2017 River City Roots Festival (day 1) – live performance review

Twelve years ago the City of Missoula and the Missoula Downtown Association decided to do something special to welcome the returning and first time students at the University of Montana.  The event has grown every year, and now includes two days of family friendly fun in Caras Park with kid friendly bands, games and crafts, as well as an art show, food vendors, beer garden and, of course, quality bands on the Main Stage.

For the first time since we moved to Missoula, the event changed from Saturday and Sunday to Friday and Saturday.  Although we weren’t there to check it out, the music began at noon with a couple of bands featuring children.  First up were the representatives from the Tangled Tones Music program, Third Capo Kids and Satellite Jacket.  They were followed by the kids who had participated in the Zootown Arts Community Center Rock Camp Bands.

The adult bands started at 2:30 p.m. with local favorite Rotgut Whines, a two-piece rock and soul band featuring Evan Manuel on lead vocals and guitar and Andrew Murphy on drums and backing vocals.  Due to the massive problems with the sound, their set was difficult to understand and hear unless you were right in front of the stage.  They also had some questionable choices in covers, including a very bad attempt at Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams.”  However, when they were on target, they connected well with the audience.  All in all, it seemed that despite their recent success, they were not yet ready for a festival appearance.

Next up was the jammin’ reggae of Taj Weekes and Adowa.  We have been long time reggae fans and haven’t seen much of it since our move.  The music of Taj Weekes and Adowa more than made up for that.  The sound problems that plagued Rotgun Whines continued for the first couple of songs, but were eventually fixed, allowing this amazing artist to shine.  Weekes’ vocals are nearly falsetto, and soared above the rhythmic grooves of his band, allowing the growing crowd the chance to participate in the Rastafarian way.  The crowd had a blast dancing to the music, and it swelled over the length of the set.  This set was one of the true highlights of the Festival.

The third slot of the day belonged to former country great Ryan Shupe and the Rubberband.  The band had a few country hits back in the early 2000’s when they were signed to Capitol Records.  If their set on this day was any indication, they still have a lot to contribute to today’s music scene.  They played their hits and most of their songs on their recent CD, which was released last year on Tydal Wave Records.

The new sound of the band is more akin to that of a country Beach Boys, with a healthy helping of rock.  Accompanying Shupe (fiddle and vocals) were Roger Archibald on guitar and vocals; Craig Miner on banjo, mandolin and vocals; Josh Larsen on bass and vocals; and Nate Young on drums and vocals.  The band even brought their amazing sound engineer, Dallan Rees, who kept the band sounding great all set long.  Among their songs were outstanding performances of “Hey Hey Hey,” “Brand New Shoes,” “The Sun Will Shine Again,” “He Knows Karate,” “Corn Dogs,” “Just Say Yes,” and “Take me Home.  They also did a stunning cover of Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” incorporating a sample of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”  But the icing on the cake was their performance of one of their biggest hits, “Dream Big,” which included a ladies choir from the Jocko Valley Community Chorus, and a special “appearance” by the voice of Kermit the Frog on “The Rainbow Connection.”

Unbeknownst to me, my old friend Steve Garvan was managing Shupe.  It was a great chance to hang out with him and catch up.  So thankful to have people like Garvan helping to bring out the best from the indie music community.

The final performer of the night was John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band.  Jorgenson is considered to one of the fathers of modern bluegrass, and his songs have been covered by a myriad of artists, including Brad Paisley and Allison Krause.  Jorgenson provided a magnificent performance of his song, “Whiskey Lullaby,” which was recorded by Paisley and Krause.

I spent most of their performance working the merchandise booth as a volunteer for the Festival.  Even from there, the music was incredible and it was obvious that the crowd was enjoying the electricity created by these bands.  The only downside was that the headliner’s bluegrass sound did not have the same energy as Shupe, and the vibe fizzled as Jorgenson cut his set short.  It was still a great day of music, and helped to prepare the crowd for the awesomeness to come on Day 2.