August 24th, 2013 at 1:30 pm
Music festivals, if done right by both organizers and attendees, force people to watch artists they are unfamiliar with.
Or, put another way, a personal favorite or headliner might convince you to buy a ticket, but to maximize your value, you visit some of the other artists.
And as an exercise in that kind of diversity, the Fayetteville Roots Festival was a hit Friday (Aug. 23). The festival, which continues through Sunday (Aug. 25), highlights folk artists of many different styles, from the traditional bluegrass of Del McCoury Band to the storytelling charm of Joe Crookston.
I watched a lot of music (and saw a lot of sights) yesterday. Here’s a bit about each:
KUAF’s “Ozarks at Large” live broadcast, noon to 2 p.m., Fayetteville Public Library
During last year’s festival, the “Ozarks at Large” crew hosted a live taping of their show. They drew one of the festival’s headliners for a live performance. Thinking that might be the case again in 2013, I went. They brought out the heavy hitters, with both Iris Dement and the Del McCoury Band playing two tracks and going through a short interview. Both were wonderful, and that’s to be expected. But New York songwriter Joe Crookston was a complete surprise, singing a couple story-first songs and then doing so again when another performer bailed on KUAF later in the set. Why the community room inside the library wasn’t packed to the gills, I’ll never know.
The official debut of the folk art showcase “True Faith, True Light: The Folk Instruments of Ed Stilley,” 4 p.m., Walton Arts Center
A crowd of about 200 gathered to watch a true folk artist revisit his collection. Instrument maker Ed Stilley created about 200 instruments of strange materials, giving them away, and often to children. Locals musicians Kelly Mulhollan and Donna Stjerna tracked down more than 25 of Stilley’s creations from their former owners, assembling them for a show that will remain visible at the Walton Arts Center through the end of October. Stilley, in a wheelchair, was pushed through the gallery as some of those who received his instruments recalled how important the gift was to them. Stilley is still isolated from much of the modern world — he handed out cassette tapes of him singing and preaching — but he was certainly connected to the community yesterday.
The Honey Dewdrops, 4:45 p.m., Walton Arts Center
The husband-and-wife duo that makes up The Honey Dewdrops trade lead vocals frequently, and their set in the afternoon was a lesson in harmony vocals. When the two come together to share a note, it’s blissful.
3 Penny Acre, 6 p.m., Walton Arts Center
Sadly, 3 Penny Acre played to a Walton Arts Center that was about a third full when they took the stage. The crowd came late, and mostly for the sets by Dement and McCoury. The Fayetteville-based band helped organize the festival, and they deserved a better showing from locals. Bryan Hembree, guitarist and one of the band’s three vocalists, told the crowd this was his favorite day of the year. If only people would have turned out a little earlier, it might have been even better. It’s additionally sad because I think 3 Penny Acre is getting better. They carry with them the precision of a band that’s spent many hours playing together.
A songwriter from Austin, Texas, via Chicago, Joe Pug reminds me of a mix of John Mayer and Todd Snider, and I don’t mean that as a slight to any of the three men (well, maybe a little towards Mayer). Pug looks a bit like Mayer, and possesses the dry wit of Snider. Mixed together, Pug is a mix of self-aware poetry and an energetic approach.
Iris Dement, 7:45 p.m., Walton Arts Center
Iris Dement spent some time telling the crowd she feels like Arkansas is home, even though she only lived in her native state until the age of three. Even so, it’s a rare treat to see her play anywhere, but especially in Arkansas.
“I’ve been trying to come here for years. I don’t know why it didn’t work out,” she said.
It certainly worked on Friday night. Backed by a three-piece, country-leaning band, Dement shared stories and songs, particularly those from her most recent album, “Sing the Delta.”
Dement’s voice can be polarizing, but I found it to be an intriguing instrument, one with power and emotion. She closed with a driving one-two punch, playing “Go on Ahead and Go Home” to close her proper set and “Our Town” as a one-song encore. She played about 10 minutes longer than she was scheduled to, but I don’t think the audience cared.
Del McCoury Band, 9:30 p.m., Walton Arts Center
If anyone wanted Dement to get off the stage, it’s because Del McCoury was waiting in the wings. I’ve watched McCoury and his band several times, and they never fail to charm. Their instrumentation is quick and precise, and their professionalism is something to behold, and there is no greater example than when the instrument of upright bass player Alan Bartram lost the bridge. It made an audible thump on the floor, but the band continued playing after looking around to see what the fuss was about. A replacement bass was ushered in from offstage, and all the sudden the band, including Bartram, found the groove again.
The setlist included a mix of songs they’ve been playing for years, such as “Nashville Cats” and Bill Monroe’s “Bluegrass Breakdown,” but also played several new tracks, including “The Streets of Baltimore,” a song so new the album isn’t yet out and the band needed lyric sheets to remember the tune.
Little has changed about the spirit of the band — particularly leader Del McCoury’s perfectly coiffed white hairdo — but they still sound fresh and vibrant.
Music continues today on many Roots Festival stages. What do you plan to see?