Copenhagen Jazz Festival, 2018

It’s the 40th annual Copenhagen Jazz Festival. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Greetings from the jazz capitol of the world! Although that lofty designation has been perennially awarded to Manhattan, after much research and consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that Copenhagen is a wonderful city steeped in the diverse history of jazz and worthy of the title. The annual Copenhagen Jazz Festival, then, offers a representative sample of a vibrant music scene with much to offer.

The 40th Copenhagen Jazz Festival just concluded after running July 6-15, providing an array of music, performance and celebration with more than 100 different venues hosting more than 1,400 performers. While most big music fests operate from a more centralized location, the CPH Jazz Festival is well distributed all across the city, with events found in hotels, museums, federal buildings, theaters, concert halls, corner cafes, regal parks, outdoor stages, record stores and, of course, authentic jazz clubs.

This crazy quilt patchwork of entertainment is due to the festival organizers’ cooperative approach, relying on a syndicate of independent programmers, club owners and musicians to book and help promote the festival. High-profile concerts by international acts like the Brad Mehldau Trio, Jeff Beck and the Roots as well as veteran saxophonists like Charles Lloyd and Pharoah Sanders insured some well-deserved attention and publicity for the 10-day celebration.

The creative interaction between Danish and American jazz musicians is something of a tradition going back to the 1960s when expatriates like saxophonist Dexter Gordon lived in Copenhagen and performed with local sidemen at clubs like the Café Montmartre. These days, celebrated Boston saxophonists Jerry Bergonzi and George Garzone both come to Denmark for extended stays and form deep connections with their Danish counterparts. Bergonzi’s longstanding band is a crack Danish rhythm section (pianist Carl Winther, bassist Johnny Aman and drummer Anders Mogensen), while Garzone is equally ensconced with his resident bandmates (bassist Emil Brun and drummer Niclas Campanol). American trumpeter Tim Hagans was also in the mix, playing in a variety of settings with Bergonzi, including a late-night show at the Christiania Jazz Club.

Speaking of the late Gordon, Danish saxophonist Benjamin Koppel paid tribute to him, assembling a group of Gordon’s old Copenhagen sidemen to play tunes from his 1962 Blue Note album Go!. With Koppel in place of Gordon, the band included fabled drummer Alex Riel, bassist Bo Stief and pianist Ole Kock Hansen.

Koppel wore many hats during the CPH Jazz Festival, as he directed his Cowbell music series and promoted concerts at two different venues showcasing talents like uber-percussionist Marylyn Mazur, Brazilian legend Hermeto Pascoal and tributes to Gordon, Sonny Rollins and, even, Leonard Bernstein. Cowbell also hosted educational jazz encounters with performers and aspiring musicians, including an open discussion with pianist Uri Caine, trumpeter Ralph Allessi and bassist Johannes Weidenmueller. As if that wasn’t already enough, Koppel manages his own record label, which has more than 70 releases.

Standout shows included Jeff Beck’s performance at the stylish DR Concert House. With a stellar band featuring bassist Rhonda Smith, monster drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, cellist Vanessa Freebairn-Smith and veteran singer Jimmy Hall, Beck put on a flawless exhibition of virtuoso guitar playing, showing himself, once again, to be a supremely expressive interpreter and a veteran rock survivor who’s found sure footing in his live gigs. Playing instrumentals as well as vocal classics, Beck ripped through a catalog from 50 years’ worth of record making, including “Morning Dew” from his first album as a leader back in 1968. From there, he went on to some heavy rock fusion, some killer blues, a version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” two Stevie Wonder tunes (“Superstition” and “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers”) and his standout rendition of the Beatles’ “A Day In The Life.”

Equally impressive was the spiritually uplifting performance of Pharoah Sanders at Brorson’s Church. On the second of two nights, the iconic saxophonist—along with pianist William Henderson, Oli Hayhurst and drummer Gene Calderazzo—played to the intimate Brorson’s crowd with great emotion, reaching deep into a holy Coltrane experience, springing forth with stirring tunes like “Giant Steps” and ultimately concluding with prayerful original “The Creator Has A Master Plan.”

