Ten years into its existence, Columbia, Missouri’s Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival is a well-run festival machine. Held this year at Stephens Lake Park between September 30-October 2, the three-day event boasts an eclectic lineup. Headliners included country-blues-pop artist Grace Potter; Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, whose gritty, Southside Johnny-esque music drew a larger-than-normal Friday night audience; and beloved Americana trailblazers the Avett Brothers, who drew a massive crowd on Sunday night to close out the festival.
This year, food items such as a BBQ sandwich with a glazed donut for a bun (verdict: really good) and honey-churned ice cream (salted caramel: amazing) were the perfect compliment to days of solid music. What was most impressive: Each act I saw was slightly different—and played variations of roots and blues music—but all turned in solid, engaging sets. Like last year’s Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival, this year was completely top-notch.
Here are 10 of the best sets I saw all weekend. Special mention goes to Blind Boys of Alabama—I caught the tail-end of their Sunday set, and it was an energetic, cathartic and spiritual moment—and The Devil Makes Three, whose pre-Isbell set showed off their punk-a-billy chops.
Best Overall Set: Jason Isbell, 9:15 p.m. Saturday night
People love stories about redemption, which goes a long way to explain Jason Isbell’s popularity explosion in the last few years. After exiting Drive-By Truckers in 2007, the musician has gotten sober, married Amanda Shires and had a daughter with her, and released two stellar solo albums, 2013’s Southeastern and the Grammy-winning 2015 LP, Something More Than Free. Unsurprisingly, his packed Saturday night headlining set had the air of a victory lap, as Isbell and his band the 400 Unit blazed through a 16-song set.
“We’ve been waiting to rock and roll all day, so we hope you’ll join us,” Isbell said before the night’s second song, a dynamic “24 Frames.” That set the stage for Something More Than Free‘s title track and Drive-By Truckers’ “Decoration Day.” Other standouts included the vulnerable “Travelling Alone”—which featured a prominent acoustic guitar that was longing and plaintive—an equally stripped-down “Alabama Pines,” as well as the Ryan Adams-esque “Stockholm” and a loud, electric “Palmetto Rose.”
Isbell dedicated the latter song to Shovels & Rope, who had played on the other stage before him. However, the musician also nodded to the Missouri locale by praising the songwriting of two St. Louis alt-country anchors: Jay Farrar (who, Isbell joked, didn’t “kill him” after he poached his keyboardist, Derry DeBorja, from Son Volt) and the Bottle Rockets, “the only band” to have written a song sadder than his own stuff. (Later on Twitter, he clarified that the BoRox tune “Kerosene” was one such example.) Yet Isbell’s set certainly had its fair share of raw emotion—such as a somewhat-rare performance of “Dress Blues,” a song inspired by a high school classmate who was killed in Afghanistan. The unsparing lyrics, when combined with the mournful music, made for a harrowing, chills-inducing listen.
The band lightened the mood after that with a performance of “Codeine,” featuring DeBorja on a bright blue accordion Isbell deemed “sexy.” (“It shines bright like a diamond,” he quipped.) The night ended in a raucous guitar hurricane, courtesy of a barn-burning take on Drive-By Truckers’ “Never Gonna Change” complete with a guitar duel. The encore was just as meaningful: a reverential, almost hymn-like version of “Children Of Children.”
Best Chemistry: Blues Traveler, 4:30 p.m., Sunday afternoon
The most impressive thing about jam-leaning bands often isn’t their ability to stretch out—it’s how they can work experimental magic within a strict time constraint, but yet not sound stifled. That was the case with Blues Traveler, which unfurled a tight, 75-minute set that touched on the band’s biggest hits (“Run-Around,” “But Anyway,” “The Hook”) and made room for an impressive improvisational sprawl that involved (among other things) a Yes-interpolating keytar solo. Frontman John Popper was in buoyant spirits, between stage banter that shouted out the other artists playing on their stage to plenty instances of his inimitable whimsical blues harmonica. And the band nearly opened up a ’90s wormhole by bringing out G. Love—who was set to perform with the Special Sauce on the other stage right after—to sing lead vocals on a straightforward cover of Sublime’s “What I Got.”
