Roots, Rock & Deep Blues Festival, 7/19/2014

Roots, Rock & Deep Blues Festival
with Sonny Knight & the Lakers, Black Eyed Snakes, STNNNG, Black Diet, Eleganza!, the 757's, Crankshaft, Black Market Brass, Molly Dean, Spider John Koerner, Jeff Ray and Hurricane Harold, and more
Patrick's Cabaret, Minneapolis
July 19, 2014

Beneath perilously low-hanging clouds that never quite delivered on the persistent threat of rain, the fourth annual Twin Cities Roots, Rock & Deep Blues Festival livened up an otherwise quiet South Minneapolis neighborhood this past Saturday afternoon. A short line of food trucks stood buzzing alongside the Current-sponsored main stage as an impressive roster of 30+ performers kept the festival's five stages rockin' through a gray dusk and into the night.

Gimme Noise arrived just in time for Black Diet, who have refused to slow down as they enjoy the success of their debut album, Find Your Tambourine. Vocalist Jonathan Tolliver's unruly head of loosely-dreaded hair towered over the rest of the band while he shimmied to and fro, long, slender legs bending deftly and hips gently twisting to the music. It is apparent that the band's busy performing schedule has allowed for Tolliver to grow fully into his confident, commanding stage presence.

Bassist Garrison Grouse was up to his usual antics, dramatically swinging his instrument high and low while coaxing notes from its strings. Mugsy provided backing vocals with her eyes closed in an expression of ecstasy, as she danced delicately about. Behind dark shades, Sean Schultz pounded on his keys with enthusiasm. Guitarist Mitch Sigurdson kept it cool, casually strumming beside the animated Grouse. A friend of the band's stood in for drummer David Tullis, who was overseas. Throughout a set that looked just as fun to perform as it was to watch, it was obvious that everyone was sincerely enjoying themselves.

The stand-out moment was an emotional rendition of "Cry," a gentle tune rife with Tolliver's impossibly long falsetto cries. Several couples drew each other in close for a slow dance. Tolliver descended from the stage and wandered into the audience, coaxing us into a group hug. "I'm 28 years old. I cry about once a month. Is my rate of crying acceptable?" he asked. He then invited us to sing along with Mugsy through to the end of the song as his lustrous voice cascaded over a complex array of notes, effortlessly soaring through the higher registers. "Cry" ended in several touching moments of a capella, with the audience singing just as enthusiastically as Tolliver and Mugsy.

At the same time, folk artist Molly Dean was performing at Patrick's Cabaret on the only indoor stage of the festival. She stood with her guitar atop a carpet set upon the hardwood floor, facing two chair-filled risers, accompanied by a cellist and violinist. She sang softly, her voice at times barely hovering above a whisper. Occasionally she utilized a looping pedal to create layers of her vocals. Her song lyrics avoided complexities, sticking to sing-song rhymes and poetic notions like, "Sometimes an open heart can be swallowed in secrets." The music was pleasant, and the presence of cello and violin added depth to her guitar-playing, and even a sense of sadness as their strings seemed to weep.

Dean's voice never once faltered, yet sometimes she seemed hesitant to really belt out her songs, coming across as somewhat timid and meek. There were moments, though, in which she appeared to shed this layer of self-consciousness and allow herself to sing with force and conviction. In these moments her voice was strong and incredibly rich, commanding attention. Despite this subtle struggle to hit a stride, Dean's performance as a whole was satisfying in its simplicity. The intimate setting in which we enjoyed her music lent itself perfectly.


Back outside on The Hub's PBR-sponsored stage, STNNNG pounded the crowd into submission. Some older observers seemed confused, if not actually offended by their raucous display. Judging by their pained expressions, members of the band seemed equally troubled, perhaps by the intense amount of concentration and heart required to execute the complexities within their music. Each song seemed to contain several different worlds that the band traversed together. These compositions were like miniature noise rock symphonies, a product of many smaller, intricate parts.

Underneath this miniature tent it was really fucking loud -- loud to the point where it kind of hurt. It was quite a departure from the last performance we'd taken in.

