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.