By Twyla Twang
Photos by Twyla Twang

Jan. 22, 2020

One of the Midwest’s lesser-known gems of festivals happens in Columbia, Missouri, each fall. In its 13th year, Roots ’n’ Blues ‘n’ BBQ continued its legacy of bringing top-notch acts to the idyllic Stephens Lake Park, September 27-29, 2019. In standard smart-festival procedure, the two main stages staggered their start times to enable festival goers to catch as much music as possible.

This year, Roots ‘n’ Blues opened with Violet and the Undercurrents at the Missouri Lottery Stage (MOLO). These Missouri gals already impressed crowds at Lincoln Calling this fall and playing for their local community only enhanced their enthusiastic reception. After a short break, John Nemeth took the stage and soulfully growled, serenaded, wooed and steamed up the afternoon. A short walk to the Great Southern Stage (GSS) found fans gathering for Patty Griffin.

Patty earns her spot as one of the most treasured performers and sweethearts of Americana. Opening with “The Wheel,” a song from her March 2019 self-titled release, she showcased her band and their chops. As she sang, each note she produced seemed to move through her entire body. Patty also spoke easily and candidly between songs and as true folk singer, she referred to our nation’s humanitarian crisis summarizing “We all need to do better.” She craftily avoided politicizing her chat and remained hopeful and positive. She set up her song “Boys of Tralee” by speaking of her Irish heritage and acknowledged we are all immigrants.  Her set closed with “Heavenly Day” and the rousing gospel “Move Up” from her 2010 Downtown Church release.

Jockeying for a good spot to catch Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real was no small feat as the crowd was packed in, locked and loaded. After a humble and short introduction, Lukas and POTR opened with a galaxy of unique sounds and rhythms that slinked into “Funny How Times Slips Away.” Pulling heavily from his last two releases, Lukas gave us “Die Alone,” “Fool Me Once,” “Bad Case” and a stripped-down version of “Turn Off The News (Build A Garden).” The young Mr. Nelson gracefully excused anyone who might want to leave to catch John Prine’s set at the second stage. Sometimes those tough calls have to be made, and this lil’ cowgirl moseyed on to do just that.

Given John Prine’s recent health issues, his appearance was momentous and oh-so special. The crowd size for his set equaled if not surpassed Lukas’. His voice was strong and emotive, keeping everyone’s rapt attention. Having just won Album of the Year at the Americana Awards in Nashville for his 2018 Tree of Forgiveness he gave us a few tunes from that album (“Caravan of Fools,” “Lonesome Friends of Science,” “Egg and Daughter Night”) and wove in some older tunes from his vast catalogue (“Lake Marie,” “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” “Storm Windows,” “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”) and closed with “Angel From Montgomery” and “Paradise”.  John interspersed songs with back stories, humor (“I think I just swallowed a bug. He’s a tough bug!”) and humility; it seemed everyone attending recognized the special performance we just witnessed.

Saturday, September 28 brought looming clouds and growing crowds for Day 2 of Roots ’n’ Blues. The day’s music opened with John Henry at the GSS. John Henry is a veteran St. Louis singer/songwriter whose rough and soulful voice blended perfectly with his rough and soulful band which included a sax, trumpet and trombone to make up the Smokey Butt Horns. His passionate vocals rose through the bluesy-rocked out-soul sound that moved folks off their feet and shakin’-a-tail feather, especially for his heavy, raucous rendition of Neil Young’s “Keep On Rockin’ in the Real World.”

A quick trip to the MOLO stage found me ready for Kent Burnside and the Flood Brothers. The eldest grandson of bluesman RL Burnside, Kent joined Gabe Meyer, Jacob and Colin Best of the Flood Brothers to stir up some dirty river blues. Their unique sound seemed to reflect the muddy waters of the Mississippi river that connects the Flood Brothers’ St. Louis to Burnsides’ New Orleans. Conjuring up one of the grooviest versions of “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” Kent sent it out to his grandfather “to show him how proud of him I am and how without him there wouldn’t be me.” Keeping the groove, energy, killer guitar riffs and powerful vocals, I think his grandfather would also be very proud of him.

Hustling back to the GSS, I caught the end of The Mighty Pines set. Their original sound blends the groove of jam bands with the twang of bluegrass with a little funk, country and blues thrown in. What’s not to love? Note to self: catch their entire set at some point!

I took advantage of a little down time between sets to chat with 2018 Ameripolitan Award winning DJ Woody Adkins, who was there to introduce the next two bands at the GSS: Doug Kershaw with Dave & Deke Combo, then our pals Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore! Woody isn’t one to show much emotion, but he was sportin’ a big grin for his afternoon tasks and he did a fine job introducing some of his heroes. With his signature waist-high-playing fiddle, Doug Kershaw’s set opened with “Diggy Liggy Lo” and ran through many of his well-known hits including “Louisiana Man” and “Cajun Joe” and included plenty of jovial banter between songs. Doug joked about how he and his brother Rusty’s music has been named “country,” “rockabilly,” “swing” over the years; he simply shrugged his shoulders, saying “We were just doing our thing. We never cared what it was called.” A rousing “Jambalaya” closed a very tight and memorable set.

Having seen Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore several times in the last year, including two stops at our local Zoo Bar, I still wasn’t about to miss another opportunity. They drew heavily from their 2018 Downey to Lubbock album including the title track, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” and “Get Together.” As a poet and song-writer extraordinaire, Alvin consistently showcases other great song-writers as in the case of Steve Young’s “Silverlake” from their recent album and this show included acknowledgement of the passing of Robert Hunter earlier that week. For those who may not know, Robert Hunter wrote lyrics for many of the Dead’s signature tunes. In Mr. Hunter’s honor, Jimmie Dale sang a haunting “Ripple.” Picking the pace up, Dave ripped into a closing-set of “Marie, Marie” and “Down by the Riverside.”

