Friday, September 5, 2008

Rhythm and Roots 2008

One of the things I always tout to potential newcomers about the location of Rhythm and Roots at Ninigret Park in Charlestown RI is how close it is to ocean beaches, so you can easily leave the festival to visit one of them. But once I get set up at the camp I seldom leave the site. No need to leave when everything you need is right there – music, food, fun, friends, even a pond to take a dip if the mood strikes you. But even though I never left to go to the beach, the seed was planted, and a few days later I’m finally enjoying some late season beach time, reflecting on this years festival. Rather than a blow by blow account, I thought I’d just share a few impressions.

The best way for me to enjoy the main stage music at Rhythm and Roots is to set up my chair on the right side, near the dance tent, so I can spring up on a whim without having to pick my way through the mostly seated crowd. This is where I enjoyed dancing to the Waybacks in the rain on Saturday.… especially the extended "St. Stephen" jam. I looked around and saw I wasn’t the only one having a Grateful moment. But the Waybacks are much more than a Dead revival band, so many catchy original tunes, like "Bright Place". They are a great band. It was also a good spot for dancing to Donna the Buffalo, and trying to keep up with a member of the herd several years my senior. I can only hope to stay that loose!

Marcia Ball and the guys Saturday night was the musical highlight of the whole festival. The air was misty and swampy, warm and wet and soupy, just like in Lousiana, which many of us had on our minds what with Hurricane Gustav threatening. Marcia helped to remind us with her heartfelt rendition of Louisiana 1927 and other songs about her adopted city, like Party Town, the Bobby Charles song from her latest CD “Peace Love and BBQ". She was joined by Johnny Nicholas and some of his band mates (who played a great set Friday night as well), Steve Riley, David Greely and others for a big jam ending with "All Night Long". Too bad it couldn’t have lasted all night long.

Some of the bands have played the festival so often, and play several times throughout the weekend that I never get around to seeing them, thinking I will get to see them later…that’s what happened to me with the Red Stick Ramblers, who I missed for one reason or another. But I did get to see Linzay Young do his campfire cooking demonstration on Saturday in the workshop tent, where he made Macque Choux with one hand and roux for the next day’s gumbo with the other, all while explaining the recipe, fielding questions from the audience (who was gathered around nice and close), promoting the Black Pot festival, alternately sipping a beer and using it to flavor the dish. And unlike Emeril’s TV show, we DID have smell-o-vision, and not only that but taste-o-vision, too…yum!

We always "camp" at Rhythm and Roots, but our set-up is far from the austere images of roughing it that come to mind when one thinks of camping. Combining resources with a group of about 8-10 friends, it's more like extended tailgating, with a few hours rest in the wee hours. Because most people camp every year and set up in approximately the same spot year after year, it is has a neighborhood feel, and there are lots of musicians around our area. The campground jams were fun this year, though sometimes they grow so large it's hard to fit everyone in. Rhythm and Roots is the only festival where I get to play music in a jam setting that I really like to play. I mean , I can do bluegrass on accordion if I have to, but the jams at Rhythm and Roots are so much more eclectic. And here accordions are welcomed, almost revered. I especially enjoyed a daytime jazz & blues jam with our neighbors (that may have been one of the times I missed the Red Sticks). The Saturday night after-hours zydeco dance floor setup was also really fun. There were at least 3 accordions, bass, washtub bass, some fiddles, saxophone, drums, guitars, rubboards and a whole bunch of dancers in constant motion. Bob from Slippery Sneakers had set up a mike and small amp and we all took turns leading or soloing. Sunday night we had a nice mellow jam by the fire at our place with members of the Remnants, and others.