Best Excuse to Boogie: Southern Culture on the Skids, 2:15 p.m., Saturday afternoon
“I know it’s early, but who’s getting liquored up?” Southern Culture on the Skids vocalist Rick Miller asked the die-hards who had made sure to show up for their afternoon set. (Going by the cheers, plenty had started their weekend revelry early.) Of course, the North Carolina trio fed off this energy: They started their set in a blaze of surf and rockabilly licks—which led right into a swampy version of “Voodoo Cadillac”—and never let the energy flag, as they nodded to vintage country, blues and hard-edged twang.
As per usual, SCOTS paired stellar musicianship with plenty of kitsch and retro nods. A pair of go-go dancers wearing white boots and blue-fringed leotards danced on the sides of the stage for most of the set. (In the fest’s cutest moment, the duo was later spotted in the VIP area during Jason Isbell’s set taking a photo with a starstruck young girl, who was clearly a fan.) Musically, the tongue-in-cheek vibe extended to “House of Bamboo,” which sounded like the B-52s at a hoedown, and the surf-inflected “Banana Pudding,” which was full of shaking and shimmying. Later, the band even threw fried chicken into the crowd as accompaniment to (what else?) “8 Piece Box” and howled gleefully during “Camel Walk.”
SCOTS were chatty, reminiscing about opening for Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros years ago in Columbia, and joking about how they were playing their “dirt trilogy”—natch, “Dirt Road, “Long Dry Dirt” and crowd fave “Dirt Track Date.”
Most Promising Band: Shovels & Rope, 7 p.m., Saturday night
Shovels & Rope—which released a fine new album, Little Seeds, on October 7—turned in one of the most understated (and best) sets of the fest. Husband-wife Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst drew their power from instrument swapping (e.g., drums, piano, guitar) and precise vocal harmonies, on songs that veered from slithering blues and straight-up alt-country to slinky roots music.
The Little Seeds song “I Know” resembled a twangier Kills, between its bluesy electric guitar solo and a seductive vocal delivery that saw the pair singing with their heads tantalizingly close together. Meanwhile, “The Last Hawk”—a new song introduced as being “for Garth Hudson, the greatest organ player”—was a standout bit of alt-country indebted to (of course) Hudson’s beloved the Band. Shovels & Rope kept pleasing looseness throughout, however—in fact, the pair had to restart “The Last Hawk” because they were in the wrong key, causing the band to quip they were “professionals from Charleston, South Carolina.”
Best Outlier: Ben Folds, 6:15 p.m., Sunday night
The eclectic nature of the Roots, Blues & BBQ booking this year meant that pianist Ben Folds was the de facto Sunday night headliner. A big favorite in the college town, the musician capably unleashed an 80-minute set that started with the relationship-tumult tune “Phone In A Pool,” from 2015’s So There. From there, he covered his vast catalog with a setlist drawing heavily from 2001’s Rockin’ The Suburbs (a humorous take on the title track, a typically rollicking “Zak and Sara”) and 2005’s Songs For Silverman (“Jesusland,” the soaring “Landed,” “Bastard”). For good measure, he also did the Regina Spektor duet “You Don’t Know Me,” as well as a few Ben Folds Five songs (including the hit “Brick”) for the die-hards.
Folds poked fun at the incongruity of being a headliner commanding attention by himself, saying he was ignoring the “festival handbook” and playing a “solo piano waltz” in front of a festival crowd. “I’m supposed to follow that up with, ‘How many people like the taste of alcohol?'” he joked, slipping into a voice reminiscing a cheesy rock & roll star. Later, he told a lengthy story about the origins of the So There song “Not A Fan” that involved a tattooed guy who visited Folds backstage in Cincinnati, asked about the song “Brick” and said, “I’m not a fan,” though his girlfriend was. (Scary post-script: Folds noted Mr. Tattoos was later removed from the area because he had a knife on him.)
Yet because Folds is one of the most versatile headliners around—he’s equally comfortable playing with a symphony, a band or by himself—his set was perfectly paced and enjoyable, as it careened toward “Kate,” “Zak and Sara” and “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces.” Naturally, the Folds faithful rewarded him with audience participation—singing the horn parts of “Army,” clapping in the appropriate spots during “Annie Waits” and dancing to the encore version of favorite “The Luckiest.”