When we first approached the tent, it was unclear where vocalist Chris Besinger was hiding. His voice was audible, but he himself was nowhere to be found. Finally we tracked him down - sitting in a lawn chair towards the back of the tent. He stood abruptly and proceeded to stalk the audience, appearing to single individuals out, standing directly before them as he belted out song lyrics. At one point he briefly stepped out of the tent to hand his empty PBR to an unsuspecting fan, grabbing the full one in the fan's other hand and heading back under the tent. The man, at first confused, quickly figured out what had just transpired and was left shaking his head in disbelief as his girlfriend giggled. Besinger did not return the beer.

The band's playing was tight and controlled. STNNNG has been a band since 2003, and they are obviously very skilled performers, but in this particular case the performance was clearly all about Besinger.

On the KFAI stage inside Harriet Brewing, Alex "Crankshaft" Larson of Crankshaft and the Gear Grinders asked, "Have you heard any blues music here today?" The crowd seemed unsure, responding with a few cheers, but mainly remaining silent. Indeed, there hadn't been much blues music at this "blues" festival yet. Crankshaft aimed to remedy the situation. "We're gonna play some blues music for you right now."

With that he launched into "All Night Long," a song he described as "ass shakin' music," a description that was quickly confirmed by those in attendance, especially a middle-aged man clutching his beer as he gyrated wildly. Crankshaft's voice was deep and commanding, as he sang in a slow drawl. A Robert Johnson cover drew cheers. Their energy and sound transported us to another time and place, perhaps a rowdy old bar somewhere deep in the country. People clustered around a wooden bar top strewn with empty cups and beer cans, swaying. The group felt just right for the occasion. The creeping bass lines played on upright bass, friendly banter between songs, and neatly pressed black suits worn by the musicians -- it all made for a wildly entertaining ride, embodying the great spirit of the band.


Back on the Current's main stage, Black Market Brass was regaling fans with their unique genre-blending instrumental approach. Beneath the tent was the biggest crowd we'd seen thus far. People were really digging the music, seemingly lost in their own worlds on the dance floor. The band's twelve members crowded the stage, drowning us in deep funk and Afrobeat grooves. A member of BMB as well, Sigurdson (of Black Diet) grabbed a microphone and introduced Tiyo, from local group PaviElle. Together, BMB and Tiyo performed a rendition of Fela Kuti's "Water, No Get Enemy."

Tiyo enthusiastically engaged audience members to sing with him. The band behind him looked like they were having the time of their lives, smiling widely and grooving with their instruments. BMB fans display a warm, refreshing sense of camaraderie. They seemed more comfortable to just allow themselves to dance freely to the music, hypnotized by the melodic, jazzy undertones, all kept in line by an ever-present wood block counting beats. This is the kind of music you are meant to feel as much as you are meant to hear. Their set was more of an experience than just a show. It was joyful, triumphant, and exciting.

Spider John Koerner sat before the risers in Patrick's Cabaret, which did not have enough seats for the crowd in attendance for his set. People sat surrounding him on the floor as well, and wherever else they could fit. With a twangy pluck of his guitar, he easily commanded the attention of the entire room. Upon getting into the meat of a song, the audience would begin stomping their feet vigorously, keeping time. During several songs he placed a harmonica rack over his head, allowing him to play the instrument along with his guitar.

His body tensed with each blare of notes, barreling through classics like "What's the Matter with the Mill" and "Goodnight Irene." Much like Crankshaft, Koerner brought us to another time and place entirely. His rich voice, rising and falling in a country lilt, was confident and even. At the end of his set he received a standing ovation, prompting an encore, an a capella rending of "Rattlesnake." In a mild tone of voice he addressed us, saying, "Enjoy yourselves. Take care of yourselves." It was calming and profound.

Outside again, Eleganza! Played classic rock tunes at the Hub's PBR stage. When approaching the area we heard, "Are there any Journey fans out there?" The band displayed a deep allegiance to country and classic rock, and had audience members singing along with them for many of their covers. A small group of women danced wildly at the foot of the stage, twirling their dresses and swinging their hair.