Brazilian composer/singer/flautist/bandleader/shaman Hermeto Pascoal made a special concert appearance at the Cowbell headquarters in Provehallen, playing to a packed and sweaty house of about 400 dedicated music lovers. Pascoal’s group made its grand entrance with a procession from the back of the theater, and the 82 year-old Pascoal was consistently energetic and engaging. Playing everything from a DX-7 keyboard to squeaky rubber toys to a rendition of “Round Midnight” on watering can, Pascoal was just the type of celebration the Danes were looking for.

Notable Danish performers that stand at the forefront of their jazz scene would have to include guitarist Jakob Bro, who performed songs off of his new ECM record Returnings featuring Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, American bassist Thomas Morgan and Norse drum legend Jon Christensen. Also of note would be pianist Nikolaj Hess, drumming brother Mikkel Hess and bass stalwart Anders “AC” Christensen, who performed countless times during the festival in various combinations but, as Hess/AC/Hess, hosted a late-night jam at the Cava Bar every night that couldn’t be beat. Add to that the ongoing presence of Danish guitar perennial Pierre Dørge, pianist wife Irene Becker and their New Jungle Orchestra, and you get just a glimmer into the wide world of Danish jazz. And the beauty of the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

—photo by Kristoffer Juel Poulsen

Live Review: The Firefly Festival, 2018

Going “down the shore” is a sacred summer tradition for anyone who grew up in the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The destination might be different for each family—perhaps you went to LBI, or Sea Isle, or Ocean City, Md. Some families trekked all the way down to the Outer Banks in North Carolina, as mine did for three summers before my folks realized that 13 hours in the car with multiple children under 10 is a bad idea. But every family I knew went “down the shore” every summer, carrying out the identical rituals of ocean swimming, boardwalk traipsing, custard eating and sun burning. Despite the fact that the atmosphere and the activities are basically the same every year, shore-goers instinctively fill with the same familiar blend of nostalgia and excitement in the weeks leading up to the trip. And when you’re smothering aloe on your crispy arms and legs on the car ride home, you think about how you can’t wait to go back next year.

For the past five years, I’ve made the three-hour pilgrimage to Dover, Del., for the Firefly Festival. As I was frantically checking the weekend weather forecast every hour on my phone in the days preceding the fest, I experienced a similar sensation to the one I used to get as a kid before I went “down the shore.” For me and thousands of other East Coasters, Firefly is the new annual tradition.

Firefly began as a three-day, 48-act music event in 2012. By its second year, Firefly became a player on the festival scene. Now it’s essentially a five-day affair, with a four-act “pre-party” on Wednesday, and more than 100 performances throughout the weekend on eight stages.

Besides Governor’s Ball in New York City and Jay-Z’s Made In America in Philadelphia (both of which are inside city limits and are far too sweaty and crowded to be enjoyable), Firefly is the only other annual, large-scale music festival in the Northeast that attracts a top-notch lineup in an accessible location. It describes itself as an “open-air” festival, and most attendees camp—or “glamp”—since the hotel accommodations are limited. The fact that it’s held in an area called The Woodlands and that most folks camp really does give it a true festival vibe.

Both Governor’s Ball and MIA assume the personalities of their respective cities. Governor’s Ball offers a musically diverse lineup and features NYC street art and food trucks, while MIA is rap, R&B and hip-hop heavy and takes place in the shadows of the Philadelphia Art Museum and high rises on the Ben Franklin Parkway. When it began in 2012, Firefly was more of a blank slate, and its organizers continue to fashion its identity among a competitive group of spring and summer fests.

For 2018, Firefly brought back several headliners from yesteryear, including the Killers (2012, 2015), Foster The People (2013, 2015), Cold War Kids (2012, 2015) and Arctic Monkeys (2014), which is a nod to the festival’s historical inclination toward alternative and indie rock. The ticket also comprised festival newcomers Eminem, Kendrick Lamar and Lil Wayne, which illustrates Firefly’s recent foray into rap and hip-hop acts.

