Surrounded by mountains, the green fields were striped with lawn chairs set up upon blue tarps. Children chased after a huge beach ball filled with glow-sticks and grown ups indulged in wine and cheese tastings brought by local wineries. This was the Roots and Blues Festival in Salmon Arm, British Columbia.
While there were the young folks clinging on to each other and staggering around the grounds in comical not-meaning to be matching outfits selected from this year’s festival fashion look book, they were not the majority. Ironically enough the majority wore volunteer t-shirts in blue and black as thousands of volunteers construct the festival ever year. A fact delightfully pointed out and emphasized by all the wonderfully grey-haired MCs who came on before and after every band on every stage. Refreshing is the word.
A festival where no one elbows to make it to the front, people sit and I never saw any pushing or angry glares as never-ending trains of friends attempt to wind through a sardine can of an audience. Where internationally big names and big names don’t perform with fancy lights and dominating visuals, just big boisterous bands and big names in the blues, folk and rock n’ roll genres play in some dancing stage lights.
On Friday, The Strumbellas brought the loveliness by sauntering on stage as a mix of a gypsy, a hipster and some rockers. Simon Ward, the lead singer and guitarist, a shaggy haired gypsy in a big felt leather hat and torn flannels played off the potential practicing comedian of Dave Ritter. He played the keyboard and who wore a black hat emblazoned with DAVE and a navy shirt with his own face on it surrounded by the words: “Straight outta Toronto” complete with the very same thick black framed glasses on his face throughout the performance. The gypsy and hipster paired up together for a descriptively bizarre rap duo that was pretty unintelligible, but nonetheless fantastic with both men spitting like they grew up listening to Busta Rhymes.
Apart from that brief dalliance in rap, the rest of The Strumbella crew was made up by a violinist, bassist, drummer and guitarist who invigorated the audience with positive folk music. At one point, the band transformed into fourth grade teachers and began a round with the song Sailing. Dave lead all the women in singing: “I will wait, I will wait by the fire” and Simon lead all the men in singing: “When I’m sailing”. Just as the band took on the slow conducting arms of teachers in an assembly, the crowd remembered their childhood and the round was executed perfectly.
The Strumbellas continually did what few bands at Roots and Blues did and diversified their set list. Falling into the pop-folk category that Mumford and Sons made so popular, their performance is worth so many words because their songs shifted symbiotically without relying on the same formula.
Fortunately the lack of diverse songs in a band or musician’s repertoire only became tiring on Sunday. After The Strumbellas ended their set, we traversed over to Mavis Staples.
Now for those of you reading that don’t recognize the name Mavis Staples, don’t assume she’s an upcoming act. She has been performing for six decades and has won a Grammy lifetime achievement award. She alone is a sight to behold, but add in two back-up singers, an amazing bassist, drummer and guitarist and you end up with a vision that takes your breath away. A rendition of “Take a Load off Fanny” was performed that so quickly became a sing-a-long loud enough for Miss Staples to comment upon. Staples also embodied one of the best things about Roots and Blues Festival: conversational artists.
Some musicians seem to just run through their set-list say thank you and high tail it off for the next performer. Instead of this lickety split attitude, Staples acknowledged the little girl jumping around in front row, the group of teenagers born after most of her songs were recorded and of course the “Take a Load off Fanny” sing-a-long. Staples acted spontaneously. Recorded solos would extend as Staples and the guitarist got lower and lower in “Do It Again” where the chemistry seemed to trump planning. This Queen bee (sorry Beyonce) outdid Lauryn Hill herself in a cover of “Everything is Everything” and showed the audience that a singer’s strength comes from connections with every band member.
The final performance of Friday evening confirmed a long-held speculation; maraca players must live the most interesting lives. Every one of the six members played some form of maraca in their set. Therefore, SoulJazz Orchestra is one of the most interesting bands to see. Personal confirmations aside, the stage organization finally fully showed all members equally with a straight line from the pianist to the drummer with vocals, saxophones and all the percussion in between. Three saxophones all lined up in a row is beautiful, even more so when all four upright band members moved in sync as if dancing a samba between instruments and themselves.
Throughout their energetic performance, SoulJazz Orchestra showed their Ottawa roots by daring to do what most bands don’t; comment on politics. SoulJazz Orchestra criticized the first war in Iraq and how it inspired the song “People People” and how they feel the need to perform it again because: “it seems the same thing is happening.” While Canadian criticism of George W. Bush is not surprising, SoulJazz’s song spoke more than their general comments of dislike. “Mista President” was performed a passion and ferocity showcasing the band’s magnificent mastery of instruments. Pierre Chrétien simultaneously played a bass synth and guitar synth, something that is a pure privilege to notice. Usually, if that did occur, one wouldn’t even notice due the common stage set-up. The profile view was perfect. Not as perfect as the almost impossible to pinpoint sound that piped through the speakers. It was a sound that you never knew you wanted to hear. A combination of percussion, saxophone and vocals. Rhythms rode over you like gentle waves in the soft summer dusk and led to the crowd to samba away into their tents and beds.
Saturday came with the relief of clouds in sweaty Salmon Arm. An overcast day meant humidity but no sunburns or dehydration. Despite this review risking becoming a list titled Roots and Blues Festival Is the Best! (seriously, it is), another great thing about the festival were the workshops. These arranged workshops had names ranging from: The Ladies Sing the Blues to Blues had a Baby and Named in Rock n’ Roll and paired the younger bands with the older been around the block type.