Skipping back to the MOLO stage, I found “The War and Treaty” set had already started and so had their party! The expressive and vibrant couple of Michael and Tanya Trotter kept their energy high through sultry blues numbers and funky second-line rhythms. Within their Southern soul sound, Michael took time to honor Veterans, especially those suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as he himself served in Iraq. They stressed to their audience to know we’re not alone and support is to be found. Closing with a tearful and tremendous “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” The War and Treaty lifted and inspired the entire crowd.

Pairing Nick Lowe with Los Straitjackets piqued my curiosity, and I was tickled pink to catch them!  Los Straitjackets’ solid guitar driven rhythms provided perfect balance to Mr. Lowe’s lyric-driven work.  Nick performed several of his older tunes including “Tokyo Bay,” then gave some of the stage to Los Straitjackets for some of the surf instrumentals they’re known for.  A rousing cover of Shocking Blue’s “Venus” closed a super-charged fun set.

If y’all haven’t seen The Mavericks live, you owe it to yourself to catch their act someday. Somehow. Just be sure you wear your dancing shoes and have plenty of room to cut a rug. A Mavericks show is one big dance party and their Roots n’ Blues set was a mess of sweat, smiles and shakin’ hips.  With plenty of Latin beats, extended jams, and featured solos, The Mavericks’ dance party was on. They tore through “Damned If You Do,” “Come Unto Me,” “All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down” and other big numbers. About half-way through their set, Raul Malo told the audience “Get up here and dance, we don’t need that fence” and the VIP section was quickly gone. Mr. Malo’s voice shone through the night and was especially mesmerizing during the love songs. For this Country Girl, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” and Hank Cochran’s “Don’t You Ever Get Tired (Of Hurting Me)” had me swooning in my boots. Unfortunately, the looming clouds finally posed enough of a threat, the dance party ended early.

For the final day of Roots ’n’ Blues, the rain clouds were gone and spirits were high. A lively set by the Kay Brothers, who welcomed the Burney Sisters to the stage, included lots of “critter songs” Including “You Get a Line, I’ll Get a Pole” and “Ole Slew Foot,” traditional songs rendered in an original and non-traditional fashion by these local youngsters.  

The lovely and charming Amanda Shires was up next, opening with a powerful “Break Out the Champagne.” She has a wry sense of humor and her clever banter between songs was endearing. She introduced the band, leaving the handsome guitar player to her right for last who she introduced as “Mr. Amanda Shires,” (Jason Isbell) bringing a chuckle from the crowd. Amanda and her top-notch band drew from her earlier releases including “Wasted and Rollin’,” “Bulletproof” (both from 2013’s Down Fell the Doves (ALBuM)), “Pale Fire” from 2016’s My Piece of Land(ALBUM) as well as several cuts from The Highwomen(ALBUM): “Cocktail And A Song,” “Highwomen” and “Don’t Call Me.” With the recent buzz around this super group made up of Amanda, Marin Morris, Natalie Hemby and Brandi Carlile, I found it poignant to hear Amanda describe the birth of the group; Highwomen were born out of recognition there are far too few women in country music on the radio and they wanted to see that change. With a light-hearted giggle she also mentioned their upcoming appearance on “some morning show…I don’t know which one, I’ll be half-asleep but it’ll be awesome.”

Meanwhile, back at the GSS, Del McCoury with his sons Ronnie and Rob were taking the stage.  Del opened his set up to requests and gave some suggestions to the crowd.  “We know lots of murder ballads! Y’all wanna hear some of them?” Interspersed with some of his classic bluegrass numbers like “Rain and Snow” and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” Del and the boys wowed the crowd with some of the finest pickin’ this side of the Mississippi.  Their set closed with a hand-clappin’, foot-stompin’ “All Aboard” that was revival-tent-worthy!

Closing out 2019’s Roots ’n’ Blues was Mr. Amanda Shires and his band, known to most as Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.  Jason introduced himself and his band as being “from Muscle Shoals, more or less.” The geographical legacy lived on that evening in Missouri. Opening with and blasting through “Hope the High Road,” “White Man’s World” and “Cumberland Gap,” the crowd rocked note for note with the 400 Unit which included Jason taking some searing guitar solos. Changing it up from the heavy, full-band sound came the sweet acoustic “Last of My Kind.” Amanda took center stage to trade solos with Jason’s slide guitar and created an unparalleled soul-soothing sweetness. A few more rockers including “Flying Over Water” and “Super 8” blended with the medium-paced “Tupelo” provided a smooth sonic journey into the late summer night.  My personal favorite song of Mr. Isbell’s happens to be “Cover Me Up” and hearing it, feeling it, live, was one of my highlights of the entire weekend. Amanda and Jason’s harmonies bring to mind a cup of exotic coffee: so familiar and ‘right’ yet like nothing you’ve experienced before. Jason, Amanda and the 400 Unit closed with one from his Drive By Truckers days, “Never Gonna Change,” trading solos from each member of 400 Unit to an impressive crescendo with Isbell pounding out a Townsend-like windmill, a powerful end to a power-packed weekend of Roots ’n’ Blues!

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Twyla Twang is the host of HonkyTonk Heroes airing Fridays 9-10:30 p.m.