Guitarist/vocalist Brian Vanderwerf swung one leg up in a kick as he theatrically played his guitar, peering out menacingly from a trucker hat he wore pulled dramatically low over his eyes. The spectacle felt very...American, as the band were clearly having a great time channeling their inner rock stars.

Over at the Mosaic Cafe patio stage, Jeff Ray and Hurricane Harold were playing some good ole country music. The patio was a pleasant, relaxed setting, full of families. Small children danced before the stage. A modest crowd gathered on the sidewalk alongside the patio, leaning over the fence. Ray's deep voice was filled with drama as he passionately sang to Harold's harmonica, plucking his guitar. It sounded wise and reflective. The two engaged in friendly chatter between each song, expressing how grateful they were to be playing the festival this year. "Dancing is legal!" Ray declared. "Please do it!"

Black Eyed Snakes of Duluth, MN played an extremely loud, frenzied set to the audience at the KFAI stage. Vocalist Alan Sparhawk of Low sung through heavy vocal effects, causing his voice to seem as if it resonated from within a megaphone. By this time people were significantly drunk, and dance moves were getting pretty freaky. Their unique brand of electric blues had everyone on their feet moving frantically, while their guitar playing verged on psychedelic. A band since 2000, Black Eyed Snakes recently returned from a hiatus and have been recording and releasing new material.

The 757's closed out the Hub's PBR stage. The group is self-described as "sleek, timeless and stupid," and the rockers were just that. They blazed through their originals and into a set of covers, calling it the "request section." They played a fun version of Dead Kennedys' "Too Drunk to Fuck," speeding it up and giving it a bit more of a pop-rock shine. Their audience appeared to be a close-knit group of friends and perhaps family, as a mass exodus had begun as soon as Sonny Knight began performing on the Current's main stage next door, drawing people in droves to bear witness.

The sun had fallen completely, and the Current's stage had transformed. A complex light show was underway, complete with piercing strobes and movements coordinated precisely with the music. Sonny's horn section wore suits, spotlights glinting off of their instruments as they swayed from side to side. "I need some horns!" Sonny demanded, and they began playing, bringing the sound to a crescendo. The area beneath the tent was crammed full of people, and more milled about outside. Most danced with abandon, moving gloriously to the nostalgic old-school funk and soul.


Sonny's voice is tender. It resonates with ease, soaring through high notes before dipping gracefully into the lower registers. Sonny released his first 45 in the 1960's, and he sounds just as strong today. The man's got style and class, and a magical stage presence. His backing band plays loosely but with practiced precision. They sound as if they've been playing together for years on end, demonstrating an organic chemistry.

The festival had reached its catharsis. Some stood perfectly still, their mouths agape at what they were seeing. The entire world was within this tent tonight. With the dense crowd, flashing lights and incredible show, it was suddenly hard to fathom that we were in a South Minneapolis parking lot. It seemed more likely that we were in a packed arena, or an established venue. It was also beginning to feel like we'd traveled back in time to a place where music like this was king. All of us had been placed under a spell. There was no sense resisting. "Why would anyone go to any of the other music right now?" a concertgoer mused aloud, to no one in particular.

"Did you have some fun?" Sonny asked. "Let us know by makin' some noise!" A thunderous roar rose from the crowd, rattling the tent above us. Some fun indeed.

Critic's Bias: I don't listen to much country or folk. I was careful to keep an open mind while at the festival, and found myself really enjoying a few things that I probably wouldn't have normally given a chance. I was surprised at how random some of the acts seemed, but I suppose that's only to be expected considering the sheer volume of acts included in the lineup.

The Crowd: Lots of older folks, and very family friendly. Everyone seemed to be very genuinely enjoying themselves.

Overheard: "It's like high school all over again!" -a woman standing with a group of ladies after they had realized that the last time they'd all been together was back in high school. Also, "I went from zero to hero!"

Random notebook dump: I can't help but to feel sketchy about eating sushi from a food truck.