Read our coverage of Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion 2018
Bristol VA/TN – 21 to 23 September 2018 – TriFest Music Tour
Rob Dickens – words
Jim Jacob – images
Here I am in Bristol back for the fourth time and my second Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion.
Bristol is officially recognised as The Birthplace of Country Music. For it was here in 1927 where Ralph Peer, with the most advanced equipment of the day, began the recording careers of The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and others.
As I reported two years ago, there continues to be a real demonstration of the town’s renewal here and the town has many initiatives going, largely on the back of its place in music history. The relatively new Birthplace of Country Museum is one, the resurgence of Radio Bristol another and the continued success of this festival is a shining example of opening up the heart of downtown to bring people in.
The town is split by a State border right down the main thoroughfare, State Street, with Tennessee on one side and Virginia on the other.
As well as Radio Bristol, the Museum manages the Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival which is into its eighteenth year.
So many genres are represented here – pretty much you name it – progressive bluegrass, new grass, country-folk, folk, Americana, country, folk-grass, bluegrass, alt-country, blues, rock, Southern rock, folk-rock, alternative folk, western swing, gospel, classic country,, pop country, early country, comedy, jam band, old time, honky tonk, soul, r’n’b, , indie-rock, rockabilly, funk, improvisational, Irish, Celtic, country-swing,, power-pop and country and western. These are the descriptors in the official program for artists appearing here – as you can see, the event is not wanting for diversity.
Where better to start at this music portal than a newly restored theatre – The Cameo is on State Street and has turned 93. It has not hosted live music for many, many years but tonight it opened its arms to one of the brightest and youngest stars on the Americana circuit.
Molly Tuttle is an IBMA and (just last week) an Americana awarded guitarist. This Nashville resident’s instrumental prowess was self-evident and startling – at one point she player her guitar with a banjo tuning which created a tone and rhythm that I had not quite heard before. Alongside this exquisite playing craft, her singing ability has blossomed as has her songwriting. A four-piece ensemble created some special moments but for me the best elements featured new songs which will form the basis on her first full-length release which should be out in the next six months. Two songs co-written with the wonderful Sarah Siskind were particularly striking.
Scott Miller is coming off another sharp and melodious collection of songs, Ladies Auxiliary released in late 2017 (read our review here). His performance at the Paramount Theatre was sublime, aided by the accompaniment of the great Brynn Davies on bass. He swayed, prowled and put his shoulder to the wheel on stage and the full theatre was rapturous, many singing along to his tunes, not very many of which feature on the new album. Miller has the ability to use his wit for comic effect while maintain an innate sincerity and focus.
The Waybacks are a four-piece band out of the San Francisco Bay area and they provided a jamming wall of crisp harmonies at the State Street Stage. Twin lead vocalists give this tight group a large twist of flexibility. A cover medley of “Texas Cookin'” (Guy Clark) and “Lawyers Guns and Money” (Warren Zevon) was a sonic blast.
Cordovas have a much go-see-them vibe at the moment with plenty of positive reviews from their appearance at last week’s AmericanaFest. Based in Nashville, their influences ooze Southern Rock a la Gregg Allman getting deep into instrument interplay and demanding attention with their power lyrics. Three vocalists give them a winning edge.
Where to start. It don’t matter. It’s movin’ day!
Two of our touring party get to be interviewed on local TV.
Lauren Morrow‘s mighty vocals from Lauren Morrow and the Whiskey Gentry – Dolly anyone?
The distinctive tenor of JP Parsons and the American Bandwagon.
The visit to renew warm acquaintance with premier East Tennessee’s Gold Ship Records founder Andrew Sergeant.
Josiah Leming‘s plaintive, power set as he put every ounce of his being into a passionate performance. One to look out for – I sense he won’t give up ’til he’s tracked you down and you become enamored.
Watching IBMA nominee Missy Haines and the New Hip while savagely devouring a Pulled Pork Tater Tot.
Checking out the energy and volume (both extreme) of C2 and the Brothers Reed – Southern Rock meets Led Zeppelin
Which leads to the stuff that really stuck.
Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen
Take Chris Hillman – member of The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band. Take Herb Petersen – whose career started with Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, and a member of The Dillards. Add John Jorgensen – a pioneer of the American gypsie jazz movement and Mike Fain – a bass player with seven Grammys. Let them loose on a long, stellar catalogue of songs. Provide the whole with pristine acoustics and you have the perfect set. “The Bells of Rhymney”, “Turn Turn Turn”, “Eight Miles High” (still sounding as trippy as ever), “When I Get A Little Money”, “Walk Right Back” (The Everly Brothers) and “Sin City”. Magic.