Like most festivals, Firefly is more than music. There’s The Nook hammock hangout, The Thicket silent rave, The Coffee House café and a culinary lineup of food vendors and trucks serving everything from pizza to schwarma. Organizers continually add new features, such as The Pathway, which connected two areas of the festival grounds and was filled with a fantastical scene of giant hanging starbursts, globe sculptures and glittering fog that would’ve made Guillermo del Toro proud. While much of the vibe and atmosphere feels the same, Firefly continues to evolve each year.

Once we arrived at Dover Downs Speedway, we made the customary trek across the Highway 1 overpass that links the parking area to the festival grounds. The summer-perfect weather hovered in the 80s with sunshine and low humidity, and an occasional welcome breeze that brought with it the sweet, earthy hint of marijuana. Throngs of giddy festival-goers caked with sweat and glitter hoisting signs of Danny DeVito’s face and World Cup team flags, as well as parades of pedicabs festooned with lights and blasting Lil Wayne, made their way over the bridge as cars below cheerfully honked. It’s a familiar sight for anyone who’s attended Firefly before, but the familiarity only added to the excitement of what was to come.

Jimmy Eat World has been around since 1993—one of the original “emo” bands (if anyone still uses that term anymore). The foursome opened its set on Friday evening with the song that put the band on the map, “Bleed American,” then mixed it up with songs from most of their nine albums. They revved up the crowd with their stream of pop/punk numbers and slowed it down occasionally with songs like “Hear You Me” that warranted the “emo” designation.

Foster The People took the main Firefly Stage at dusk. Led by well-coiffed frontman Mark Foster, the Los Angeles-based indie-rockers performed a flashy, energetic set for a crowd that sang along to every word. The majority of Friday’s festival attendees gathered to watch—a far cry from Foster’s early days as a struggling musician in L.A. playing for audiences of 10 people. The diversity of their music was on full display, as they segued from heavily electronic songs like “Helena Beats” to the pop-rock “Coming Of Age” to a cover of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.” They capped off the night with the gentle “Sit Next To Me,” preceded by Foster’s heartfelt plea to the audience to “come together and love one another.”

Propelled by headliners Lil Wayne, the Killers and Eminem, Saturday was twice as packed with festival-goers as the day before, and they weren’t disappointed. Firefly upped the ante with stage design for the headliners this year, adding more elaborate set pieces, lights, videos and even pyrotechnics. On Saturday night, Portugal. The Man was introduced as “the greatest band on earth” (“almost as good as Pantera”) by a video of Beavis and Butt-head. Drenched in a shower of lasers and lights, the Alaska prog-rock band played an almost uninterrupted stream of rhythmically forceful songs such as “Creep In A T-Shirt” and “Purple Yellow Red And Blue,” evoking a sonic resemblance to the Black Keys. Many of the tracks they performed came off their more popular albums, Evil Friends and Woodstock, both of which were co-written and produced by Danger Mouse, who also produced three albums by the Keys.

Eminem’s stage design late Saturday night was as intense as his lyrics and persona. The wall-to-wall backdrop was an eerie Detroit cityscape, which devolved into a burnt-out conflict zone throughout the performance. Several platforms featured orchestra members playing bass, cello and violin, as fireworks exploded overhead. The finales of “Kill You” and “Criminal” featured loud gunshot blasts. Eminem being Eminem, he ignored recent criticism about the gunshot sounds and kept them in his show.

Wearing his signature hoodie and spewing rapid-fire lyrics with his usual shaken-soda-bottle energy, Eminem performed a variety of songs from all his albums, from the dark “Stan” to the political “White America” to the confessional “Walk On Water,” demonstrating his evolution as an artist and a person over his last two decades as a rap superstar. Throughout the set, he and stage partner Mr. Porter shared a dialogue with the crowd, asking who bought certain LPs and where people were from. Despite the fact that Eminem has played at Bonnaroo and Coachella, he expressed his amazement at the size of the crowd that night. “I’ve never seen this many people, ever!”