Rhythm and Roots is a yearly tradition, and I go every year regardless of who is playing. I love the Cajun and Zydeco bands the most, even though I’ve seen some of them countless times and hear the same songs over and over. There’s something about the spirit of that music that gets in your soul and keeps you coming back for more. But every year I do look forward to discovering someone new and exciting, or unexpected. Maybe I have been to too many festivals, but this year there was only one band that was completely new to me – Scythian. I only caught the latter half of their set because they played kind of early on Friday when we were finishing up our traditional opening night celebration supper. They played a mix of Celtic and klezmer influenced material, not my favorite…but the crowd seemed to like them, and they got everyone up on their feet. The other “new” band was Great American Taxi led by Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon, who has played at R'n'R and Grey Fox before. At times they reminded me of String Cheese Incident, also from Colorado, and Assembly of Dust, another band featuring rambling, open keyboard solos that I like a lot. I’ve already listened to the set a few times on MVY radio and I like it more each time.

I found David Bromberg on Sunday night to be a bit ho-hum for a prime night time slot… it may have been better if he had switched places with the Gourds, who played an upbeat, sun-splashed set on Sunday afternoon. This year, I missed the presence of a visual show band, like we’ve seen in years past with La Bottine Souriant, the Duhks or Los Straitjackets, the Asylum Street Spankers, or even Marty Stuart from last year. Dan Hicks & his Hot Licks come close, but don’t really fit the bill with their mellow lounge act vibe. I like to see bands with a lot of energy, especiallyh when it is presented on such a big stage at night.

I enjoyed Keb Mo’ on Saturday. With his band, they were more funky and less folky than when I’ve seen him in the past. Later on, I made my way back to the dance tent for some Pine Leaf Boys w/ Jesse Lege. They had to leave early due to the impendng storm, so they wanted to make the most of their last set. Corey Ledet, who had been playing drums with another band, joined in on accordion and kicked it up into the zydeco zone.

Robert Cray on Sunday night was as smooth as expected. Even though I had never seen him live before, I’ve heard his music before, so no surprises there. All his songs seem to be about cheating and sneaking around. At that point there were a lot of latecomers crowding into our space on the field so we went back to the dance tent, for one last Louisiana style jam.

The Sunday night jam with Steve Riley & friends, including most of Donna the Buffalo, some of the Red Stick Ramblers, and some guest rubboard players such as Hot Sauce and R’n’R’s own C.W. wound up the weekend's performances, with a driving Hot Tamale Baby. Wild and raucous, the last set in the dance tent is the essence of the festival.

I hope the Rhythm and Roots festival is able to remain in Ninigret Park - it would be shame to have it move elsewhere. It is so big and open, plenty of room for camping and bike riding, and you can catch a slight whiff of salt air - it is the perfect spot for this festival. On the way home I picked up a dozen ears of delicious sweet corn from a local farm… I have some tomatoes and peppers in my garden, and just happen to have some tasso in the freezer from my last trip to Lousiana, so I am going to whip up some of that Macque Choux when Hurricane Hannah hits this weekend, while listening to the Red Stick Ramblers:

Corn Macque Choux as made by Linzay Young at Rhythm and Roots (from memory, hopefully I got it in the right order)

1) Saute onions and green peppers in vegetable oil in a heavy bottomed pot.

2) Add diced tasso (highly seasoned smoked pork… if you don’t have it, you can use smoked sausage or some other kind of smoked meat).

3) Let it cook awhile, and when it starts to stick deglaze with beer (Linzay used Magic Hat #9)

4) Add fresh corn with the juice, and some chopped jalapeno without the seeds.

5) Season with Cajun/Creole spice mix (usually a mix of salt, cayenne, garlic powder, paprika, thyme and other seasonings) . Make sure you use enough seasoning, especially if you don’t have tasso! Also make sure it cooks at least 45 minutes on low to medium heat, stirring now and then and deglaze with beer to release the stuck on goodness at the bottom.

6)Towards the end of cooking, when everything is getting nice and caramelized, add some chopped fresh tomatoes and cook a little longer til the tomatoes reduce.

7)A little before serving, add chopped parsley and scallions for a finishing touch of flavor and color.

You can listen to the Redstick Ramblers while cooking this up, along with lots of other performances on

more pictures here:

Rhythm and Roots 2008

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