Photos by James St. Laurent
Another banner year at Rhythm & Roots, with the expected friendly crowds, the expected stellar headliners and the expected, unexpected delights.
First the unexpected. Undoubtedly the star of the newcomers, Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson sported one of the most over-the-top, highest-energy shows we’ve seen in years, and they were seated. The duo, an Aussie and an Irishwoman, took their blues and bluegrass on a roaring train to a whole ’nother, reinvented level. Like the White Stripes, Cara sat on drums (plus other percussion, pennywhistle, etc.) and Hat Fitz on stringed instruments (guitar and resonator) and the two ripped through mostly uptempo tunes; passers-by on their way to the Dance Tent or the food court flowed into the Hat Fitz & Cara performance like leaves carried on a stream. We copped a CD from the couple and it’s wonderful—don’t miss this irrepressible pair.
Not yet a household name but playing larger and larger venues, Matt Andersen, here with his backing band the Bona Fide, dominated the Main Stage on Friday night, when many gainfully-employed attendees couldn’t arrive in time. Their loss, because Anderson, one of the best vocalists in Americana today, plays kickass guitar and writes a damned good song. As a vocalist, I’d compare Andersen to Aretha Franklin or the present-day Eric Burdon: We don’t need no stinkin’ microphones. His standout tunes, including “Coal Miner Blues,” sent chills down the spines of attendees at the far reaches of the festival, despite the heat. A Canadian national, Andersen wrote a song for the upcoming election, “Honest Man,” with a Cream-like feel and lyrics that—sadly—will undoubtedly be relevant for decades to come: “All the movers and the shakers and the powers that be they turn their backs on each other, they turn their backs on me. Everybody’s just serving themselves, nobody’s got time for an honest man.” Closing with “I Shall Be Released,” Anderson succeeded in making the classic entirely his own. Not the clean-shaven, buff heartthrob that would give his career a popular lift, I still hope Andersen could become the next Johnny Cash or Sam Cooke, he’s that good.
Johnny Nicholas traveled light this tour, without Cindy Cashdollar, but put on an infectious show nonetheless. Playing from his new Fresh Air CD, Nicholas and his band, Hell Bent, give Americana exactly that: an infusion of fresh air, for sure. Whether on guitar, keyboard or harmonica, Nicholas hits it with panache. We got an extra lagniappe when he sat in on harmonica with Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur, a sweet treat.
Taj Mahal and Lucinda Williams closed out Saturday’s show on two very different notes. Taj started off playing his sho’ ’nuf blues, completely instrumental and absolutely perfect, then swung into some dance music from decades past: the Stroll and the Hully Gully, much to the delight of those in the grassy dance area in front of the stage. Rhythm & Roots bills itself as a music and dance festival, and they don’t lie. There’s a spot to dance everywhere there’s music, and I saw a few people who glued themselves to the two wood-floored Dance and Roots Stages and never even visited the Main Stage. Taj treated the SRO crowd to a slow version of CC Rider which was so swampy and ooh baby it could have been classified as adult entertainment.
Lucinda Williams provided a change of pace, with her country-punk songs. Rarely smiling and with her patented just-fell-out-of-somebody-else’s-bed look, Williams gave her fans what they were looking for: a little anger and a lot of poetry. Williams’ backing band, the Buick 6 (with three members, drummer Butch Norton, bassist David Sutton and the impressive Stuart Mathis on guitar) more than makes up for any lack of musicality in her songs; those guys kick butt—in fact, Williams seemed to enjoy herself most when standing in the wings, watching the band, rather than performing herself, up front and center. The vibe changed dramatically toward the end, as an enthusiastic Williams led the crowd in a spirited rendition of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and, as an encore, her own “Foolishness” which she dedicated to the upcoming election, with many extended verses which included “I don’t need hate, racism, ageism, Donald Trump in my life,” among many other no-nos. “She’s bad ass,” a man next to me said, nodding. That she is.