Roots on the River turns “X” – Fred X

FredEaglesmith - BobSmithCreditIt 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.”

Eilen Jewell Coming To Roots on the River

eilenjewellsmall.jpgEilen Jewell’s songs seem preserved in amber and channeled from a distant time, her voice wise and weary. When Jewell, who performs next Saturday at the Roots on the River Festival, sings “So Long Blues,” it sounds like Memphis Minnie in 1941, not a 26-year old from Idaho.

Few records generated the kind of buzz Jewell’s debut CD “Boundary County” did when it came out last year. The Boston media fell over itself to anoint her as a new Americana queen, and Signature Sounds picked up the independently-released disc for distribution.

That’s the kind of attention the Northampton, Massachusetts label has only lavished on one other artist – Josh Ritter. Like Ritter, Signature’s Jim Olsen signed Jewell soon thereafter; her new disc, “Letters From Sinners and Strangers” is due for summer release.

All the attention, says Jewell, “surprised me, because in such a short amount of time it took us a lot of places. It was kind of a magic record for us.”

Eilen (rhymes with feelin’) Jewell’s musical career almost didn’t happen. She’s written songs since her teenage years, busked in college and even went to Venice, California to play in the streets. But she gave it up, went back home to Idaho, then moved to Massachusetts when a friend promised to help her find a job.

“I stayed in the Berkshires for about nine months before I started to feel it was too small,” she said. “I wanted to start performing music. I’d stopped busking since I’d left LA and it was making me feel a little aimless. I decided to move to Boston because everyrone said that was the great music town.”

There, she met drummer (and current manager) Jason Beek, who helped her put together a studio band that includes some of the region’s best roots musicians – guitarist Jerry Miller, along with violin player Daniel Kellar and upright bassist Johnny Sciasica of the Tarbox Ramblers.

“I wasn’t sure for awhile if I really wanted to have a band,” Jewell says. “I didn’t want to be a band leader – I’m not good at telling people what to do.”

Once “Boundary Country” was completed, the band did a few shows and immediately discovered an obvious onstage chemistry. “I feel really lucky for that,” says Jewell. “You can’t make that happen. You can find the best musicians in the world but you can’t really know if you click as a group. Luckily I didn’t have to go through much trial and error.”

Asked how she came to write songs that sound, in the words of Peter Mulvey, “like they’re being sung by a 65-year old woman,” Jewell says with a laugh, “that’s a really good question. I’m not sure how it happened.”

She cites Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and Lucinda Williams (whom many have compared her to), but adds, “It’s not like I consciously go out and say I want to write a song in the style of this or that musician. I hold them up as a standard to aim for, and the themes they try to write about.”

When she was 15, she discovered her father’s old record collection in a box in the attic. “I saw Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and thought I’ve heard of this guy,” she says. She had to find a turntable at a yard sale so she could listen to them, as there wasn’t one at her house. Her mother and father preferred the television.

“We weren’t a very musical family,” she explains.

Her father, however, did provide young Eilen with an experience that forever shaped her.music. For a long family driving trip, he brought along Dylan’s three disc “Bootleg Series” – and nothing else.

“That was the only soundtrack on this road trip, and it sunk in,” says Jewell. “I found myself reading all the liner notes and wondering who is Woody Guthrie? Once you start doing that you begin to realize that there’s this whole family tree – Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson…”

Despite all the recent attention, she’s keeping things in perspective. She’s excited about summer shows in Chicago and her hometown of Boise, both firsts. XM Radio invited her to play live in the studio later this year and, says Jewell, “we just found out that we’re gonna be opening for Loretta Lynn at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton this fall. She’s a hero of mine.”.

“I’ll know that I’ve arrived when I can quit the day job and have a little place with a garden and a guest bedroom.”

“I’m not very lofty when it comes to ambition,” she continues. “I’m a lifer. I’m gonna do this music thing no matter what it brings me. I want to be comfortable and only do what I love. I can’t see needing much more outside of that. Whatever it takes to get there is good for me.”

Local Rhythms – Summer Festivals Coming

fredfest.jpgForget the recent burst of warm, sunny weather. To my tune-addled brain, spring fever kicks in when summer music festival announcements begin arriving in my inbox.

Get ready to dust off the low-slung lawn chairs, it’s going to be a great season. .

