Summer is the season of music festivals around the Twin Cities. There are big ones and there are small DIY type deals. Obviously, when attending one of the big ones, you have a chance to catch one of your favorite national acts. The downside is the sheer hassle. Go too small and who knows what you’re going to get? You avoid some hassle and expense but you often end up with acts that aren’t quite ready for prime time. Our friends at The Hook and Ladder Theater get it just right. Year after year, Roots, Rock and Deep Blues is my favorite festival of the summer.
The formula is damn near perfect. It takes place in and outside of The Hook’s compound in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis. Right off the bat, that’s going to cap the size of the crowd at reasonable. Park within a couple blocks and walk in. Or ride a bike and they’ll valet park it for you.
Three stages hosted by KFAI, Jameson and Fulton Brewery (Thanks, guys! Music fans appreciate you stepping up!). July can get down right hot, although this year was rather pleasant. Good news is that two of those stages are indoors. The Hook’s main room and the new Mission Room. The latter features a large garage door at the back of the space to allow people to move inside for a bit of air conditioning or to mingle outside near the food, beer and merch tents. What a luxury to be able to get out of the sun and grab a seat during the course of the day. It pays huge dividends by the time those 11 pm bands are hitting the stage.
Cool festivals also do a great job of curating a line up; these guys shine year after year. Try to appeal to an overly wide range of tastes and you get diluted. It becomes a bit like Summerfest. Perhaps there’s a must see act. But then you spend hours moving from stage to stage hoping to find something else that appeals to you. Seems like Murphy’s Law dictates that two good bands are playing concurrently. Or that you walk up on a cool surprise as the band is thanking the crowd for a great time.
The festival’s name defines what they do. This is not a range of acts that is going to appeal to everybody. Yet, it is broad enough to keep things interesting. Maybe the best way to characterize what the Hook crew does is to simply call it American music. Straight up, never over produced, heartland inspired music. (Apologies to the wonderful deep blues duo, Catl who hail from Toronto. But then again, isn’t Canada a suburb of the US?)
I think it’s traditional to kick things off in the cool with the legendary Cornbread Harris at 3pm. Cornbread, the father of music industry heavyweight Jimmy Jam Harris, is now 92. He seems all of that when he moves about or when he talks to the audience. However, when the band kicks in, the years disappear. Those hands still barrel roll across the keys and he sings like a guy half his age. Playing music can heal you or it can kill you (well, maybe it’s the lifestyle, not the music). It’s a fountain of youth for Cornbread.
Start with the legend. Eight hours later, a young, punky, up and comer usually caps off the festivities. The Bad Man a year or two before. This year the riot girl trio Gully Boys. During the interim the line up ranges from folk (Humbird), to country (Becky Kapell), to Texas blues guitar (Mary Cutrufello), to back porch blues (Big George Jackson), to bombastic rock and roll (The Shackletons), to Austin based funk and jam (The Peterson Brothers), to bluegrass (Kind Country) to southern tinged rock (Middle Western). They even feature a local dance company!
There’s enough variety to keep it interesting. It’s kind of like Goldilocks as one passes easily from one stage to the next. Seriously, I mean easily! In less than 60 seconds you can stick your head into each of the three overlapping line ups. It’s a guarantee that you’ll walk into at least one of them and say: “Just right!”
Back to that formula for the perfect festival. Keep the beer lines short and efficient. Keep the food high quality and affordable. Matt’s Bar, with their signature Juicy Lucy, was on site adding a wonderful aroma to the festivities. Gandi Mahal, the Indian restaurant around the corner from The Hook was there to offer a distinctly different culinary option. Lots of restroom facilities. Most of which are indoors, clean and spacious. The Hook is known for being all about the music. Bring these simple and effective amenities to your event and it keeps people happy and focused full time on the bands.
The final piece of the perfection puzzle is price. A two day festival pass could be had for about $40. That’s a lot of music for the money. When the promoters can moderate that price, it leaves some extra bucks in your pocket for food and drink. Or in my case a new t-shirt. There’s nothing nicer than to be standing near the exits as people head home and hear them all proclaiming what a great deal the day had been.
I think my biggest criticism of the music going public these days is what I call the McDonald’s Effect. When human beings are faced with a surfeit of options we tend to freeze up. We go with what we know, simply because we don’t want to make a mistake. Never mind that each of us would throw $5 or $10 of food into the grocery cart on a whim, the same as what a typical cover charge might be. So we see the same bands we know we like, over and over again. Worse yet, we stay home and, heaven forbid, numb our brains with TV.
I’m a big fan of being loyal followers of great bands, particularly local ones. It’s just that there are so many of them out there. Good ones get lost in the sheer volume of choices we have around this place. It’s important not to get intellectually lazy when it comes to live music. There are a number of great resources to give you a heads up on what’s coming up and cool. Twin Cities Media runs previews of many shows, always a week or two out. There is no shortage of video and streaming services available to sample. Just accept the fact that now and again you’re going to drop a few hard earned dollars on a band that doesn’t ring your bell. No different than occasionally cleaning out the refrigerator. You wonder what the hell you were thinking when you bought that particular item a year ago. Particularly after it migrated to the very back and rotted. Instead, think of that rush when you stumbled upon a new favorite band. I’d argue that the thrill of live music when discovering a new band trumps a tried and true favorite giving us exactly what we expect. Big picture, it’s always worth the risk.
All of that is simply to say that the best thing about a smaller, well curated festival like RRDB is you’re going to stumble across somebody new. It will make you happy. The strong focus on local and regional acts just means you’re going to find something you can see pretty regularly. Good your us fans. Good for the bands.
For me, that moment came in the form of Mae Simpson’s band. I was familiar with the name; they won the reader’s vote for City Pages Best New Band in 2019. The accolades are well deserved. Simpson is a dynamo, selling out completely as the band churns through a wide range of styles and sounds. New bands are hungry. It’s not a job; cheap hotels, long miles and bad food hasn’t jaded the dream. They bring it. Mae Simpson Music covered the waterfront from New Orleans gumbo to something reminiscent of Janis with Big Brother and The Holding Company. In a day of really enjoyable music, she was my personal Easter Egg.
Kudos to RRDB! The Hook, as a not for profit, continues to find its stride and to bring us great bands. In the land of big showcase venues and small corner taps, it’s really special that somebody is consistently bringing in high quality acts that fly just under the radar. And for reasonable prices. These guys do it every week throughout the year. The Roots Rock and Deep Blues Festival is just doing what they do on a bigger scale for one weekend out of the year. I can’t wait to see what they’ll have up their sleeve when they hit 10 years!