Concert review: Fayetteville Roots Festival Day 2 (Friday, Aug. 24), various venues

August 25th, 2012 at 3:01 pm

David Grisman, left, with Jim Hurst, perform as part of Grisman's Folk Jazz Trio. All photos by KEVIN KINDER, NWA Media.

The live preview show at the Fayetteville Public Library at noon Friday (Aug. 24) revealed much. Those who watched knew the following things: The Steel Wheels were going to blow the doors off the Walton Arts Center and David Grisman would dazzle with his speed and songcraft.

Other highlights would emerge throughout the day, of course, a busy one filled with Americana music as part of the third Fayetteville Roots Festival, which continues through Sunday (Aug. 26) at various venues in Fayetteville.

In its third year, the festival has expanded tremendously, and signs of that permeated the sessions late in the evening. Food, available for purchase from local restaurants, became scarce in the main venue. Other venues had to be used to accommodate the dozens of acts who are visiting, and George’s Majestic Lounge and Kingfish offered Roots Festival shows last night.

Grisman with son Sam Grisman

Despite the festival’s growth, and the uptick in overall talent, last night’s mainstage shows (the only ones I caught, other than the preview show at the Library) were only moderately attended. I estimate the venue was about two thirds full. Indicators of that situation were provided early on Thursday (Aug. 23), when word got out that students could purchase $20 seats, which allowed them a spot in the balcony. That comes in great contrast to the $70 price initially attached to those seats. No such deal was offered for tonight’s mainstage show, which may indicate a much larger crowd will attend John Prine’s headlining show than came out for David Grisman’s Folk Jazz Trio.

Grisman’s group is composed of himself on mandolin, his son Sam Grisman on upright bass and Jim Hurst on guitar. All three would provide vocals, trading between songs. Perhaps most striking about the group were the subtleties of their performance. All are master musicians, which can lead to excessive soloing or self-centered elaborations. Little of that was present during their headlining set. Instead, they played as a group, letting each of the players have brief moments in the sun before they ducked back into the fold. Among the songs that stood out were “Swang Thang,” a furiously paced acoustic number that finds Grisman on the lead. They mixed their set with originals, such as “Swang Thang,” and traditionals such as “Mary of the Wild Moor” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”

Although the playing may have been manic, the tempo and demeanor of the show was not. Already pushing past the 10:45 p.m. published closing time, Grisman (who got a late start – all shows began and finished later than scheduled) kept right on playing, but to a smaller audience with each passing song. It’s a lot to ask of a crowd to start at 2 p.m., when the first musicians took to stages, and continue watching music until past 11 p.m. This is perhaps especially true considering the festival’s demographics. Despite the student ticket price break, the crowd definitely trended more middle age than collegiate. And that’s generally not the kind of crowd that rages for hours.

The crowd may have thinned by the end of the night, but Grisman and company ended on a high note, picking up the pace for a cover of Doc Watson’s “Deep River Blues,” followed closely by Skip James’ “Cypress Grove.” The final song turned what had been a very appreciative crowd – lots of clapping and hollering, but only at the end of the tunes – into one that finally pried themselves out of the seats. Grisman offered the crowd a rendition of “The Arkansas Traveler,” a tune he previously recorded with the late Jerry Garcia (of Grateful Dead fame) for their joint 1993 album “Not for Kids Only.”

It produced an enthusiastic end to a melancholy set.

Perhaps one of the reasons the set by the Folk Jazz Trio seemed so sleepy is the force-of-nature performance that preceded them. Virginia’s The Steel Wheels started their set with an a cappella song and never looked back. With Trent Wagler leading the group on vocals and in energy exerted, the group thundered through a set of mostly original tunes.

The Steel Wheels

Sharing stories about the songs as they went along, the band all played their instruments well. They once, and only once, went on an extended solo spree, and then only as if to prove they could. Their most captivating element comes courtesy of the single microphone placed at the front of the stage. Their four-part harmonies, for a lack of other descriptors, were simply stunning.

The audience’s appreciation for the band provided what looked to be the first honest encore I’ve seen in some time. What makes for an honest encore, you ask? It’s when the performers leave and it doesn’t appear they intend to come back to the stage, and the house lights coming up following their set further emphasizes this theory. But the crowd so enthusiastically hollered for them to return, they did. They offered The Band song “The Shape I’m In” as a tribute to the late Arkansas native Levon Helm, who passed away earlier this year. Their version was dazzling.

Their set followed one by Hoots and Hellmouth, who also perform tonight (Aug. 25) at George’s Majestic Lounge. I skipped their set Friday for two reasons: Because I’ll be around to see them tonight and because I felt like eating. And who can blame me for that?

3 Penny Acre

Opening the mainstage performances were locals 3 Penny Acre, the band responsible for assembling the festival. Rather than provide the hometown crowd with safe songs from their previous albums, a bulk of the band’s set consisted of new songs. Although they mesh well with previous 3 Penny Acre offerings – story songs that double as character studies – it’s a bold move to foist new songs on a crowd that might expect something familiar. Instead, the strength of the new material proves 3PA belongs on the bill alongside the national touring talent they brought to Fayetteville.

Today’s music began at the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market and is, as of the time of this post (3 p.m. Saturday) continuing at various stages at the Walton Arts Center.

We’ll see you around tonight.