We could tell that the festival was winding down on Sunday afternoon when parking attendants were practicing special handshakes with each other and the initially peppy pedicab drivers were riding aimlessly around the parking lot. But festival-goers were still streaming across the overpass, mustering a second wind for the final day.

Psychedelic-rock duo MGMT experienced a meteoric rise in the mid-2000s on the back of hits “Electric Feel,” “Kids” and “Time to Pretend.” Their following two albums didn’t live up to the success of Oracular Spectacular, and the founders Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser took an unofficial break from making music with each other. Their most recent album, Little Dark Age, came out earlier this year, followed by a tour that included a stop at the Firefly Stage on Sunday evening.

VanWyngarden emerged in a black long-sleeved shirt, black pants, black sunglasses and a deadpan expression. During one of their earlier, new wave-y songs, he dragged a 1970s stationary bike onstage and started riding and singing simultaneously, then talked to the audience for about five minutes about the virtues of Gatorade. The last half hour consisted of their hits interspersed with additional antics, including several minutes of primal-scream therapy with the crowd.

Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for music this year for his album DAMN, the first rapper ever to win the award. The selection board described the LP as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” Not sure exactly what that means, but DAMN was good enough to earn him both popular and critical acclaim and a headlining spot at one of the biggest music festivals on the East Coast.

Performing for a Philadelphia Eagles parade-sized crowd late Sunday night, Lamar stomped across the Firefly Stage in front of a blood-red backdrop, amid spouts of flames that poetically paralleled his lyrics. Clamoring fans screamed along to “Money Trees,” “HiiiPoWeR” and “God,” capping an exhausting-yet-pleasurable festival weekend.

Another year, another Firefly festival in the books. As with every year, I will be sitting in I-95 traffic on my way home, poring over the music of the weekend and predicting who’ll be in the lineup next year. Because just like “going down the shore,” there will definitely be a next year. It’s a tradition now.

—Maureen Coulter

Live Review: Vision Festival 23 (Fire Music In A Crowded Theater)

This week, MAGNET’s Mitch Myers reports from the Vision Festival, the avant-garde jazz event in Brooklyn; photo by Eva Kapanadze

Welcome to Brooklyn and Vision Festival 23, where once again people come from all over the world for a week devoted to free and improvised music. This dedicated audience will keep coming back all week long, attending night after night of spirited, left-of-the-dial jazz, dance and poetry expressed in a most spiritual fashion.

Despite having moved from Judson Memorial Church in NYC to the Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn, the Vision thing still feels the same as ever once the music starts. That is, free-flowing improvisational music played by a variety of outsider musicians coming from several different generations and diverse creative backgrounds.

This year’s festivities honored the artistic lifetime of pianist Dave Burrell, and the opening night featured Burrell playing in a several group contexts. He was part of the free-jazz revolution of the ’60s and worked with iconic fire-breathers like Marion Brown and Pharoah Sanders, as well enjoying a longstanding association with saxophonist Archie Shepp. Supported by improvisational stalwarts including bassist William Parker, percussionist Hamid Drake and drummer Andrew Cyrille, Burrell’s amorphous piano work blended well with the various combinations of players, and he methodically energized the room regardless of the band’s lineup.

After the festival’s opening invocation featuring Parker, Drake and dancer/poetess/Vision Fest founder Patricia Nicholson, Burrell got down to business with his Harlem Renaissance ensemble featuring altoist Darius Jones, trombonist Steve Swell, bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Pioneers of fire music like Burrell and Cyrille always play with passion, but we’re now sadly witnessing the dying embers of an avant-garde movement that began more than half a century ago. Cyrille (a veteran sideman of the late, great Cecil Taylor) played a military-styled drum solo that brought everyone to attention, while Swell and Jones gamely improvised as hoped.

Next up was the Archie Shepp Quartet with Burrell, Parker and Drake. Burrell had played with Shepp for many important years and recorded more than a dozen albums as part of Shepp’s working groups in the ’60s and ’70s. On this night, they played compositions from vintage albums like Kwanza and Attica Blues. While Shepp’s embouchure was intact and his throaty tenor wail still present, his music lacked the urgency that it contained in previous decades. One obvious highlight was his smoky rendition of vintage Ellington ballad “In A Sentimental Mood.”

