Madison Monday: River Roots, The Finale

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It’s officially over and now the long wait for next year’s River Roots festival can begin.  Let me just say from the beginning that this year was the best River Roots festival EVER!  The O.C. Bear guitar I won probably has something to do with that.  But also the amazing weather…this is the first year I can remember a folk festival with absolutely no rain.  And, of course, the music was outstanding.

As I said yesterday, Sunday at River Roots is kind of your low-key day.  Originally, the festival only went for Friday and Saturday, so some folks might still be getting used to the whole Sunday concept.  But more recently, Sunday has become local day at the festival, and let me tell you that there is some really amazing local musical talent in our area.

Appalatin
photo courtesy of Kriss Luckett-Ziessmer

Those who were in the know yesterday showed up early–at 12:30–for the first act.  Appalatin is a band that bridges mountains…the mountains of South America and the mountains of Appalachia.  All you need to be convinced that this is a brilliant concept is to hear their version of the consummate old-time song, “Shady Grove.”  And then you’ll want to hear much more.  This group is out of Louisville, so hopefully they’ll be coming back again next year to play on Friday night.  They clearly liked the festival, as after their gig, they went and played some more in the Folk Jammers tent with the local musicians.

Whiskey Bent Valley Boys were supposed to be next, but instead we got Michael Kelsey.  Now, let me confess that Michael Kelsey was not one of the acts that really leapt out at me from the sampler cd that the festival folks put out in advance of the event.  In fact, I just now had to go back and look at which song was his.  The beautiful thing you discover at River Roots is that some acts are a whole different animal when they’re live.  Sometimes they’re better and sometimes they’re worse.  Michael Kelsey is solidly in the former category.  Kelsey was one man on the stage, and it took some of us back in the tent a while to realize that what he was playing was Prince’s, “When Doves Cry.”  And then some of us started saying to ourselves, “How is he doing that bass line?” when it was just him on acoustic guitar.  And then, “How’d he get that sound out of a guitar?”  Eventually, we had to go check it out, even though there’s no shade in front of the stage, so there was a bit of sweating involved in standing up there.  Kelsey uses a loop pedal to set up his bass line or rhythm.  And then sometimes he hooks his fretting hand over the top of the neck of the guitar, almost like he’s playing a slide guitar.  Then he stomps and jumps and clicks and snaps and thumps and scratches on his guitar like it’s a beat box.  The end result is quite amazing, or as my husband said, “Micheal Kelsey is pure music with a covering of skin.”  I’ve only been playing acoustic guitar for 5 months or so, but I continue to be awed by the possible sounds that can come out of just one instrument.

The Black Lillies
photo courtesy of inMadisonIN.com

The Whiskey Bent Valley Boys then did show up, and they were your solid, old-time group.  Three guys with beards in chairs around the mikes…a guitar, a fiddle and a banjo, and hailing from the mountains of PeeWee Valley, Kentucky.   A nice interlude leading up to the Sunday headliner, The Black Lillies.  I’m happy to say that this is a group I thought would be a show-stopper, and they truly were.  Every year at the folk festival, there’s one moment when a musician literally stops all the conversation and creates her or his own space of silence with the music.  This year, that was The Black Lillies, and specifically an acapella song by Trisha Gene Brady.  By the time her song was almost over, all you could hear was her voice and the birds, and even the birds may have stopped to listen.  My musical expertise is weak, so I still can’t explain to you things like why what looks like a fairly simple and basic mix of instruments on the stage for The Black Lillies turns into some really exceptional music.  I just know it does.  And though the Sunday crowd was small, the festival ended with a lot of dancing, and a lot of joy.

And that, my friends, is why this was the best River Roots festival ever.  That and all the amazing people in our little community who make it happen every year.  River Roots will hopefully continue to draw folks from all around to come and visit, drink some good beer and hear some good music.  But for me, the festival is also a celebration of community and the wonderful things that are possible even in small places like Madison.  I can’t say enough about what a great job everyone does, so I’ll just say that I have complete confidence that next year will surely also be the best River Roots festival ever.

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