Rob Dickens reports in from Arkansas.
Fayettevilleroots Festival 2016
By Rob Dickens
Fayetteville, nestled in the Ozark Mountains in the northwest corner of Arkansas, is that State’s third largest city with a population of around 80,000. It is also one of the prettiest towns I have visited in the USA.
The August roots festival has been steadily growing each year and my experience of the sixth Fayetteville Roots Festival last year was a joy so I decided to return. The 2016 line-up included Old Crow Medicine Show, Shovels & Rope, Hayes Carll, Peter Rowan, Joe Purdy, Birds of Chicago, Gregory Alan Isakov, Amy Helm, The Wild Reeds, Jonathan Byrd, Smokey & The Mirror, Raina Rose and The Shook Twins .
Fayetteville is a college town with a vibrant hub. The festival itself is right in that area – held at The Town Centre, a large auditorium air-conditioned, with a plaza spilling out in front. It may be the cleanest city I have spent time in. Seriously, I cannot recall one single piece of litter anywhere. As for graffiti, I imagine a jail sentence would be swiftly dispensed.
The festival runs over three main days at The Town Centre, with some upgrade options and side events – overall, from August 25 to 28.
Amy Helm and The Handsome Strangers put out a smooth groove. I’m not that familiar with her recent album (surprisingly, her debut) but ‘Rescue Me’ from that release is a fine song. A fine set overall from a performer whose background in roots music (father, Levon Helm of The Band) and musical integrity is unquestionable.
The Peter Rowan Band were tremendous – the chilling ‘Land of The Navajo’ showed Rowan’s voice to be in fine fettle and this extended version had everybody jamming in an incredible groove. The set included some Ralph Stanley, punchy instrumentals and gospel infusions and finished with rapturous applause. I would be remiss not to mention his A-Grade band – Chris Henry (mandolin), Keith Little (banjo), Blaine Sprouse (fiddle), Paul Knight (bass) and Jamie Oldaker (percussion)
From delicacy to vibrancy. The Old Crow Medicine Show cranked up proceedings and whipped the crowd into a frenzy from the get-go. This was the first time I had seen the band without the impressive Willie Watson and they have not missed a beat.
OCMS has been an integral part of the revival of folk/old-time music, bringing a vitality with great theatre and highly attuned to the music traditions that preceded. The set list included ‘Alabama High Test’, ‘Take ‘Em Away’, ‘Sweet Amarillo’ (from the latest album), ‘Back Home Again’ (John Denver), ‘Country Gal’, a frenetic ‘Tiger Rag’ followed by a rousing and emotional medley of ‘I Hear Them All’ and Woody Guthrie’s classic ‘This Land Is Your Land’.
The encores of ‘Spirit in the Sky’ and ‘(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66’ did not quite work as well for this listener, but it would be nit-picking to deny OCMS the triumph they deserved tonight, as they closed proceedings tremendously well.
We Dream Dawn kicked off the day with style. They are an indie band whose line-up includes former front man of Elephant Revival, Sage Cook, and bass player Aera Fox who live a permaculture lifestyle on the border of Oklahoma and Kansas. Cook is deeply connected to the land and his songs reflect that. The band has a four-song EP out called The Return of the Light.
Joe Purdy is an Arkansan with over a dozen albums to his name and is a highly-regarded songwriter. Today, he was solo with an acoustic guitar and harmonica, a relaxed manner and amusing banter – I loved ‘Catalina’ and ‘My Country’ in particular. Purdy is an interesting songwriter straight out of the Woody Guthrie tradition.
The Birds of Chicago are Allison Russell (vocals, banjo, clarinet) and JT Nero (vocals, guitar). Proceedings kicked off with the simmering soul title-song of the recent album (‘Real Midnight’) and led into the rocking and layered groove of ‘Flying Dreams’. ‘Til It’s Gone’ was sensational. The warmth of Russell and the humour of Nero is an engaging combo: the banjo and particularly the clarinet add a beautiful brushed nuance to the band’s overall sound. The strength of the material demonstrates the passionate strength of the musical partnership. This set was breathtaking and was an absolute highlight. There are hopes the band makes it to Australia next year.
The Milk Carton Kids started with a major technical problem. This did not faze Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale – they launched into one of the many comedy routines of the night – this one was about how they bragged to their fellow performers before the show about their set up being so simple and never having sound problems like the larger outfits. We also heard later in the set about the enormous difficulties of childbirth…for the husband…as well as the background of the tender and heartfelt song that Kenneth wrote for his to-be daughter (‘Charlie’) which we eventually found to be not that imminent as he was still waiting to meet the right woman.
The music was terrific as usual – ‘The Ash and Clay’, ‘Monterey’, ‘Shooting Shadows’, ‘Snake Eyes’ and the closer ‘Michigan’. The guitar and vocal intricacies were there for all to see – surprisingly this was the first time they had performed in Arkansas. I suspect they will be back, given the crowd’s response on the night.
