The 8th annual River Roots Live/Rib Fest was held on August 18-19 at LeClaire Park in downtown Davenport. Once again, I was the stage manager/announcer for the festival - my 13th time doing either the River Roots Live or Rib Fest. (The two merged in 2007 - I worked all the Rib Fests up to 2006, missing only the first one in 1998. And I worked the first River Roots Live in 2005, but not the one in 2006.) This year, we were blessed with exceptional weather - the first time in memory where it didn't rain at least once during the festival. We got some pretty good rains on the day before the festival began during set up, but it was sunny and pleasant with beautiful evenings all weekend long.
Things were a little different this year, but not by much. Longtime event coordinator Marcy Hyder had resigned her position last fall to go work for the River Center in Davenport and Jason Gilliland was hired to take her place by the Quad City Chamber of Commerce. I'd known Jason for a number of years as he is the bass player for local band Jim the Mule and also has worked festivals with me helping out Rexroat Sound. Jason has a laid back manner of management - Marcy thrived on chaos and drama, so things were always fast and furious with her. And that's not to say that's a bad thing. I loved working for Marcy. Her attention to detail and "can-do" attitude made my job easier. Jason's style is, "Well, let's get this done and move on to the next thing. Then at the end of the day we can drink some beer."
I was helped behind the stage this year by Tom Swanson, the director of the River Music Experience, and his wife, Katie; Katie's parents, Mike and Michelle Monfort, handled the catering again this year. The wonderful Kate Benson and her boyfriend, Bret Dale, were tremendous help again this year for me. Of course, I can't say enough about the great work Scott Rexroat and his crew from Rexroat Sound did again this year. Nathan Judd, Eric Kranz, Tom Salata, Patrick Rifley and a number of others I'm forgetting to mention (sorry guys) did a great job with the sound, lights and staging. And I also have to thank my wife, Cindy, who filled in the gaps when she was needed.
One of the biggest changes was that we charged admission to the festival. Years ago, we had charged admission for both River Roots Live and the Rib Fest. But when the floods four and five years ago forced us to move to the streets of downtown Davenport, we couldn't charge admission then. When we moved back to LeClaire Park for RRL in 2010, we still kept it free admission. After last years festival, plans came into place to charge admission after 5 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday. "5 after 5" was the term that was used as anyone coming after 5 p.m. had to pay 5 bucks to get in. It did two things - it got people to the park early on both Friday and Saturday (people could pass out of the gate and get a stamp to get back in), and it kept the riff-raff out. Even though attendance was down by 1/3 from last year's record breaking crowds, our revenues were up tremendously - thanks both to the gate where over 10,000 people entered after 5 p.m. on Saturday night, and the sale of beer. Lines to get beer and food were shorter and there was less complaints from those who were in attendance. (Photo courtesy of Brian Barkley who got some great pictures of the event for the Quad City Chamber.)
The band line-up was still in flux weeks before the festival. Los Lobos had been booked to headline the Saturday night portion of River Roots Live, but less than two months before the mid-August date the band had to pull out. One of Los Lobos' guitar players, I believe it was Cesar Rojas, had been suffering from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and was slated to have surgery after the summer. However, the band had been asked by Neil Young and Crazy Horse to open for them on part of their tour beginning in late September. He opted to have the surgery earlier than later as he needed at least a six week recovery period before he could play again. Los Lobos was out, and after some tense moments of on, then off, then on-again scheduling, Tonic and Better Than Ezra were signed to take the place of Los Lobos for Saturday night. I'm either getting too old or I didn't pay attention to their music 15 or so years ago, but I'd heard of both bands, but were unfamiliar with any of their music.
Friday night's headliners - Keller Williams and The Travelin' McCoury's - were also performers I knew little about. Keller Williams is a troubadour who plays guitar and uses elements of folk, bluegrass, reggae and funk in his music. The Travelin' McCoury's, who backed up Williams that evening on the heels of the release of their collaborative album "Pick", are led by Rob McCoury and Ronnie McCoury, sons of the legendary bluegrass guitarist Del McCoury (he I had heard of). Jason Carter on fiddle and Alan Bartram on bass rounded out The Travelin' McCoury's. They were all great guys to work with and had quite the following. (Photo courtesy Brian Barkley.)
One of my most embarrassing moments ever over the years at River Roots Live/Rib Fest happened just before Keller and the McCoury's were to play. Tom Swanson had been scheduled to get up and say a few words about the River Music Experience just before the band was to play. I told him at the end of it to just say, "And coming up in a little bit, Keller Williams and the Travelin' McCoury's." Only Tom forgot to say that. He walked back to where I was standing and said, "Oh, shit! I forgot to introduce the band."
