Roots N Blues
Photo: Steve Leftridge

The 2021 Roots N Blues Festival Celebrated Women in Roots Music

Fans reveled in the return of the 15-year-old Roots N Blues Festival and its celebration of roots music women amid a sun-drenched weekend in Missouri.

As the ferris wheel started to light up behind the crowd, country’s buzziest new artist Mickey Guyton made the most of her time on stage, belting out arena-country ringers from her highly-anticipated debut album. Guyton strutted the stage like a seasoned pro, and her voice can take her anywhere she wants to go, whether on towering anthems like “All American” introspective ballads like “Black Like Me,” and, in the spirit of the day, covers of female artists: a rendition of Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy” retailored for country radio, a ’90s-hearkening romp across Patty Loveless’s “Blame It on Your Heart,” and a pedal-steel-embellished stab at Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” But what the girl really wanted was “Rosé,” a bouncy ode to her favorite drink, a glass of which was delivered to her on stage by her husband. Guyton, along with Brittney Spencer earlier, playing the same fest was a nice reminder that two Black women are breaking through in country music. 

As darkness fell, Tank and the Bangas turned the second stage into an intoxicating, kaleidoscopic inferno. A fever-dream mix of horn-drenched funk-soul, performance art, slam poetry, musical comedy, and joyful-noise revival, the Bangas delivered a nine-piece boogie-bash that left the audience reaching for their gratitude journals. It’s impossible to take your eyes off Tarriona “Tank” Ball, a whirling dervish of hair, vocal shapeshifting, and kimono sleeves. Tank galvanized a large crowd with hilarious raps on “Wal-Mart” and “TSA” and dealt call-and-response electro-funk with “Quick” and “Fluff.” It was a throwdown that had the entire festival buzzing about it the next day. 

Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile / Photo: Steve Leftridge

The crowd was already dancing when Brandi Carlile took the stage to Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” and Brandi apologized for cutting the song short to start her set. She knew everyone was poised to party, and one would think that a drumless acoustic trio—Brandi left her full band at home—would be an unlikely act to anchor the festival’s biggest night. But Brandi, flanked by trusty supertwins Phil and Tim Hanseroth, had no trouble holding the big crowd in thrall. Carlile, in resplendent voice, turned the sprawling field into an intimate gathering, starting the show with fan faves that emphasized the trio’s gorgeous three-part harmonies (“The Story,” “The Eye”).

Later, Brandi was just as powerful all alone, sharing road stories about her wife and two daughters before a touching solo performance of “The Mother”. Brandi’s pipes were a marvel all night: on a dead-on version of Joni Mitchell’s “Carey”, a trip through U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and a rousing finale with Natalie Hemby and honorary Highwoman Brittney Spencer on “Highwayman.”

Sunday kicked off with young Kansas spitfire Lily B Moonflower, backed by the rare trombone-and-dobro combo, which gave the affair a Nashville-New Orleans swing. Lily showed up in her spangliest cowgirl getup and charmed the noon crowd by sashaying through her self-titled new album, the best of which, “Broke Bitch Blues,” chronicles the trials of a girl-singer on the road. A seventh member of the band was an artist who composed a painting (a sunset behind a tree) from start to finish as the band played. (Naturally, she paused between songs.) 

Local favorites Violet and the Undercurrents, an all-female six-pack, were playing their first show in 19 months, and it was an emotional return, first as Violet Vonder Haar took the stage alone, looping her guitar and voice into a sonic stew. Afterward, she was joined by the Undercurrents, which includes dextrous drummer (and Violet’s wife), Phylshawn Johnson, who fueled the group’s polyrhythmic rides. A band with sprawling range, they moved from “The Captain,” a musical picaresque, to the spirit-lifting piano ballad “Ready to Fly”.

If country radio decides it wants its own Beyoncé, Kassi Ashton would like to apply. At least gyratorially, she was up for the job on Sunday’s second stage. Ashton prowled the apron, executing hip lifts and shimmies while singing her soul-country bangers into a handheld mic. She does a light Amy Winehouse affectation, like a gangster’s moll, which sounds less than authentic (after all, she was raised in nearby California, Missouri, a town she sang about on one number), so it worked better when Ashton stuck to her roots, like songs about partying out in the sticks (“Field Party”). Better yet was a slinky cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”, a request from her dad, who was watching from the VIP corral. 

