CHARLESTON, RHODE ISLAND—The Rhythm & Roots Festival, in Ninigret Park here, marks the end of the summer for me. That and the CT Folk event, about which more later.
Rhythm & Roots has a lovely location, a park complete with playground, a swimming hole (actively in use throughout the event) and acres of elbow room.
Rhythm & Roots, my friend Pete remarked, has a very particular focus. That focus is on zydeco (mostly the French kind), blues and rootsy rock. Sometimes those categories get mixed up, as in the first group I encountered on August 31, Erin and the Swingers from Boston. My notes suggest a mash-up—Janis Joplin meeting Cream, circa 1968. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If the river was whiskey, and she was a diving duck…well, you know the rest. I liked her horn player.
Groups like Erin’s, with repertoires including barn burners and slow shuffles, may not be innovative but they’re sure entertaining. But if she’s going to sing a John Prine song, does it have to be “Angel From Montgomery”? Everybody and his sister have taken that one around the block. How about another song from that golden first album, “Paradise,” maybe?
A big attraction for me was seeing Hat Fitz and Cara again. I first encountered their music in a Dublin, Ireland Oxfam shop, figuring that a group with a name like that had to be good. And they are! Fitzie is from Australia—the Outback from the look of him—and Cara is Irish. The basic sound is blues, but boy do they do interesting things with it.
Fitzie holds the distinction of a record 18 straight appearances at Byron’s East Coast Blues and Roots Festival in Australia. He’s a gruff-voiced singer really fiery guitar player and a mean man with a slide, earning the right to play a National Steel Guitar.
Cara Robinson belts out blues like an Anglo Bonnie Raitt, is a wonderful songwriter (they both are), and bashes the drums with authority (doubling on tin whistle). Together, they’re genuinely exciting. I saw them three times at this year’s festival. It’s their second appearance at R&R, and it’s always touch and go as to whether they can get visas.
In one of Fitz’s songs, he takes the viewpoint of the Woman Before Cara, who complained about the pre-war music on his scratchy Son House records. Luckily, Cara has no such qualms, because a Memphis Minnie record is cued on the turntable in a photo I’ve seen of their Australian home.
“Power” is genuinely powerful, and Cara’s gospel-inflected vocal memorable. New song “Hold On” was a balm for our times. And I love their version of “Prodigal Son.” The Rolling Stones claimed to have written it, but the real author—as these bluesologists pointed out—is the very Reverend Robert Wilkins.
If you can’t see this group live (going to the Nimbin Roots Festival in New South Wales?), and sightings in the U.S. are rare, check out their recordings. Here’s a video of “Hold On”:
Also just fine was Della Mae, an all-woman Americana outfit I’ve seen a few times. They have the songs and the vocalists. One song seemed to be channeling Merle Haggard’s “Working Man’s Blues.” They do very well by old-timey tunes, including “I’m Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open.” The group didn’t totally knock me out this time, but I like them.
They like their zydeco at Rhythm & Roots, and also respect older styles. I saw only a bit of Michael Doucet (who sings in French), but caught a whole set from Ed Poullard, Preston Frank and Jeffrey Broussard. This was classic, sit-down front porch Cajun music with twin fiddles and an accordion, and it was lovely.
Also hugely enjoyable was The Lustre Kings, classic rockabilly and the kind of road band that you might be lucky enough to catch at a club near you. Front man Mark Gamsjager sings plays his Gretsch with authority, and comes off like a genial, white version of Fats Domino.
And then there was the finale (for me), a wonderful set shared by Dustbowl Revival and Hot Club of Cowtown of Band music. Their approaches were different—Dustbowl is an Americana group (with horns) and Hot Club comes out of Django and jazz. But both groups made me realize the sturdiness of Robbie Robertson’s (and Dylan’s) material for this band (Band!). This was the last night of the two groups’ tour, and I was glad to see it.
Last week I went down to New Haven for the CT Folk Festival, which really is the last outdoor thing I’ll see this year. I regretted missing Jim Allyn, because I love his music and had him on my WPKN radio show—and he was playing with ace banjo hand Dick Neal.
But I did get there in time to see Birds of Chicago and Donna the Buffalo, as well as spending some time with my WPKN friends in the new station tent.
I had heard of Birds of Chicago, but live they were a revelation. I’m planning on hosting them on WPKN soon. The band is Allison Russell and JT Nero, husband and wife, augmented in New Haven by a really, really good guitar player whose name I didn’t get. I’ll amend this when I do get it. They both write, and Russell—who you may have heard on the Songs of Our Native Daughters album with Rhiannon Giddens and Amythyst Kiah—is a strong singer who also plays banjo and clarinet.
Their songs are hushed, gorgeous and totally human. The music was complemented by lovely and sincere commentary about having to leave their daughter home for the first time. A more charming experience I haven’t had in a while. And I wish I knew the name of that guitarist—he’s the best I’ve heard since Jerry Miller in the Eilen Jewell band. Everything he played was perfect, and in service to the song. Like Miller, he has complete command of American music, from the Carter Family and the Skillet Lickers forward.
Donna was totally great, but I’ve written about them so much I’ll keep it short here. The version of “Ring of Fire” was new to me, though. If you want to like jam band music, but don’t actually like the bands (my situation) check out Donna the Buffalo.