Best Chillout: Rayland Baxter, 2:15 p.m., Sunday afternoon
Nashville’s own Rayland Baxter kicked off an overcast Sunday afternoon with a set that (had the weather gods been susceptible to music) should’ve made the sun peek out from behind the clouds. It’s intriguing that Baxter opened for the Lumineers this summer, in fact, since his set
was firmly in the mellow psych-pop vein, with heavy influence from the Verve’s languid sprawl and Flaming Lips’ leisurely, early ’00s sound.
Most Eclectic: Houndmouth, 6:30 p.m., Friday night
Houndmouth was one of the first performers on Friday night, the first day of the fest. Playing in front of a huge crowd, the Indiana band enlisted saxes and horns to augment their eclectic and energetic sound, which touched on everything from Springsteen-like soul-blues to sparse folk.
“This song’s about a girl I went to high school with,” guitarist/vocalist Matt Myers said before a standout version of “Palmyra,” while “On The Road” had a breezy, Band-like vibe. A slower new song, “Southside,” featured more complex harmonies and falsetto vocals, which hinted that Houndmouth’s new material is going to move the band’s sound forward. The night ended with a Dylan-esque version of “For No One,” which featured Myers solo on the stage with just sax for accompaniment. It was a beautiful, touching way to end the set—a defiant nod that the band are perfectly content to do things their way.
Best Up-and-Comer: St. Paul & The Broken Bones, 8:15 p.m., Friday night
The slow and steady popularity increase of St. Paul & The Broken Bones has been a joy to watch, mainly because the vintage-soul troupe has amassed an audience the old-fashioned way: by hitting the road and putting on an all-in show, night after night. The Birmingham, Alabama, band’s opening-night set was certainly no exception: Helmed by charismatic, stage-stalking Paul Janeway—who sported a sharp, tomato-red suit, no less—St. Paul & The Broken Bones justified why they drew even more people than Houndmouth.
The troupe’s set hewed toward soul and R&B with a retro flair, paired with the kind of solid craftsmanship and uninhibited passion— Janeway rolled around on the stage at one point while he was singing—that’s irresistible. Plus, St. Paul & The Broken Bones are always keeping one eye toward the present-day—as evidenced by a brief snippet of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem,” a pointed commentary on today’s political climate.
Best Energizer: The Mavericks, 5:15 p.m., Saturday afternoon
Latin-country legends the Mavericks drew one of the most enthusiastic and supportive crowds of the weekend—a nod of respect for the veteran band, sure, but also a testament to the troupe’s smoking live show. An early highlight was their cover of the Bruce Springsteen solo track, “All That Heaven Will Allow,” which amplified the song’s jangly, country-rock vibe, and the flourishes of pianist Jerry Dale McFadden, who added jazzy instrumental color throughout the set.
The encore started with a smoldering, romantic cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” complete with a sax solo and couples slow dancing, which then segued into a loud, barnburning “Come Unto Me,” which featured an accordion and keyboard duel. The set ended with the traditional closer “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down.” On the latter, bright horns, slashing guitar and even headbanging from McFadden combined for a stunning, cathartic ending that proved why the Mavericks remain so beloved and vital.
Best Sound Expansion: The Oh Hellos, 4 p.m., Saturday afternoon
The Oh Hellos are technically a duo featuring siblings Tyler and Maggie Heath. However, onstage the pair performs with a gaggle of other musicians, all of whom throw their bodies back and forth, like an ecstatic punk band inflamed by musical passions. Appropriately, the band’s music is a study in contradictions: During their set, the band veered from expansive Americana and Radiohead-esque wails to aggressive folk-rock and even thundering post-rock with a slow-boiling instrumental build. At times, Maggie Heath even clasped her hands behind her back and moved like a graceful Irish dancer, adding more nuance and beauty to the proceedings. Still, the band wasn’t all serious: Early on, the band joked that the festival setting could be unwittingly distracting: “The hardest smell to sing through is funnel cake.”