After a brief-yet-dynamic performance by bassist Shyna Dulberger and dancer Djassa DaCosta Johnson (a.k.a. Warrior Of Light), the Dave Burrell Quintet took the stage for a final set of totally free playing, this time featuring Parker, Cyrille, New Orleans tenor saxophone legend Kidd Jordan and tenor saxophone up-and-comer James Brandon Lewis. Jordan has been quite ill this last year and hasn’t played many gigs recently. As weak as he may have appeared, Jordan played with a burning intensity and emitted a plaintive wail expressing both his pain and his courage, often leaning on the piano or sitting down between his fiery solos.

With Jordan and Shepp now in their 80s and Burrell right behind them at 77, we’re witnessing the slow exit of the old guard. Thanks to the Vision Fest, that exit is expressed in a dignified and respectful way, paying earnest tribute to their often-neglected jazz elders.

Keep the flame burning bright, good people.

Live Review: Carlton Melton, Manchester, UK, Feb. 23, 2018

“How frightened are you of chaos?” asked Philip K Dick. “And how happy are you with order?”

Although Dick was defending the incongruous work of fellow science-fiction novelist A. E. van Vogt, the insinuation behind his questions could equally serve as praise for the music of Carlton Melton. What van Vogt did for literature, this instrumental California group does for psychedelic rock, dismantling then reimagining it in a way that unsettles those more comfortable with traditional compositions and familiar tropes.

Supporting the new Mind Minerals (Agitated), the trio’s gigs test the audience’s preconceptions of the function of music and how it should be presented. Tonight, the crowd is treated to a set that follows a waveform. Andy Duvall performs a one-man Chinese firedrill throughout the evening, alternating between playing guitar for avant-garde tunes and drums for more conventional songs.

Set opener “Smoke Drip” is an experimental drone that floats like a discarded cork stopper on a gently rippling pond. “Atmospheric River” seems to transmit snippets of sounds collected from deep-space probes, strung together on a clothesline. “Untimely” recalls the holocaust section of My Bloody Valentine’s “You Made Me Realise” but with more depth and texture. Just by listening, you sense both a mental cleansing and the onset of radiation sickness.

But the evening’s performance is not without familiar signposts to guide the less adventurous. “Psychoticedelicosis” and a cover of Pink Floyd’s “When You’re In” amply satisfy cravings for rock heroics. Guitarist Rich Millman races through a driving, ’70s-metal jam on “Eternal Returns” which then resolves into a touching postscript threaded by Clint Golden’s gentle bass. The charming and buoyant “Basket Full Of Trumpets” could be the Little Drummer Boy gone surfin’.

And thus the show pendulum swings from the cutting-edge to the primordial, from head-feeding to head-banging. So are the men of Carlton Melton highly advanced aliens slumming it through a primitive form of rock or are they cavemen soundtracking the ballet of celestial bodies? That question, as well as Dick’s, can’t be answered without chemical assistance.

Recommended drug pairing: a fistful of shrooms with a Kronenbourg 1664 chaser.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: Winter Jazzfest 2018

It’s another cold January in NYC, but the Winter Jazzfest keeps rolling along. In spite of, or perhaps thanks to, previous missteps, the WJF has endured its growing pains and evolved into a dynamic festival with a wide range of music from accomplished artists young and old. While New York City hosts plenty of jazz 365 days a year, the WJF brings together progressive musicians and multi-generational audiences while staying ahead of the curve on issues like racial justice and gender equality, and continues to illuminate the purpose and place of social protest and civic activism within the arts.

The 2018 festival allowed for a dozen different performance spaces to showcase more than 130 groups burgeoning with talent. This year’s artist-in-residence, Nicole Mitchell, was an insightful choice, and the flautist/composer/bandleader performed several times with different ensembles over the course of this week. The festival also featured all-star tribute concerts celebrating the memory of beloved musicians Geri Allen and Alice Coltrane.