I looked at the guys on the stage, they had been there for a few minutes doing line checks and making sure their monitors were working in their ears, so I figured they were pretty much ready to go. One of the rules of announcing a band is making sure they're ready to go. I didn't. I had Tom introduce the band and they all looked at us, then one another and started to play. The only problem was that they weren't ready. For the next 10 minutes, it was them playing individual instruments and each singing non-sensical lyrics to do the line checks. Quite honestly, if you didn't know they were doing a line check, you would have thought it was part of the show. I apologized profusely to their road manager/sound engineer and to the guys in the band after the show. Rob McCoury said, "Believe me, we've done a few of those in our lives."
The highlight for me on Friday night was the appearance of the legendary Nighthawks from Washington, D.C. The band was founded in 1972 by singer/harp player Mark Wenner and has included guitar greats Jimmy Thackery and Warren Haynes over the years. The Nighthawks were playing blues roots music long before the term had been coined. Wenner is still with the band, along with guitarist Paul Bell, bassist Jimmy Castle and drummer Mark Stutso. (Pictured from left to right, Castle, Wenner, Bell and Stutso.)
When the band pulled up in their van around 6:30 p.m., I went over to the gate to meet up with them. Wenner was driving and Stutso was in the front seat. I went to the passenger side of the van and Stutso rolled down his window. I was shocked as I didn't know who he was, but I certainly recognized the face. I said, "Man, you look so familiar!"
He put his hand out and said, "I'm Mark Stutso, I played this event with Jimmy Thackery a few years back. Sure, I remember you!" It was like old home week. I had a picture I took backstage of Mark and Tommy Castro, who played on the same bill that year, because they looked so much alike. I wish I could find that picture. In any event, it was another small world encounter for me.
The guys from the Nighthawks were just great to hang with. Probably the most complaints I heard from people were that they only played 50 minutes. Believe me, it was hard to give Mark Wenner the "10 minute warning" before the end of their set. They set the place on fire and the crowd was screaming for more. But there's that old show business adage, leave the people wanting more.
Saturday was a delightfully picturesque day along the banks of the Mississippi River. After some local bands played in the early afternoon, a young soft-spoken Australian guitarist by the name of Joe Robinson took the stage. Four years ago at the age of 17, Robinson won the "Australia's Got Talent" television program. Here is one of his performances from the show playing The Beatles "Daytripper" which morphs into "Lady Madonna".
Along with a bass player and drummer, Robinson took the stage at 4 p.m. and proceeded to put on one of the most electrifying performances I'd ever seen. I literally stopped what I was doing to stand off to the side of the stage to watch this kid play. This was another performance that should have gone on for another half-hour, at least. One of my all-time favorite guitar players is Eric Johnson and there were so many elements of Johnson's style of guitar playing in Robinson's technique that I had to ask him after he came off the stage if he was Eric Johnson's illegitimate son. He laughed and said, "That's funny you say that! We just played with Eric Johnson last week!"
Joe Robinson's manager, Reen Nalli, a Nashville-based agent/consultant who owns A&R Consultants, was with him. I said to her, "Hang on to this kid. He's going places."
She exclaimed, "I know! Isn't he something?" Before they left, Reen gave me a couple of Joe Robinson's discs. I have to say his music is surprisingly outstanding. Surprisingly in that I'd never heard of him before I saw him at River Roots Live.
After Robinson's set, a young songstress from around Rochester, NY - Julia Nunes - played on the south stage. She did very well, but she didn't have a chance to keep the crowd's attention after Robinson's smoking set. Nunes is one of those social media sensations with a number of her songs posted on You Tube. (Click here to see the list of what songs of Nunes' are available on You Tube.)
Here's another small world thing involving Julia Nunes. I found out that she grew up in Fairport, NY, the home of my cousin Sarah and her husband, Jim. They have a son, David, who went to Fairport High School with Julia Nunes. I told her that I had a relative who may have gone to school with her and when I told her his name, she didn't recognize it. She said, "But I graduated with 900 kids, so he may have been in my class."
I texted David and asked him if he'd heard of Julia Nunes. He texted back, "Yeah, she was a year behind me in school. She's great!" I told him that she was playing the festival and he texted back, "Really? All the way out in Iowa?" He was pretty impressed that she was at River Roots Live playing. She told me after her 50 minute set that she'd have to look up David in her yearbook. She was a very sweet young lady.
Later in the evening, another one of my all-time guitar heroes played at River Roots Live - Eric Sardinas. I first saw Sardinas at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, CA in 1998. Since then, I've seen him play a handful of other times around the Midwest when he comes out on tour. I've met him a couple times - once during a break at the show in San Juan Capistrano, and again after a show he played at the Redstone Room in Davenport about six years ago. When I told him after the show in Davenport that I'd previously met him in Dana Point, he lit up and said, "Oh, yeah! The Coach House! Great place to play!"
When he and his drummer and bass player showed up in a Cadillac Escalade, he was not a happy camper. Traffic into downtown Davenport was in a snarl due to River Roots Live and a Quad City Bandits baseball game played next door at John O'Donnell Stadium. (Oops! Sorry - Modern Woodman Park.) It had taken him an hour to go from his hotel to Le Claire Park. I introduced myself to him again and he said rather gruffly, "Pleased to meet you." When I told him that we had met before on a couple of occasions - fully knowing that he never remembered the previous two meetings - he said, "Oh, yeah. Well, good to see you again. Where's my dressing room?" I shepherded he and his bandmates to their trailer behind the stage at the park.
