MAGNET’s Scott Zuppardo reports from the best little Midwestern festival you’ve never heard of. (Not for long.) Photos by Chris Prunckle/Wannabe
Stephens Lake Park in Columbia, Mo., played host to Roots N Blues N BBQ’s 13th annual music, food and art fest. Although festival ownership changed hands, Roots N Blues N BBQ’s penchant for party throwing has not diminished in the least. This serene little park, with its procured waterfalls and manicured landscaping, is everything you might expect from a Midwestern college town, but as you walk a quarter mile, the valley opens up to two towering stages and a smorgasbord of eats from the sublime to the silly. Cold beer was a necessity for this year’s soiree, as all three days pushed 90 degrees. The locals were still their normal, extremely kind selves; even heat and the threat of rain doesn’t deter good ol’ Midwestern wholesomeness, especially when there’s a boatload of live music to be ingested. Kindred souls unite!
The afternoon commenced in championship form with killer, local, female ensemble Violet And The Undercurrents. Their indie rock with a rootsy lean came with a stark message: Take care of our great planet for future generations. Preach on, my ladies! John Németh whipped the crowd into a frenzy with his custom brand of bluesy soul and contemporary R&B. The man can blow a harp! Even if his guitar man wasn’t old enough for a driver’s permit, the get down was gotten down.
After Németh’s set, I hightailed it to the other stage for the mighty Patty Griffin. In the royal songstress’ ideal habitat, Griffin blessed us with deep cuts and songs from her latest record. Her three-piece band was ever-busy, with one fella working his bass-drum and high-hat pedals as well as playing bass and singing harmonies. I believe she mentioned he was an ex-member of NRBQ, and if so, that explains it! Griffin’s heart-stopping voice is a blessing to the troubled world. All were feeling cleansed and ready for Lukas Nelson’s Promise Of The Real.
POTR’s solid grooves dabble in country, funk, soul and jam-band-esque improvisation, but the best description is fun, fun and more fun. Being Willie Nelson’s boy is probably awesome, but Lukas and Co. bring an instantly lovable stage presence and chops far beyond nepotistic connections. Next, the King Of It All—John Prine—and band took the stage, and if there’s a poster child for Roots N Blues, Mr. Prine is he. The addition of Fats Kaplin to the band was a great touch for his pedal-steel prowess and guitar/mandolin work. Jason Wilber’s tasteful guitar lends color to Prine’s songs like an early-fall sunset—a beautiful set of music. Griffin joined Prine for trademark duet song “Paradise” to close things out, and wet eyes were abounding.
Maren Morris topped off the night, opening with number-one hit song “Girl.” (I’ve honestly not typed the words “number-one hit song” in anything I’ve written for at least a decade.) Morris is a beautiful woman and a consummate performer—this Highwoman for president, please. The crowd adored her, and it was great to see so many inspired young ladies up front and loving live music.
The day’s festivities kicked off with the grandson of R. L. Burnside (a personal favorite of mine): Kent Burnside And The Flood Brothers. “Burnside Style” was in full-effect with that Mississippi Hill Country boogie permeating the already thick humidity. Old standards were thumped as well as R. L. classics “Peaches” and “Jumper On The Line.” The Flood Brothers and Kent together are as tight as 20-pound test with a channel cat on the hook. Local boy John Henry made his presence known with a solid-gold rock ’n’ roll set complete with a horn section and a rousing version of Neil Young’s “Rockin In The Free World.”
Doug Kershaw was joined by another local (and worldwide) legend, Deke Dickerson, as the Dave & Deke Combo. There were chills from start to finish as Kershaw shredded his fiddle and played choice cuts from the Rusty And Doug days and beyond. They opened with “Diggy Liggy Lo,” and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. “Bully Of The Bayou” either, for that matter. Kershaw played the Opry in Nashville the night before, and his flight was cancelled due to the poor weather, so the 83-year-old legend rented a car and drove himself to this show. That, my friends, is the spirit of real country music.
The best band on the planet right now is the Black Pumas. There’s no argument. Their custom brand of psychedelic soul roped in the crowd as the songs went by. Prepare to hear big things from this Austin outfit as more folks catch on by the day. The War And Treaty brought its gloriousness as well. Music seekers were treated to two of the best neo-soul bands in a classic vein in one finely curated day. Well done, Roots N Blues team.
Alejandro Escovedo ravaged the crowd as rain threats loomed. Backing Escovedo was a local three-piece that he seemed to barely know. He coached the insanely ripping guitar player up and down the neck during a solo (it was super cool to see up close), and the band was on fire. A setlist spanning Escovedo’s long career and a few choice words for the orange asshole-in-chief were just the shot in the arm the crowd needed. A solid dose of rock ’n’ roll is a cure all for all indignations.
Nick Lowe is still the coolest guy in school, evident by his never-ending list of perfect rock songs and choice of backing band: Los Straitjackets, everyone’s favorite lucha-libre-wrestling-mask-wearing surf-rock band. Their instrumental mini-set was a highlight as was every song Mr. Lowe brought to the microphone; the man is a hero in the truest fashion. The Mavericks did a magical set per usual as the rains came full force, complete with lightning and thunder. Headliner Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals never even made the stage due to the weather. And so it goes …
It was surprisingly dry after a night of tow trucks pulling out tour buses and an endless parade of staffers spreading straw in the muddy spots. The fabulous Burney Sisters are ever-evolving into a style they can call their own. They’re definitely picking up on pop sensibilities, like every pre-teen should. Their potential is sky high whichever way they may run. They were followed by another set of locals, the Kay Brothers, a definite older-brother act to the young Burneys.
Another Highwomen, Amanda Shires, took the stage accompanied by husband Jason Isbell on guitar in a minimalist band of guitar, keys and bass. Her songs are beautiful and chock full of wit, and her couture is worthy of God’s blessings. (Maren Morris, too, for that matter.) Shires’ fiddle playing is incredible as is her voice. There’s no shortage of talent in the Isbell/Shires household. Bluegrass legend Del McCoury and his band (including two of his sons) put on a clinic in speed picking and chord progressions. Class was in session, and it’s awe inspiring to watch them work.
The avant-pop weirdness that is the New Pornographers was a Sunday highpoint with the great Neko Case on full-display. The power-pop-worshipping collective is a powerhouse of talent and was something refreshingly different for the crowd’s ears. Carl Newman and Co. delivered. Isbell and his 400 Unit tied everything together for a stunning hour and a half of live music. It was the perfect way to end the long weekend’s festivities, with Shires sitting in on fiddle and backing vocals. (Could they be our modern-day Johnny and June?) Isbell’s set was power-packed, complete with songs from his Drive-By Truckers tenure (“Decoration Day,” “Danko/Manuel”). An ass-kicking cover of “Oh Well” by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac found Isbell and Sadler Vaden trading guitar solos and licks like a competition to be accepted into blues heaven.
A hefty congratulations to Tracy Lane and the new Roots N Blues N BBQ regime. Their inaugural festival packed a punch. And thanks to the beautiful city of Columbia for taking great care of us, as always. Until next time …