Ahead of its 2020 incarnation, Columbia, Missouri’s Roots N Blues Festival was ready to make a statement. The three-day music festival’s new owners, troubled by the fact that 70 percent of all artists booked for major music festivals are male, announced that the 2020 version of the festival would feature an all-female-centric lineup. Brandi Carlile, Sheryl Crow, Mavis Staples, and Tanya Tucker were set to headline, and every act on the festival’s two stages, held in the city’s leafy Stephens Lake Park, would be fronted by a woman.
Of course, the 2020 festival never happened due to the pandemic. Still, organizers were determined to keep both the festival and their ladies-first approach alive for 2021. Roots N Blues held on to both its 2020 lineup (although Tucker was a late scratch) and its Americana-loving crowd, as numbers surged for all three days and vax-checked fans reveled in the return of the 15-year-old festival and its celebration of women in roots music amid a sun-drenched weekend in mid-Missouri.
Friday night’s highlights included country throwback Nikki Lane, a late add after Tucker dropped out, who slipped in debuts from her upcoming album while playing hard-twang fan-favorite “700,000 Rednecks,” a slinky take on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Fishin’ in the Dark,” and an sizzling “Jackpot” to close the set. Later, Larkin Poe proved that these bluegrass-bred girls can take a flamethrower to the crowd with their high-octane instrumental muscle, grease-fire classic-blues covers, and rattlesnake originals. The Lovell sisters, Rebecca (guitar) and Megan (dobro), peaked with “Sugar Fire,” complete with a dobro solo that toppled dozens of bag chairs, and a set-closing, soul-selling rip-through of Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen”.
Saturday offered a day of full sun. It started with St. Louis newgrass outfit One Way Traffic, qualifying for this year’s fest thanks to frontwoman and baritone ukuleleist Leah Osborne, who leads an otherwise all-male five-piece. There was no fiddle or banjo in the group, but they tickled the hippiegrass faithful anyway by revving up the BPMs. Jam fans were even happier with the Traffic switched to electric instruments midway through their set, morphing into swirling, Allmans-evoking grasselelica.
Springfield, Missouri’s Molly Healey played violin, cello, and Macbook while leading a unique four-piece, featuring guitarist Zach Harrison in full Mark Knopfler-circa-’84 cosplay. The band drove a highly musical hour of chamber rock that showcased both Healey’s loop-augmented cellotronica and the ensemble’s penchant for cleverly arranged covers, such as Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” (sung by Healey’s daughter, Annabelle) and a horsehair-taxing reading of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”.
Meanwhile, local folk-pop sensations the Burney Sisters held forth on the main stage. Child prodigies Olivia (16), Emma (13), and Bella (11), already Roots N Blues veterans, mesmerized with a harmony-rich, instrument-swapping display of jaw-dropping talent and beyond-their-years emotional depth. Usually a covers-loving operation, the Sisters instead used the big stage to play the bulk of their lush new album, Then We’ll Talk, led by Olivia’s elastic vocals. The girls did make room for some surprises, including the inexplicable appearance of a Land Shark capering across the stage, a gorgeous version of Ray LaMontagne’s “Jolene” (a setlist audible), and, in the spirit of this year’s festival, a chills-inducing vocal turn by a newly pink-haired Emma on Olivia Newton-John’s “A Little More Love” with a guest spot by Molly Healey on fiddle.
Grammy-gobbling, all-female mariachi band Flor de Toloache had to overcome a travel snafu that forced them to play on borrowed instruments (guitarrón, vihuela, violin, trumpet) and run to the mall to improvise on their traditional embroidered mariachi suits. No matter: The multicultural New York band, now trimmed to a quartet, created an intoxicating weave of melody and miasma, voices and languages. The band toggled deftly-played traditional Mexican music exquisitely sung by vihuelist Shae Fiol and violinist Miyera Ramos, clever covers by the Supremes and No Doubt, and a guest appearance from Ramos’s brother. He nailed a rapid-fire Spanish flow on a foray into mariachi hip-hop.
For the bulk of her set, songwriting sorceress Natalie Hemby stayed away from her impressive catalog of smashes written for other artists. (She mentioned writing the Little Big Town hit, “Pontoon”, adding, “Maybe y’all hate me for that.”) Instead, Hemby led a lean five-piece band through nearly all of her upcoming Pins and Needles, calling herself the “Great Middle-Aged Hope,” having started her performance career at age 44. By set’s end, Hemby scratched the audience’s itch by turning to Hemby-penned songs for the Highwomen (“Crowded Table”), Miranda Lambert (an acoustic “Bluebird”), and Kasey Musgraves (a beautifully-sung, piano-backed “Rainbow).”
A quirky-catchy set by Georgia indie-rock singer-songwriter Liza Anne, wearing black leather pants, a blue tie, and a gold-sequined vest, emphasized Roots N Blues’s broad genre reach (along with Betty Who, who on Friday performed at a roots fest with two backup dancers and no band). Liza Anne worked in songs from all four of her albums, including angular versions of tracks from her latest, Bad Vacation, performances that, while occasionally mumbly, came with a smart indie jangle, as the set, like the album, ended with the entrancing “Too Soon,” complete with looped vocals.
Rising country star Brittney Spencer showed up wearing a crown of yellow and white daisies, draping another strand over her guitarist, and it was in fact a sweet, aromatic set. The Baltimore badass lent her tender, nimble voice to a run of country-soul kissoff songs (“Damn Right You’re Wrong”, “Sorrys Don’t Work No More”) and gushed about the all-women event, paying tribute to some of her female heroes: Diana Ross (a gentle “Do You Know Where You’re Going To”, built from Spencer’s acoustic fingerpicking) and the Chicks (a cover of their cover of “Landslide”), before closing with a scat-abetted version of her single “Sober and Skinny” that started with soft balladry and ended with smoking rockitude.
Folk-nomad sister act Rising Appalachia became Rising Halfalachia at Roots N Blues, as vocalist/banjoist Leah Smith recovers from Covid-19. So while we missed the sisters’ vocal harmonies, Chloe guided the four-piece combo through a lovely hour of elegantly intertwining instruments, Chloe herself handling banjo, guitar, and fiddle. Chloe’s voice floated on top of cello (Irish musician Duncan Wickel) and hand percussion (the amazing Biko Casini on djembe) on new songs (“Catalyst,” from this year’s The Lost Mystique of Being in the Know), reworked older numbers (“Rivermouth”), and traditional folk (“Raleigh and Spencer,” featuring Chloe’s and Duncan’s twin fiddles). The mystical set was capped by a special guest appearance: the band’s big white dog and touring companion, Alaska.