Rhythm & Roots is Back!

CHARLESTOWN, RHODE ISLAND—For a while, it looked like the illness of founding producer Chuck Wentworth was going to kill the much-loved Rhythm & Roots Festival in Rhode Island forever. Wentworth started the festival in 1998, and I’ve been attending since my kids were tiny.

Fortunately at the last minute Tyler Grill and GoodWorks Entertainment swooped in like Mighty Mouse to save the day. Grill, who started out booking big mainstream artists like Alicia Keys and 50 Cent, got into the Americana business in my home town of Fairfield, Connecticut, saving another institution in need—the Fairfield Theatre Company. The company also books shows at the Infinity Theaters in Hartford and Norfolk, Connecticut.

I interviewed Grill on WPKN before the festival, and asked what was changed from the Wentworth era. “Nothing,” he said, and that proved to be true. The setting, down to the precise placement of the banners and tents, was exactly the same as always. And the music mostly followed suit.

Rosie Newton and Paul Martin up front with Rose and the Bros. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The highlight for me wasn’t a headliner—it was Rose and Bros from Ithaca, New York, first encountered last year at Rhythm and Roots. Rose Newton, also half of the folk duo Richie (Stearns) And Rosie, is a musical force. She plays accordion and fiddle with equal assurance, and also sings beautifully—mostly cover songs and originals by her life and bandmate, Paul Martin (who’s also a farmer, owner of Sweet Land Farm in Trumansburg, New York (near Ithaca).

There’s an Ithaca sound, I think. It’s a relentless folk/cajun-inflected boogie groove. Accordions and fiddles and guitars in the front line. Ithaca-based Donna the Buffalo—who’ve had that sound for decades, and have built an audience through being great and relentless touring—were also at Rhythm and Roots, playing not once but twice.

Rose gets the groove going on accordion, Greg Evans kicks in on drums and Angelo Peters on bass, backed by Sally Freund on rubboard and triangle. Martin sings some, Newton sings some, and then they have these furious instrumental rave-ups—sometimes on twin fiddles. Steve Selin is the regular fiddle player, but with Newton doubling it’s an angelic noise.

Donna the Buffalo in full cry at Rhythm and Roots. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Donna was equally inspired in Rhode Island, honed on the road and with a lot of fine new songs to showcase. I’m sure they’ll show up on records soon. Tara Nevins—like Newton—often drives the band with her unusual electric fiddle or accordion. The last few times I’ve seen them, an extended fiddle solo—the Mahavishnu Orchestra meets Vassar Clements—was a real crowd pleaser. Nevins and guitarist Jeb Puryear come out of old-time music, and its’ spirit is alive in their music—no matter how hard-driving it gets. I’d love to see the Buffalo and the Bros touring together. ‘’

Here’s Rose and Bros on “I Must Be in a Good Place Now”:

And here’s Rose and the Bros doing Michael Hurley’s “Blue Driver,” an old one:

Cajun and zydeco music are king at Rhythm and Roots, centered on the dance stage. Cedric Watson, an erudite Cajun accordion and fiddle player, led his band Bijou Creole. Watson is a veteran of Dexter Ardoin and the Creole Ramblers and Jeffrey Broussard and the Creole Cowboys, as well as another ubiquitous act at Rhythm and Roots, the Pine Leaf Boys. The songs ranged from antique Cajun songs from the earliest days of recording in the 1920s to “I’ve Got a Rag on Top of My Head” (he did, too) and “Lazy John.”

The versatile Cedric Watson knows his Cajun music history. (Jim Motavalli photo)

From a fiddle workshop with Watson and Pine Leaf Boy Chris Segura, I learned that when the accordion came into Cajun music it’s more basic abilities changed the sound forever—in some cases simplifying it. C and D accordions made it into Cajun music by 1925, just as the music was first being recorded.

This is critical: “The Cajun Dennis McGee and the Creole Amedé Ardoin traveled together to New Orleans, recording together in 1929 and 1930, and in San Antonio, Texas, in 1934. ”Ardoin [accordion] was Black, McGee [fiddle] white—a highly significant meeting in that time and place.

The Pine Leaf Boys are another Louisiana-based band with great respect for the music’s traditions. Headed by multi-instrumentalist Wilson Savoy (son of famous Cajun accordionist Marc Savoy), the Pine Leaf Boys are inheritors of the tradition laid down by Ardoin and Iry Lejeune, among others. But there’s nothing academic about ‘em—a good time band.

The Sweet Willy Band, with Wilson Savoy on piano. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Savoy, in his capacity as Sweet Willy Allen, also led a swinging big band on piano, performing old rock, rockabilly and R&B classics. It was a first-time thing, he said, but they sure sounded rehearsed in a program that embraced Jerry Lee Lewis (a Savoy fave), Ray Charles, Hank Williams and Bob Wills. Scott Newman was a standout on the tenor sax.

And speaking of musical blends, Los Texmaniacs managed to fuse the Sir Douglas Quintet with Los Lobos for a rocking time at the Texas-Mexico border. Songs in Spanish or English, it didn’t matter to them.

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas all the way from New Orleans. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And don’t let me forget Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas, who’ve I’ve seen both in Rhode Island and in their native New Orleans. Nathan is a great front man and accordion player, which is best demonstrated on video here:

Bands that didn’t click with me for various reasons included Grace Potter, Willie J. Laws Band, the Superchief Trio, the Honey Island Swamp Band and the New Orleans Suspects. Sometimes too many ingredients don’t add up to successful stew.

So all in all it was a great time in Rhode Island, and I’m very grateful that this festival lives on.

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