(More than) 5 Things to Love about Roots N Blues N BBQ
Some of the best ideas have humble beginnings. The Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival in Columbia, Missouri, began in 2007 as a celebration of the 150th birthday of Boone County National Bank. As VOX Magazine recollects, an eclectic assortment of rock, jazz and blues bands came together to perform free shows in downtown Columbia for two days, surrounded by some of the best local barbeque and area brews to keep everybody well-fed and hydrated. (The important stuff, ‘ya know?)
As the fest celebrated its 10th birthday this year, things have grown quite a bit over the years, expanding to three full days of live music. Organizers also eventually decided to relocate to nearby Stephens Lake Park. That helped to feed the continued yearly growth. It’s become a favorite local tradition that also draws in plenty of out-of-town music enthusiasts. A crowd of more than 32,000 came from all over the United States and Canada and as far away as Norway, Japan and Belgium to be a part of this year’s installment of fun.
Whether they take a long plane flight or just a short walk down the street to get to the festival, all in attendance are rewarded with a diverse and eclectic bill of entertainment. Richard King, a presence in Columbia’s music scene for more than 30 years, has been involved in booking Roots N Blues since day one. He acknowledges that there’s “a little stretch here and there” in terms of the roots and blues part of the name, but that’s part of the charm of the festival–the fact that it’s not rigidly locked into a particular genre-based box feeds the possibility of musical discovery. No matter what you might come to Roots N Blues to see, it’s nearly 100 percent guaranteed that you’ll walk away with a new favorite or three from the weekend’s schedule.
Thanks to a very manageable lineup that isn’t stacked with an overwhelming number of performers that would cause fatigue and hard musical choices because of scheduling conflicts, Roots N Blues also feels more specifically curated in comparison to some other festivals. Split between two stages, things are structured in a way that you can float back and forth and catch a good amount of music. The whole experience feels really casual and relaxed—you don’t have to show up long before a particular set to stake out a prime viewing spot.
Which leaves you with more time to actually enjoy the music and explore the surroundings of Columbia. Because there’s no general parking or camping on the festival grounds, attendees end up staying off-site, something that is really easy thanks to the shuttles which run to and from downtown on a continual basis. Outside of the actual festival one of the things we really enjoyed was the time that we got to spend walking around downtown. Drinking coffee and eating a bagel at the Lakota Coffee Company, flipping through vinyl and comics at Slackers and perusing the books at the Yellow Dog Bookshop were just a few of the haunts we made room for in the schedule. Artichoke cakes, garlic shrimp and sweet potato tacos filled in the gaps between conversations as we sat at Coley’s American Bistro. And if you’re a burger fan, Booches is an important and historical stop. Founded in 1884, their legendary burgers are served on wax paper with chips on the side. They’re slider-sized, so you’ll want to order a few of them. They’ve got chili dogs and even some breakfast choices but, keeping things old school, it’s cash only.
This was the second year we’ve had the opportunity to attend Roots N Blues and we’ve never had a problem keeping busy and having fun for three days. Both times, we walked away with plenty of good memories in mind, already looking forward to next year and the chance to return to Columbia.
Here are five of the things we really enjoyed this year:
5. Pulled pork on a doughnut.
Honest to God, this was one of the first things we did as soon as we got there. Naturally, when you’re at a festival called Roots N Blues N BBQ, there are going to be a lot of different BBQ options on site to choose from. But Harold’s Doughnuts, a local mainstay in the Columbia area decided that they were doing to do more than just bring their doughnuts to the party. They decided to craft up a pulled pork doughnut sandwich and it is a winning idea. Slap pulled pork on a donut bun, throw in coleslaw on top for an extra dollar and you’ve got an interesting combination. We wondered if we should add as well so we asked. “It’s kind of one or the other” was the answer that came back. Okay, so no sauce. The doughnut part wasn’t as over the top as you might think it would be—it had a very slight glaze and it made a perfect tangy sweet pairing with the coleslaw. And honestly, their pulled pork might have been the best BBQ that we had at the fest. It was good. Add in sides of cheesy garlic polenta and their “mystic beans” and we weren’t hungry for a while after that.
