Each year, crowds attending the Roots, Blues, N BBQ Festival pour into a sprawling complex comprised of stages, food vendors, and lounge tents around Stephens Lake Park in Columbia, Missouri. The festival opens its doors annually for three days, Friday through Sunday, in late September. As its descriptive name suggests, the festival features performances by Roots and Blues artists. Examples of these genres include Alt-Country, Americana, Bluegrass, and Jazz. I attended this festival for two days this past September, and the following are my thoughts concerning my favorite performances.
On Saturday, I arrived just in time to see Son Volt, an Alt-Country act which rose to fame during the 1990s and came to be recognized as one of the central groups of their genre. Singer-songwriter Jay Farrar leads the band, who, before its formation, had co-founded the critically acclaimed act Uncle Tupelo with musician Jeff Tweedy. After the breakup of Uncle Tupelo due to creative differences between the two musicians, Jeff founded popular Alt-Country/Indie Rock outfit Wilco while Jay began Son Volt. Son Volt’s music evokes varied and profound imagery. Sometimes, rough guitar-driven melodies lay the foundation for lyrics describing alcoholism, despair, or in the case of “Drown,” a practical outlook on life. “If living right is easy, what goes wrong / You're causing it,” declares the chorus. Other times, lighter acoustic melodies back more optimistic lyrics in songs like “Windfall,” the band’s most famous track. “May the wind take your troubles away,” sings Jay Farrar while strumming a guitar. “Both feet on the floor, two hands on the wheel / May the wind take your troubles away.”
After the sun dipped below the broad oaks on the west side of the park, the warm and humid Saturday evening had cooled off by the time famed Alt-Country singer, songwriter, and producer Sturgill Simpson took the stage. A native of Jackson, Kentucky, Sturgill only decided to attempt to make a career of his musicianship about a decade ago. After releasing his first solo album in 2013 to positive reviews, he began to deviate from its more traditional country sound towards the sound which recently made him famous. His 2016 Album “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” won a Grammy for Best Country Album, and is defined by evocative, experimental electric guitar melodies and uniquely profound lyrics, which often focus on the existential. Although Sturgill’s lyrics have always been impressive and unconventional, his talents certainly extend farther than songwriting. Sturgill gave an outstanding performance Saturday night, accompanied by only a keyboardist and a drummer. The spotlight remained on him, and rightfully so because he awed the audience with his guitar-playing talent. Sturgill wasted little time talking to the audience, and the time he spent singing was far overshadowed by time spent on his exceptional guitar interludes, which he extended to unbelievable lengths compared to the album versions of his tracks. Moreover, his solos were never simple or repetitive; they were consistently complex and remarkable. Sturgill’s talents impressed all in the audience, especially the slightly intoxicated man in front of me who frequently turned around to express his appreciation for Sturgill’s talent. “Now that’s just stupid!” he often proclaimed animatedly during Sturgill’s guitar solos. Based on the context, these exclamations indicated strong satisfaction with Sturgill’s performance.
On Sunday afternoon, Americana singer/songwriter Amanda Shires came onstage to play a set filled almost entirely with tracks from her recently released genre-bending album To The Sunset. Shires was right in doing so because the new album has received widespread acclaim for several reasons. In To The Sunset, Shires displays her songwriting excellence, crafting beautiful tales and metaphors which capture the struggles of the working class, affecting perspectives on love and death, and alluding to challenges unique to women. For these reasons, I believe it insufficient to listen only to her live performance; one must listen closely to her lyrics on their own to fully grasp the meaning woven into her songs. However, Amanda did her best to skillfully translate her work into a live performance and charismatically overcame several technical issues. When difficulties forced her to stop playing, she cheerfully bantered with the audience while working out a misconfiguration with the drum set and exchanging her fiddle for one that functioned correctly.
Finally, as a crisp Sunday night descended on the venue, crowds gathered in anticipation of the final headlining performance: Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. As frontman and Missouri native Nathaniel Rateliff took the stage, he proudly displayed his local heritage with a shirt featuring an outline of the state. Nathaniel hails from Hermann, a small town on the Missouri River which lies a mere 50 miles from Columbia, and he expressed gratitude for playing so close to home. A band now renowned worldwide for their rhythmic and rootsy blend of rock music, The Night Sweats were only recently struggling to find fame outside of their headquarters in Denver, Colorado. In 2015, Nathaniel felt discouraged and considered ending his music career as the band struggled to complete and release its self-titled album. However, they were on the verge of experiencing an incredible stroke of luck thanks to talk show host Jimmy Fallon. After a friend of Fallon sent him a video clip of Rateliff performing “S.O.B” to a small crowd in Denver, an impressed Fallon quickly agreed to schedule the band to perform on The Tonight Show. In August 2015, Rateliff appeared on the show with the Night Sweats, passionately singing the lyrics to “S.O.B” while tap-dancing in front of the rest of the lively band. An astounded Fallon repeatedly praised the performance, calling for a standing ovation at its conclusion. This performance sent Rateliff hurtling into the spotlight in what Rolling Stone calls, “Maybe the most improbable breakout of this viral-pop-star decade: a white classic-soul band led by a burly middle-aged singer.” When Nathaniel and The Night Sweats took the stage in Columbia, however, their rise to fame never appeared improbable. Rateliff poured great energy and emotion into every song and encouraged the audience to participate as well. Despite an obvious lack of youth and athleticism, Rateliff danced across the stage and sang his heart out, giving the captivated audience a terrific performance. This performance brought a perfect ending to this year’s Roots, Blues, N BBQ festival, and I would recommend anyone with an interest in the music it features to attend in future years.