Luckily, we squeezed into the Boogie Barn Stage for The Blues had a Baby and Named it Rock n’ Roll after Genevieve Chadwick. It was there we saw Bill Durst, the guitarist with skills to match his ridiculously amazing beard, paired up with The Stone Foxes. Bill Durst jammed away, playing a the guitar as an animal lover would pet a dog, but then something special happened. The violinist, looking only seventeen or eighteen, decided it was time to show what came natural to him. What followed was a violin solo that had Bill Durst grinning alongside all The Stone Foxes members while this young man sailed into another realm of courage.
When these workshops, better explained as festival organized jam sessions, are scheduled , the audience gets to experience the dream of seeing two of their favorite artists meet in their hotel rooms or dressing rooms and collaborate. Hopefully, The Stone Foxes will announce their joint album with Bill Durst soon.
Afterwards the infamous band from Iceland performed. Bellstop stomped onto the stage with a brash bass work complete with long hot pink slides Undoubtedly the best performed song was the most famous: Trouble, which was the last song performed. Most of the other songs were lost in translation with silly introductions of coming up with a song on the toilet of a seedy bar. However this small taste of Icelandic intrigued rather put off.
Saturday capped off with Alvin Youngblood Hart’s Muscle Theory dominating the headliners.
Alvin Youngblood Hart’s rudimentary bio states he is: “known as a ‘musician’s musician” and seemed fitting as you think you would remember that name if you had heard it before. He hasn’t put out a solo album since 2005 and didn’t play with The South Memphis String Band he joined in 2010. All this preliminary knowledge was pretty useless as Youngblood Hart alternation of guitars – acoustic and guitar – was the best I’ve ever seen. A sentiment echoed by all as we filtered out of the stage’s grounds. Murmurs of wow, heads shaking in disbelief and shellshocked expressions. The guitars just sat on his hip as if they were an extra limb that Youngblood Hart scratched into electric blues and beauty. “Stomp Dance” pushed energy into the crowd from staggered ogling at this casual genius into a gentle sway and arm wave. His bass player, extremely talented as well, stared at Youngblood Hart as if he had the answers to the universe in his fingers. Quick glances came up with this metaphor for my eyes were trained on Alvin Youngblood Hart’s Muscle Theory and my ears continue to be.
The Sheepdogs followed with a performance that could never be called good, but also maybe not great either. I’ll agree with the raves that claim The Sheepdogs brought back classic rock to the now. If a time traveler ended up at their Saturday show, they would have thought they landed in the seventies. A mastery of sounding like a vinyl spinning away in a living room with shag carpeting was accomplished. “Please Don’t Lead Me On” sounded exactly like it does on the radio, which isn’t a criticism but is also not a compliment. The Sheepdogs played as they likely do in every show; strong, sexy and indifferent to the location.
Ambivalence led us to the end of Black Joe Lewis’ set. The tail end of the show was marked by poor sound as the three terrific looking brass instrumentalists couldn’t even be heard at the right side of the stage. Disappointing, but Joe Lewis – the main guitarist and vocals – slayed with a vibrant red and black electric guitar. The songs may have felt unbalanced, but Joe Lewis definitely showed why the band is called Black Joe Lewis period and not Black Joe Lewis and these other guys.
The last day wrapped up the festival in the best and most unique way by embracing repetition. No frenzy to race around and wring out all the drops in the festival’s juicy lineup, just relaxed reminders of how good you had it for the past two days. At least, this was the thought when looking at the lineup.
Not all the bands were repeats. Good for Grapes made up from of the youngest musicians from Vancouver captivated in the afternoon with their easy breezy energy and mermaid keyboardist. A noticeable trend in all these blues, folk-pop and rock n’ roll bands is the one token female. She is always beautiful and never the front-woman. Alexa Unwin might as well been as she drew all the attention to her. Phosphorescence hair flipped and dipped like an instrument itself. A whirling defined by a siren vocals and an ability to play blind (with all the hair whipping).
Oh My Darling broke this notion of the token female in all Roots and Blues bands by only have women onstage. All from Manitoba, except the fiddle played who hailed form Edinburgh. A new member as Hannah Read isn’t in any videos yet. She, with the bright red lipstick, covered “Greasy Coat”, which isn’t available online but needs to be immediately. The rousing rendition showed Oh My Darling’s savory side instead of sweet. The four women are delightful in their different looks and styles, but all perform with a talent that cannot be challenged. Vanessa Kuzina charmed with appreciation for beautiful Salmon Arm and the crowd so eager to sing and dance along. Really, Roots and Blues should have scheduled Oh My Darling as a headliner.
Instead Josh Ritter played next and quickly became boring. A boredom prolonged by having just seen the Alvin Youngblood Hart’s Muscle Theory and Black Joe Lewis the night before. An odd sense of deja vu with the two artists switching stages, but Youngblood Hart played he did before: amazingly.
Black Joe Lewis fixed their sound problem and the horns triumphed in the final evening of Roots and Blues Festival in Salmon Arm.
Acquaintances generally claim that magical place to be Shambhala – the festival name itself comes from a mythical magical kingdom found only by the pure of heart – but that magic comes from substances altering perceptions and not the place itself. The crowd at Roots and Blues Festival is simply too old to approach that magic with the same enthusiasm as many other festival’s crowds do. Magical isn’t even a good word to describe Roots and Blues, it’s just lovely and calm like the mountains that surround it.