The festival, a true collaboration of multiple Columbia groups and individuals, has grown significantly since it began and attracts internationally known and legendary acts. Among this year's lineup were Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers, blues legends Taj Mahal and Robert Cray, bluegrass/roots music stars Sam Bush and Dr. Ralph Stanley, and up-and-coming acts like Toubab Krewe and Fitz and the Tantrums.
Having attended numerous music festivals large and small, I can say that no matter how great the lineups are, a festival can be made or broken by the way it is set up, the ease of getting around, parking, stage visibility and other convenience factors. Roots N Blues N BBQ succeeded on all accounts, making it a real delight to attend for being just so simple.
With multiple entrance points to the ticketed areas from every side of downtown, going in and out was no problem with a simple wristband after initial entry. This made it very easy to take breaks outside of the festival area in downtown bars, restaurants and even quick jaunts back to our home base at a friend's house nearby. There's something to be said for holding a first-rate music festival in a small town like Columbia. When you eliminate the stress of getting around a big city, it's just so much easier to enjoy the music -- and enjoy we did.
We entered the festival grounds early Friday evening at Peace Park, just in time to hear gospel queen Mavis Staples start preaching to the gathering crowd as the mouthwatering smell of barbecue wafted through the air. Unless you're a vegetarian, there's just something great about listening to good music outdoors while eating and smelling smoked meat. The food is just as much a star of this festival as the tunes, with numerous choices and even a BBQ competition.
Mavis kicked it off to a great start, sharing gospel favorites like "I Belong to the Band – Hallelujah!" by Reverend Gary Davis and Staples Singers favorite "I'll Take You There," accompanied by her terrific band and back-up singers, especially guitarist Rick Holmstrom.
After sticking around for a couple songs by bluegrass legend Dr. Ralph Stanley (most recognized by the mainstream for his contributions on the classic "O Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack), we made our way up the street to the main stage on Locust to catch Yugoslavian blues guitar goddess Anna Popovic. Channeling legends like B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan while rocking a sexy, sequined mini-dress, Ms. Popovic is the whole package (the reaction of most attendees as she shredded her guitar and worked the crowd: "She's hot!"). Looks aside, Anna Popovic just might be the fiercest female guitarist playing today. She was well-received by the audience and seemed genuinely gracious and grateful to be there.
Since moving between the stages was so easy, following her performance, we ambled back to Peace Park for a bit to sit in the grass and rest our legs as popular newgrass band Railroad Earth took the stage and began plucking out their upbeat twang. After relaxing and regrouping for a few songs, we beat it back up to Locust Street to catch Robert Randolph and the Family Band's headlining set. Always a fan of Randolph's high-energy blend of soul, funk, blues, rock and gospel, I danced on weary legs as he cranked it up on his signature pedal steel guitar. "Might as well be free on a beautiful Friday night," he declared. I can't think of a better way to sum it up.
Randolph worked through some of his best material with the family backing him up, including cousins Danyel Morgan (thumping on the bass) and Marcus Randolph (banging on the drums), and sister Lenesha Randolph preaching the gospel on vocals. During funky anthem "I Need More Love," he teased Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough," as girls from the crowd danced onstage. He kept the party going with performances of fan favorites like "Dry Bones," "Deliver Me" and "If I Had My Way," as well as blues classic "Shake Your Hips."
As the first night wound down, we headed to our home base, our bellies filled with BBQ and our heads filled with song.
We kicked off Saturday with a delightful breakfast at Ernie's Cafe, some coffee and a shower before heading back downtown for a stroll around the local shops and some more music. Our first stop on the agenda was catching a set by Asheville, N.C.-based instrumental group Toubab Krewe. This was one of my most eagerly anticipated and definitely one of my favorite acts of the weekend. Fusing the Western African sounds of Mali with traditional American roots music, Toubab Krewe may have one of the most original sounds today.
All of the band members excel at their individual instruments, with the standout being Justin Perkins, playing a blend of electric guitar and African instruments like the kora (a 21-string harp-lute) and the kamelengoni (a 12-string harp-lute). Percussionist Luke Quaranta's conga drumming adds to the native rhythm along with drummer Vic Stafford and bassist David Pransky. Electric guitarist Drew Heller rounds out the sound.
Even St. Louis' own Beatle Bob made the journey to Columbia and was front and center getting down to the quintet. With sounds ranging from the psychedelic (Heller creating a trippy reverb on the guitar with his teeth), to upbeat jam, to folky plucking, Toubab Krewe highlighted songs from their 2010 album "TK2" and had the crowd moving and grooving for their entire set as the afternoon sun beat down. Although I'd wanted to catch bluegrass/newgrass mandolin legend Sam Bush, we simply couldn't tear ourselves away from Toubab Krewe until they played the last note.
Once they did, we high-tailed it to the Peace Park stage in time to catch the last 15 minutes of Bush, who ended his set with a full-force rock jam. The only down side to a music festival with multiple stages is that it's just impossible to see everyone, but we were happy to get at least a taste of most of the top acts.
Eschewing the BBQ on day two, we instead opted for a quick A/C break and the perfect hamburger at Booches, a Mizzou tradition since 1884. There's nothing quite like a Booches burger (served on a square of wax paper) to give you the energy needed to stay on your feet for another five hours of music.
Back at the festival, the Music Maker Review was next up on the Locust stage, an ensemble of some great senior blues and roots musicians. This fun revue is sponsored by the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a non-profit that directly supports senior American roots musicians in need by providing for basic life essentials while expanding their professional careers. Dressed to the nines in suits and fedoras in red, pink and black, these fine gentlemen brought some old soul to the sea of music lovers of all ages.
They seemed the perfect intro to Grammy Award-winning blues guitarist Robert Cray, who followed. Cray is right up there with the very best of blues artists and guitarists like B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton. We moved and swayed as he and his band reminded everyone what real blues music is all about. He rocked hits like "Sitting on Top of the World" and "Smoking Gun" as the sun began to set and the crowd swelled to fill the entire street all the way back to the festival gates.
The evening ended on a high note with what was my hands-down favorite performance of the festival: Los Angeles soul/pop outfit Fitz and the Tantrums. From the moment they stepped on stage, this band let loose with a no-holds-barred dance party writing essay led by vocalist Michael Fitzpatrick and his right-hand woman Noelle Scaggs. The electricity and on-stage dynamic between these two is infectious; listening to their acclaimed debut studio album "Picking Up the Pieces" doesn't even do justice to how they work together in a live performance.
Looking at Fitz and the Tantrums on stage, the first thing you might notice is that there is no guitarist (virtually unheard of for a rock/pop band). Incredibly, the musicians in this band work together so well that you don't even notice the lack of guitar. Jeremy Ruzumna more than makes up for it on the Hammond B-3 organ, along with bassist Joseph Karnes, drummer John Wicks and sax player James King. They played a majority of songs from their album, as well as a killer covers of the Racounteurs' "Steady, As She Goes" and Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams Are Made of This." They rocked the socks off of downtown Columbia and were a terrific ending to a great weekend of live music. St. Louis fans will get the opportunity to experience Fitz and the Tantrums first hand next weekend as they headline at Taste of St. Louis.
All in all, it was a fully enjoyable weekend with some of today's top roots and blues musicians playing against the backdrop of my alma mater. I'm already marking my calendar for next year.