John Paul White / Photo: Kevin Kinder
Friday night at the Fayetteville Roots Festival was a familiar affair. We’ve now grown familiar with the Fayetteville Town Center as the main venue. And many of Friday’s acts were familiar to regular attendees, too: Joe Purdy performed there last year, Smokey & The Mirror performed last year, and headliners The Wood Brothers performed there in 2014. They even performed at the 2017 edition of the Roots Festival during Thursday night’s preview/VIP party.
But please don’t let that lull you in thinking the festival has grown stale. Grown, yes. But not stale.
The Wood Brothers played more than a dozen songs each of their two nights. I counted four repeats between the two sets. That’s an impressive catalog, and an impressive mastery of their expansive genre, switching between their own songs and covers of artists such as The Allman Brothers Band and Mississippi John Hurt. They can and do play just about anything they want, and their musicianship is top notch. If you can find a better upright bassist than Chris Wood, please notify me immediately. I want to see them.
Smokey & the Mirror, the musical project of festival cofounders Bryan and Bernice Hembree, were up to new tricks as well. They are in a constant stage of reconfiguration, and they’ve performed as a two piece or, like they did on Friday, an occasional five piece (occasional because when Bernice abandoned her upright bass to play piano, a fifth member came on to fill in for her). They performed on Friday with local guitarist Matt Smith, best known for his work in blues and funk, but not necessarily roots. With all due respect to the other guitarists I have watched Smokey & the Mirror play with over the years, Smith is the most technically proficient among them, and by a considerable margin, too. You could feel the energy he brought to the stage, as Smokey & the Mirror was about as animated as I’ve seen them. I approve of this configuration.
The Wood Brothers / Photo: Clayton Taylor Photography
Excitement and jubilation are welcome visitors to the Roots stage. If there is a consistent problematic thread in the world of this festival, it’s the tempo and mood of the songs. Asking someone to sit in a sleepy room for eight plus hours after filling them with food (sustainable, chef-made food is a big part of the festival ideology) and local beer with a soundtrack of downtempo folk rock is a sometimes-difficult proposition.
Festival artist John Paul White, who had the mainstage just prior to the Wood Brothers’ closing set, addressed that issue somewhat.
“You weren’t expecting to be cheered up, were you?” he asked the crowd. He talked about the unseen marital problems between his grandparents. The River Whyless shared a song about a friend who died of cancer. Joe Purdy offered a song or two about the current political climate. It was often heavy in the venue, and might be again today. Buckle up.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t moments of levity. You just never know how a night of music will affect you, which is why we chase it from night to night. And thankfully, we have two more nights to chase.
The festival continues through Sunday night. Here are some selected highlights taking place today (Aug. 26):
11 a.m. – Chef competition, Fayetteville Square, free
11:30 a.m. – Recording session of KUAF, Fayetteville Public Library, free
9 p.m. – Headlining set by Iron & Wine (sold out)
10:30 p.m. – Arkansasauce and National Park Radio, George’s Majestic Lounge, $12
12:45 a.m. – Open jam session, Stage 18, free