Southern Avenue
Southern Avenue / Photo: Steve Leftridge

This year’s spirit award goes to Southern Avenue spitfire Tierinii Jackson, who brought indefatigable energy and scorching soul wallop in the hot mid-afternoon sun. The fact that Jackson is eight months pregnant did not slow her down a whit, and her charisma and a lightning bolt of a voice grabbed the crowd and would not let go. The four instrumentalists—including versatile guitarist Ori Naftaly and dynamic drummer Tikyra Jackson—are uniformly first-rate, pumping out a Memphis groove and Stax punch that produced a sound far beyond their numbers. They laid out Aretha’s “Rock Steady,” nearly breaking the festival’s funkometer, but their own material proved that the Avenue deserves its own place in Soulsville. 

Shemekia Copeland
Shemekia Copeland / Photo: Steve Leftridge

On the other stage, Shemekia Copeland dedicated her set to the soon-to-arrive Mavis Staples (“I’m a Mavis stalker!” she said) and admitted to being rusty after the fallow pandemic period, but she was clearly energized and singing hard at the top of her range for boisterous attendees who were returning the love. It was a career-spanning set that included the title cut from her latest album, 2020’s Uncivil War, “The Wrong Idea” (a battle-of-the-sexes sing-off in the crowd), a rip-roaring “It’s 2 A.M.,” and her father’s (blues great Johnny Copeland) “Ghetto Child,” which Shemekia sang a cappella off-mic in one of the weekend’s most powerful moments.  

During the dinner rush—the festival specializes in area BBQ—Portlandians Joseph, a trio of sisters, harmonized on their sweeping dream-folk songs, accompanied only by oldest sister Natalie’s guitar. While loyalists in the crowd called out requests, the Closner sisters leaned on songs from 2019’s Good Luck, Kid (“Green Eyes”, “Half Truths”) and previewed new material, including “Sun”, featuring a ravishing lead vocal turn by Meegan. For covers, they were the rare band over the weekend to pay tribute to fellas with stunning arrangements of “Come On Up to the House” (Tom Waits) and “Moonlight Mile” (The Rolling Stones, who were opening their tour down the road in St. Louis that very night). 

Mavis Staples
Mavis Staples / Photo: Steve Leftridge

Dusk saw the giddily-awaited arrival of Mavis Staples, and the 82-year-old icon more than delivered, singing classic after classic. The Rock Hall of Famer remains an R&B force of nature, preaching the blues and reaching down deep during Staples Singers standards “Respect Yourself” and “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).” Backed by a crack band led by the masterly Rick Holmstrom on guitar, Mavis sat on the drum riser a time or two, kicked off her shoes, and adjusted her belt (“Y’all weren’t supposed to see that!”), but it was the audience that Mavis was making comfortable, both on newer songs (Jeff Tweedy’s “You’re Not Alone”) and old ones (“Wade in the Water,” on which Mavis tested the limits of her trademark vocal rasp). The set ended with “The Weight” (everyone in the band taking a verse a la Staples’ appearance in The Last Waltz) and a jubilant “I’ll Take You There.” And then with a final wave to the crowd, the legend disappeared into the wings. 

Sheryl Crow
Sheryl Crow / Photo: Steve Leftridge

It was a homecoming show for Missouri native Sheryl Crow, whose crystalline tone, range, and control were in fighting form. Flanked by her beanpole guitarists, Audley Freed and longtime Crow sidekick Peter Stroud, aces both, Crow opened with her breakthrough hit “All I Wanna Do” (now almost 30 years old!), strolling the stage in a jean jacket, her acoustic guitar slung across her back. It was a massive singalong from the get-go, offering a run of biggies: “A Change Would Do You Good”, “Leaving Las Vegas”, and “Strong Enough”. She mined rarer gems mid-set, breaking out the harmonica for Bob Dylan’s “Everything’s Broken” and resurrecting deep cuts “Riverwide”, “Crash and Burn”, and “Cross Creek Road”, a lost beauty.

Crow revved up the crowd for a final run of familiar favorites, herself getting into the spirit of the party, dancing with her bandmates (“Sometimes you just have to stop and do The Bump with your neighbor!”) on “Soak Up the Sun.” The crowd had indeed done plenty of dancing and sun-soaking for three days, and when they coaxed Crow back out for a nightcap, the Mizzou grad finished the fest on the organ with “I Shall Believe,” adding a coda of “What the World Needs Now is Love,” a fitting finale to a weekend of warmhearted vibes.