4. A large biscuit with pulled pork and a lot of other stuff
The Ozark Mountain Biscuit Company is a food truck based in the Columbia area and they’ve perfected quite a few different ways to serve you something on a biscuit. In addition to a number of breakfast options there were five different items billed as “Ozark Originals.” And how. There was a biscuit with fried chicken and even a cheeseburger biscuit. But we had our eye on the “Boss Hog,” an open-faced biscuit with simmered greens, pulled pork, sausage gravy, BBQ “Arkan-sauce” and a fried egg. There were some sides available (“Wavy Gravy” fries, cabbage slaw and “Southern Fried Taters”), but with the Boss Hog, we didn’t need any additional accessories
3. Blues Traveler and Ben Folds
Someone made the joke that it was like they had stumbled upon a chunk of the H.O.R.D.E. Festival that had been left behind. Crack all the jokes you want to, but Blues Traveler has been a band for nearly 30 years and delivered one of the tightest sets of the weekend with a mix of songs from newer albums and plenty of old favorites. Only a minute into “Things Are Looking Up,” the opening tune, from 2012’s Suzie Cracks the Whip, frontman John Popper pulled out the first of many harmonica solos. Later he brought G. Love (there for his own set at Roots N Blues, which kicked off on the other stage moments after Blues Traveler wrapped) out for a full-on harmonica duel during a cover of Sublime’s “What I Got” that the pair shared vocals on. With barely a break in the action and only the occasional bit of banter, Popper and the band kept things moving forward through a solid 75-minute set. Meanwhile, Ben Folds, who took the stage after Blues Traveler, took a more minimal approach that was just as satisfying. Acknowledging that “solo piano for a festival crowd is pretty unusual,” Folds strolled out and told the audience, “I’m just going to sit up here and play songs I made up.” He had a lot of fun doing that and decided to challenge his attentive subjects prior to performing “Bastard,” teaching them contrapuntal four-part harmony. “If we f–k it up, that’s okay, because this just a rehearsal; the real show is later,” he quipped. Later, in the midst of a long story, he joked, “The rules of rock and roll state that you shall play waltzes in front of festival crowds and tell a long story about it.” It was that humor and a perfect cross-section of both solo material and nuggets from the Ben Folds Five catalog that made the set a real treat. Not too many folks could pull off a solo piano set in front of a festival crowd (or would even attempt to), but Folds has always had a good knack for connecting with his audience, no matter the setting. That connection served him well again at Roots N Blues.
2. The Blind Boys of Alabama and The Mavericks
At the time we first saw the Blind Boys of Alabama opening for Peter Gabriel back in 2002, it was a cool bucket list moment and it was easy to think that it was an opportunity that might not come around again. So it was great to be able to catch that lightning in a bottle again nearly 15 years later. The gospel group has been at it since 1944 and although founding member Clarence Fountain no longer tours with the group, the current lineup of the band carries that amazing history forward. They were one of the first groups to play the original Roots N Blues, so with the festival marking its 10th anniversary their being in the lineup brought things full circle. This year’s lineup also featured the Mavericks, who finally made their way to Roots N Blues. As the daylight began to fade away, Raul Malo and crew were ready to keep the energy running high, turning in a set that dug deep into their catalog of favorites and plucked out a few choice covers, including their well-known version of Bruce Springsteen’s “All That Heaven Will Allow” and a beautiful take on Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” They were so good that we had to take in a full headlining show a few weeks after the festival. The band first formed in 1989 and took a break from 2004 through 2012. Luckily, this current reunion seems to have stuck and the group shows no signs of slowing down. Get out and see a show if you haven’t had the pleasure.
1. Jason Isbell, Southern Culture on the Skids and Jackie Greene
Southern Culture on the Skids were one of the early highlights of Saturday’s schedule, with guitarist/vocalist Rick Miller greasing the crowd, saying “I know it’s a little bit early, but who’s getting liquored up?” He promised a string of pork-related songs (“This is a barbeque fest, right?”) and, to the delight of the crowd, their set leaned heavily on material from the band’s 1995 Dirt Track Date album. The SCOTS’ staples were present and accounted for, including dancers on either side of the stage tossing fried chicken into the audience. “You’ve gotta look hungry,” Miller instructed, joking about the fried chicken-related requirements in their contract. Roots N Blues veteran Jackie Greene, who played the fest for the first time in 2013 as a touring member of the Black Crowes, made a strong return with his own set, which included a token dip into the Grateful Dead’s catalog (Greene loves a good Dead cover) with a version of “Jack Straw.”