With each venue hosting several groups playing hour-long sets, it was a joyful challenge to pick and choose how to spend your time. Singer José James brought his Bill Withers project to Le Poisson Rouge and seduced the audience with his old-school set. As much fun as it was hearing those soulful classics performed by such a gifted singer, you can imagine James ultimately feeling trapped by such familiar material.

One of the standout performers was undoubtedly singer Jazzmeia Horn, who was powerfully engaging at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium. Drawing material from her album A Social Call, Horn showed poise and chops beyond her years, and she’s clearly one to watch. Ace guitarist Marc Ribot threw a pleasant curveball, performing “Songs Of Resistance” on acoustic guitar and singing his plainspoken social protest in a flat-but-not-inexpressive voice. As with many of the artists at the fest, the unwelcome presence of Donald Trump found its way into Ribot’s bold commentary.

Serving the past, the present and the future, 93-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen directed the perennial Sun Ra Arkestra as they performed a live score to accompany oddball film Space Is The Place. The 1972 movie starring Sun Ra is corny, cosmic and absurd, but Ra’s vaunted Afrofuturism is not without the timely, ongoing message that black lives do indeed matter. Study up.

Veterans of the old Black Rock Coalition also populated the fest, including bassist Melvin Gibbs, guitarist Brandon Ross and drummer J.T. Lewis in their band Harriet Tubman. Augmented with several additional players, the power trio turned into a “double quartet” with two bassists, two drummers, two saxophonists, guitar and trumpet. By design, the sprawling ensemble tackled the landmark Ornette Coleman performance/composition/collective improvisation from his iconic 1961 album Free Jazz. The results were mixed, but the concept, effort and commitment were still appreciated. Ornette lives!

Far more satisfying was a late-night gig by Jamaaldeen Tacuma’s Brotherzone. In this incarnation, Brotherzone reunited bassist extraordinaire Tacuma with veteran funk/rock guitarist Ronny Drayton and drummer Darryl Burgee. The show at Subculture didn’t start until 1:30 a.m. and featured some special friends, specifically spoken-word soothsayer and original member of the Last Poets Abiodun Oyewole and Last Poets percussionist Baba Donn Babatunde, as well as Brotherzone’s own poet, Wadud Ahmad. With Tacuma’s super bass and Drayton’s keening guitar bringing extra funk to Oyewole’s urgent observations, all was right with the world—and the Winter Jazzfest.

Looking forward to WJF’s closing show tomorrow night featuring progressive indie outliers Deerhoof with their veteran free-jazz trumpeter buddy, the most esteemed Waddada Leo Smith. Consider that one.

—Mitch Myers

Live Review: Totorro, Paris, France, Nov. 28, 2017

With guitars skipping and hopping like a scat improv, instrumental French quartet Totorro leaps from one motif to the next, in the playful manner of a festive Poster Children—no, perhaps a more muscular fIREHOSE—wait, a Giraffes? Giraffes! with less pronounced ADHD. Each song is exhilarating and bouncy, a rollercoaster thrill ride but with no real danger. The twists and turns shoot off in every direction, yet with a precision that reassures the sonically queasy.

Tonight there is, we are told, reason to celebrate. This gig is the band’s 100th—of the year? ever?—so the group raises champagne glasses in its own honor. Bassist Xavier Rosé confers dime-store medals onto individual crowd members as if emceeing a children’s party. The laureates accept their awards with mock reverence. A cardboard cactus backdrop (a visual allusion to the group’s frisky Come To Mexico from 2016) bestows a fun-in-the-sun vibe to the proceedings.

“Brocolissimo” and “Saveur Cheveux” are lively and silly and carefree jaunts through indie, math and post-rock. Set highlight “Gérard Blast” burts with a sweaty vigor; its dramatic stops, pregnant pauses, delirious divergences throw the crowd into a friendly frenzy. Like cartoonist Al Jaffee’s Mad magazine fold-ins, the performance spirals and coils and spins back onto itself. Its lighthearted touch thumbs a proverbial nose at post-rock’s staid anti-conventional conventions.

