It began as a simple idea – invite a much-loved troubadour to town for two shows, one acoustic, another electric. Fans would hear the word and head to Bellows Falls, Vermont.
Thus, the Fred Eaglesmith Weekend was born.
Fast-forward 10 years, and the festival, now known as Roots on the River, is “an institution,” in the words of its’ founder, Charlie Hunter.
Like any self-respecting institution, the 2009 edition has a Roman number – welcome, Fred X!
“This has legs now and I’d like to see it continue indefinitely as long as Fred wants to come play,” says Ray Massucco, who took over full time production responsibilities from Charlie for last year’s show.
Well, perhaps “took over” doesn’t quite describe it.
Writes Hunter in the current program, “after the year of the Incredible Humidity and the year of the Thunderstorm That Nearly Killed Everybody and the year of the Continual Inundation That Resulted In A Lot Of Rotten Hay Being Dumped On Top Of A Lot Of Mud I was ready for the Year Of Not Doing A Festival, but Ray Massucco would have none of that, stepped in, and took it over.”
“Everyone else stepped back,” replies the modest Massucco. “Seriously, I did not intend to run it, I just wanted to help support it to keep it going.”
His first effort was unmarred by the challenges that Hunter sometimes faced, with mostly good weather and many memorable performances.
“It was too much to give up after one year,” Ray says, “so I stayed on.”
This year’s festival kicks off Thursday, June 11 at the Bellows Falls Opera House, with “A Night of Blues in Vermont,” featuring Sonny Landreth and folksinger Chris Smither, each a headliner in their own right (Smither sold out a Chester show last February); Josh Maiocco opens.
Maiocco and Ezra Veitch are festival veterans. The pair’s latest band, Ninja Monkey, play a free show with Spike Dogtooth at the BF Farmers’ Market Friday afternoon.
Friday evening, the music moves to the tent behind Rockingham’s Everyday Inn for the first of three performances by Fred Eaglesmith and his band, the Flying Squirrels. Joining Fred is Junior Brown and his “guit-steel,” a one-of-a-kind hybrid of lap steel and six-string guitar.
The Roger Marin Band opens; they perform again Saturday. Marin has appeared at every Roots festival since the first in 2000, both solo and as a member of Eaglesmith’s band (he was a Flying Squirrel for six years).
Says Massucco, “Friday night is also Junior Brown’s birthday, which should ramp up the performance level.”
The festival’s focal point is the all-day Saturday show in the Rockingham tent, which features a bevy of female talent this year. The high estrogen level reflects a “need to balance out the Thursday, Friday and Sunday shows a little bit,” Ray says, “Besides, they are all awesomely talented and we only book the best of the best.”
The “best of the best” includes Red Molly, who regularly draw crowds to Boccelli’s in downtown Bellows Falls, and Caroline Herring, a singer/songwriter whose most recent album (“Lantana”) has drawn comparisons to Lucinda Williams.
Also appearing are the retro-country Sweetback Sisters. “They could be the surprise hit of the festival,” says Massucco. The Brooklyn-based band will be selling copies of “Chicken Ain’t Chicken” – officially set for release June 30th on Signature Sounds.
Newcomer Jenee Halstead, who secured an invite after wowing a Boccelli’s audience earlier this year, brings an impressive collection of character-based songs from her indie debut, “The River Grace.”
Saturday closes with sets from Hayes Carll, the Bottle Rockets and Fred Eaglesmith.
According to this year’s program, Carll’s set in 2003 garnered “the best reception of any first time performer in the nine year history of the festival.” Most recently, Carll released “Trouble In Mind” on the Lost Highway label, home to Van Morrison, Willie Nelson and Ryan Adams. The record features the rollicking “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” and the hilarious (or heretical, take your pick) “She Left Me For Jesus.” The latter won the Americana Music Association’s Song of the Year award, and spawned a brilliant music video, a send-up of the “Two Timers” reality show.
The Bottle Rockets incendiary 2008 set made them an obvious choice to be Saturday’s penultimate band. Last year, the Festus, Missouri band was asking: “What the hell is a Bellows Falls? I think they took the gig for shits and giggles,” says Ray. “After the set and around last call, they said this was the best night on the tour.”
“This year, they called us and wanted to know if there was any chance they could come back. I decided to move them to Saturday to rev up the late show again. I really think Fred kicks it up a notch when there is another competent artist ahead of him,” says Massucco.
Fred’s set could extend past midnight, and fans hanging around post-show are often surprised by impromptu jam sessions in the rooms, and sometimes the parking lot, of the Everyday Inn.
Since the festival began in 2000, an acoustic show has closed things out on Sunday morning, featuring Eaglesmith and another luminous act. Last year, Mary Gauthier did the early set; this year, it’s songsmith Jeffrey Foucault, who recently released a tasty John Prine tribute album (“Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes”).
Even in an economy tough enough to prod Live Nation into “fee-free Wednesdays” (with cheap seats for everyone from Kid Rock to Aerosmith), Roots on the River thrives.
Ticket prices are one reason. They range from $25 for the single shows (Saturday’s all-day affair is $40), to $105 for all four days. There are still a few $135 deluxe preferred seating packages left.
“I’d pay double the price of admission for either Thursday or Friday’s shows,” says Massucco. “Throw in the kid’s ticket pricing on Saturday (6-14 year olds are $10, under 5 free), student and senior pricing on all tickets and the family cap (of $100) on Saturday, and this is the best entertainment value of the summer, bar none.”
But it’s Mr. Eaglesmith, the man who gives “Fred X” its name, who makes it all work. “His shows are at an incredible quality level right now,” says Ray, with a band that’s “exceptionally talented, tightly knit and creative, not to mention young. I think they push Fred to new limits as the leader.”