I was a bit worried when Charlie Hunter suggested the annual FredFest, formally known as Roots on the River, might change signficantly this year. The only apparent difference is a new producer, Ray Massuco.

The caliber of music is unchanged.

I’d daresay it’s better, with past favorites Gandalf Murphy, up and comers Red Molly and the awesomely talented Eilen Jewell, local heroes Josh Maiocco and Scot Ainslie, and of course, the many faces of Fred Eaglesmith highlighting a four-day bash that begins June 7 in downtown Bellows Falls.

The next weekend Moodus, Connecticut hosts an all-Cajun/Zydeco festival that’s worth the trip if you need to channel your innner Boozoo. The three day bash, which starts June 15, features 10 perfomers, including Keith Frank, Brian Jack and Step Rideau.

Out in Weston, Vermont the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival returns, with traditional music from the Gibson Brothers, Leroy Troy, Buddy Merriam and festival hosts the Seth Sawyer Band and the Sawyer Brothers. The long weekend, produced by Candi Sawyer (notice a trend here?), begins June 21.

One of my personal favorites, the Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts, kicks off with a free Crooked Still/Eilen Jewell show July 19, then begins in earnest with a Zydeco bash featuring the Subdudes and Terence Simian the next night.

On Saturday, there’s hot air balloons and a flat-out amazing lineup of players. Blues legend Buddy Guy headlines, along with cutting edge alt-country from Southern Culture on the Skids, petite powerhouse Erin McKeown, the Kennedys and a performer I would crawl a mile over broken glass to see, Neko Case.

Acts are still being confirmed for the big daddy of regional shows, Falcon Ridge, which starts July 26th at its new home, Dodds Farm in the Berkshires. FredFest performers Red Molly and Gandalf Murphy are set, along with Marshall Crenshaw, Eddie from Ohio, Terri Hendrix and her legendary musical partner Lloyd Maines, and John Gorka.

A Falcon Ridge “Most Wanted” preview tour featuring Ellis, Pat Wictor and the aforementioned Red Molly (who met over a Falcon Ridge campfire), stops at Middle Earth Music Hall May 9.

The best part is you could buy tickets for all of these feastivals for about the price of one good seat for the Police’s Fenway Park concert.

What else is brewing this weekend?

Thursday: Billy Rosen Quartet, Sophie & Zeke’s – This jazz ensemble wowed the crowd the first time they stopped by this downtown eatery, so they’ve been asked back. First-rate players all, they step through standards and give modern songs a special touch. There’s much more music ahead at S&Z’s in the coming months, including the return of Pete Merrigan in May.

Friday: Rock Bottom Band, Electra – If you’re ready for the country, this is the place to go Friday Rock Bottom was named Country Music Band of the Year in 2006 by the New Hampshire Country Music Association, so it’s clear they know their stuff. Put on some cowboy boots, put a crease in those jeans, and practice your Electric Slide moves.

Saturday: Pulse Prophets, Salt Hill – Another interesting “get” for my favorite Upper Valley eclectic music spot, this Burlington band calls their sound an “organic and celestial fusion of funk, fegg, hip hop, Latin, and Afro-beat, with a touch of electronica. This musical stew has been known to pack a dance floor – it’s all groove to me.

Sunday: Red Fox Session Band, Boccelli’s – A local band celebrates the one year anniversary of this Bellows Falls restaurant, an afternoon (3-7 PM) buffet dinner featuring a bountiful table of food and all-around good vibrations. Boccelli’s, of course, is BF’s new home of live music; for a town that’s had its fair share of recent hard knocks, this is a welcome renaissance.

Tuesday: Colin McCaffrey, Canoe Club – This fine Vermont folksinger performs solo tonight in downtown Hanover, but look for his high energy band, the Stone Cold Roosters, at area venues in the coming weeks, celebrating the release of their new CD, “Out of the Woods.”. Their lineup regional all-stars includes Ted Mortimer and (occasionally) Linda Boudreault of Dr. Burma, former Breakway players Peter Riley and Scot Hopkins and many other hot pickers.

Wednesday: Brandi Carlile, Higher Ground – She’s the latest industry full-court press, with a “Grey’s Anatomy” video, Paste Magazine essay contest and stops on all the late-night televison shows, including Leno. Is she any good? Perhaps, but all this hype will probably bleed it out of her. Such is the music business.