Written by Jane Ponte – September 27th –29th, 2019
Ask anyone who knows me well, and they’ll tell you that two of my favorite things to do are to travel and to go see live music. When the option of combining these 2 things presents itself, you can color me gone. And when the place I’m headed to is near & dear to my heart and the music festival going on within that place is one of the coolest ones around, you can be sure I’ll be there every time it happens. The only thing that would make this whole scenario better would be if I could tell the world just how amazing this place and this music festival truly are and help them realize exactly what they’re missing out on so that they’ll surely attend next year. So that’s what I’m about to do. Here’s why you absolutely should not miss next year’s Roots n Blues n BBQ Festival in Columbia, MO.
Let’s start with Columbia, MO, and Stephens Lake Park, where all the festivities went down last weekend. The 49-acre park, which is a nationally recognized arboretum, is a place where I’ve made more memories than I could possibly list in this review. I’ve done everything you can think of in that park, from fishing and swimming, to studying for my college classes or celebrating after finals week, to attending weddings and memorials, to pushing my kids on the swings as babies–and then attending art and music events with them as adults. If that park could talk, I’d be in trouble, but I wouldn’t change a thing about my history with it. These days, the park is home to Roots n Blues n BBQ, and has been since 2013. With its groves of shade trees, rolling hills, walking trails, family-friendly vibe and accessibility to downtown, it is the perfect locale for the very best celebration of music, art, sustainability and food that Columbia has to offer.
Prior to 2013, the festival took place in downtown Columbia, where it began in 2007 as a one-time street festival intended to celebrate the 150th anniversary of one of the city’s oldest banks, Central Bank of Boone County. At that time, there was also a barbecue contest, and admission was free. The end result was a rocking good time in a mid-sized college town whose streets were spilling over with close to 100,000 attendees steeped in great music, an amazing vibe, and lots of pulled pork and brisket sandwiches. It was a great success, but like all good things it had its drawbacks, such as interfering with the daily routines of downtown businesses and parking garages. So, in 2013, after yearly tweaks including selling tickets and introducing more local food choices and less barbeque, the festival relocated to Stephens Lake Park, where it’s taken place ever since.
The move from downtown is not the only change that the festival has seen in its 13 years of existence. It has changed ownership, and this year’s fest was the maiden voyage for new owners Shay Jasper, Tracy Lane, and Jamie Varvaro. To say that these 3 rose to the occasion to host a stellar festival would be an understatement. From start to finish, this year’s Roots n Blues n BBQ was the same joyful celebration of music, art and food that it has always been, but this year’s fest just seemed to have an extra sparkle to it, almost as if the winds of change had breathed a new sense of excitement into an already beloved event and given the new owners a fresh canvas upon which to paint a masterpiece. I took the time to ask both new attendees and veterans of the festival how they felt about this year’s offerings and words like “epic,” “love,” and “phenomenal” were sprinkled liberally throughout our conversations. It was clear to me why these adjectives were being used; all one had to do was look around and see for themselves. The magic was everywhere.
The 3-day event began on Friday, the 27th, and ended on Sunday evening, the 29th. In that time, I witnessed spectacular performances of American Roots Music by both local and national acts. Heck—Friday night’s line-up alone was worth the price of admission. Particularly noteworthy was the opening set by local favorites, Violet & the Undercurrents, followed by a rollicking, bluesy set by John Nemeth, a jaw-dropping, kick-up-your-heels-and-dance set by Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real, and, on another stage, a hauntingly beautiful, stripped-down set by Austin favorite, Patty Griffin. To finish up this night of musical magic was two-time Grammy-winner John Prine on one stage, followed by Grammy-winner Maren Morris on the other. By the time I crawled into bed that night, I was tired and grateful—and eager to do it all again on Saturday and Sunday.
