REVIEW: Roots Fest opening night shines bright in a new location

I read late in the game that the traditional Thursday night VIP part at the Fayetteville Roots Festival was moving from its traditional home at the Garner Farm to Pratt Place.

I worried. How could they capture the charm of the intimate gatherings of years past? I didn’t want changes to what is often a perfect evening. I mean, I once saw a shooting star streak across the sky during a John Fullbright set at the Garner Farm during Roots Fest. You don’t mess with celestial signs.

But here we were, out at the hidden-in-plain-sight Pratt Place just west of the University of Arkansas campus.

What did I discover? More room. More music, with a bigger stage presentation. More than a half dozen breweries slinging their wares, including Ozark Beer Company’s American Wheat, made to coincide with the festival. A music festival that gets breweries to make exclusive beers for you is the kind of festival you want to be at, by the way. (Further proof of the kind of festival we’re dealing with: Fayetteville mayor Lioneld Jordan walking around and giving out hugs.)

Last night’s opening party helped the Roots Festival founders more fully realize their vision of a music AND food festival. Let’s talk about the food for a second, shall we? I’d first like to apologize to the bands Matt the Electrician and River Whyless. What I heard of them, I enjoyed. But it’s hard to focus on music when you’re grazing from more than a dozen chef-occupied tents and stuffing your face with smoked pork belly. I ate pork belly with red pepper glaze and spicy apples. I ate pork belly on creamy polenta. I ate pork belly in a dish with kimchi-infused collard greens. There were other food options – many of them, in fact, and each with their own chef-created flourishes. But there was ample pork belly, and I know my taste buds, so pork belly it was. (I also had plenty of goat’s milk gouda and herbed focaccia bread and a peach tart soaked in bourbon glaze, and let’s face it, anything I could get my hands on…)

The point, aside from the delicious details, is the additional room provided by the Pratt Place location helped allow for a larger focus on food. The event felt bigger this year, without sacrificing the quality or intimacy.

The bands complied, too. I watched much of the Jacob Jolliff Band (he’s the mandolin player of Yonder Mountain String Band) set. They were technically proficient, and they are far more traditionally bluegrass oriented than the other band he frequently tours with. They closed with a traditional take on CCR’s “Fortunate Son.”

The Wood Brothers, as always, entertained. I enjoyed watching them open for the Tedeschi Trucks Band a few weeks ago. But the whole time I watched that set I was thinking about seeing them at the Roots Fest, at this Thursday night party in particular. In closer quarters with the audience, you can really see what they do, and when they asked the crowd to sing last night, it obliged. They closed their set with the classic Band song “Ophelia.” They bought up Amy Helm (who performs tonight at George’s Majestic Lounge with the Cate Brothers) to join them for a song. They offered a beautiful set on an uncharacteristically beautiful August night.

We closed the first night of the 2017 edition of Roots Festival with full bellies, full hearts and a fuller representation of what the Roots Fest might grow to be.

And that’s just day one. The festival continues through Sunday night. Here are some selected highlights taking place today (Aug. 25):

Noon-2 p.m. – Live “Ozarks at Large” broadcast, Fayetteville Public Library, free
2 p.m. – Mainstage gates open, Fayetteville Town Center (sold out)
6 p.m. – Amy Helm and the Cate Brothers, George’s Majestic Lounge, $10
8 p.m. – Square dance, Backspace, free
9 p.m. – Headlining set by The Wood Brothers (sold out)
10 p.m. – Roots Jam, Kingfish, free

Sculpture by artist Jason Jones / Clayton Taylor Photography