REVIEW: Roots Fest Day 3: A bigger Roots Festival has trouble meeting outsized expectations

Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam / Clayton Taylor Photography

The Fayetteville Roots Festival typically peaks during its Saturday night events. That happens for several reasons, and in several ways. First and foremost, it manifests in duration. There was Roots-affiliated music starting at the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market at 9 a.m. I know there was music taking place at past 1:15 a.m. (that’s technically Sunday) this morning, because that’s when I left the secret show at the Heartbreak House, where John Fullbright, a reunited 3 Penny Acre and members of The Honey Dewdrops were trading songs. I have no idea what time they finished playing.

Saturday is also often the most-attended day of the festival, usually because the main stage contains the headlining act. That’s been true of previous years, and I would argue that happened again with Iron & Wine at the top of the bill last night. It was the first show of his newest tour, and the group just released an album on Friday. Frankly, it was a big get for the Roots Festival.

And the Town Center groaned under the weight of that big event. The mainstage area was full to capacity, with people opting to stand to the sides or behind the seating area. A trip to the beer line was a 20-minute endeavor.

What they got to see was an atypical Roots Fest evening, where the undercard acts will be the ones people talk about, not the headliner.

Elephant Revival / Clayton Taylor Photography

Let’s start with this: I like Iron & Wine very much. I have for many years. And I think I like the direction of his new album, “Beast Epic,” and his new band that joins him for this tour. But Saturday night’s set was one of fits and starts, and I think he took umbrage with the crowd that left his set at exactly 10 p.m. He kept talking about the group that had left for the “bathroom” and never returned. Likely, they left for the start of the late-night sets at George’s Majestic Lounge. (An aside: It’s rare that stage conflicts at festivals are a problem for headlining acts, and often the closing acts have no other musicians against them. That’s not how it works at Roots).

The crowd that remained hooted and hollered at Beam, a somewhat-strange reaction to sad, introspective, lyrically dense folk music.

Beam responded by being slightly defensive and doing his best to have a bit of banter with the crowd. “Next time I’m in a convention center, make sure you come see me,” he quipped about the admittedly unconventional venue.

He did profusely thank those who stayed with him to the end of the set. It had me wondering if a performer who wasn’t enjoying himself would keep a show going for longer than two hours and come back out for an encore. I’m not sure I know the answer. There’s something to be said for it being the first show of the tour, too. He’s still trying to find his groove.

Which was a bit of a shame for our crowd. Credit Beam for playing a wide variety of music from all points of his career, including the song he said was the first he ever recorded “Call Your Boys,” to a batch from “Beast Epic.” The last time I watched Iron & Wine, it also took place at a festival, and he had a full jazz band with him. The current tour is a more subdued version, with keyboard, cello, upright bass and drums.

Beam frequently reinvents his band and also reinvents his songs, and several were offered with a new arrangement, particularly more popular works from early albums “The Shepherd’s Dog” and “Our Endless Numbered Day.”

He stuck to the script on a mid-set acoustic break, where he took a few requests. Beam’s voice, songwriting and guitar playing make him the world’s best coffeeshop performer – a gifted man with something to say. But we didn’t see him in a coffeeshop. We saw him in an open room where people felt comfortable yelling out at him.

Some of the strangeness of his set and the general atmosphere no doubt came from the man who proceeded him onstage – comedian and (sorta) songwriter Nick Offerman. I understand wanting to have surprises in the festival lineup, and I applaud the Roots Fest for bringing in different acts. I heard raves about the Wendell Barry film he produced, which the festival screened on Saturday at the Fayetteville Public Library.

But on the main stage, Offerman seemed so very out of place. The first three days of the festival have surrounded us with fantastic musicians. Offerman isn’t one of those (and I think he’d be the first to tell you so). He’s not much of a vocalist. He is quite the funny man. In another opposite of the festival dynamic, where most of the acts are family friendly, Offerman and his blowhard everyman act were a contrast, promoting that everyone wear their pubic hair untrimmed, among other topics.

This is an appropriate time to mention I like comedy, and I’m not mortally offended by crude humor. I would have paid money to see Offerman’s act, but not within the confines of the festival, where it seemed egregiously out of place. Or maybe it fit somewhere else in Fayetteville, like at George’s Majestic Lounge or something. But on the festival stage, surrounded by musical talent, it didn’t feel natural. And I think some of the rowdiness permeated in the room after he left the stage.

Blind Boy Paxton / Clayton Taylor Photography

Offerman, by the way, had the burden of following Elephant Revival on the stage. It was a burden because only a herculean effort could have topped that performance, which included several songs done with an ensemble from the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas. It took a moment for the Colorado-based band to warm up and find their footing with the symphony, but once they found the way it was a thing of beauty. Elephant Revival is a bit strange, right up to the a capella number “Raven Song” with bird calls. But they are also topical and passionate, and the nostalgia for the recent eclipse courtesy of the song “Ring Around the Moon” was especially well done.

Earlier in the day, Mandolin Orange also charmed. Listening to their last record, I would have described the North Carolina duo as very nearly country music. But their show on Saturday afternoon was a very traditional showcase with two players swapping voices and instruments.

Speaking of traditional, let’s talk for a second about the Secret Shows that were mentioned but never officially announced. Acts such as Joe Purdy, the Honey Dewdrops and Smokey & the Mirror took turns around a single microphone at the Heartbreak House (the former GoodFolk concert house) and shared old folk songs. Packaged with excellent food and libations, it was a treat to spend the end of the evening in that way. It too was packed. I never got a good vantage point on the stage, and I’d guess the crowd exceeded the 100 people emails explaining the concept said would be permitted inside. I feel lucky to have heard about it.

And, even if some of Saturday’s show did not live up to my lofty expectations (I probably was too excited for Iron & Wine), I feel lucky to see another day’s worth of entertainment today, even if it comes with changes.

Dead Man Winter / Clayton Taylor Photography

Sunday headliner Rodney Crowell, the festival’s Facebook page tells us, cannot perform tonight because of an illness. John Fullbright (originally scheduled for 6:30 p.m.) will take the 8:15 p.m. headlining slot, and Smokey & the Mirror and the Honey Dewdrops will fill in Fullbright’s earlier spot. A review of Crowell’s show on Saturday night in Little Rock mentions his health problems.

Here’s to hoping Crowell makes a speedy recovery. And here’s to another day of roots music today.