REVIEW: Roots Festival defies genres and expectations in the first night main stage activities

Old Crow Medicine Show / Photo: Kevin Kinder

If you attempted to define “roots” music, you’d no doubt come up short, limited somehow. It contains elements of blues, folk, jazz and many other typically American genres of music. It is Americana, but also not. It’s Peter Rowan’s jammy bluegrass, Amy Helm’s boogie blues and Old Crow Medicine Show’s convention-bending take on traditionalism.

We could debate about a definition for this music for hours, but we’d be missing the larger point. Like our growing local food and craft beer scenes of Northwest Arkansas, the Fayetteville Roots Festival is growing, too. And growing under the same ideas – to create hand-crafted, meaningful, purposeful things. It take more money, time and labor to produce a can of craft beer here than it does for AB InBev (the former Anheuser-Busch) to mass produce a can of Budweiser. Similarly, it takes a bit more effort to make the kind of music on display at Friday night’s festival-opening events. There is work and sweat and tears and the songwriting factories that crank out hits in Nashville and Los Angeles and wherever else get replaced by a man or woman with a guitar, and, if they are lucky, a circle of close friends to make suggestions for the near-finished product.

What: The Fayetteville Roots Festival continues
When: Through Sunday
Where: Various venues in Fayetteville; Main Stage events are at the Fayetteville Town Center
Cost: Free-$59; depends on event
Tickets: Also, visit the Flyer’s Roots Fest Guide for 2016.

Illustrative of this idea is one of the biggest songs associated with the idea of roots music. The Old Crow Medicine Show song “Wagon Wheel,” has lived about 40 lives all more interesting than anyone I know. The original tune “Rock Me Mama” was a victim of the cutting room for the soundtrack Bob Dylan wrote for “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.” Left unfinished, Old Crow picked up the pieces and re-engineered the tune to fit their approach. It was a minor hit for them. But it had staying power, becoming the kind of song you heard covered by every bar band. Then Darius Rucker picked it up, covered it for his country album and turned it into a No. 1 hit. More than a decade after it was first recorded by the OCMS, the song remains a singable, shining example of the Americana/roots idea.

Except it barely scratches the surface of what’s out there, and what’s just as great, too.

A man in front of me seemed fixated on the notion of “Wagon Wheel.” He asked a stranger next to him if she’d ever heard the song. She had. He excused himself and returned after six or seven more songs had been offered. He asked his neighbor if they’d played “Wagon Wheel” yet. They hadn’t. When the song’s familiar first chords rang out, he lunged up from his seat and went toward the front of the stage. I can’t blame a person for freaking out about one of their favorite songs. I know the overwhelming wave of emotion that struck me when Radiohead played the first note of “Paranoid Android,” when Wilco asked me (well, the whole audience, but definitely me) to sing “California Stars” along with them, when Paul McCartney strummed a ukulele and sang “Something” earlier this year in Little Rock.

You can’t that kind of thing away from someone. But OCMS isn’t just “Wagon Wheel” any more than roots music is just bluegrass or boys strumming guitars.

Peter Rowan Band / Photo: Kevin Kinder

In the intersessions between his requests for “Wagon Wheel,” he missed a startling display of instrumental prowess from all the band members. OCMS frontman Ketch Secor had already played three instruments before the band was done with three songs. This kind of instrumental interplay would happen all night. Critter Fuqua – yes, their names legitimize their chosen profession – played guitar and banjo and drums. Mandolin/keyboard/drum player Cory Younts also whistled better than anyone you know, and he took a break to wish his grandmother a 90th birthday. She made the trip of from Little Rock to watch the show.

They cruised between rock ‘n’ roll, like when they tore through a cover of Norman Greenbaum’s jug band romp “Spirit in the Sky.” They played tribute to Doc and Merle Watson, two bluegrass traditionalists. And, for what it’s worth, “Wagon Wheel” isn’t even the band’s only Bob Dylan-assisted song. That distinction also holds true for “Sweet Amarillo,” which they collaborated on after the lingering success of “Wagon Wheel.” “Sweet Amarillo” helped them earn a Grammy Award in 2014 for Folk Album of the Year. Even if we can’t call what they do folk with any certainty. We can say we got lucky to catch them here. Old Crow Medicine Show very recently performed at Red Rock near Denver, Colorado. Last night’s crowd got a big ticket show in a much smaller space, which felt very small in the transition times between acts. When all 1,300 people watching the Roots Fest shows get moving at the same time, the Town Center becomes a bit claustrophobic in a hurry. Roots Fest organizers smartly made a point of moving the festival food service outside the town center, but it’s not enough. It’s a capacity crowd, and there’s no room for more.

The other acts I caught on the festival’s main stage in the Fayetteville Town Center, where events continue today (Aug. 27) and tomorrow (Aug. 28) were the two shows that proceeded OCMS – the Peter Rowan Band and Amy Helm. Both have fascinating backstories, and both make their own kind of music.

Rowan has played with luminaries such as folk pioneer Bill Monroe and jam pioneer Jerry Garcia. Rowan’s sound comes somewhere in the middle, even if his band’s instrumentation leaned a little more toward the traditional side of things last night. It was pretty music, but a drop in energy after the rousing display by Helm and her band.

She was a hard act to follow. And she had a hard time overshadowing her own band, particularly guitarist Daniel Littleton. He’s a monster on a six string, and he got permission to stretch out sonically on several song. Mercy.

There were several chill-inducing moments during Helm’s set. She didn’t mention her late father – drummer and beloved native son Levon Helm – by name. But his presence was certainly felt. She covered the Bruce Springsteen song “Atlantic City.” But that was also a song The Band covered, and one where Levon took on lead vocals. It was, in many ways, his song. She played it, and also mentioned spending many days of her childhood in Springdale, where members of the Helm family lived for many years. Tonight, she performs at George’s Majestic Lounge, one of the few events where tickets still remain. Also at George’s tonight is Earl and Them, featuring guitarist Earl Cate, a lifelong friend of Levon Helm and a one-time bandmate of his in a later incarnation of The Band. The chance for collaboration will make tonight’s required viewing for anyone with a love of Arkansas music history.

The unexpected will always happen in a live music setting. If you don’t go in looking for something, you might just get what you want. Even if you don’t know what to call it.

Old Crow Medicine Show Setlist Fayetteville Town Center, Fayetteville, AR, USA 2016