The sun didn’t shine much on the first Westport Roots Festival. Neither did good fortune, initially.
Friday morning, the festival’s headliner, Billy Joe Shaver, canceled his performance (and two others in Texas over the weekend). His management told festival organizers Shaver was suffering a severe ear infection and was unable to travel.
Then Saturday morning dawned, chilly and rain-soaked. But the festival went on, and the several hundred fans who accommodated Shaver’s absence and shrugged off the early inclement weather got plenty of lively entertainment from more than two dozen bands.
The festivities started at noon, and early birds were treated to several of the many versions of acoustic/roots/string-band/country music that filled the festival. There must have been more banjos and mandolins per capita in Westport on Saturday than anywhere else in the world.
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Inside the Westport Saloon, the Konza Swamp Band, a quartet from the Sunflower State, serenaded a crowd downing beers and shots with a set that included two dandy covers: John Prine’s “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” and, in tribute to the convalescing Shaver, a rousing version of “Georgia on a Fast Train.”
Whiskey for the Lady, a six-piece from Platte County, then picked up where Konza left off and lived up to their own billing: a foot-stomping metal-grass/newgrass band. Their originals are typically fast-moving locomotives, rife with grooves, melodies and harmonies, the kind that get a dance floor percolating.
They, too, dropped in a couple of covers: Nine Inch Nails’ “Wish” and Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking.”
The Culprits opened the main stage, set in the parking lot outside Buzzard Beach, with a high-energy set of old-school rockabilly. They’re a trio of seasoned veterans comprising former members of the Rumblejetts, the Freightliners and Pendergast, and they perform with a mix of polish and abandon.
Among the highlights: covers of “Blue Suede Shoes” and Buck Owens’ “Hot Dog.”
The main stage lineup was a diverse showcase. It included the Quivers, a formally attired Kansas City band that plays an appealing mix of rock and soul; Deadman Flats, featuring Brody Buster on blues harp, who do interesting and subversive things to bluegrass and country blues and who nailed a cover of Supersucker’s “Dead in the Water”; and Kansas City’s inimitable Cadillac Flambe, reunited for this gig (drummer Michael Payne has moved to Denver), who dabble deeply in the fundamentals of dark and gritty but soulful delta blues.
By late afternoon, the dreary weather had subsided and the need for shelter had waned, and the outdoor stages drew larger crowds, including a few dozen patrons watching and listening from the deck of Buzzard Beach, above and beyond the festival confines. Between sets on the main stage, performers like the Rural Grit Allstars, AJ Gaither and Billy Beale entertained the outdoor crowds from a small side stage, keeping the vibe alive.
The Westport Saloon stayed loud and busy throughout the day. Two of the rowdiest sets came back-to-back: County Graves, a quartet from Carbondale, Ill., that fiddles with unvarnished, old-time country and country blues (but not with fiddles); and Loaded Goat, whose performance detonated dancing and fierce sing-alongs. Highlights of its set: the boot-stomping “Shine,” the defiant “Hell, No” and “Bettin’ on the Right Horse.”
And if the thought of an insurgent country band dressed like Boy Scouts accompanied by a dancer in a bear costume appeals to you, by all means go see the Kansas City Bear Fighters, who brought some levity and whimsy to the festival.
Likewise, Scratch Track, a Kansas City duo, changed the vibe in the room with their invigorating mix of hip-hop, R&B and Motown soul rendered in acoustic guitar and beatboxing vocals. The cover of “My Girl” was a highlight.
The main stage, meanwhile, became a classic country haven, thanks to locals the Blue Boot Heelers and Rex Hobart & the Misery Boys. The Boys’ set of original songs featured many cast as traditional, tears-in-your-beer honky-tonk tunes, as in “Forever Always Ends.”
The Bullhaulers, a five-piece band from Kansas City, followed the Misery Boys with a lively set of songs, a few of them about whiskey, cold beer and all-nighters and all delivered with an outlaw country attitude.
They were the perfect lead-in to local stalwarts Outlaw Jim and the Whiskey Benders, who draw their sound from taproot outlaw country, honky-tonk and Southern rock. Their covers of Waylon Jennings’ “Honky Tonk Heroes Like Me,” the Allman Brothers’ “Melissa” and John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” were standouts.
Nearly 11 hours after the festival opened, the Calamity Cubes brought their wild-eyed, rip-snorting set to a close inside the Westport Saloon. The banjo player was up on the bar, stomping his boots fitfully as the stand-up bassist and the guitar player rolled and rocked on their backs on the floor beneath him and the crowd, which formed a circle around the two, roared back the chorus to whatever song they were singing.
They followed a bristling set by the horn-fed “brass ‘n’ grass” Carrie Nation and the Speakeasy, a five-piece from Wichita.
The bass-guitar duo Viva Le Vox followed the Cubes and rebooted the mood in the room. Vox is bassist Tony Bones, who wore a Dead Boys T-shirt and who sports a classic mohawk, and the very tattooed Joe Buck, who yowls and grows like Tom Waits as he issues gothic, gutbucket blues/rockabilly tunes, occasionally blowing some riffs through a kazoo.
Theirs was music that sounded little like anything that preceded it, yet fit within the broad mosaic of roots music, a very ambiguous term that welcomes anything as long as it’s organic, live and delivered with heart (or humor).