The group’s qualities are manifest: humor, creativity, energy, excitement. And yet, as with satirist Jaffee, its greatest value may be its ability to diffuse post-rock of its—Rosé takes a hearty and ironic swig of champagne, pinkie akimbo, before asking the house to dial down the strobe lights, preferring to forego their—insufferable pretensions.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival, 2017

For the past 11 years, Columbia, Mo.’s Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival has been the crown jewel in the town’s art, music and culinary scenes. Stephens Lake Park, a stone’s toss from the picturesque campus of the University of Missouri, set the scene with two impeccably outfitted stages, the Great Southern Bank Stage resourcing the natural amphitheater of the rolling hills on that side of town, and the Missouri Lottery Stage a few hundred yards away at the end of an effervescent trail of food trucks and trailers and pop-up tents selling local fare from the sublime to the ridiculous—sporting craft vendors, delectable local craft brews, even mats made of recycled materials for your lawn-seating comfort. A unique take on the common music festival, and we haven’t even gotten to the musical talent or the endless sunshine, the entire weekend a veritable Bob Ross painting of perfect weather.

Friday afternoon jumpstarted with the dual opening salvo of local’s Paul Weber & The Scrappers on the Missouri Lottery Stage and the legendary Big Sandy And His Fly-Rite Boys representing in big fashion on the Great Southern. The former emitting its special brand of ’60s-inspired honky-tonk country, the latter its time-tested, Bruce Springsteen-approved, Rockabilly Hall Of Fame-inducted version of the art. Trading tempos and hot licks, the bands were the ideal soundtrack for folks to settle in for what would be three days of impeccable elements and positive vibrations, both sonic and otherwise. Houston’s the Suffers ramped up a convincing set of soulful rhythm & blues in the wake of their hometown’s hurricane-infused devastation as frontwoman Kam Franklin delivered an inspiring narrative as to why life is too short to be working a dead-end soulless day job if your heart’s in the music game. A testimony of inspiration meets perspiration.

On the Lottery Stage, the Old 97’s delivered in spades as per usual leading up to the headlining Gary Clark Jr. and his squeaky-clean variations of blues classics and originals. The modern-day guitar god with an invaluable backing band laid out while the crowd devoured his offerings like the whole-pig BBQ being served daily in the VIP tents, washing down the rhythms with local libations from Logboat, Bur Oak and Broadway breweries.

Conversely, the highlights for my eyes and ears were over at the Bank Stage where soul men Lee Fields & The Impressions procured a sultry set of impervious soul from one of tightest ensembles that’s ever looked like your high school’s math club. The crowd was showered with love and inspiration as the band made way for the inimitable Booker T And His Stax Revue—highlighted by his son Ted’s guitar prowess and, of course, Booker T’s Hammond B2 organ. (Of which the Impressions’ keyboard player had the luxury of commanding during their opening set.) Just the sight of it and the road-weary, time-worn Leslie cabinet it’s played through was enough nostalgia for me to comprehend. Both bands’ horn and rhythm sections were exquisite, and I didn’t want to leave the rail.

Saturday marked not only the last day of September but the marathon day in not only musical terms, but a half-marathon run … without someone chasing them! Anyway, back to beer and music: I damn near had breakfast with Kent Burnside And The Flood Brothers for some Mississippi hill funk with plenty of blues laid down like his grandaddy R.L. even with their before-noon start time. The needle was set by a thunderous set of rock ‘n’ soul blues rolling justly into a powerful offering by inventive local three-piece the Hooten Hallers, whose drums, guitar and sax layout is big fun in the grittiest of measures, heavy on a blues trip that’s eternally outside the box. These two stunned the early crowd like a well-placed jab combination.

