For better or for worse, festivals are now a permanent of the U.S. live music landscape. In fact, in the last decade, you could say the country’s gone a little festival-crazy: Dozens (and dozens) of smaller multi-day gatherings have sprung up alongside established staples such as Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, Riot Fest and Coachella. These festivals are often still well-kept secrets, known enough to draw a healthy number of people, but yet not so huge that their crowds are overwhelming or unruly. Unsurprisingly, these fests are also still the most fun and rewarding ones to attend, since they’re easier navigate and more affordable, while still offering a quality lineup.
The latter aspect was a particularly attractive draw of Columbia, Missouri’s Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival, which took place September 25-27 at Stephens Lake Park, a bucolic outdoor enclave located just outside of the city’s downtown. The fest’s bookers obviously take great care when curating the two-stage festival, as the lineup highlights both known entities and lesser-known acts. Plus, they’re refreshingly open about the kinds of groups they book; this year’s marquee acts included Dwight Yoakam, Brandi Carlile, Lucinda Williams, Dr. John, Needtobreathe and Buddy Guy. This diversification is a wise move: Straightforward blues fests tend to be monochromatic and cater to a niche audience, but RNBNB’s energy rarely waned, and it drew a diverse crowd that was generally laid-back and there to enjoy the music. (In other words, no drunk jerks or troublemakers intent on spoiling the experience for others.)
The weekend kicked off early Friday evening with Tab Benoit, who played an evocative set at sunset. Backed by a bassist and a drummer, the Louisiana guitarist coaxed out an hour-long set full of his trademark swampy Cajun blues, with the highlight being the live staple “Too Many Dirty Dishes.” Despite some sound problems, which delayed the start of the next performer, Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires, Benoit set the perfect mood for the rest of the night.
Backed by a horn section and a robust full band, Bradley—who was introduced as both “the heartbreaker of Brooklyn, New York” and “the original black swan”—proved why he’s become a critical darling since being discovered by Daptone Records co-founder Bosco Mann. During a high-energy set, the gravelly-voiced performer explored mellow soul (“Lovin’ You, Baby”), psych-funk (“Confusion”) and bluesy R&B (“Heartaches & Pain”). Unsurprisingly, Bradley’s charisma was off the charts: Sporting a variety of flashy outfits—including a suit coat which looked like it had a tiger on the back and, later, a sparkly shirt/vest with nothing underneath—he flapped his arms like an eagle, boxed like a prize fighter and hoisted the mic stand on his back. He also seemed genuinely thrilled and moved by the positive reaction to the music: “Don’t give up on your dreams,” he told the audience at one point.
Blues legend Buddy Guy closed out the first day of the festival. At 79, the Chicagoan is spry and limber, fond of working blue (expect plenty of f-bombs in his stage banter) but still an absolutely fluid player. Guy also knows what the audience wants to hear; his set included “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues,” “74 Years Young” (during which he riffed on the fact that he’s no longer that age) and even a snippet of “Purple Haze.” His equally talented band, which includes rhythm guitarist Ric Jaz, added a blues boost when needed, but never overpowered the legend. You could say they were simply trying to keep up with Guy, as he even climbed into the audience at one point to tease out squealing blues licks while surrounded by the delighted audience.
Saturday started off on the edgier side of the roots equation, with gritty Michigan singer-songwriter Whitey Morgan performing before the barnstorming folk legacy Justin Townes Earle. On the other stage, Austin-based Junior Brown and his homemade guit-steel unleashed some deep Texas surf-rock and twang, with a side of humor. The musician deadpanned the line, “Your Twitters are giving me the jitters” during “Hang Up And Drive”; dished out some lighthearted country-blues scolding on “Highway Patrol”; and even featured a brief, twanged-up take on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at another point.
Lucero nicely overcame what could’ve been something disastrous for other bands: Apparently, guitarist Brian Venable didn’t show up for the gig, the first time that’s happened in 17 years. Frontman Ben Nichols tried to keep things lighthearted despite the absence, quipping, “I can’t get away with that shit,” and taking shouted requests from fans. (More amusingly, he also commented on their mid-afternoon start time, saying “God’s flashlight is burning me” and another time just growling cheerfully, “I hate the sunshine.”) Unsurprisingly, the ensuing set was plenty loose; in fact, it felt like an informal backyard party, from the boogie-woogie piano of “Women & Work” to the low-key “Little Silver Heart” and the vintage bar-band soul number “Darken My Door.” Nichols’ distinctive vocals sounded like Kermit the Frog with a penchant for whiskey—a compliment, really—which was most effective on the Hornsby-esque “That Much Further West,” a song that ended with evocative piano.
Across the grassy park, Irma Thomas was more than proving her reputation as “the soul queen of New Orleans!” Her set was rooted in checkered funk and classic soul and R&B, from the New Orleans swing of “Time On My Side” and “It’s Raining” to the bluesier “Hip Shakin’ Woman.” Later in her set, she thanked everyone who helped the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and dedicated a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” to “the people loyal to entertainers.” As with the rest of her set, the latter cover highlighted her powerhouse soul voice and awe-inspiring ability to hit any and all high notes with ease.G. Love And Special Sauce were up next, and provided one of the most enjoyable—and danceable—sets of the weekend, thanks to nimble string bassist Jimi Jazz and frontman G. Love’s impeccable rhythms and grooves.
