Rhythm & Roots Showcases Evolution of Traditional Music in Rollicking Three-Day Festival

The Mavericks, Son Volt and Railroad Earth Rock Ninigret Park, The Travelin’ McCourys Innovate, Collaborations Put New Spin on Jerry Garcia, The Band and Every Musical Genre

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. –– If any proof is needed that traditional roots music never stands still, look to the artists who brought thousands of fans to their feet during the 22nd annual Rhythm & Roots festival over Labor Day weekend.

Thirty bands on four stages at Ninigret Park performed Americana, bluegrass, country, Zydeco, Cajun, blues, swing and more Friday through Sunday, startling some longtime festival-goers with just how much styles can change while paying homage to musical pioneers at the same time.

“It was a fantastic weekend,” says festival producer Chuck Wentworth. “Musicians love Rhythm & Roots for the chance to mix it up with other bands that inspire them, and the fans benefit too.”

Take The Travelin’ McCourys as just one example of transformation. Brothers Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo), who since the 1980s have played with their father, the legendary, 80-year-old Del McCoury, are stretching the definition of bluegrass. “This was a little different because with Del, it’s traditional bluegrass,” said blown-away fan Bill Saunders after Friday’s set. “He has a great, great Kentucky bluegrass voice and it’s a little more country than what we heard today. This was a little more ‘jammy,’ and they really took off a lot.” Jeff Lewis of New Orleans said the McCourys, transitioning from playing some 200 concerts with their father to a new musical iteration, was a festival highlight that he summed up in one word – astonishing.

The festival’s gumbo of musicians brought an electric energy to Rhythm & Roots, with Dustbowl Revival and Hot Club of Cowtown joining forces to honor the music of The Band, while Peter Rowan and Free Mexican Airforce with Los Texmaniacs brought together three musical styles. Bandmates from the past reunited, and new connections were made. More than one band called on blues guitarist Johnny Nicholas’ skills over the three-day festival, and Sarah Potenza, the much-loved Rhode Island native and blues belter, joined vocalist Christine Ohlman and Rebel Montez for their own gospel version of Sunday school in the intimate Roots tent.

Joe Craven & the Sometimers and Railroad Earth brought a new twist to the music of Jerry Garcia and the lyrics of John Denver, respectively. The Mavericks – theatrical, danceable and unafraid to blend musical styles – rocked the crowd Saturday night. Other fan favorites were string band Della Mae, Hat Fitz & Cara, the Australian duo and married couple that sparked raves at their last R&R visit, and folk, blues and political protest musicians Son Volt.

The performance Friday by R&R first-timer Victor Wainwright and the Train showed that all the buzz about his boogie-woogie contemporary blues style is well deserved. Veronica Lewis, also a boogie-woogie piano player who felt the love of the audience earlier in the day, is just 16 and calls Wainwright and Marcia Ball, another popular festival performer, her idols. Ball entertained with her foot-tapping piano on the main Rhythm stage Sunday, and dedicated another session, in the smaller Roots tent, to the songs and memories of her friend Mac Rebennack, who died in June. Better known as Dr. John, the piano player and songwriter somehow managed to embody the entirety of New Orleans’ sounds during his career, Ball said.

Budding musicians attending the Rhythm & Roots Youth Music Camp also performed Sunday to a crowd of cell phone-wielding parents chronicling the concert in the Dance tent. “This is a thrill for them to try out some new tunes and perform for a crowd of people who are excited to hear them,” said Margaret Groarke, mother to teen guitar player Devin Moss, who’s attended the camp for about seven years. Groarke, a Bronx resident and Manhattan College professor, says she is a “fabulous fan” of Sarah Potenza and the family has become fascinated with other artists they’ve learned about at Rhythm & Roots.

Andrea Barrus, a retired Charlestown teacher and WRIU DJ, has become a major enthusiast of Rhythm & Roots over the last five or six years, and sees live music as much as she can to inform her radio show, A Sip of Indie. “I’ve been to a lot of festivals – I go to New Orleans a couple times a year and all of that – but what I love about this place is it’s very family-friendly.” She dances with the children in the Family tent and always checks out the storytelling of Narragansett tribal member Thawn Harris, a former student.

For Jay Moussi, who traveled from Cape Cod and visits three or four music festivals a year, a main attraction to R&R this year was Louisiana Delta-inspired Roddie Romero & the Hub City All-Stars, but he enjoys the Roots tent workshops, which this year featured artists-in-residence Nicholas, fiddler David Greely, and Creole musicians Ed Poullard on fiddle and Preston Frank on accordion.

Another music lover, Kathy Murphy, was born in San Antonio, spends summers in Maine and – no lie – actually lives next door to Marcia Ball’s son in Austin the rest of the year. Seeing R&R T-shirts on bluegrass fans at a recent festival in western Massachusetts, she asked around, did her research and drove south to attend Rhythm & Roots for the first time. “I do this because of the music, and honestly, to get a little Zydeco in New England might not be the easiest thing in the world, so I’m psyched. As they say in New England, I’m wicked psyched.”

Another relative newcomer to Rhythm & Roots, Tom Larose, volunteered on the trash and recycling crew last year and was happy to do so again. He’s no stranger to festivals, though, as he attends 20 per year, traveling up and down the East Coast in his Toyota Sienna minivan. A self-described “jam band” guy and former Deadhead, Larose’s highlights were the acoustic jams of Railroad Earth, the “sweet” Hot Club of Cowtown and their collaboration with Dustbowl Revival on the music of The Band. (A big fan of The Band, Larose saw them perform at their Last Waltz tour at the Boston Garden in 1976.) He also loves to dance. “It’s crazy here,” Larose said. “Everyone’s dancing! I need to pick up my steps!”

Newcomers and festival veterans say Rhythm & Roots, produced by the Wentworth family alone, has something special. The vibe, described by one college student as “very chill and lively at the same time” attracts those who love roots music but not the corporate approach, lousy food, hassle and jam-packed venues of other festivals. “We like this one a lot,” said Kaye Lewis, a former Connecticut resident who now lives in New Orleans with her husband. “It’s low-key, the food is good and it’s very relaxed. We love that part of it. The Jazz Fest in New Orleans is 100,000 people on any given day – literally – and it can get scary.”

Festival-goers can get close to the most popular bands here, and the nearly 5,000 square feet of dance floor draws dancers from all over the country and beyond. Merrill Mazzella of Niantic, Conn., a Zydeco dancing enthusiast, loves the beauty of Ninigret Park, the ocean breeze, and of course, the mix of music. “There’s always so many good bands, it’s like you’re a kid in a candy store, you just want a little of everything.”

As these fans can tell you, it’s not too early to plan for the next Rhythm & Roots Festival, Sept. 4-6, 2020. See you there!