The 19th annual Green Harbor Roots Festival showcased some of the best and most rockin’ roots music around. Cloudy and overcast but never rainy, the event took place in cool, comfortable weather, and the turnout over the course of the eight hour event topped three hundred. And that’s not bad for a roots festival that some may have thought was going to get rained out.
First up, the Charlie Keating Band began the festival with plenty of greasy, hard driving blues. Keating is a wild man on his electric guitar and his mighty rhythm section know how to keep him afloat and anchored at once. Keating made his guitar scream out its high pitched melodic line in glorious color during “One Way Out.” CKB handled “Uncompatible” like a pushy mid-tempo blues that moved its way forward with the locomotive strength of Ms. Lenny Turnquist’s bass guitar work. A Keating guitar phrase cried out the song’s pain and frustration while the rhythm section cocooned it inside of a thumpy vibe. The band’s hard charging take on “Boom Boom Boom” rocked the fairground with its stomping groove before Keating played a twist on “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and “Yellow Basket.” His guitar notes came soaring out of the loud speakers while organ notes from Bill Champitto slid around with greasy fury. A slow burner blues was played with a lot of grace before CKB funked things up as they finished up their set.
Next up, New England’s favorite side stage band, Merrimack Valley’s The Rampage Trio began their first set with a cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Singer-guitarist Brian Owens’ voice has smoothed like a fine aged whisky over the years, and the groove he and his band put out made one feel it. A soulful thump beneath him, Owens picked off those familiar lines with firm gentlemanly aplomb. The Rampage Trio originals were even better. “Hurricane Of Love” from their Turn It Up album and another clever original called “Skinny Bone Legs” brought enthusiastic response. During a later set, the trio wrung a lot of emotion out of Duke Robillard’s “Tell Me Why.” Owens’ guitar lines made the soul of the song bleed with emotion.
Soul Box was the second band to take the main stage. Marked by jumpy rhythms and soulful vocals, they started their set with Clarence Carter’s “Snatching It Back,” Matt Smith’s electric piano boogie becoming as much a highlight as George Howard’s blue eyed soul voice. And throughout every number, Greg Miller’s lead guitar work was lean, mean, something sharp enough to cut glass, other times vigorous enough to push a song forward. Soul Box played Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain” with a soulful, sunny disposition that brightened an already cool vibe at the festival. Matt Smith’s keyboard adopted a clavinet sound before making it play like a saxophone, and it was one of many good showings from the man. The band also nailed all of the shifting rhythms to The Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street,” starting and stopping with tight discipline. Miller’s guitar follow up here was also primo cool, a long rangy phase that snaked across this number with protuberant persistence. It’s the way Soul Box makes blue eyed soul out of classics like “Iko Iko” and “The Weight” that make them so successful musically. They brought the roots glory out of these classics with jangling guitar rhythm and heartfelt harmonies.
Fitting right into the positive, joyful vibe of the day was Sarah Swain’s bright, cheery disposition. Her Sarah & The Oh Boys delivered plenty of good old fashioned rock and roll, country roots, and rockabilly during their vivacious, sunny set. Propelled by slappy upright bass notes, rim shots, and riffy guitar phrasing, the song sailed by with a bouncy ease. Ms. Swain made it seem easy to conjure the pop joy of that song. She and her band played “Nothin’ Shakin’” with bright shards of rockabilly guitar parts. To illustrate the sunny disposition of Ms. Swain, she took the darkness out of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” transforming it into something much lighter. And she got away with it. A girlish demeanor and a sweet voice can go far at putting one’s personal stamp on a song. She also used her personality to bring out the roots and gospel qualities from Tom Waits’ “Come On Up To The House.” Her own “Little Bit A Lovin’ Makes The World Go Around” from their upcoming CD got spanked out of the amps by The Oh Boy’s slappin’ rhythm section. Swain crooned over that tight backdrop with her pure rockabilly soul. She made one feel like two stepping while reflection on her righteous vocal twang. On each song it was amazing how her voice wrung out so true, a natural timbre that just fits her genre like a glove. She rocked the fairground with her take on “Shakin’ All Over” before
she sung “Mercy” as a special request from the festival organizer John Hall, a beloved presence on the blues scene and in his Marshfield community.
Los Texmaniacs featuring Willie J. Laws were the next to last main stage band. OK, Los Texmaniacs didn’t invite Willie J. Laws to join them simply because of Mr. Laws’ boyish good looks. Laws is an actual member of this band going back to his days in Texas, which is where he resided before relocating to New England. A Grammy winning band, Los Texmaniacs are recognized by the Smithsonian National Museum of the United States. The band’s mission is to take the German folk music influences that came to Texas and blended with Mexican influenced lyrics and rhythms. Founder and band leader Max Baca is an authority and highly skilled player on the bajo sexto, a Mexican instrument that combines treble clef and bass clef on its acoustic 12 string construction. Baca made quite an impression with that instrument throughout the Los Texmaniacs set. An accordion, played by Baca’s nephew, virtuoso Josh Baca, whistled prettily, like its notes were singing the melody to the romantic and broken hearted songs. Mr. Laws soon took over on melodic duty, offering a fine line of tender guitar melody. Laws also sang lead vocal on his more bluesy numbers, fusing his smooth masculine croon with the Spanish roots instrumentation going on around him. A highlight came when Laws and Baca dueled for musical supremacy during “San Antoine” in a friendly battle in which the only winner was the audience. It was a dazzling display of skill, knowledge of colors and tones, and tempo from both men. Laws kept plenty of snap, crackle, and pop in his guitar line during “I Wanna Know Your Name” by Los Texmaniacs while the band kept it sweetly Spanish and southern. Heading toward their finish, Los Texmaniacs featuring Willie J. Laws delivered well with their multitude of styles on “Down In The Barrios” and “She’s About A Mover,” creating a three dimensional rendition of each with all of the notes being played at once.
Words alone might not be enough to describe the explosion of musical colors and styles when Terrance Simien & The Zydeco Experience took to the stage. This headlining act played with influences from all over the Americas. A washboard rhythm, a vibrant trumpet, and an accordion formed the axis of on one particularly flavorful tune, “Where The Pretty Women?” That trumpet blew new life into the tune with an upwards spiraling melodic line. It was thick waves of sound like that that made this national act a hit in Marshfield, Massachusetts last Sunday night. Simien’s beautiful voice on “We Sing In The Sunshine” flowed as smoothly and merrily as the notes from his accordion player. In another tune, a Mardi Gras laced melody from the guitar was on fire before Simien’s keyboardist tapped out a funky organ swirl that combined with trumpet and sax, constructing a thick, appealing sound on a cover of “Love The One You’re With.”
After a day of amazing music and fun, one could reflect on how smoothly everything ran, including the sound and how comfortably cool the weather remained. Once the headliner wrapped up the festival, there was a sense “How the heck does John Hall do it?” How does one organizer gather all of the right acts for one show and keep it moving so one feels like one is having an experience, not just sitting there listening to bands? One can find out when Mr. Hall presents the 20th North River Blues Festival this coming weekend, August 29th and August 30th.