Roots Rock & Deep Blues status as a must see event is official. What used to be a cozy, walk up neighborhood festival has become something so much more. The hundreds of music fans who turned up only to find no more tickets available learned the hard way. When you put together the kind of line up compiled by the folks at The Hook & Ladder (and at that price) music fans will show up in droves.
Here’s the deal. Next year don’t wait! You were warned by TCM that this thing was about to take off. That tickets might very well disappear given the performers they’d managed to line up. So keep track of the goings on throughout the year at The Hook. They bring in wonderful acts throughout the year. As soon as the 2019 RRDB lineup gets announced grab your tickets immediately and save yourself some bucks in the bargain. You’ll be glad you did.
Saturday was drenched in summer sunshine with the occasional cumulus overseeing the festivities. It bordered on hot in the middle of the afternoon. However, between shade tents and a couple indoor air conditioned stages it was just about the perfect set up. All you had to do was stay hydrated. The water was free and the cold beer was flowing.
While the festival footprint is small, it quickly became apparent that covering 25 bands over 5 stages in 10 hours was going to be impossible. Especially for a reviewer who remains more fan than writer. Executive decisions would have to be made. Who did I want to see? Who did I need to see? How much time should be spent catering to the choices of friends and family with whom I’d arrived? One thing for sure, there was a great band playing from the minute the gates opened until the last of us straggled home.
This was a friendly crowd. RRDB draws fans who really know local music. They’re in attendance not for the hype but simply for the chance to see great bands up close. It was interesting comparing notes with fellow patrons throughout the day. Everybody was raving about the acts they’d seen. In some cases, they were encamped at a stage other than where I’d been. I found myself bummed for missing something. But I did my best to also make them feel bad for missing whom I’d seen. It was a testament to the depth of the line up. It also had to be fun for the artists because each and every act was well attended with dancing, appreciative crowds. Note the term dancing. The organizers knew exactly how many people to let in while keeping things fan friendly.
The music kicked off shortly after the gates opened. The legendary Cornbread Harris can still tinkle the ivories in his mid 90’s and did so in the cool of the inside stage. Outside, The Federales greeted guests streaming through the main gate with their bluegrass sound. Cornbread was followed by alt country songstress Sarah Morris who effectively shared her well drawn songs and breezy attitude. Did she mention that it was her guitar player Tommy’s 35th birthday?
The toughest time slot of the day for me was 4:30. Crankshaft and The Gear Grinders brought their unique, foot stomping, quirky style to the indoor stage. Alex Larson aka Crankshaft is a guy who one of these days is destined to break out in a big way. Outside, New Orleans style virtuoso piano player and diva Davina Sowers and her band The Vagabonds entertained the sunshine crowd. Pure pros; the band braved the heat in their black suits with Davina in her signature hat and stockings. At first I was a bit perplexed by the choice of putting Crankshaft in the air conditioning and Davina in the heat. Afterward, I decided it worked simply because Saturday would have been a cool day for New Orleans in July. That kind of gumbo works best with a little heat.
I wandered back inside a bit later to check Nashville based duo Smoking Flowers in time to hear a heartrendingly haunting version of The Replacements Left of The Dial built over accordion and acoustic guitar. There are covers and then there are meaningful reinterpretations. Great songs have a way of coming to life no matter how you approach them.
Throughout the day a series of singer/songwriters marched across the Blue Moon stage in the back of the next door book shop. For those more inclined toward the coffee shop scene who were also seeking a bit of cool and some great food, this was a wonderful respite.
Shortly after the dinner hour, The Shackletons served notice that things were about to get loud and kicked everything up a couple notches. Things got sweaty as the Campbell brothers flayed the air with their kick-ass blend of guitar drenched punk, rock and blues approach. For the first time in the day, the audience quit just listening and joined together singing back at the stage. Fort Wayne based Left Lane Cruiser followed and kept their foot firmly on the gas. Hard to fathom how much sound can be forged from nothing more than pounding drums and distorted guitar. There’s a lot of miles under this Deep Blues duo. This back to back combo kept the same fan base glued to their spots for a full two hour stint.
While the Cruisers were finishing tearing up the pavement, Mississipi born Kent Burnside, grandson of blues titan R.L Burnside, commenced tearing it up inside with his heavy Delta sound. Local harp master Hurricane Harold spent half the set jamming with the band. The Hook provides us with a great variety of bands throughout the year. But it occurred to me that Kent Burnside was what they do best.
Co-headliner Charlie Parr finished off the outside festivities on the main stage with a big crowd wired into his bluegrass to Americana sound. I particularly appreciated the title track from his new album Dog. The manner in which the schedule was laid out everyone had the opportunity to congregate for this show before deciding to migrate back inside for a late night finale or to call it a fine day and head for the exits. The more civilized of among us wandered happily back out onto Minnehaha Avenue. The rest of us headed back inside.
The Bad Man turned up the volume and aggressiveness with their dissonant ska on amphetamines style. If getting everybody worked up for The Black Eyed Snakes was the objective, it was good slot for them. Shortly after 11pm The Snakes finally took the stage for a large core of loyal fans. They were introduced by Current DJ Brian Oake who called them the best rock band going in Minnesota right now. Hard to argue. As bodies crowded to the front of the stage, I found myself moving back. It’s not often that sheer volume drives me back. But those boys unleashed the decibels, built around the double drums and Alan Sparhawk’s distorted vocals screamed through a harmonica mic.
The festival carries the title Deep Blues. And for those who haven’t cottoned to that term yet, it describes a particular style and sound. The Black Eyed Snakes, Left Lane Cruiser and bands like Black Diamond Heavies sit atop that heap. It was a fitting way to end the evening. It’s better to burn out than to fade away.
On the way out the door I had a moment to chat with organizer Jackson Buck. He was a man running on empty, having put out every fire and keeping all the stages running on time. A remarkable success. When I asked him if he knew he was going to sell out and how he felt about turning people away at the gate he smiled and replied. “Well, you always hope. But you never know. We knew we had such a strong line up that people would notice.” When asked about whether he was looking to duplicate or even exceed what they accomplished Saturday he allowed that space would always be an issue. But there was little question they could build on a job well done.
Lest anyone get too cocky I pointed out that there was always room for improvement. For one thing, purveyors of Deep Blues have a tendency to sit while they play. So adding a couple feet to the height of the outdoor stage would be a quick fix. And if you could just reduce the daytime high by about 5 degrees things would have been about as perfect as you can get. Then again, that one may be beyond the organizers’ abilities. But after this year’s success, I wouldn’t put it past them.