Rhythm & Roots Festival

Ninigret Park / Charlestown, RI

Rhythm & Roots isn’t the biggest or most high-profile festival of the year, but it’s still my favorite because, like Heinz ketchup, it has the perfect balance of ingredients: first-class music, both in established acts and carefully vetted newcomers, top-notch food from unusual vendors, warm days and (usually) cool nights, unobtrusive security (I saw two cops in three days) who have nothing to do, a knowledgeable, respectful audience spanning three generations, a swimming hole, a clean environment (no cans, bottles or lost sandals on the ground, no overflowing garbage cans, etc.), an incredible dance stage with top musicians and cool stuff to buy if you can tear yourself away from the nonstop music. Labor Day weekend travel’s a bitch, frankly, but the festival ends Sunday night, so happily, it’s only slo-mo in one direction.

Producer Chuck Wentworth knows his music, and keeps on learning. I’m sure his address book of older acts takes up a few GBs, but for up-and-comers, Wentworth haunts festivals across the country to check out new acts in person, and brings the best back home to R&R. This year featured someone I discovered, too, Canadian Matt Anderson, a big man with an even bigger voice and intricate, delicate guitar licks at the ready.

This year’s headliners shattered even our high expectations. Friday night the hills were alive with the sound of American music with Dustbowl Revival’s eight-piece infectious brand of Americana and Lake Street Dive’s soul-infused blues. It’s not easy to have a big band and survive in today’s music business, but the excitement Dustbowl Revival generates gives me hope. Whether slinging horn-infused New Orleans jazz, a Great Depression-era blues, ragtime gospel or something I’d call jazzgrass, this band gets the crowd moving and shaking; you just hate to see them go. Fortunately, the night’s closer, Lake Street Dive, features the very powerful Rachael Price, the real-est young vocalist since Amy Winehouse. This young gal has world-class pipes and a clear shot at stardom.

Saturday, the highlight of my summer (even having seen Sir Paul), included Louisiana native Roddie Romero and his Hub City Allstars (with a few of the Mavericks in the crowd), and the group Della Mae with one of Nashville’s best songwriters, Jim Lauderdale; five ladies on guitar, violin, mandolin and upright bass for a real taste of real country and bluegrass, something rarely found in New England, even though Della Mae is Boston-based. Lauderdale led the way with his own songs and his trademark patter.

The irrepressible Marcia Ball swung her crossed leg and kicked ass, big-time, in another of her visits to R&R. They’ve got a “not-twice-in-a-row” rule at this festival, so we always have to wait at least two years, which makes Ball’s performances all the sweeter. With New Orleans in her musical genes, Ball has a corner on NOLA piano interpretations, and her band—some with her for decades—doesn’t miss a beat. As is her custom, Ball and band performed a moving version of “Louisiana” to a hushed crowd, as she did on the one-year Katrina anniversary, still a heartfelt moment for all who were there.

Los Lobos had a few technical difficulties early on, but broke on through for a rocking set in two languages. The East-LA quintet has been turning Spanish and American rock on their ears for four decades—and three Grammys—and show no signs of slowing down. Make no mistake, whether they infuse it with a south-of-the-border or zydeco or Jimmy Cochran twist, these boys play rock ‘n’ roll, and they play it flat out. I’d like to know how many calories five thousand people can burn off dancing frantically for almost 90 minutes.

Last, the Mavericks, who should win—among other things—Most Dramatic Performance by a Guitar Slinger: (Eddie Perez), Most Exuberant Dancing and Prancing by a Keyboard Player (or Anybody): (Jerry Dale McFadden), Coolest Head Behind a Kit: (Paul Deakin) and Most Female Hearts Melted by One Phrase: (Raul Malo). Malo’s roots are in Cuba, so many of the Mavericks’ songs also have a Spanish flair and lyrics, but no one would confuse Los Lobos with the Mavericks, whose music makes clear that summer nights, soft kisses and music are inseparable. The band hadn’t played R&R before, and, like most of us, were captivated. Malo introduced one song by saying what great music they’d heard all day, and that “We don’t sing this often, only on special nights,” and swung into a lovely version of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” He wasn’t blowing smoke, I have the set list, and “Harvest Moon” wasn’t on it. Fortunately, “Come Unto Me,” a personal favorite, was on the list, and appeared as one of four encores, the last of which was “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down,” and included Roddie Romero’s Hub City Allstar Eric Adcock on keyboards, bringing my stay at Rhythm & Roots almost full circle.

Until next year!

– Suzanne Cadgène

Photos by Laura Carbone

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  1. Rachael Price is not in the same singer’s class as Amy Winehouse and every time I see this uneducated but predictable comparison I’m compelled to comment. Rachael has actually perfected the art of singing. Amy was talented, but Rachael is perfection.