I didn’t initially realize that the Rosie Newton who played fiddle on old-time songs and originals with Richie Stearns was the same woman who played accordion and sang Cajun songs and played accordion with Rose and the Bros over on the dance stage. But that’s the way it went at the Rhythm & Roots festival 2021 at Ninigret Park in Charlestown, Rhode Island September 3-5—lots of mix and match. Roots musicians are very versatile. The festival this year admitted only fully vaccinated patrons and staff, a very smart choice.
I missed Friday, and Saturday started with a laid-back accordion workshop on the Roots Stage (my favorite), featuring ace Louisianans Steve Riley, Wilson Savoy, Jeffrey Broussard and Blake Miller. They talked about their challenged state, growing up in musical families, old-time musicians who influenced them (check out the great vocalist Ira “Iry” LeJeune), and varying styles. Riley (a genial host for the proceedings, on his first gig for 18 months) brought his 12 year old son, Burke, who already has a lot of the old man’s chops. And of course, they played, tunes like “Mulberry Waltz,” “Seychelle” and “Back of Town Two-Step.” You can find these musicians in the Pine Leaf Boys, the Revelers, and in Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.
A sublime panel brought together Dirk Powell—one of the greatest living exponents of old-time country—together with Richie Stearns, Powell’s daughter Amelia, and the two principals of Donna the Buffalo, Tara Nevins and Jeb Pruyear. It’s not well known that the latter two were heavily involved in old-time before Donna was formed in the Finger Lakes in 1989. Actually, both Stearns and Powell were in an early lineup, so it was a reunion of sorts. I’d never heard guitarist Puryear play fiddle before, and he sounded just fine.
“Breaking Up Christmas,” an old tune from North Carolina, was a standout, but so was “Sally Ann” and Stearns’ own “Chilly Winds.”
Stearns is an excellent songwriter, and his set with Newton as Richie and Rosie included a bunch of his compositions, including the lovely “Honeybee” and “I Will Be With You Always.” They mixed in nicely with traditional fare like “Waterbound,” “Say Darling Say,” “I’ve Endured” (Ola Belle Reed) and “Been All Around This World.” Newton is a first-rate vocalist and fiddler, and Stearns forceful on his main instrument, banjo.
There’s always good zydeco and cajun at Rhythm & Roots, especially in the Dance Tent. I would put the Revelers and Rose and the Bros on the same basic platform—great bands to dance to, superb at the local VFW hall. You can listen also. The Revelers’ top number was “If You Ain’t Got Love”—that should be their single. Hitbound, but only in an era with charts not dominated by hip hop and R&B. Rose surprised me by singing John Martyn “Don’t Want to Know About Evil.” Odd that’s the only song of his anyone else sings—he’s got lots of other good ones.
Newton has many facets. At one point there was a lovely piece by three unaccompanied fiddles, and then the band joined in to create an indelible rave-up.
I’m sorry to have missed Veronica Lewis, a blues shouter and rockin’ pianist who’s all of 17. I’m listening to her album You Ain’t Unlucky right now, and it’s great jump blues stuff—from long before she was born. Fats Domino would approve.
Christine Ohlman, a beehived chanteuse from the New Haven, Connecticut area who got lost on the way to the B52s audition, mines some of the same territory. But on the Roots Stage, with Rebel Montez and the Sin Sisters singing backup, she was all about gospel—with swampy Tony Joe White/Creedence backup. This was a big old revue, with eight pieces on stage. Ohlman has a lot of voice and a large personality suited for “Wade in the Water,” “People Get Ready” and “The Devil Don’t Bother Me.”
I heard a little bit of Ward Hayden and the Outliers, a four-piece classic country band with a leader who looked like he’d just stepped off a FedEx truck. “I Just Can’t Live Like That Anymore” was fine country swing. One song was dedicated to the first two seasons of Twin Peaks, in which Hayden was immersed during the lockdown.
I’ve written extensively about Richard Thompson so no need to go on here, but he was fine with just his guitar and a backup singer. A bunch of new songs that haven’t sunk in yet. No one plays guitar like Thompson, Celtic influenced by every other style in the world. I still swear that “Beeswing” is about the great lost light Anne Briggs, but Thompson claims he met her only twice and both times she was passed-out drunk. Neither Thompson, in his early 70s, nor his guitar playing show much wear.
And then, just before the rain, Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi. I heard Giddens earlier in the day during another workshop with Dirk Powell et al, and she was in amiable form. But with Turrisi it was on another level. She’s been locked down in Ireland for 18 months, and is busting out of the gates.
Most of the material that night will be familiar to owners of their album together, There Is No Other. But it was all that much better live. Turrisi barely made it into America, but Rhythm & Roots was profoundly glad he did. And Giddens is one of our true American treasures, fully deserving of every accolade she’s gotten.