The Cate Brothers with Amy Helm and festival co-founders Bryan and Bernice Hembree / Photos by Clayton Taylor
It was very early into Amy Helm’s set that you were reminded what kind of night was in store for those attending the Friday (Aug. 23) mainstage activities at the Fayetteville Roots Festival. The daughter of the late great Arkansan Levon Helm offered a song to a special guest in the crowd.
Pulling out her mandolin, she played the song “Atlantic City,” much like her late father would have done, and dedicated it to her aunt Anna Lee. Anna Lee isn’t technically Helm’s aunt, but close enough. You know Anna Lee as the woman mentioned in the classic song “The Weight” by The Band.
The Band, made famous by their series of genre-defining Americana/rock records and the classic Martin Scorsese-directed concert film “The Last Waltz,” was not onstage last night. But their presence was intentionally included at every turn.
What’s Next at the Fayetteville Roots Festival
Mainstage activities resume at the Fayetteville Town Center at 2:30 p.m. today (Aug. 24). Highlights include Hiss Golden Messenger, a full-band (and a full-length) set from The Milk Carton Kids and a show from Rhiannon Giddens. The main stage is sold out.
The festival’s culinary events at Pratt Place were pushed back to 3 p.m. because of the weather.
Although the main stage is sold out, a series of food and music events are taking place throughout the day at venues throughout Northwest Arkansas, many with tickets or space remaining. Check out the Roots Festival’s schedule for details, or look at our overview for some highlights.
There’s a book-length history lesson that could be written on The Band’s ties to this area. I’ve heard rumors one is in the works, in fact. But there’s no room for that here. Here’s the considerably shortened version: Huntsville, Arkansas, native Ronnie Hawkins was one of the most famous rockabilly artists of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. He also was a tremendous talent scout, launching the careers of many important musicians. He assembled a fantastic band behind him, eventually including four Canadian players and one Arkansan, the drummer Levon Helm. As his backing band, they were known as The Hawks, and they were frequent guests at a concert hall in south Fayetteville called the Rockwood Club, which Hawkins owned for a time.
Still with me? Great. After Hawkins departed for Canada, where he was even more popular than in the states, The Hawks eventually sought other fortunes. For a time, they were called Levon and The Hawks. They would later be Bob Dylan’s backing band right after he famously made the switched from acoustic to electric instrumentation. When discussed as a unit, they were always referred to as Bob Dylan and The Band. When Dylan and the rest of the players parted ways (amicably, by most accounts) the name stuck. The five remaining musicians released their own music and went on to fame as The Band.
Whew. That’s a lot. Sorry, there’s still a little more. The classic Band lineup broke up in 1976 following the filming of “The Last Waltz,” which was meant as a farewell film. It features a lot of guest cameos, including Mavis Staples and her family gospel group singing with The Band. After the semi-official breakup of The Band, there was still some musical inclinations for most of the members. When four of the members looked to replace holdout Robbie Robertson, they turned to Ernie and Earl Cate, the twin brothers from Springdale who had their own recording career. Levon Helm and the Cates had been friends for a decade or more. The Cates signed on and toured as part a reformed Band, including notably in Japan, before that configuration faded as well.
Amy Helm / Photo: Clayton Taylor
Why do you need to know all of that? Because Friday’s mainstage activities were a homage to The Band, even if it didn’t say so on paper. Amy Helm played a set with her band at 6 p.m. She was followed by an increasingly rare appearance by The Cate Brothers Band, the full-band arrangement led by the Springdale natives. Ronnie Hawkins – coming down from Canada for the first time in at least a decade – was called onto stage to receive a special award given annually by the festival. It’s called “The Crazy Chester Award,” and it too refers to a real-life person from Arkansas immortalized in the song “The Weight.” Ronnie and Crazy Chester were friends, and they used to watch movies on the Fayetteville Square together, Ronnie told the audience. And the evening was closed out by Mavis Staples and her stellar backing band. The threads between The Band and the Friday musical guests, and by proxy Fayetteville, are weaved together tightly.
So how was it all?
Here’s another considerably shortened version: Occasionally very good, and occasionally something we’ve seen before.
