WITH PHOTOS: Fayetteville Roots Festival, once again in a jam, creates a superjam to close the festival

John Fullbright & Friends / All photos by Clayton Taylor

Evan Felker has had a busy few weeks.

He and his girlfriend, country megastar Miranda Lambert, just broke up. His band, the Turnpike Troubadours, pulled out of their tour with Lambert, where they were serving as an opening act. That news comes as his divorce from his now ex-wife Staci Nelson was just recently finalized.

Dates near Toronto, Detroit and Chicago were canceled on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and the band’s publicist told a gossip magazine that because of a family emergency, “the band needs to be close to home right now.

Oklahoma is close enough to Arkansas, and the band made the jaunt east in time for Sunday’s headlining performance for the Fayetteville Roots Festival. The band was at the festival headquarters early yesterday afternoon.

And then, nope, never mind:

Unfortunately due to a medical emergency Turnpike Troubadours will be unable to perform tonight at Fayetteville Roots Festival. The band was present and ready to play, but after evaluation it was advised that Evan Felker should not perform tonight due to pain associated with the inability to pass a kidney stone he has been struggling with since earlier in the week. We sincerely apologize to the fans and festival staff for this unfortunate situation. – Turnpike Troubadours

The festival’s statement:

We are sad that Turnpike Troubadours won’t be appearing at the festival this evening. We are thrilled that longtime friend of the festival, John Fullbright, will now be headlining the Sunday MainStage and will punctuate his set with a cast of special guests, John Fullbright & Friends. It will be a fantastic, one-of-a-kind show that you won’t want to miss. Please give John Fullbright and the band extra love when they take the stage at 6:50pm. We deeply appreciate their last minute support and talent. – The Roots Festival Team

Festival organizers resorted to a tactic they employed last year: Leaning on the strength of John Fullbright. You may recall a version of this story played out last year on the final date of Roots Festival. Rodney Crowell canceled his Sunday appearance on the day of his scheduled performance. John Fullbright jumped in to take his spot then as well.

But the solution this time around was a little different. Fullbright played his traditional set of blues-soaked folk songs. He started his set in a novel way. He was briefly a member of the Turnpike Troubadours, and he played a song he wrote for the band that they later recorded and turned into a minor hit, “Every Girl.”

John Fullbright & Friends / Photo by Clayton Taylor

When he’d concluded his proper set, which shared a lot of songs with his late show Saturday night at George’s, the guests started coming. The night closed with what was billed as a “superjam,” with different performers stepping in to do a song or two with Fullbright’s band serving as the anchor.

The jam kicked off with “The Weight” by The Band and employed the services of a man with connections to the original artists. Earl Cate, the Springdale native who gained a following for his work in The Cate Brothers Band, was a friend of drummer Levon Helm and toured with Helm and The Band. Cate stayed on stage for the entire jam, which ran nearly 90 minutes.

The next three songs of this superjam were led by honky tonk practitioner Jacob Tovar, who made a five-hour drive from Wichita, Kansas, at Fullbright’s request when he heard of the situation.

Also taking turns were Joe Purdy, Kalyn Fay and Paul Benjaman. Often, the assembled backing band would confer with each other for 60 seconds or so about the key of the song and the tempo before jumping into it. The amount of musicianship required to make that system work cannot be underestimated.

To close out the evening (and the festival), Fullbright again started counting off the intro.

“Let’s see if we can pull this off,” he said. He was talking about the song “Jumping Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones, but might as well have been talking about the entire idea of a super jam. Of course, by this time, the audience was aware they could.

The other act I caught Sunday evening talked of possibility as well. The War & Treaty have one of the more compelling backstories in music. Michael Trotter taught himself to play piano to pass the time while stationed in Iraq. Tanya Trotter had a near miss with fame after a solo album and an appearance in “Sister Act 2.”

War & Treaty / Photo: Clayton Taylor

Together, the duo makes fine music that fits well under the loose idea of “roots” tunes but also veers toward soul and gospel sounds. The War & Treaty are a dynamic pair, and they focused on love and understanding during their set. The band’s new album is called “Healing Tide,” after all. They dedicated a song to Aretha Franklin and also asked for a moment of silence for Senator John McCain, who passed away late last week. The crowd granted that request, then gave Trotter a round of applause for his service. He seemed genuinely moved.

There was plenty else to see on Sunday, although I had to pick my battles a little bit. The Roots Festival is an exhausting endeavor, and I envy the out-of-town guests who were able to come to Fayetteville, leave their normal lives for a few days and soak it all in. I felt an obligation to do things around the house and missed some music. I wish I hadn’t.

A set by Dana Louise and the Glorious Birds at lunchtime got a lot of people going after a long evening before. I was told the line to get into Maxine’s Tap Room was about 75 people long at the start of the show. I arrived late for the set due to a few other early-morning commitments. But I have to say I wouldn’t mind a musical brunch at Maxine’s on a semi-regular basis.

Speaking of bringing things back, I heard a few people buzzing that the Sunday night superjam is the only way to close the festival every year. It wouldn’t be too far from the festival organizers’ original intentions. Years ago, when the event was much smaller in scale, the organizers would bring in a few friends and festival volunteers to George’s and have a thank you party of sorts on Sunday evening. I’m not sure what the closing performance last night was if not a version of that idea.

I’m not ready to declare that to be the only solution in perpetuity – I don’t want a major headliner that can only come on a Sunday to get turned away. But I’m ready for a jam like that again. Preferably, though, after I get a bit of sleep.

John Fullbright & Friends

War & Treaty

The Honey Dewdrops

Still on the Hill