The fest packs in three nights and two full days of live music beginning Friday evening and running through Sunday evening. I made it up for day two, Saturday, with picture-perfect blue skies and gorgeous early-fall temps.
Before we get to the music – and there was plenty – let's talk a bit about the new location. Held in past years in the streets of Downtown Columbia and neighboring MU campus, this year Roots N Blues N BBQ moved just east of downtown to spacious and bucolic Stephens Lake Park. With acres of grass, tall shade trees, starry night skies and plenty of room to stretch out or even toss a Frisbee, the park provided more of a traditional outdoor music festival feel. Though both locations have their advantages and disadvantages, I think overall the move was a positive one.
While holding the fest downtown did offer the option of easy access and ability to leave the designated festival area for a quick burger at Booches or slice of Shakespeare's Pizza – and I'm guessing downtown businesses missed the extra revenue from foot traffic this year – the ample food trucks and BBQ vendors lined up between the two stages at Stephens Lake Park provided plenty of opportunity to get one's grub on. And as far as watching many hours of music, the wide-open spaces and soft grass proved far more comfortable than camping out on a city street.
The biggest complaints I heard involved long lines for drinks and port-o-potties (the only available restrooms) and general access to the grounds. With no on-site parking, patrons had the option of shuttle busses from designated locations outside or taking a long hike in, which meant coming and going throughout the day wasn't so simple.
Perhaps the best option available for those attending the entire weekend was the "Whole Hog" VIP pass, which provided up front viewing areas and main stage side lounge area with lunch and dinner plates, a private bar and private restrooms (handicapped accessible port-o-potties spruced up with lanterns, air fresheners and hand lotion).
The musical "menu" – divided between two large stages at either end of the grounds – consisted of a nice variety of acts from folk to country to blues to good old rock 'n' roll.
We began our afternoon at the Shelter Insurance Stage being mellow in the grass under the dappled shade of a big tree to the sounds of Minneapolis indie-roots band the Pines. Though their performance was solid, the quiet, haunting sound of their music was difficult to appreciate in such a large, outdoor space, and quite honestly made me feel more sleepy than anything – not necessarily the effect I was looking for to kick off an afternoon/evening of entertainment and celebration.
Following the Pines, we inched down to the front of the stage area to catch a close-up glimpse of the fancy finger work of banjo legend Béla Fleck and his lovely bride Abigail Washburn. Though you'd be hard-pressed to find a greater and more acclaimed banjoist playing today (Fleck has more than a dozen Grammys under his belt); Washburn is no slouch herself, holding her own alongside her husband of four years. Their intense emotional connection was evident in the pure, simple and effortless melding together of only their two instruments, each plucked note falling on the ears like a perfect, fat raindrop.
The couple primarily focused on tunes from Washburn's most recent album, "City of Refuge," beginning with the title song, highlighting Washburn's ethereal vocals. In between, they teased each other adorably (she calls him "Fleck") and joked about their newfound roles as parents (their son, Juno, was born in May), Washburn noting, "I wonder what he'll be when he grows up."
Next, we wandered back to the headlining Missouri Lottery Stage to catch a brief glimpse of blues guitar legend and Woodstock veteran Johnny Winter, who kicked things up a notch with classics like "Johnny B. Goode," and "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl." After only a few tunes, however, we were lured away by rumbling stomachs and the smell of barbecue, as well as a desire to catch something "new" on the other stage.
Phosphorescent, the musical moniker of Athens, Ga.-native singer-songwriter Matthew Houck, backed by a full band of outstanding musicians, was easily the biggest pleasant surprise of the festival for me. With a dreamy, otherworldly sound that can't be described in terms of any one particular genre, Houck and company worked through much of the material from his recently released album "Muchacho."
Houck's voice has a certain twang and crack to it akin to alt-country crooners like Patterson Hood and Jason Isbell – yet with a quality all its own. Dual keyboardists Scott Stapleton and Jo Schornikow, along with the divine pedal steel of Ricky Ray Jackson and a full rhythm section provided a rich carnival of sound, particularly on tunes like "The Quotidian Beasts" and "Nothing Was Stolen," which unleashed an all-out keyboard/organ jam. Phosphorescent's set left me longing to see them in a more intimate club setting, an opportunity that I certainly hope provides itself in the near future.
Bouncing back to the main stage, we caught music festival veterans Blues Traveler in what seemed overall a lackluster set, though John Popper still holds his own as one of the greatest living harmonica players. Covers of Sublime's "What I Got," ZZ Top's "La Grange" and Charlie Daniels Band's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," came off far more dynamic than obligatory BT hits like "Run-Around," "But Anyway" and "Hook."
Though a distinct fall chill pierced the air as the sun sank down behind the trees, the night finally felt like it began to heat up as Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue took to the stage at the other end of the grounds. Butts finally started shaking and the crowd gathered close to the front as Trombone Shorty, looking fly in bright red pants and a tight black t-shirt, tore into the opening notes of "Buck Jump." Never underestimate the raw energy and power of well-played horns. Even the Guess Who's oft-covered "American Woman" had new life breathed into it under Trombone Shorty's wizardry.
Reluctantly tearing ourselves away from his set – and doing so only with the full knowledge that we'd be treated to an even fuller one in November when he appears at the Old Rock House – we trekked back to the main stage to catch headliners the Black Crowes.
The on-again/off-again Crowes, led by seemingly always at odds brothers Chris and Rich Robinson and currently joined by touring guitarist Jackie Greene, gave a solid, if brief, set combining popular hits with deeper cuts for the more serious fans. They got bluesy mid-set for "Good Friday," "Wiser Time," and a divine "She Talks to Angels," with Rich Robinson switching to acoustic guitar and Greene picking up the mandolin. "Thorn in My Pride" and "Remedy" from the band's most critically acclaimed album, "Southern Harmony and Musical Companion," were crowd pleasers, with Chris Robinson injecting some unexpected psychedelic voice effects in "Remedy." They ended their 11-song set with an energetic mash-up of "Hard to Handle" with Deep Purple's "Hush," though the abrupt end to the evening with no encore made it feel slightly lacking.
As with any multi-stage festival, one must make choices, and overlaps in performance times means not always seeing a full set, but rather catching bits and pieces of some acts, in addition to the concession of shorter-than-usual sets with no encores. Most music fans would agree that seeing any artist playing a complete show in a more intimate venue is exceeding in quality – but the festival atmosphere provides an opportunity to check out acts one might not invest the time or money in seeing otherwise as well as the ability to enjoy a full weekend of music in one location while spend time with friends enjoying the great outdoors.
In that respect, Roots N Blues N BBQ once again lived up to expectations. With my own alma mater as a backdrop, spending a day and night in Columbia enjoying the slower pace and easiness of small-town life proved a welcome respite.