September 8, 2012 by diningandevents
The Rhythm & Roots Festival was held on Labor Day weekend at Ninigret Park, in Charlestown, Rhode Island. This annual music festival also features dancing and Cajun and zydeco dance instruction, crafts and food.
Magnolia Cajun Band, featuring Alan Bradbury on accordion and Michelle Kaminsky on fiddle, performed on the dance stage during the Cajun dance instruction: http://magnoliacajunband.homestead.com
Mrs. Kaminsky also runs the Cajun Academy for Kids, a music workshop at the festival, and in years past has taught Cajun dancing at the festival. Besides the Cajun and zydeco dance lessons, there was dancing to live music all day at the dance stage. There was another informal dance tent with a view of the “festival stage,” or main stage. I always find it helpful to attend both the Cajun and zydeco dance lessons, in order to feel (almost) comfortable enough to participate in some of the dancing throughout the day. This annual refresher course is particularly helpful to me because I don’t usually dance to formal steps except at this event. Due to the tight schedule, I was only able to participate in the zydeco dance workshop this year. Luckily, I was loitering at the main stage’s dance tent to get some shade when a gregarious woman asked me to cut the rug. One tune we danced to required the Cajun step that I was mostly ignorant of, but my partner was once a Cajun dance instructor.
Mr. Bradbury is also a member of Planet Zydeco, who performed for the zydeco dance instruction, but this time the versatile artist played electric bass: http://planetzydeco.tripod.com. Planet Zydeco sounded great instrumentally, but I was not inspired by the vocals. I find that zydeco bands with at least some members of Creole heritage sound more authentic.
In addition, Alan plays the accordion in the band behind The Ladies of the Rolling Pin, a morris dance troupe who performs in the area, but did not appear at this festival: http://www.ladies-of-the-rolling-pin.org.
Since I found myself watching the dancers more than actually participating, I noticed that several men danced with many different partners. I recognized some of these gentlemen from previous Rhythm & Roots Festivals, in addition to other music festivals. I realized that they spend most of the day on the dance floor, dancing with many, many different women. I must confess, dear reader, that I felt slightly envious of their easy confidence. Since there is camping available on site, I can only imagine that periodically a dance partner could find herself invited into a tent for a discreet tryst.
The Hot Tamale Brass Band, a New Orleans style brass marching band, paraded throughout the grounds all day, particularly near the food court: http://www.hottamalebrassband.com. I have to admit, I’m sorry I only heard them from a distance, because I had a handkerchief to wave in a second line.
David Greely, a fiddler extraordinaire and composer who was formerly a member of The Mamou Playboys, performed on the “heritage stage,” usually known as the workshop tent: http://davidgreely.com. Mr. Greely now has a solo career, but is also a member of Golden Triangle. David has also performed as one half of the Greely Savoy Duo, as well as in GumboJet. I own Mr. Greely’s solo album, and it is both haunting and moving. This performance was billed as a fiddle workshop, and included:
Kevin Wimmer, who has recently been filling Mr. Greely’s rather large shoes in The Mamou Playboys. The Mamou Playboys are always at this festival, but were unable to attend on Saturday, due to the birth of bandleader Steve Riley’s child: http://mamouplayboys.com. Congratulations to Mr. and Mrs. Riley! I believe that the Playboys may have shown up on the following day.
Dennis Stroughmatt of Creole Stomp, whose band I missed when they performed on another stage: http://www.creolestomp.com/creolestomp.com
Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops: http://www.carolinachocolatedrops.com. She seemed reluctant to improvise in collaboration with the other musicians; indeed, Ms. Giddens admitted that she considers herself to be a singer who happens to play fiddle. However, when Rhiannon finally felt comfortable, she jammed with the best of them, mostly on vocals. Ms. Giddens even added words to an instrumental song that the impromptu group composed ad hoc. These were probably traditional lyrics that she had used with her usual band before, but they happened to fit within the structure of the song and worked swimmingly. Rhiannon also demonstrated her delightful retro/ manic fiddle technique. Carolina Chocolate Drops also performed on the festival stage, which is covered further on.
