Words & Images by: James Parker
Madison Roots Festival :: 08.02.08 :: Alliant Energy Center Madison, WI
In a year packed with festivals and endless live music on the weekends comes the 2nd annual Madison Roots Festival, a daylong event set in the heart of Madison, Wisconsin. Admittedly, I initially chose to go to this festival specifically for the John Butler Trio, but as time went on, an eclectic set of artists joined the bill and the extraordinary idea for a human-powered bike stage (created by organizer Dan Aukofer and his team) - powered entirely by eager fans - made this an event of great possibilities.
| Bike Powered Stage :: Madison Roots Festival|
We arrived right at 2 p.m. and had no problem getting into the small festival grounds. The overall setting was sparse, prompting one to wonder why the event was not across the street at Olin Park, a beautiful tree-shaded park overlooking Lake Monona and downtown Madison, a site that has featured many music events in the past. Also limited were the vending and other activities, conjuring up thoughts that this festival was indeed "all about the music."
The first artist we saw was Mark Croft, a local award-winning acoustic singer-songwriter. Along with keyboardist Jaye Barbeau, Croft played the good-feelin' tunes from his newest release Permanent Ink including the title track and "Is it Gonna Be Funky?" Limited to a 30-minute set, Croft showed some passion in his playing but the most memorable aspect of his set was the fact that it was entirely human-powered by twelve stationary bicycles pedaled by volunteers and area bike enthusiasts. In fact, there was such overwhelming demand to ride the bikes that local radio station 105.5 Triple M held contests for people to get a chance to ride.
We walked the short distance over to the main stage to catch another local up-and-comer Corey Hart. His four-song set was highlighted by his resonant falsetto voice and rich interpretations from his Words Like Wildfire release. "Designed to be a Fool" was a revelation for anyone not acquainted with Hart's music. Finishing things off with an ear-catching cover of Zeppelin's "Kashmir," it was a wonder that he could actually pull this off during a mid-afternoon solo acoustic set.
| Blue Beyond - Madison Roots Festival :: 08.02|
At this point I began to wonder what this "Roots" festival was all about. The fest certainly didn't represent Madison well. The venue itself was not ascetically pleasing compared with other great Madison sites. Also, there were no vendors selling local beer or local restaurants represented, not even an ice cream stand. The artists did their best to keep the audience entertained, but despite that the festival lacked identity, style and character, all of which Madison has plenty of.
There was still plenty of great music, including Blue Beyond, a solid, rocking, no frills rhythm and blues quintet. This spiked the energy level considerably. Running through a succession of groovy, jazzy originals like "Fire Blue" and "Success City," it was apparent why these musicians have earned their keep in the Madison music scene. Singer-saxophonist Sarah Hastings led the group through a tight set which meandered into some jam oriented songs near the end.
Next we were treated to Shawn Mullins on the main stage for a short set of solo acoustic tunes. The consummate storyteller is best known for his earlier work, especially his hit single "Lullaby." Although Mullins has slipped below the radar, the quality and clarity of his set was a pleasant surprise. Opening with "The Ballad of Kathryn Johnston," from his new disc Honeydew, he soon moved into more well-known material like "Beautiful Wreck" and a cool cover of "House of the Rising Sun," a song Mullins recently recorded in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. He ended things with "Lullaby," preceded by the story of how that song came to be told in Mullins' inimitable style.
Dar Williams, another in a long line of folky songstresses, was next. Williams has a strong Madison following and fit right in with the proceedings. Starting out slowly with "I Never Took" and "The Babysitter's Here," Williams exemplified the singer-songwriter vibe that permeated the festival. As she broke into "You Are Everyone" from her forthcoming Promised Land, the Clyde Stubblefield Band at the nearby bike stage started tuning, practicing and literally drowning out Williams, somewhat turning her set into a wash.
| Clyde Stubblefield Band :: Madison Roots Festival|
The bike stage had no problem powering up the iconic blues of Madison legend Clyde Stubblefield and his large band. This oddly enough offered a welcome respite from the relative dullness of the main stage. The fact that seven instrumentalists drew all the power they needed from bicycle-created energy is great news for energy-conscious music fans and artists out there trying to lower their carbon footprint.
Tristan Prettyman was a fairly anticipated set for this festival, and she opened solo acoustic with her hit "Madly." For many of us, it has been difficult to shake the Ani DiFranco comparisons and pop-tart image, but this set offered the clearest indication of what Prettyman's all about. Playing selections from her new album, Hello, with a small band, it was easy to see the talent and potential she possesses. Her new release seems to be somewhat of a break-up and "coming-of-age" album, and maybe that's something she has needed to experience. In any case, the future appears bright for Tristan Prettyman.
The reggae rhythm band Natty Nation from Madison closed out the bike stage with aplomb. Very well received, the band was loose yet focused and exhibited great energy. Lead singer JAH Boogie voiced some political opinions, applauded the efficiency of the bikes and denounced big oil corporations. The performance was seamless and impressive and near the end they played a song about - what else - revolution! They concluded their exciting set with a jiving reggae song called "Shepherd" from their forthcoming album.
| Natty Nation - Madison Roots Festival :: 08.02|
Inevitably, the festival came down to the two main acts: John Butler Trio followed by G. Love & Special Sauce. It could be contended that Butler could have headlined but on this tour he took a backseat to G. Love. The Trio played a tight 70-minute set highlighted by songs from their latest release, Grand National. Butler's solo guitar marathon "Ocean" and new song "Satisfy" - lamenting the decline of MTV as relevant musical entertainment - were overwhelming in their delivery. As impressive as his compositions are, it's Butler's uncanny ability to energize an audience - no matter what kind of crowd - that sets him apart. Some might say their set was too short (nine songs) but it was just as powerful as any JBT show I've seen. The band brought things to a raucous close with percussion-infused versions of "Good Excuse" and "Funky Tonight."
G. Love & Special Sauce took the stage for the headlining set and breezed through new and old material, plus the familiar "Rodeo Clowns," which was written by G. Love but made famous by his friend Jack Johnson. The set was induced with some Dylan-esque folk-blues and searing harmonica, balanced by slick rap work that often slid in a message. The title track from his new release, Superhero Brother, fit in well with the current state of affairs from the government to the music industry. It seems that G. Love's non-stop touring over the years has finally paid off.
The Madison Roots Festival closed this hot summer night with some definite positives. There were quality performances by many of the artists and a positive sign of things to come with human-powered energy creating a new, efficient, unique way of staging a live concert experience. We, as live music fans, have much to look forward to in that respect. Despite the sparse grounds, inadequate vending and lack of identity, this festival should not be heavily discredited in a summer filled with high-end festivals stretching from coast to coast. What it can do is take a little something from all of them and develop the hip festival that Madison music fans deserve.
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