“You can dance in a hurricane/But only if you stay in the eye.” That was a lyric from one of the songs Red Wing Roots Festival organizers Steel Wheels sang (with special guests) in their opening set. It was great hearing them, especially with some excited students, as a reintroduction to live music after the one-year-plus of COVID 19.
The festival launched in 2013, and it’s back bigger than ever. After it was over, Steel Wheels emailed, “What an amazing way to return to live music. You all, you who make up the Red Wing and Steel Wheels community, have kept us going through a long two years since we were last able to do this.”
There was pent-up demand. The festival was packed, with campers spread all over Natural Chimneys State Park in Augusta County, Virginia. One of the stages—there were five of them—was in fact right under the awesome chimneys.
The festival is awesomely programmed, and I heard a tremendous amount of good, new music. Here they are, in chronological order. Bill and the Belles I’ve written about extensively, and they were in fine form for two sets at Red Wing. They have a new album called Happy Again (an ironic title; it’s about a divorce—though it sounds upbeat) and songs that showcase their fascinating parade through the back pages of American music. Previous albums logged into Bing Crosby-style crooning, but this one has its ear on the girl groups of the 50s, among other things. We sat next to banjoist Aidan VanSuetendael’s parents—the first time they’d seen her with Bill and the Belles. Fiddle player Kalia Yeagle was also on fire, especially on “Johnson City Rag.”
My big find of the festival was the Chatham Rabbits, Sarah and Austin McCombie, a husband-and-wife duo from North Carolina. They perform original songs about the basic things in life, and get directly to the heart. They’re fine as a duo (Sarah tells funny stories, one about an elderly relative who didn’t like being told she couldn’t collect roadkill when she was over 100). But the two albums I’ve heard add some welcome elements. “My songs are about getting old or stressed out,” Sarah said. Yes, but more than that.
Anna Tivel and Adam Wolcott Smith.
Anna Tivel was wonderful to hear. I’d just gotten her very quiet album as a download. She’s a great lyricist (“…a fusebox sparking in the summer grass”), and she knows that’s not enough—the songs twist the hooks into your gut. At Red Wing, she was hugely aided by guitar support from one Adam Wolcott Smith, a Brooklynite. What he played had a metal edge and shouldn’t have worked—it could have been overwhelming, but instead it was hugely enhancing. His work created audioscapes that made it sound like there was an orchestra behind the curtain.
Tivel is out of the singer-songwriter tradition. Her songs tend to the mordant. “My sister, who knows me best, challenged me to write a love song where nobody dies,” she said.
I caught the tail end of David Wax Museum, also performing as a duo. They’re building a home stage with online funding—a great COVID solution, don’t you think? Hiss Golden Messenger seemed to be chasing the Dead, and why not—there’s a void there.
The one act I saw at the festival that didn’t ring any bells for me was a singer-songwriter named Erin Lunsford. Good singer, not good songs. Her cover of “A Case of You” was the highlight of the set.
Another artist I’ve raved about before is Miss Tess, and she was absolutely sparking at Red Wing with a super band led by Thomas Bryan Eaton on electric guitar and pedal steel. (The pair of them also just made an album called Parlor Sounds). Comparisons to Eilen Jewell and her band would not go amiss. The band channels the best of rockabilly and Americana. Eaton is an excellent guitarist (like Jewell’s Jerry Miller) and Miss Tess is handy on the instrument, too.
The Jacob Joliff Band played fast, virtuoso bluegrass. Joliff is ex-Yonder Mountain String Band, and I kept expecting them to get into the jam band thing, but they fortunately never did. A favorite instrumental was called “Large Garbage Barge.” On flashy guitar and singing a few numbers was “Stash” Wyslouch from Bruce Molsky’s Mountain Drifters band.
I only heard a bit of Sierra Ferrell (five stages, remember?) but she sounded super-competent and crowd-pleasing. The next Allison Krauss or Mary Chapin Carpenter? Her set was mobbed.
Another fond discovery at Red Wing: The Fernandez Sisters from Durham, North Carolina. All three of them are strong players and singers (on guitar, mandolin and fiddle). They’re still very young, but have been playing at Red Wing for years, and as a band since 2011.
Completely unexpected was a band featuring Cheik Hamala Diabaté from Mali on kora, guitar and banjo and Danny Nicely on mandolin (and occasional bass). He’s a first cousin of koramaster Toumani Diabate. The western players in the band have all absorbed the Mali tradition, but applied it to unusual material, such as the trad country tune “Little Satchel.” The guitarist was fabulous, and wouldn’t have been out of place with New York’s 75 Dollar Bill. Bass legend Mark Schatz was, well, on bass (except when he played the banjo).
I enjoyed a brothers act named LA Edwards. The lead brother, Californian Luke Andrew Edwards, has a compelling singing style and is a good songwriter, too. Sarah Jarosz was fine. Her best moments were covering a John Prine song in tribute to him, and essaying a very sweet “Little Satchel” (yes, the same songs the African guys did).
And finally, ending things on a high note for me, was the Tim O’Brien Band. Maybe he’s been cooped up for long, but he was like a horse out of a gate. O’Brien is one of our contemporary masters of old-time music, but he’s an excellent songwriter, too. Much of the material was from his great new album, He Walked On. All the players were standouts, so the band will hopefully stay together. Finally, let me say that the festival was extremely well organized, with water stations, food availability, a shade area, excellent sound, schedules that started on time, and well-coordinated ticketing and parking. There were plenty of volunteers to help out. I can’t think of one criticism, other than that the Hill Stage was, unfortunately, up a very long hill. Maybe only four stages next year? I will be back next year.