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Westport festival showcases the many flavors of roots music

Nick Dittmeier and his band, the Sawdusters, performed at Mills Record Co. during Saturday’s Westport Roots Festival. Almost four dozen acts performed at the one-day event.
Nick Dittmeier and his band, the Sawdusters, performed at Mills Record Co. during Saturday’s Westport Roots Festival. Almost four dozen acts performed at the one-day event. Special to the Star

The second annual Westport Roots Festival was a mostly indoor event. Five of the six stages were inside bars and venues in or near Westport. Only one, the patio of the Riot Room, was outdoors.

Saturday’s heavy rains eventually washed out performances at that stage, forcing organizers into some last-minute rescheduling. But otherwise, things proceeded without a hitch.

The festival showcased nearly four dozen performers, all of whom fit under the loose “roots music” umbrella. There were lots of fiddles, mandolins, banjos, standup basses and guitars, but the occasional horns and other sundry instruments also made appearances over the course of nearly 12 hours.

The rains, which turned near diluvial around 9 p.m., may have kept some people away, but, for the most part, attendance was good at most of the venues. Here’s a look at some of the highlights.

▪ Luke Bell: He’s a true cowboy, a Wyoming rancher with a classic-country voice and an affinity for Ernest Tubb. His set at the Riot Room patio included two Tubb covers — “Kansas City Blues” and “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin” — plus originals like “Rattlesnake Man,” a country-blues number with a Hank Williams vibe.

For much of Bell’s set, Nate Hofer of Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys sat in on pedal steel guitar, adding luster to the guitar-bass arrangements.

▪ Adam Lee: The former Kansas Citian who stars as Johnny Cash in the Chicago version of “Million Dollar Quartet” returned home for the festival. And though the rain turned heavy during his set, he drew a crowd to the Riot Room patio.

He and his band, which included former Kansas Citians Ryan Land and Dave Bruchmann plus Hanna Mathey on fiddle, delivered a set of country tunes such as “Misery to Ruin” and “Drive Myself to Drink.”

▪ Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys: In April, Rex and the Boys released “Long Shot of Hard Stuff,” their first album in 10 years. They played several tracks off that during their afternoon set on the Riot Room patio, including “Ain’t No Bras in Austin” and “Here in Hell.”

Rex and the Boys didn’t gather much rust or dust during their hiatus. They sounded like the well-honed, free-wheeling, honky-tonk band they’ve always been.

▪ Cadillac Flambe: They’ve enlisted a new bass player and, at the last minute, had to hire a substitute drummer, but Cadillac Flambe sounded as fit and furious as ever during their set inside the Riot Room.

Their music, a blend of Delta blues, rock and soul, was a nice departure from some of the traditional country fare that is the staple of this festival.

▪ Monzie Leo & the Big Sky: Monzie Leo Brummett is a big man with a big beard and a strong voice. His music has roots in foot-stomping bluegrass and country blues. His Lawrence trio — guitar, banjo, fiddle — drew a lively crowd to the Westport Saloon right after the dinner hour. Recommended if you like bands like the Hackensaw Boys or Mason Porter.

▪ Tracy Huffman and the Downers: He’s a songwriter and a slick guitarist from St. Joseph, and his sound is a bit elusive. At times his voice recalled Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers; a few other times I heard Doug Martsch of Built to Spill. Dr. Dog came to mind more than once. His music is as rock as it is country, with some interesting twists.

▪ The Hubcap Bandits: I caught the last song of this St. Joe band’s set inside the Riot Room. “Lively country/rockabilly with sax,” I noted. And there was dancing.

▪ Nick Dittmeier & the Sawdusters: They were part of the showcase presented by Horton Records of Tulsa, Okla., which featured seven acts inside Mills Record Co. Dittmeier and the Sawdusters are a trio from Jeffersonville, Ind., but their sound has some Okie red dirt in it.

It’s pretty straightforward stuff: Familiar country chord progressions and melodies (and harmonies) with enough grit to make it interesting. “Pills, Jesus and War,” a song about small-town life, was the best of an engaging set.

▪ Wink Burcham and Ali Harter: They preceded Dittmeier at the Horton Records showcase in Mills, swapping songs back and forth.

A couple of Burcham’s songs reminded me of Steve Earle’s on “Train a Comin.’” Harter’s voice is strong and soulful, more Melissa Etheridge than Neko Case, and she put it to good use on “Poor Kate,” a song about a girl who drinks too much (which was requested). She also laid down some nice harmonies with Burcham.

▪ Julian Davis: He’s 15 and a native of Pittsburg, Kan. He dresses like he’s a child of the ’30s or ’40s and sings like it, too. But he plays guitar like someone twice his age.

During his solo set at the Westport Saloon, he showed off his flat-picking skills several times. He tossed in a few covers (Bill Monroe and Pokey LaFarge) with his originals, one of which inspired a hearty singalong from his audience.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

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