Gregory Alan Isakov was born in South Africa and raised in Philadelphia, later moving to Colorado. His music is indie-folk and his songwriting has been heavily influenced by being on the road for many years. He has four or so albums out, with the latest being Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony, released this year. It was an interesting insight for me tonight. He had a sizable band, plus a string orchestra. One song he played with all the lights in the auditorium down. His voice has a likeable, with a rough-hewn timbre and there is a powerful world-weary observation around his lyrics. Not a lot of song titles were introduced (maybe none) but I picked up on the terrific ‘Liars’. Definitely a new artist for me to explore.
The day began sluggishly. It wasn’t just me. At opening time, the crowd was sparse and pretty quiet, plenty of 16oz coffee cups being toted around.
Brooklyn’s Hubby Jenkins (ex-Carolina Chocolate Drops) is a Grammy winner and Americana nominee for best instrumentalist – he has released a self-titled album and continues to contribute widely both in terms of playing and music education and heritage.
Hubby’s set was quite different and thoroughly charming. He started with a traditional old-time instrumental medley and then asked the audience to choose one book of four from which he would read an extract. From a show of voices, he read a paragraph and then asked the audience to choose the character’s next actions. Another song. Another reading extract. Like a choose-your-own-adventure. It was a good way to crank up the crowd which was growing slowly. The playing and musical education I found to be fascinating. The set included ‘Little Log Cabin in the Lane’ and a wonderful version of Bukka White‘s dramatic ‘Parchman Farm Blues’, both from his new album. I caught up with Hubby back stage and his knowledge and understanding of music traditions and socio-political history very impressive.
I was able to catch most of John Moreland‘s set – I have seen him many times and again was caught up in his resonating voice and intense lyrics, particularly ‘Hang Me In The Tulsa County Stars’, ‘American Flags in Black and White’, ‘You Don’t Care For Me Enough To Cry’ and ‘Cherokee’. He was a big hit at last year’s event and was invited back because of that. Moreland provides us with one lesson – the triumph of one man, one acoustic guitar in a large auditorium and in front of around 1,500 people – the strength of the songs and the rich voice provide a purity unsullied by gimmicks or complexity or unnecessary adornments.
I finally got to see Texan Hayes Carll next. An alt. country feature for many years, highly regarded and with around six albums to his credit, with the last three really capturing people’s attention – Trouble In Mind (2008), KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories) (2011) and 2016’s Lovers and Leavers. Tonight he was part of a trio with a light drum kit and a pedal steel/electric guitarist. He has a casual and amusing stage presence, like he’s talking to folk on his front porch. The songs included ‘Bad Liver and a Broken Heart’, ‘Sake of the Song’, a song off the recent album ‘Good While It Lasted’ with acute observations, the excellent slow ballad ‘Arkansas Blues’, the rolling, talking country blues of ‘Bible on the Dash’ and he closed with ‘Chances Are’ (which Lee Ann Womack recorded). I was won over and I need to add some Carll to my record collection pronto.
Shovels & Rope (Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Kent) hail from Charleston South Carolina and burst on to the scene with O Be Joyful (2012) and followed up with Swimmin’ Time (2014) and there is another one out this October – Little Seeds – which coincides with the birth of their daughter.
They form a powerhouse duo of drums, electric guitar, keyboard, effects and associated percussion devices. They swap instruments as easily as passing the plate over the dinner table. The music is a highly individual and high-octane take on roots music and derivations. A late start due to sound problems meant a late finish to the set, but no one seemed to mind as they watch the force-of-nature set unfold – ‘Birmingham’, ‘Keeper’, ‘The Devil Is All Around’, a slow burning, soulful ‘After The Storm’, ‘Lay Low’ and an incendiary version of ‘Swimmin’ Time’. It looks like the set list is pretty pliable as the couple seem to have brief exchanges about what they (or they think the crowd) want(s). The new songs on display sounded terrific. A blistering finish to the festival’s main stage.
Fayetteville Roots Festival is as much about food and fine drink as it is about music. The organisers are Bryan and Bernice Hembree (music) and Jerrmy Gawthrop (food and drink). VIP ticket-holders got to go the nearby Garner Farm on the Thursday night before. The site is gorgeous – local food, wine and other delights were on offer and – Penny and Sparrow, Jonathan Byrd, The Wild Reeds and Peter Rowan Band all performed on a balmy night.
Local community radio station KAUF did a live two-hour show featuring many of the performers here at the festival – a perfect way to catch a truncated version of the festival, but in a more intimate setting. A great and lively two hours on air were augmented with food, beer and tourist grabs including a brief chat with a former chef for Google, who joined the company providing sustenance for all fifty of its employees and left six years later when the payroll had over 10,000 workers!
There were other performances as well, on the Plaza stage just outside the main auditorium, the iconic George’s Majestic Lounge, the OPO and the Chancellor Hotel.
This year was not only very enjoyable but also the perfect relaxed setting to see some of roots music’s finest. The city itself, locals’ hospitality, fine food and, of course, excellent music all combined into a charming and edifying experience. I have to find a way to go back in 2017!