Courtney Granger of Pine Leaf Boys, who also performed on the main stage, described later: http://www.pineleafboys.com
Rushad Eggleston on cello, the only musician without a violin in the fiddle workshop. He also appeared on Sunday with his band Tornado Rider, which I missed. Previously I had only seen Mr. Eggleston in the band Crooked Still, first at The Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island, many years ago, and later at The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, New York as well as at The Paramount Theater in Peekskill, New York. Crooked Still can loosely be described as a bluegrass and folk music band, and Rushad’s virtuosic cello had been an unusual but amazing addition to such a group. At the time, Crooked Still had no violinist, although Ruth Ungar, formerly of The Mammals and Sometimes Why, now of Mike & Ruthy, used to sit in periodically. Therefore, Rushad’s role on cello was similar to a lead fiddle, but so much more. I assume that his unbridled creativity and experimentation led to his search for greener pastures, and his departure from Crooked Still needed to be remedied by recruiting both a new cellist and a new fiddler. His current project, Tornado Rider, finds Rushad on electric cello, and sounds a little bit like Primus to my ears, based on the tracks available on their website, perhaps only because besides electric cello, the rest of the band consists only of electric bass and drums. I’m sure my comparison is naive and I will revise my narrow assessment when I hope to see Tornado Rider live. After all, this more than many other bands does not deserve to be categorized: http://tornadoriderband.com
The fiddlers were showcased alternately as soloists, in ensemble, and in group improvisation, in an entirely unstructured performance. The effect was totally inspiring, and it was the highlight of the entire festival for me. The “chamber” concerts in the workshop tent are always my favorite, not only because the playlist is impromptu and often results in a jam session, but also because there isn’t a bad seat in the house. You can get very close to the stage if you arrive early, or if you just stay put between sessions. Indeed, the quality of all of the workshops that I witnessed was such that one could have spent the whole day in this tent.
Another intimate performance in the workshop tent was Golden Triangle, which consists of David Greely, Johnny Nicholas and Sam Broussard: http://goldentriangleswampblues.com
David Greely’s resume is detailed above.
Johnny Nicholas, a vocalist, guitarist, banjoist, and harmonicist, is also in Hell Bent, who appeared on the main stage, but I was unable to catch their performance: http://johnnynicholasblues.com. He has performed at The Knickerbocker Café in Westerly, Rhode Island, which is a restaurant/ dance hall/ music venue: http://theknickerbockercafe.com. I have not had the opportunity to check it out but the music schedule looks good. Sarah and the Tall Boys are scheduled in December, so maybe other artists that appeared at Rhythm & Roots will eventually show up at The Knickerbocker Café. Another gig not to miss at The Knickerbocker will be Shemekia Copeland in October.
Sam Broussard is a member of The Mamou Playboys and was featured in Golden Triangle on electric guitar and high harmony. I especially liked the many different effects he accomplished with the pedals for the electric guitar.
I preferred the tune that Golden Triangle performed instrumentally, led by Mr. Greely. This seemed more folky, mysterious, and in the spirit of the rest of the festival.
Golden Triangle’s style was mostly blues, and I had the feeling that this was Mr. Nicholas’ predilection. Blues is not what I usually listen to, but the expert tailoring of this style by veteran performers and composers, along with the eclectic arrangement of instruments, made it fascinating and enthralling.
I caught Sarah & the Tall Boys at the workshop tent, although they also appeared on the main stage: http://sarahandthetallboys.com. They sounded to me similar to The Allman Brothers, or The Tedeschi Trucks band, and the lead vocals were certainly as strong as Susan Tedeschi.
The steel guitar workshop featured a pedal steel, lap steel, and an acoustic guitar with a hollow steel body, not a dobro, but which is held like the usual acoustic guitar, and is played with a glass slide on one finger. This last guitar was held by Johnny Nicholas, who was also mentioned above. The steel guitars were filled out by a full band, consisting of two conventional guitars, drums, and a violin. The fiddler was Kevin Wimmer, as mentioned in another set above. Johnny Morrocco on drums, Scrappy Jud Newcomb on baritone guitar and Cindy Cashdollar on lap steel are all members of Johnny Nicholas’ band Hell Bent. As is consistent with the steel guitar sound, most of this workshop was western swing.
The Pine Leaf Boys, who were the host band, appeared on the festival stage and are an annual mainstay of these types of events. They cover Cajun and zydeco favorites but don’t restrict themselves to a specific genre. They were delightful, energetic, and provided more than enough lively material for the adjacent dance tent.
I first saw Carolina Chocolate Drops at The Newport Folk Festival several years ago, and was blown away. They are an African-American old-time string band in the Piedmont regional tradition. This style originally specialized in dance music, and some of their songs include lyrics that are actually square dance or contra dance calls. Carolina Chocolate Drops are much more than this, however, having translated that traditional music style into contemporary sensibilities and influences. These contemporary influences can best be exemplified by their cover of “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” a hip-hop song stripped down by the Drops with simply lush vocals, fiddle and percussion. On second thought, the percussion may have only been hand claps or a human beat box. Besides the exquisite, intricate and fast instrumental virtuosity, the band demonstrated soulful vocals, especially lead singer, fiddler and banjoist, Rhiannon Giddens. The band has three or four albums already, all of which were available in the merchandise tent, including one on vinyl.
Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band were the headliners for Saturday evening. Mr. Laurie was the star of the long-running television show “House” but has now devoted himself to his love of music, particularly blues, New Orleans style jazz and what could be described as boogie-woogie or big beat: http://www.hughlaurieblues.com. He is certainly an accomplished pianist, the band was stellar and his amusing banter was a crowd pleaser. After all, prior to his stint on American TV, he was a comedian. However, his vocal style sounded somewhat forced or artificial, but the strength and quality of his voice was good. Perhaps with more experience or training he can develop a more natural singing style, because his enthusiasm and instrumental talent are above reproach. I would look forward to seeing him grow as a professional musician. I imagine he has an extensive collection of old LP’s and is a true connoisseur of the genre. The aforementioned traits, his obvious talent, and his passion all made his presence on stage legitimate.
Since I only attended the event on one of the three days it was held, or because I had to make difficult decisions between two or three equally interesting but simultaneous performances, I missed some artists that I would have enjoyed:
Nanci Griffith: http://www.nancigriffith.com
Donna the Buffalo, something like a cross between zydeco and a jam band, whom I enjoyed at several Rhythm & Roots Festivals in the past: http://www.donnathebuffalo.com
David Bromberg, whom I heard at Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival in Croton-on-Hudson, New York this year: http://www.davidbromberg.net
I was also unable to catch the zydeco dance music of Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie, whom I saw at this festival several years ago, and whose album I purchased at the time because of that exciting performance: http://www.myspace.com/genodelafosefrb
I find that all music festivals have an embarrassment of riches, and there are so many talented musicians performing on different stages simultaneously that it is impossible to hear everything. I suppose that is a good thing, and possibly by design because there is something for almost everyone’s taste and never a dull moment.
The festival included many food vendors. I had clam cakes, a Rhode Island specialty that I have developed a weakness for, which is a lump of deep-fried batter containing chopped clams. They are definitely unhealthy, and more than I should have finished. The clam cakes did not comprise a balanced lunch, but were a good pairing with the Red Hook beer that was available. In addition, I sampled a dolma, or stuffed grape leaf, from another vendor, who also offered falafel. In the cornucopia of international food options was such fare as:
“Karma cakes,” similar to the clam cakes described above but in addition to clams contained lobster, scallops and shrimp.
Gourmet sandwiches and quesadillas
I believe that boiled crayfish and etouffe are usually available.
Hot dogs, etc…
The crafts are an attraction unto themselves. There was a tent full of Indonesian or Thai garments that seems to make the rounds of all the music festivals in the Northeast every summer. Another booth contained handmade banjos, Appalachian or mountain dulcimers and Irish harps, all with cardboard resonating chambers. Yet another vendor offered a variety of stones, each with a description of their metaphysical or healing properties. Under a fourth tent one could have a temporary henna “tattoo” applied. Of course there was a dearth of jewelry available at several booths. One standout among the crafts was a purveyor of men’s rugged-looking canvas kilts, whose nontraditional styling was inspired by cargo shorts. I noticed more than one gentleman sporting this brave fashion, especially under the dance tent, though I have never been tempted to try on a kilt. At the very least, it would require combat boots to pull off the look.
The venue itself was perfect. Ninigret Park is beautiful, with plenty of room. It has a pond which many took advantage of to cool down. Next year I will wear my bathing trunks. The park even extends to a tidal salt pond that is connected to the ocean. I have wondered if it would be possible to kayak along the coast to the festival and enter for free. Of course, I have too much respect for the artists and organizers to cheat them.
Some of the more memorable musicians featured at The Rhythm & Roots Festival in years past have been Los Lobos, Keb’ Mo’, Cedric Watson, Marcia Ball, and Curley Taylor and Zydeco Trouble.
To plan on attending next year’s event, or to see more photographs of this year’s festival, below is the website:
Although The Rhythm & Roots Festival has a smattering of blues, rock, rockabilly, western swing, bluegrass and folk, the majority of the music represented is Cajun, zydeco, or influenced by these two styles. This seems to be pervasive at several venues in Rhode Island. Perhaps the reason was the popular response to Dewey Balfa’s Cajun music at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, which motivated him to form The Balfa Brothers band the following year. Indeed, several of the musicians mentioned Mr. Balfa as their inspiration. Another remote possibility is that the migration from Canada to Louisiana of the people who became the Cajuns made a brief stop in Rhode Island along the way, with a small percentage of the travelers settling in the area, or at least influencing the musical culture.
The organizers of the event, Lagniappe Productions, also host an annual Mardi Gras Ball at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet in Cranston, Rhode Island (http://www.mardigrasri.com/festivals-shows/mardi-gras-ball/), which is not actually held on the official day of Mardi Gras, and the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, in Oak Hill, New York: http://greyfoxbluegrass.com
Some of the bands that consistently appear at these events periodically perform at The Towers in Narragansett, Rhode Island: http://www.thetowersri.com
I hope to see you at next year’s Rhythm & Roots Festival! Laissez les bon temps rouler!