The rest of the weekend went by entirely too quickly and was full of epic musical moments and fantastic food offerings eaten in clean, pristine surroundings. Whether seated in the VIP lounge, on a comfy hay bale under a shade tree, at a picnic table or on a cozy blanket with friends and family, there was something for everyone in the park that weekend. It is worth mentioning that since the festival is no longer free, the attendance has dropped to a comfortable 10,000 to 15,000 attendees, meaning that there is room for everyone at Roots n Blues. No porta-potty lines, very short lines for food and merch vendors, and no overflowing trash cans or debris on the ground. The park is ADA accessible, and there are free shuttles available from downtown. I noticed that many people had parked their bicycles in the nearby bike corral. Refillable water bottles were encouraged, and The Whole Hog lounges served meals with plates and utensils that were entirely compostable. Additionally, volunteers and staff at the festival were extremely accommodating and respectful; they took the time to answer questions at the gate and were smiling and friendly all weekend long. Recycle bins dotted the landscape, and from my perch on a haybale near the Great Southern Bank stage on Saturday, I witnessed couples dancing, children running and playing, and hippies hula-hooping in the afternoon sun while the artists performed. I could also see numerous and varied art installations-many of them interactive-a sober party tent, and several groups of revelers who had completed that morning’s annual 5K or 10K memorial run and were relaxing in the shade after the event. All this and it was still early Saturday.
Noteworthy performances for the remainder of the weekend were too numerous to count. On the short list, some of my favorites included The Mighty Pines, The Black Pumas, Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmour, The Mavericks, Mandolin Orange, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, and Nick Lowe & Los Straitjackets. Honorable mentions would include The War & Treaty, Del McCoury, and Old Salt Union. To clarify, however, the beauty of this festival goes far beyond its incredible scenic appeal; the fact that local musicians of the highest caliber share the stage with national acts and draw hefty crowds of their own is what makes Roots n Blues so special. The Burney Sisters, The Kay Brothers, and The Daves, all local favorites, stole the show on early Sunday and helped to ease the sting for attendees having to miss Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals on Saturday night due to rain. (On a side note, however, it doesn’t get much better than grooving to The Mavericks in the park on a Saturday night, after a day of sunshine, craft beer, caramel corn and camaraderie—even in the rain.) What else can be said?
If I haven’t yet convinced you to attend next year’s Roots n Blues n BBQ, let me briefly mention that this festival is all about giving back and making music and the arts accessible to the entire community. Through the Roots n Blues Foundation, a pilot program will be launched in 2020 at The Boys and Girls Clubs of Columbia, which will provide middle-schoolers with an extensive American Roots Music history and literacy program and offer a 4-year scholarship and mentorship opportunity to some lucky recipients. Additionally, each year the festival honors a Missouri musician who has impacted the history of music and world culture, reinforcing the importance of music and the value and significance it plays in the lives of so many of us, including those of us who were fortunate enough to be at this year’s epic installment of Roots n Blues n BBQ.
If you are this far into this review, I am assuming you are one of the people I am talking about in the above paragraph. You’re a music lover, and you crave a good music festival at least once every few months. And if you’ve attended Roots n Blues before, you already understand why it is easily in my top 3 music festivals anywhere. Aside from the outstanding variety of music and art, the delicious, affordably-priced local food, coffee, and craft beer vendors, the ease and accessibility of the fest, and the sense of community and camaraderie that permeates throughout, it is a festival that celebrates and uplifts the things so many of us hold near and dear to our hearts, and one that makes you feel a bit more grateful and inspired after having attended. Do yourself a favor and make plans to be at next year’s Roots n Blues n BBQ. It will be the nicest thing you’ll do for yourself in a long while, and you’re welcome to pull up a haybale and sit down next to me, if you’re able to catch me. Otherwise, I’ll see you somewhere else in the park, where I’ll be busy making new friends and magical musical memories. Come celebrate Roots music and the joy of food, friendship, and art with me and about 12,000 of my friends. You’ll be glad you did, and you can thank me later.