomp base and playing foot tambourine) and came up with a version of music they call “Missouri stompgrass,” and it’s a truly enjoyable sound to experience. With lead vocalist Pat Kay situated on (wine crate-elevated) drums while playing banjo, harmonica and other instruments, he’s joined by brother Bryan Kay on standup bass and Shakin’ Jake on conga drums and egg shakers. The band also has combined forces with the Burney Sisters, who provide fiddle, tambourine and backing vocals. Songs performed included the harmonious “Shady Grove,” “Cumberland Gap,” and the sweet ballad “Find Your Love,” which Pat says he wrote for his wife.
A welcome addition to the festival this year was Old Salt Union from Belleville, Ill. The five-piece string band has crossed the country, touring consistently over the past few years, steadily gaining a legion of fans with their brand of bluegrass and Americana. All members are skilled on the strings: Jesse Farrar (vocals, bass), John Brighton (violin), Justin Wallace (mandolin), Ryan Murphey (banjo) and Graham Curry (guitar; note that Curry left the band a couple months after the festival). They bring a fresh perspective to the bluegrass genre, often referring to themselves as “newgrass.” The festival set included a range of tunes, including songs from their new LP, WHERE THE DOGS DON’T BITE.
One quarter of the newly assembled all-female supergroup the Highwomen headlined Friday night’s festival (Maren Morris) and another quarter dominated the early evening slot on the main stage. Amanda Shires stood front and center, gracing the stage with wit and edginess, a killer smile and her trademark tortoise sunglasses trimmed in glittery butterfly wings. That aside, she got down to business, and a black hat prominently displayed behind her that read “Shit Show” was all the proof you needed. Her 13-song set, backed by her husband, Jason Isbell on acoustic guitar was a toned-down set with little amplification. Songs that set a sober mood and a reprieve for reflection like, “Changes,” “Leave it Alone” and “Take on the Dark” were echoed throughout. The set wasn’t completely subdued as witty banter, inside jokes between the band and “Wasted and Rollin,’” “Bulletproof” and “Don’t Call Me” got the crowd back up on their feet. The multitalented Shires displayed prowess on fiddle, ukulele and obviously, vocals. She gave the crowd a larger sampling of the Highwomen with “Cocktail and a Song” and “Highwomen.” Shires will be in St. Louis on April 24 at Off Broadway and so will we.
Del McCoury and his band brought a little Opry and well-dressed Hee Haw vibe to the festival. McCoury is a bluegrass legend and a longtime stalwart of Roots N Blues. He’s a banjo picker extraordinaire, and after witnessing his guitar-picking skills live, it’s safe to say he’d take any modern rock or alternative guitarist to task. One of the highlights of the set was the band’s cover of “Nashville Cats,” where McCoury kept confusing a few of the lyrics involving numbers from the song, “Well, there's thirteen hundred and fifty two guitar pickers in Nashville” and “Well, there's sixteen thousand eight hundred 'n' twenty one Mothers from Nashville,” he claimed his math was a little off, but he was never really good at math.
The New Pornographers took to the main stage and induced an indie-rock intermission from the roots, Americana, blues and bluegrass vibe on the last day of the festival. The octet rocked the 60-minute set with songs from their newest album, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, including, “You’ll Need a Backseat Driver,” “The Surprise Knock” and their current hit, “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile.” It was a surprise to hear the newest single so soon in the set, but you want to get your new stuff out there—especially at a roots and blues festival, where the majority of your audience might be new listeners. Longtime frontman AC Newman issued a disclaimer before playing “Higher Beams,” telling the audience: “This next song has an F bomb in it and it comes at such an intricate part of the song...that I think I can’t not say it. Ya know, I have a 7-year-old at home and at some point he says a-hole and I’m like, whatever.”
For nearly a decade, the North Carolina duo Mandolin Orange have steadily grown their mandolin-heavy brand of folk/Americana. After six albums and playing all the big folk, bluegrass and roots festivals, they now can add Roots N Blues N BBQ to that list. The duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz nearly sold out the Pageant in April 2019, and their popularity growth was on full display with a large crowd gathering to take in the last offering of authentic folk on the festival’s closing night. Playing the smaller hillside Great Southern Bank stage, the sunset provided the perfect ambiance for soft, sincere ballads like “Golden Embers” and “Tides of a Teardrop.”
With the festival grounds covered in a midnight blue sky, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit ruled the night as the last act of the 2019 Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival. Isbell pulled double duty on Sunday, as he backed his wife, Amanda Shires, on acoustic guitar earlier in the day. No stranger to the country/Americana crowd, Isbell gained notoriety from his days with The Drive By Truckers and his solo debut, the chart-topping album, Southeastern. With the 400 Unit and support from his wife on backing vocals and fiddle, they brought a little bit of Americana and a lot of rock to the main stage. Isbell mixed the set with original songs like, “24 Frames,” “Flying Over Water” and “Super 8.” Also featured were hits off the critically acclaimed, Southeastern. A dark-lit stage lent a bit of mysteriousness to the set, which gave a lo-fi vibe to the songs and the minimal banter helped along the attitude of a rock show. Weaving in and out of older and newer material, Isbell paid homage to his Drive By Trucker days, covering “Danko/Manual” and “Decoration Day” before ending the set, night and festival with a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.”