WITH PHOTOS: The first day of Roots Festival takes Northwest Arkansas to church, to Memphis and to other new territory

All photos by Clayton Taylor

In what feels like a lifetime ago, I had a desk at the Benton County Daily Record office. It was a temporary space, something I used when I covered an event in Benton County for the newspaper group that owned the paper. Like many newspaper offices, it was dingy and dark and perhaps a bit depressing. (This should not be taken as a complaint. I enjoyed my time at the paper, and spent many happy years there. But newspaper offices are not known for their aesthetics and comforts.)

Today (Aug. 23) at the Fayetteville Roots Festival

What: Folk Family Reunion with Del McCoury Band, Flaco Jimenez and more
Where: Pratt Place
Tickets: Accessible via VIP, sponsor or culinary pass

What: John Moreland
Where: George’s Majestic Lounge
Tickets: $15-$18; available at stubs.net
Info: https://therootsfest.org/

So if you would have sat down beside me at my cubicle and tried to convince me that Mavis Staples was going to perform in that same room eight years later, I’d have called you crazy. I might have called you worse. Not just because it meant that office would turn into a modern, industrial-styled event space called The Record, but that Mavis Staples would be performing in Bentonville. If you’ll recall, Bentonville didn’t have a venue for any artist 10 years ago. Much less Mavis Staples, a woman who marched in civil rights rallies, who sang with The Band, who performs for presidents, and who Bob Dylan once asked to marry.

And that makes no mention of the other act that performed Wednesday during the first of five nights of music that will take place during the Fayetteville Roots Festival. All Booker T. Jones has done is write instrumental soul classics and serve as a producer or sideman for acts such as Bill Withers and Willie Nelson. He’s earned a spot in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

But this was indeed our reality at The Record for the first event of Roots Festival 2018. There has been music on Wednesday before during Roots, but it felt far more incidental in comparison to what we saw Wednesday night in Benton County. This expanded session also aligns with the festival’s big push for this year – to strengthen the food-focused half of the festival. Like what will happen tonight at Pratt Place for what’s dubbed the Folk Family Reunion, chefs offered up small plates of carefully prepared fare. Each year the festival has a theme or featured ingredient, and this year appears to highlight pickled foods and mushrooms, among other treats. I suspect this because I had mushroom-black walnut ice cream and a mushroom tostada. I’m curious to see how it plays out tonight.

But I’m also not too interested in rushing ahead, because last night was something to remember. Al Bell, the founder of Stax Records, had the honor of introducing his good friend Booker T. He spoke specifically to how the music of artists like Staples and Booker T. fit under the umbrella of ‘roots’ music. He called the music pioneered by black performers the only styles native to this country.

“It deals with the very essence and authenticity of music that comes from America,” he told the crowd.

Roots Festival has typically stayed within the confines of acoustic-instrument led, songwriting-focused music. We’ll see a lot of it this weekend. But Bell’s not wrong about the role of classic soul and gospel music in creating an American sound. It’s obviously something Roots Fest organizers have emphasized this year. And, if we’re going to have a blues/jazz/gospel/r&b night at Roots every year going forward, please count me in.

Staples, who opened with an hour-long set, took everyone to church. As I was driving over to the venue, I listened to an interview with actor Andre Holland on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” In it, he talks about the Reverend C.L. Franklin, the father of the late great Aretha Franklin. He discusses the sing-songy nature of their sermons and their music. He and host Terry Gross do a better job outlining it than I ever could. (Listen starting at about 11:30 if you want to skip straight to this description.) But the important point is that Mavis took us on the same path. She led many call-and-response sessions, telling us we’ve got work to do. Mavis, at 79 years old, did some work, as she’s done throughout her life, and noticeably during the late-career renaissance we’re witnessing now. She played several songs from her excellent 2017 album “If All I Was Was Black.” She mixed in a few covers, like the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” and also performed the Staples Singers’ biggest hit “I’ll Take You There.” These songs were augmented by a full backing band, notably including virtuoso work by her guitarist, Rick Holmstrom. A lot of vocalists of Staples’ age get some onstage vocal help, and there were indeed two backup singers. But let’s put the emphasis on backup. They kept melody while Staples ran over the top or below their sound, depending on what the moment called for. Staples often did some scat singing of the guitar and bass lines, but when she wanted to draw back on a full-bodied growl, it arrived with force.

If Mavis took us to church, Booker T. Jones and his band took us to Memphis. Specifically, Stax Records heyday-era Memphis. Jones and his classic band, the MGs, served as the house band for the label. Jones, a child prodigy, wrote the hit “Green Onions” when he was 17 and would later help write songs such as Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign.” He played both on Wednesday with his new band. He also offered up a few choice covers, such as “Purple Rain” by Prince and an instrumental take on “Hey Ya” by Outkast. His band was scheduled to perform until about 10 p.m., but with the lengthy introduction by Bell pushing back the start time, and no lack of enthusiasm, Jones and crew kept going until nearly 10:45 p.m. By that time, only about 200 of the 500 hundred or so present at the start of the evening remained.

Let’s hope they left to rally for tonight and the rest of the weekend. There’s plenty of the festival yet to be experienced. But there aren’t many opportunities to see musical legends like Mavis Staples and Booker T. Jones. It didn’t even seem possible just a few years ago.

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