Helm is a tremendous talent. She often relies on the songs of others, including a few of her father’s or one of his favorites, including the beautiful a capella gospel number “Gloryland.” Her setlist was a mix of traditionals and new songs from the likes of Allen Toussaint, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and The Band. She also offered her cover of “Michigan” by The Milk Carton Kids, who appear tonight (Aug. 24) on the festival’s mainstage.
Mavis Staples / Photo: Clayton Taylor
The Cate Brothers followed her with many familiar songs, including a few from The Band, such as “The Shape I’m In.” If a Cate Brothers concert serves only as an excuse to watch Earl Cate play his pale yellow Fender guitar, it’s still probably worth the ticket price. But there’s more, of course, and about midway through their set when they found their groove, they had the venue under their control.
Mavis, the headliner, is a force of nature, even at 80 years old. She’s been making music for 60 years. 60 years! She’s seen much in her 80 years – she marched with the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s and she pulls no punches now. She dug out the Staples Singers’ classic “Respect Yourself,” which contains the line “Take the Sheet Off Your Face, Boy.” She would later turn her song “No Time For Crying” into a call for immigration reform, an end to gun violence and for policies that address homelessness. She worked the crowd into a frenzy. You’ll understand her concerts better if you think of them as a call and response session at a church.
Her concert came exactly one year to the day after she performed at last year’s Roots Festival. Which brings us to the other half of my one-sentence short version above: We’ve seen much of last night’s show before. It sometimes felt like a regular George’s Majestic Lounge Happy Hour show, the kind they have every Friday night. Helm has been in this region several times in the last few years. The members of the Cate Brothers don’t always play together, but most can be seen in other groups on a fairly regular basis. Or in Mavis’ case, it felt like a continuation of what we saw last year. If you didn’t go to last year’s festival, or you don’t live in Northwest Arkansas, I suspect this assemblage carried even more magic.
Ronnie Hawkins / Photo: Clayton Taylor
The way to break up the sameness is through surprises, of which there were a few. The Milk Carton Kids joined Mavis for “You Are Not Alone.” She called them the Milk Carton Boys. It was charming and pretty funny.
The big get might have been the appearance by Ronnie Hawkins. I don’t believe he’s been in Arkansas in at least a decade, and perhaps longer. He walked out onto the stage, told stories, and carried away his award. Ever the performer, he told jokes at every chance. “I left Fayetteville in 1958, and it’s changed a little bit since then,” he quipped. But he said he recognized the Cate Brothers, as they were around in 1958 (Fact check: partially true).
Right before his appearance on set was one of the other highlights of the night. You would have guessed that there would be a big jam on the song “The Weight” at some point, and it came at the end of The Cate Brothers’ set. Amy Helm, festival co-founders Bryan and Bernice Hembree and other guests all assembled for a big, meaty version of the song. Sadly, Mavis – who sang on what’s often considered to be the gold standard version of the song on “The Last Waltz” – did not join them for the tune. It carried the magnitude of the closing number, and it was a fantastic rendition. It just didn’t happen to be the last song of the night.
Joe Purdy with the Honey Dew Drops and the Hembrees / Photo: Clayton Taylor
I suppose I hoped for just a little more collaboration and stage sharing between these groups than what occurred, but that’s probably an embarrassment of riches scenario. It’s exceedingly rare that these musicians are under the same roof together. I don’t think it’s ever happened before, in fact, so I hoped we could capitalize on it. But there’s something to be said about the careful curation that got them here in the first place, and Hawkins’ appearance alone was months in the making.
Marveling at the crowd and the musicians around him, Hawkins, clutching his award, noted that “We’re in the big time, and we don’t even know it.”
He also mused about the likelihood of another reunion.
“I hope I can live long enough to come back one more time,” he said.
We’re lucky he made it, and we’re lucky for the onstage reminder of Fayetteville’s role in many musical careers.
Mavis Staples / Photo: Clayton Taylor
Joe Purdy / Photo: Clayton Taylor
Amy Helm / Photo: Clayton Taylor
The Cate Brothers / Photo: Clayton Taylor
“The Crazy Chester Award” / Photo: Clayton Taylor