Deke Dickerson and the rest of local garage/surf-rockin’ heroes Untamed Youth turned in a beer-funneling, foot-drinking stomper of party on the Lottery Stage, complete with go-go dancers, as the Bel Airs and the succulent Nikki Hill wowed on the Lottery Stage. The Bottle Rockets played a shortened set of their raucous and witty classics and then played back-up band to Marshall Crenshaw to continue the onslaught. Nikki Lane worked her glamorous-badass, spit-in-your-face, sweetheart-of-the-rodeo angle with a formidable backing band for an enjoyable set of sassy, killer throwback country. The SteelDrivers put on a harmonizing bluegrass powerhouse clinic only to have local hero Pokey Lafarge and company burn the place down like Hank Williams and hellfire.

Unforgettable hours of music were launched into the ether by Marty Stuart and then the Mavericks. Stuart provided solid country gold with his custom rockabilly flare with arguably the best band in the music game in his Fabulous Superlatives. A short solo set was deemed and his beautiful legend of a wife Connie Smith joined in for a spell. The Mavs’ custom cocktail of Cubano beats and twangy rock are the things of legend. The Hella Go-Go dancers donned the stage with them as the biggest party in Columbia, MO., was had on the stage. Band Of Horses closed things out in a loose fashion for an impressive performance that was equal parts comedic as highly copacetic. Leon Bridges’ Texas soul was bared with a stellar helping of neo-golden soul in the best jumpsuit I’ve seen since Cash’s famous middle-finger picture. Again the weather, positive energy and artistic auras amalgamated with the sweet smell of BBQ for a king’s feast and soul-cleansing musical offerings. Church was Saturday and Sunday this weekend.

Sunday’s lineup was expertly designed as the bloody mary of the three, easing on into the morning with the Norm Ruebling Band, Broadway Blues and Chump Change on into the Fairfield Four and the Music Maker Blues Revue for brunch. A great country set from the sweet Amanda Shires (Mrs. Isbell) whose penchant for funny stories and killer melodies is only outshined by her sweetness and witty song crafting. Bluesy soul-guitar legend Anna Popovic and her band relit the fire at the Lottery Stage as the imitable Emmylou Harris turned in another of the unforgettable sets of the festival although feeling a bit under the weather.

Emmylou is an angel, and if someone hadn’t told me I’d of never known, save for the fact that a fellow with a gigantic wallet in his back pocket kept delivering tea with her guitars. She’s the Queen of the USA and her king played just following in the most moving, hilarious, classy, beautiful, life-affirming standout set from the legendary John Prine and his band, sans drummer. Emmylou joined for a rousing “Angel Of Montgomery” as the great Margo Price hauled ass from her set in a golf cart from the Lottery Stage for classic duet “In Spite Of Ourselves,” of which it was impossible to tell who was more excited to be playing with whom under a radiant sunset. Price turned up again for “Paradise” as the first encore followed by Prine and band’s penultimate offering of “Lake Marie.” And nothing beat Prine’s dedication of “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” to Adolf Benito Trumpolini—pure genius.

That space was given back to nature in the audible sense as Ryan Adams closed things out in typical Ryan Adams fashion over at the Lottery Stage. A cuss-word-laden, although not undeserved, berating was hurled at an uncooperative photographer who disobeyed the now-famous no-picture rule despite a solid attempt by Adams and band at hiding behind smoke machines on full tilt the entirety of the show. Aside from that and given the amount of innocent children in the crowd with its 7:30 p.m. start time, the rest of his set was formidable. The old televisions playing looped graphics were cool, but the huge, fake Fender Princeton Reverb amps were not. A stout band and Adams’ never-disappointing voice and guitar chops are always enough to power through a decent set. Definitely the most work put into a set design out of all artists for the entire weekend, so take away from that what you will.

Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival king Richard King and Co. and the great folks of Columbia, Mo., ought to be proud of the quality of talent in all forms they’ve curated here. A serene college town that knows how to party was the perfect backdrop for a glorious weekend of irrefutable performances, eats, drinks and genuine cool. Someone must have sold their soul for that weather or there was a definite divine intervention of sorts, possibly from the late Betsy Farris, whom I’m told was an undying force in making this party happen for years as Thumper Entertainment. God rest her soul. I’m already planning my trip back for next year.

—Scott Zuppardo; photos by Chris Prunckle

More photos after the jump.

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