Farm and Fun Time is a program on local Radio Bristol which was re-birthed from the successful show of the 1940s and 1950s. (read our piece on Radio Bristol). Tonight was a live version at a packed Paramount Theatre on State Street.
We were treated to a lively performance from old-time band hosts Bill and the Belles showcasing their recommended new album Dreamsongs, Etc. and who also performed some clever advertising ditties to make the messages from the show sponsors easily digestible. The local Farm Report gave an insight into the local community and its issues. Finally, Barbara Martin Stephens gave us a recipe on meatloaf. Now Mrs Martin Stephen was wife to one of the all-time (and most volatile) bluegrass legends Jimmy Martin who was the second person to be inducted into the Bluegrass Hall Of Fame (just after Bill Monroe). Her book is now available – Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler: My Life With Jimmy Martin.
Onto the guests of the show – The War and Treaty were captivating and, even though I have seen them many times this year, this was a more restrained and refreshing set which fitted with the environment. The Ruen Brothers were a puzzle. Two siblings (Henry and Rupert Stansall) from a sleepy steel town in England are guitarists who specialise in a throwback, revivalist rock ‘n’ roll – it was energetic alright and there was a bottle of Jack Daniels being passed around for the hell of it, but sadly this audience member is yet to be convinced. The silver-lined king of honky-tonk Dale Watson & His Lonestars provided a lot of fun with Watson’s deep, rich voice, wit and seasoned band- Celine Lee brightened up proceedings as well.
Overall it was a blast and, coincidentally kept us away from a significant shower outside. Win win!
The Marcus King Band I suspect are on the brink of such serious recognition. A six-piece Southern Rock band with a garnish of funky horns, the tightest rhythm section and multi-instrumentalist King leading all sections of this formidable train. Unfortunately the volume at the Cumberland Square Stage was such that it was difficult to come up with a full, ringing endorsement. I will though get to some recorded material though – I am pretty sure it will be well worth it. (interesting the MKB was the only artist where press photography was not allowed – Jim was not impressed and neither am I as we have no image to ornate these words).
Grammy winners The Steel Drivers were delivering their wonderful and rather unique original song-driven, bluegrass style on the Piedmont Stage. The sound was impeccable and I was not disappointed with the band’s new lead singer (Kelvin Damrell) who has giant shoes to fill in presenting the work of predecessors Chris Stapleton and Gary Nichols. As Nashville writer Peter Cooper has said: “This is a band like no other, by inclination and not by calculation” I love their work.
Today’s was a shorter schedule – noon to around seven pm – but its quality was without question.
Sarah Shook and the Disarmers were a must-see for me after being entranced by their new record Years. Shook’s punkish looks and deadpan twang holler make for a glorious idiosyncrasy and, although the vocal sound muddied the worthwhile lyrics, we got the picture as to the merits of her controlled band. On the rise.
Speaking of such, Listening Through The Lens has had the new release of Americana-folk outfit Goodnight, Texas as one of its albums of the month. A striking display of light and shade, diversity of grounded musical styles and songs that pack a wallop. Twin vocals provide diversity with this band that alternates between foot stomping roots rock, front porch jamming and haunting tales that chill (“Dearest Sarah”).
Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams did not disappoint on the Main Street Stage. Campbell spent eight years on the road with Bob Dylan before being drawn to Woodstock by Levon Helm where he stayed for ten years. Driving harmonies from the pair, Campbell’s guitar prowess and stories were delightful.
Now to the performance of the festival.
Birds of Chicago are Allison Russell (vocals, banjo, clarinet) and JT Nero (vocals, guitar), today joined by Canadian producer and master guitarist Steve Dawson. The pair moved to Nashville two years ago and, such is their rich vein of songwriting form, they released not one, but two albums recently, both striking. In their first performance in Bristol they took us through their heady mix of folk, gospel and soul – “Real Midnight”, “Remember Wild Horses”, “Time and Times”, a heartfelt new song reflecting separation with their daughter “You Are Not Alone”, the pleading “Try”, the clarinet-infused “Baton Rouge”, leaving us with their moving, hopeful “American Flowers”. A triumph.
The closing act Old 97s were vibrant, full bore with their brand of homespun cow punk rockabilly. A favourite of mine, this was the third time I had seen them live and maybe the sound volume or the heat or the lustre of Birds Of Chicago lessened the experience a little. They remain a must-see band celebrating twenty-five years together.
My second Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion was memorable.
Three days of rich, diverse performances with almost always perfect sound. To get around the twenty-odd stages was ridiculously easy which I cannot recall being replicated anywhere else other than a boat music cruise.
Make no mistake. Bristol is a portal where serious things have happened that changed the course of country and other roots music.
The history, culture and intimacy simply make the music you experience here sound better than in most other places.
Read our coverage of Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion 2018