Brandi Carlile may have provided the emblematic moment of the Roots N Blues festival 2021, three songs in his set on Saturday night.
Flanked by her longtime comrades, twin brothers Phil and Tim Hanseroth, Carlile performed her 2007 track “The Story”, delivering the lyrics “But these stories mean nothing / When you have no one to tell them to. / That’s right / I was made for you. “
Even to listeners who have heard Carlile’s song dozens of times, those lines sounded different. It was as if the singer-songwriter was personally mending a link in the chain between artists and audiences, broken for more than a year due to the effects of COVID-19.
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This year’s festival offered at least two premieres. The three-day affair, which ran Friday through Sunday at Stephens Lake Park, was the first Roots N Blues since 2019; last year’s edition was suspended due to the pandemic.
And this year, the organizers kept their promise to schedule a program with a female representation in each slot of the festival. This year’s Roots N Blues roster was designed to tackle inequality in the industry, where festivals often skew over 70% male, and help everyone involved envision a better way.
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Going back to live music on this scale was odd – until it wasn’t. Spectators waited outside the festival entrance on Friday night to have either their proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or a recent negative test verified by festival staff. The presence of this line served as a tangible reminder that the normal still escapes us.
But beyond the festival gates, it looked almost like any other Roots N Blues. The same pockets of friends greeting and meeting. The same joke was exchanged between musicians and listeners. The same awkward dance in the crowd.
And in a college town that likes to claim its “real sons,” the real daughters of American roots music have stepped forward and shown their serious talents.
On Friday night, Nikki Lane more than brilliantly executed her role as a pinch hitter. The country singer, added to the lineup a few days earlier, sounded like the natural torchbearer of Tanya Tucker, whom she took over.
Lane performed with so much effortless southern charm and fireball wit, and debuted several songs from an album she said she finished the day before.
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Sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell, better known as Larkin Poe, have created a nervous rock ‘n’ roll uproar where electric guitar and lap steel meet. The cover of Son House’s “Preachin ‘Blues” duo has offered an inadvertent rebuke to those concerned about the festival’s perceived failure to program a very narrow slice of blues.
In what could have been another Roots N Blues premiere, Australian pop singer Betty Who took the stage without a live band, performing on tracks with a two-man dance crew. Who walked the stage like an athlete – and, at times, delivered nimble vocal runs like one.
Who’s set could have been called the most purely pop moment in festival history, but, for all the budding stars in the crowd, underscored the truth that all music is roots music for someone.
The Saturday crowds witnessed the continued rise of two vibrant black country singers who stand out in a genre primarily focused on white men.
Brittney Spencer’s bright stage presence has more than sold her original affirmative and humanistic songs. And, crediting her influences, she offered a “double cover” with her portrayal of the Chicks on Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”.
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There was a blessed confidence in Mickey Guyton’s set, as the Texas native and her band owned every inch of the stage. Guyton seamlessly went from Beyonce and Blondie covers to ’90s country queen Patty Loveless and delivered powerful originals.
Carlile’s set served as a musical and emotional center on Saturday night. The Washington state native, who won the Americana Awards Artist of the Year, is simply operating at a high standard.
Taking the stage, Carlile offered a teasing apology for interrupting the backing music – “What’s Love Got to Do With It” – then finished a few a cappella bars of Tina Turner’s song.
She and the Hanseroth brothers are an indelible and indivisible team, and their three-part harmonies throughout “The Eye” testify to the power of the human instrument. Their three voices and – sometimes throughout the set – three acoustic guitars sounded bigger than they probably should, while being intimately and precisely cut to the heart.
Carlile naturally bonded with the crowd over family stories about his wife, Catherine Shepherd, and their two daughters, all currently on the road together. Carlile dedicated a solo version of “The Mother” to all listening moms, dads, aunts and uncles; the wonderful spare ballad has undoubtedly had many mothers – and at least one father – in tears.
There was something right and remarkable on Saturday night about Carlile having someone to sing the stories of her life to, just like she was meant to.
Aarik Danielsen is the News and Culture Editor for the Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] or by calling 573-815-1731.