G. Love later joined the next act on the stage, Lucinda Williams, for a primitive-sounding cover of Leadbelly’s “New York City,” which is slated for an upcoming album. The rest of Williams’ hour-long set demonstrated how she not only created the alt-country template—she’s never been afraid to smudge it as she sees fit. The rootsy opener “Protection” gave way to “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings,” which boasted Fleetwood Mac-caliber harmonies; “Can’t Let Go” had a harder, honky-tonk edge, while a jangly “Drunken Angel” oozed melancholy. As the set progressed, Williams and her band explored all facets of musical history—from the blues-gospel feel of the Allman Brothers staple “It’s Not My Cross To Bear” and the strident boogie “Joy” to the road-worn punk of “Honeybee” to the gospel revue feel of “Get Right With God.” Fittingly, her set ended with a bang, with a raucous take on Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World.”
The night closed out with Dwight Yoakam, who sported his trademark cowboy hat, while his band members sported subtly sparkly jackets. He was every inch a genteel legend: “It’s a pleasure to get here and play for you,” he told the audience, and you could tell he meant every word. More important, Yoakam’s genteel, vintage country-leaning set was a treat—from a no-frills, accordion-augmented cover of “Streets Of Bakersfield” to the smoldering “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” and the rockabilly strut “Please, Please Baby.” People improvised line dancing during a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister,” while new songs “Dreams Of Clay” and the Springsteen-esque “Second Hand Heart” (both from his latest LP, Second Hand Heart) were a treat. Above all, Yoakam was reverent toward history, without being beholden to them, as a slower, laid-back version of “Ring Of Fire” underscored.
On Sunday morning, Mike Farris, the former frontman of ’90s Southern rockers Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies, pulled out all the stops for his early afternoon gospel-blues revue. Sporting a bowler hat and a suit, he sprang onstage with backup singers, a horn section, keyboardist, bassist and another guitarist. It was obvious Farris used to front a rock band, as he grabbed the mic stand and stalked around commanding the stage as if he was in a club. This magnetism extended to his stage banter, which was heartfelt and alluded to his background (the title track of his new LP, Power Of Love, was dedicated to his “mama [who] raised five boys on her own”) and his struggles with addiction: “Music can be your friend when nobody wants to be your friend.” This openness elevated his set, which was uplifting and almost cleansing—“Power Of Love” felt infused with the holy spirit thanks in part to an extended jam with pickled organ, while other songs touched on Steve Wonder-caliber soul, crisp funk (“Hold On, I’m Comin’”) and even classic rock: One song ended with a coda of the Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe.”
The rest of Sunday was refreshingly laid back, between a set from the funky New Orleans horn experts the Rebirth Brass Band and a set from iconoclastic honky-tonk guitarist Dale Watson and his Lone Stars. Despite having his van break down on his way to the festival, which delayed his start time slightly, Watson showed no signs of being frazzled. The pedal steel-freckled “Suicide Sam” was a loping highlight, while a cover of Bob Wills’ “That’s What I Like ‘Bout The South” fit the afternoon’s relaxed vibe.
The day concluded with a tough choice: See neo-folk darling Brandi Carlile or sacred steel-blues supergroup the Word? I chose the latter, and was rewarded with a 75-minute, improvised set that explored blues, gospel, psych-rock and everything else in between. Pedal steel player Robert Randolph was a joy to hear; his approach was almost punk-like at times, in terms of the squeals he coaxed out of the instrument, although it was just as effective (and moving) when he made the pedal steel wail like a siren. Bluesy guitar crackles came courtesy of group members North Mississippi Allstars, while John Medeski contributed organ which ranged from churchy to psychedelic. It all combined for an atmosphere of exuberant spiritual reverence.
However, it’s also worth noting that for me, RNBNB’s emphasis on disability accessibility also made the weekend even more of an enjoyable experience. In fact, accessibility was obviously a priority baked into the scope of the weekend, not an afterthought shoehorned into existing plans. This is no small feat, nor is it something I ever expect: After all, many festivals take place in unorthodox outdoor spaces or parks, places whose uneven terrain often pose challenges to those with mobility issues, or in urban areas where parking is a challenge. But RNBNB is clearly committed to ensure that all patrons are able to enjoy the music and festival grounds.
They reserved the closest parking lot for those with official parking placards—and were strict about monitoring cars, in order to make sure they had proper clearance—and ran golf carts as shuttles from the lot through ticketing and near the stages. During the day, you could also flag down shuttles to get from place to place, meaning you weren’t stuck in one area for hours on end if you didn’t want (or need) to be. I felt absolutely welcomed by all of the volunteers and workers—not a burden, but just another attendee who happened not to be able to walk long distances or stand for a long time. Personally, it added up to an incredibly meaningful experience for me.
At the end of the weekend, both my husband and I agreed that we’d come back to RNBNB in a heartbeat. We’ve been to other festivals in recent years, and this was by far one of the most organized, best-run ones we’ve experienced. Drinks weren’t insanely expensive: Sixteen-ounce pours of Schlafly, a craft beer from St. Louis, were only $6, and there were free water stations within the park you could use. Food was also reasonably priced: I paid $6 for a huge pulled-pork BBQ sandwich from a St. Louis restaurant called Sugarfire that was amazing. Above all, it was nice to be immersed in a place where artists took priority, where people were there to enjoy and immerse themselves in music. In today’s distraction-frazzled world, being able to relax and soak up incredible tunes for three days was a wonderful escape.
(Full disclosure: RNBNB paid for my trip to Columbia to cover the festival, but did not dictate at all what direction my coverage took or ask that it take a positive slant. All opinions and observations contained above are my own.)