As show time approached, music fans milled in front of the Bellows Falls Opera House, munching on barbeque and comparing notes from past festivals. Downstairs in the reception area, festival organizer Ray Massucco unveiled an enormous “Fred X” cake, and later when he introduced local singer/songwriter Josh Maiocco, he offered everyone in the house a piece.
It’s Roots on the River, a musical Brigadoon that materializes every June in the mist of Bellows Falls and Rockingham. For four wonderful days, any music lover can be part of community – there’s enough cake for everyone
Stave, Gary, Jackie and Amy, who traveled from Great Britain for the festival, commiserated with their friend Randy, who’d made the trek from northern California. Soon, their friend John joined them.
“I came to my first Roots in 2007,” said John, who’d come from Manchester, England. “Now, I have a girlfriend in Saxton’s River.”
Josh Maiocco worked though a short set of autobiographical songs and a few covers, including a tasty medley of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and “This Little Light of Mine.”
“No way I’m playing here without doing a Chris Whitley song,” Josh said, as he ended with “Dirt Floor,” a poignant reminder of Whitley’s last ever appearance, at the 2005 festival.
A laid-back Chris Smither won the house over with his good humor and great songwriting. There’s probably no musician as comfortable in his own skin as the New Orleans-raised Smither, a writer/essayist who spent nearly as much time telling stories as singing songs during his set.
He previewed songs from the upcoming “Time Stands Still,” a studio album due for September release. Among the highlights was a song he wrote for his four-year old daughter (he quipped that she’d written two thirds of it, but he didn’t want to tell her because “then she’ll want money”), a conversation between father and daughter which contained this knowing refrain: “The wisest answer’s one you’ve learned a long time ago: ‘I don’t know’”
Smither introduced another new song, “Surprise, Surprise,” as “topical – which is just as hard to write as a regular song, but only lasts for six months or so. With such a short shelf life, you have to play it a lot.”
After two relatively sedate, sit-down solo sets from Maiocco and Smither, Sonny Landreth’s brand of Southern blues-rock was a bit jarring, and a few fans made an early exit. Fans of the slide guitarist, however, were electrified by his high-energy pyrotechnics.
It was a great kickoff to the festival, which continues tomorrow with a free Ninja Monkey/Spike Dogtooth show at the Farmer’s Market, and the first of Fred Eaglesmith’s shows in the tent behind the Everyday Inn. Ray Massucco commissioned another cake specially for the show, in the shape of co-star Junior Brown’s “guit-steel” guitar.
It’s Brown’s birthday, and Ray’s a hospitable guy. There will probably be plenty to share.
Tickets remain for Friday night’s show, and the all-day Saturday ten extravaganza, featuring Eaglesmith’s band, the Bottle Rockets, Hayes Carll, Roger Marin, the Sweetback Sisters, Caroline Herring, Red Molly and Jenee Halstead.
There are also seats available for the Meetinghouse show on Sunday, featuring Eaglesmith and Jeffrey Foucault.