As I mentioned earlier, Roots N Blues scheduling is staggered so that you’ve got enough time to catch a good chunk of everybody’s set, but if you want to see complete sets, there are occasionally some tough choices. One of those was choosing between Grace Potter and Jason Isbell on Saturday night. Isbell won the toss with our group on that evening.
Having spent the day with friends who were also playing the festival, Isbell said, “We’ve had a lot of fun today. But we’ve been waiting around all day to rock and roll. Hopefully you have been too.” He would deliver on that promise, but also, with songs like the emotional “Dress Blues” and “Cover Me Up,” connected in a way that made this large festival feel as intimate as a small club. The dirty roots rock feel of “Super 8” from 2013’s Southeastern, brought to mind the beautifully ragged sound of the Georgia Satellites. “Never Gonna Change,” was one of a couple of songs that Isbell plucked from the catalog of his former band, the Drive-By Truckers with a powerful guitar duel that showed how tightly Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit have locked in together, thanks to thousands of miles and shows. He gave a Missouri nod to Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo vet Jay Farrar, telling the crowd, “We all owe a lot to Jay. I’m also grateful he didn’t come and kill me when I stole his keyboard player.” The fact that Isbell turned in one of the best sets at Roots N Blues really wasn’t that big of a shock—we’d had the pleasure of seeing him play a headlining set earlier this year closer to home, which made getting the chance for an encore performance something we really enjoyed. Isbell has made two of the best records of his career in the past few years with Southeastern and Something More Than Free and all indications point towards him continuing to do more good things, which we can’t wait to hear.
We continue to be impressed with how well things are thought out and organized with the Roots N Blues N BBQ festival. A weekend pass cost $135 we didn’t spend much more than that for food and drinks during our time there. There are of course, some VIP options, including the “Platinum Pig” package, which adds a variety of perks including cart rides around the park, access to two separate lounge areas with clear views of the musical action, pit access in front of the stage and catered meals throughout each day.
The fact that the festival happens towards the end of September is a really nice thing weather-wise, because chances are good that you’re not going to spend three days baking in the sun (although you’ll definitely want to bring some sunscreen). The weather for this year’s fest was not as sunny as it has been in past years—in fact, it was overcast all three days, but there wasn’t a single drop of rain and the temperatures were pleasantly moderate.
We also really loved the selection of food and beer. This is where some festivals sometimes fall short. Sometimes you can spend an entire weekend eating food that’s expensive and not any better than what you would find at your average local carnival. The food and beverage selections at Roots N Blues offer an impressive cross-section of some of the best stuff in the area. We loved the homemade honey ice cream from Giofre Apiaries, who were making their first appearance with a variety of flavors including pumpkin (‘tis the season) and salted caramel. So many choices and all of them good. Lilly’s Cantina was back for their second year with an eclectic selection of tacos, burritos, quesadillas and even a two-pound Garbage Burrito. Meanwhile, this was the eighth year Broadway Brewery provided a variety of local brews for festival-goers. And, as far as the BBQ goes, Sugarfire Smoke House has been an essential stop each of the past two years that they have been at the festival. D. Dee’s Kettle Korn has similarly been a necessary annual acquisition. We could go on, but let’s put it this way—you’ll have no problem finding something good to eat or drink.
You might have trouble however finding room for everything you want to eat (we realize now that we missed out on the fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich at Grill-A-Brothers) but that’s just another reason we’re looking forward to next year. There will be plenty of old favorites, a chance to try some of the things we missed, some new surprises and a bunch of things we weren’t expecting, all courtesy of Roots N Blues N BBQ. We can’t wait to see what we might find and, hopefully, we’ll get a chance to have pulled pork on a doughnut again.