REVIEW: Roots Festival’s second day shows the connective powers of music

Gregory Alan Isakov / Photo: Kevin Kinder

The Fayetteville Roots Fest has a problem. Well, maybe problem isn’t the right word. It’s more of an embarrassment of riches, too much goodness to contain in a confined area. In my review of the first day of the festival, I made note of how crowded the hallways at the main stage location at the Fayetteville Town Center can be. Yesterday, as I strained to get a good viewing angle through the crowd surrounding the chefs’ competition at the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market, I heard Jerrmy Gawthrop, one of the festival’s founders, mutter something to a friend. We need more room for this competition, he said. He just didn’t know where that would be.

The Town Center and surrounding plaza area isn’t the wrong place to have the festival. Its footprint has expanded to include as much of the real estate in the area that it can. And in the sake of having major roots music artists in small rooms to provide intimate events, Roots Fest needs to use a venue of its size. I don’t know where it goes, either.

What: The Fayetteville Roots Festival continues
When: Through today
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.

So the festival has to expand in different ways, creative ways, to give patrons great shows and great music events. I saw a few of those on Saturday night, and I’ll likely see a few more tonight, too.

The evening’s headliner, Gregory Alan Isakov, works as a strong example of that idea. Long after tickets went on sale, and long after those tickets were claimed by patrons, we learned that Isakov was to be joined by an orchestral ensemble from the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas. This was not some kind of a marketing ploy, a last-minute attempt to drum up a crowd. The crowd was in place. There was no financial incentive for festival organizers. In fact, I’m certain this one cost them money, because eight musicians showed up at the last minute. Which leaves us at giving the crowd something more than they paid for as the only motivation.

Isakov has an interest in playing with a symphony. He recently did so in Colorado for a recording, so this idea wasn’t completely out of left field. It was, however, something more than we expected. Which is exactly how the Roots Fest hopes to work.

And this set worked, by the way. Isakov and his band are charmers, and he doled out some frenetic folk. There’s a sadness-tinged sweetness to his work, if that can be a thing.

Joe Purdy / Photo: Kevin Kinder

That’s not the only example of what the corporate world would call added value propositions at the Fayetteville Roots Festival. In yesterday’s review, I begged anyone with a love of Fayetteville music history to go to George’s Majestic Lounge. Amy Helm, daughter of Levon Helm, was set to perform a show with Earl Cate, longtime friend and bandmate of her dad, and Terry Cagle, Levon’s nephew. That’s the kind of priceless alignment of musicians that only happens a few times.

And I had to miss it. Chose to miss it, actually. I wanted to split my time between that show and one at the Old Post Office. You see, Joe Purdy and John Moreland were on the bill there, and Joe Purdy was so wonderfully awkward and funny and charming and talented during his mainstage set earlier in the day I wanted to see more. Also on the bill was Ryan Pickop, who also has the enviable job of being brewmaster for West Mountain Brewing Company, just a few paces from the Old Post Office. (What a Fayetteville kind of sentence.)

And, it was closer to the Town Center, and that venue was a new offering for this year’s festival and I wanted to check it out. I felt like I was invited to a musician’s living room instead of some concert. There were not enough chairs, so people sat on the floor. Any by people, I mean everyone. Everyone who wasn’t at George’s watching Amy Helm and company play a set (which a friend reported was amazing, by the way). One of the members of the Shook Twins sat on the floor beside me, watching, soaking it in. J Wagner, a songwriter of some accord who led a songwriting workshop earlier in the festival, sat opposite of me, shaking his head in wonder at the devastating brilliance of John Moreland, who writes visibly sad songs. Moreland puts more audience members into tears than any performer I can recall. I know that’s a strange kind of endorsement, but you really ought to see his main stage set at 4:40 p.m. today if you can. It’s powerful stuff.

Birds of Chicago / Photo: Kevin Kinder

But my Shook Twin neighbor didn’t stay long. She was asked to get up on stage and join Purdy for a couple songs. Her sister joined again after a few moments. The Milk Carton Kids, who also performed on the main stage earlier in the day, performed with this supergroup of sorts, too.

I felt like an imposter in a room I wasn’t even supposed to be inside in the first place. I’m not sure what the OPO is used for now. I know several business have come and gone from there in recent years. But there we were, sitting on a basement floor musicians joyfully collaborate, a one-of-a-kind show.

Some of this kind of magic – and magic is the only word I know for it – comes from the nature of festivals. There are musicians in town, and they have time on their hands between sets. So they can jump when they choose. And some of it comes from the nature of roots music – it’s hand-crafted music, meant to be shared among friends.

But credit music be given for savvy selection of the artists. There’s a connectedness in this music circle, and festival co-founders Bryan and Bernice Hembree play in a band that tours alongside many of the acts. They know who plays with whom, and they try to align artists accordingly. Last year, Chris Thile and his Punch Brothers were booked on the same weekend as Sean and Sara Watkins, meaning the elements aligned for a potential Nickel Creek reunion. To my knowledge, it never happened. Tour schedules and early departures got in the way, I heard. But putting Helm in a venue on the same night at Earl Cate was intentional. Just as it was to book Purdy the same year as the Milk Carton Kids. They played together several years ago, and they dusted off the partnership for this event, because why not?

Milk Carton Kids / Photo: Kevin Kinder

Tonight’s main stage billing of Hayes Carll and Shovels & Rope is no accident, either. They’ve worked together in the past. There’s no promise they will revisit their connections tonight. But there is the possibility, and it’s that kind of effort that makes the Roots Festival a destination. At least one couple from New Zealand – that’s right, New Zealand – is in Fayetteville for the festival.

It’s easy to grumble because lines are long or space is sometimes tight or some other inconvenience gets in our way. It’s easier still to get lost in a song.

Maybe Purdy said it better earlier in the day.

After singing a song about the inequalities and injustices of the world, he told the crowd this:
“I don’t have the answers to all the problems, obviously. But I believe singing helps. I really do.”

I do too, Joe.