What a year for Rhythm and Roots! After losing half the summer to unseasonably cool temperatures and rain, we were blessed with perfect weather for Labor Day weekend– sunny skies and cool breezes, followed by clear moonlit nights that had me up past 4 am every night.
This year we welcomed old friends and new, camping with most of our usual krewe, and helping to set up some spots for about a half dozen newcomers, friends we had met at Crawfish fest and/or on the Jazzfest message board (aka Threadheads). Lots of my jamming buddies were nearby in their usual spots as well, so it worked out perfectly.
After our opening night barbecue/ celebration, we went to hear the music. Friday was loaded with great music - Nouveau Honkies, the Duhks, and I was pleasantly surprised by Eilen Jewell - last time I saw her she was more folky sounding, but this time she had a killer rockabilly / Americana band with her. Too bad they showed up late due to traffic problems and had to shorten their set. Enjoyed the Travellin’ McCoury’s - it was nice to have some real bluegrass at Rhythm and Roots this year, just as it is nice to have the Red Stick Ramblers or Steve Riley show up at Grey Fox. Lee Boys with the Travellin’ McCoury’s on Friday were the highlight of the festival for me. Their first song was like a mantra for the weekend – “Let’s celebrate –we gonna have a good time! ” Robbie's electric banjo sounded especially good with the steel guitar, and the back and forth solos between all the bluegrass and sacred steel musicians worked out well.
I liked Cedric Watson's new band, Bijou Creole, which had a real African sound with the different percussion instruments.
Tab Benoit's set in the workshop tent on Saturday was my second favorite set at the festival. It was similar to the shows I’ve seen him do at Chan’s in Woonsocket - he is best in a smaller venue. Besides the jokes he was also able to enlighten the audience to the plight of the Louisiana wetlands, mentioning the Voice of the Wetlands fest and other things he is involved with. For his mainstage set, Steve Riley sat in on some of the zydeco tunes.
Asleep at the Wheel was great Saturday night, very tight as usual, and featured a brief guest appearance by Johnny Nicholas. I didn't get into Hot Tuna much - I know they are legends and all, but it just sounded too much like a garage jam-band to me.
Papa Mali was good on Sunday - he was fun to dance to, but I wished he would have sung more. "Ode to Billy Joe" was especially groovy, and I really liked his version of "I Shall Not be Moved". The Frank Family Band was hitting it with all they had, with their 2 drummers, and sometimes alternating, sometimes playing together. I found it funny when the young niece who is always dancing on stage finally sang a song and it was Boozoo Chavis' "Leona had a Party".
Mitch Woods was entertaining, but seemed to have to work very hard to get people up off their butts. There is something about the R&R crowd - even though there are always a lot of dancers under the two tents, people in front of the stage like to just sprawl out on their blankets or sit back in their chairs, and that seems a bit frustrating for some of the performers.
I love Jerry Douglas’ music, but when I saw him on the schedule for Sunday night, I was worried he was going to put us to sleep - far from it! People were actually dancing to it on the dance floor near the main stage. I was one of them - that was the best way to stay warm, too. Great Big Sea was an excellent choice for a closing act with their raucous energy and fun songs and even a light show! That was one of the only bands I was unfamiliar with - my first time seeing them but it won’t be the last. I liked how they alternated between traditional sounding folk tunes / drinking songs/ and pop hooks and harmonies.
After the last set in the dance tent, which featured Steve Riley with special guests like Cedric Watson, producer Chuck Wentworth got up to say a few words as is the tradition. It was especially moving this year in light of all the obstacles he had to overcome to be there this year, as well as the local politics that threatened to move the festival (but did not!)
I know some people had financial limitations this year that prevented them from coming – I should have mentioned earlier that R&R is a volunteer run festival, and that can be a good low cost way to enjoy the fest. In exchange for a few hours work each day you get free weekend camping pass/admission, meals, a t-shirt and more fun than you can imagine. I did it for many years, and still do at Grey Fox bluegrass festival. I just can’t at R&R anymore because I don’t want to miss anything, and I love playing music after hours. This is the most accordion friendly and diverse-jamming festival I go to… and I do have to sleep some time! This year was the best for after-hours jamming,due to the weather, the full moon, and combination of players on the scene.
I really want to thank all the new people for coming, esp. those that travelled a great distance… and I sincerely hope they and others will join us for Rhythm and Roots again. If you like Cajun/ Louisiana and other roots-music, being in RI for Labor Day weekend is the next best thing to being in Louisiana in October/November... As Steve Riley so eloquently reminded us in the closing set on the dance stage, RI's Cajun / LA roots run deep starting with Dewey Balfa’s visit to Newport Folk fest in 1964 and going through more than 2 decades of Cajun festivals here in the Biggest Little which has evolved into the more diverse music festival that is Rhythm and Roots.
And for those that missed it, many of the sets are available on MVY Radio.