When it was their time to play, I went to get them to take them to the stage. Eric was much more relaxed than he was when he first arrived and we walked up to the bandshell stage. He asked me how I was going to introduce him and I gave him my quick script. He said, "Yeah, that's good, but add this..." And he gave me a spiel about his new album and about his band (Big Motor). I revised the announcement and he stood next to me as I did it. When I ended the introduction by saying, "Would you please welcome for the first time to River Roots Live, Eric Sardinas and Big Motor." He walked past me onto the stage, but not before he gave me a hearty slap on the back and said, "Great job, big guy!"
And then he started to tear the place up. Sardinas and his bass player, Lavell Price, and his drummer, Chris Frazier, put on one helluva show. This was also a tough call to pull the plug after 50 minutes. Like the Nighthawks the night before, I heard many people tell me afterward that the highlight of Saturday night was Eric Sardinas. (I took this picture with my camera phone as I was standing at the monitor board right after I told him he had 10 minutes to play. I was disappointed to have him stop, to say the least.)
Another small world occurrence happened just after Eric Sardinas played. I got Tonic up and going on the north stage and went back to the bandshell stage to supervise the changeover from Sardinas to Better Than Ezra. Chris Frazier, Sardinas' drummer, was still milling around on the stage and he came up to me and said, "Man, you look really familiar. Did you ever work any Eddie Money shows?"
I told him that I'd seen Eddie Money play, but had never worked the stage at any of his shows. Then he said, "Did you ever work any Edgar Winter shows?"
I said, "Well, 8 years ago Edgar Winter played the very first River Roots Live here at the park."
Chris said, "Well, 8 years ago I would have been the drummer for Edgar Winter. It had to be here, then. I thought you really looked familiar." Quite honestly, I don't remember him as Edgar Winter's drummer, but he remembered me. I thought that was sort of neat.
My wife got a taste of fame for the evening as she had to ferry Eric, Lavell and Chris over the merchandise tent so they could sell albums, CD's and sign autographs. She hung out in the merchandise tent for an hour with the guys and she couldn't say enough about how nice they were. "Lavell looks like this big ol' tough biker guy," she said. "But he was the sweetest guy!"
Cindy had her picture taken with the band at the merchandise tent along with a couple daughters of a friend of hers. She dug hanging out with the guys.
Cindy brought them all back on her golf cart and she told me that the line of people didn't dwindle until about 45 minutes had passed. "They probably could have stayed longer if they wanted. But Eric said he had to get back to do a phone interview."
(Below left is a picture Cindy took of Eric Sardinas at a Mississippi Valley Blues Fesitval about four years ago. It's one of the pictures I have on my computer's screen saver. I wish I would have printed out a copy and brought it down for Eric Sardinas to sign.)
After that, I had to pay Eric Sardinas in my little office behind the bandshell. He was such a great guy and extremely personable. I told him, "You know, I've been following your career since I first saw you at the Coach House some 14 years ago. I know I'm not supposed to get star-struck at these events, but when I saw that you were going to play and I got to work the event with you, I was thrilled. You always put on one helluva show and I'm thrilled to have you here tonight."
Sardinas said, "Aw, man. That's beautiful. I really appreciate it." We hugged it out in the office before he left to go back to his dressing room trailer.
Cindy had told me that Sardinas had sold a number of albums during the hour the band was at the merchandise tent. I decided I wanted one and I went back to the trailers to see if I could pick one up from him. Lavell Price was standing outside the trailer and I said that I wanted to pick up an album. He said, "Yeah, we have a few left in here. Come on in."
He led me inside the trailer and he said, "We're selling them for $20 bucks." Eric was on the phone back in the bedroom area of the camper/trailer, doing a phone interview with someone on the west coast.
As I was getting ready to hand Lavell my money, I heard Eric say, "Lavell! No! No! Do not take his money! Give it to him!"
I turned around to see Eric with the phone to his head with one hand, waving furiously with his other hand. Lavell sort of shrugged and said, "He's the boss!" I gave Eric a quick wave of thanks as I exited the trailer. Ah, one of the fringe benefits of being the stage manager.
One of the pitfalls of being the stage manager is that I don't get to take in many of the performances of the bands. Quite honestly, as I said before, I really wasn't familiar with either Tonic or Better Than Ezra. I did recognize a song that Tonic did, "If You Could Only See" which got some airplay back in the 90's. But Better Than Ezra was more of a college radio station band 15 years ago and I was unfamiliar with nearly all of their songs except for cover versions of songs by Tom Petty and the Rolling Stones. I was able to watch some of Better Than Ezra's performance from out at the sound board at the front of the house. I'm sorry, they may be nice guys, but I wasn't impressed. (Better Than Ezra photo courtesy Brian Barkley.)
Two other bands who played on Saturday were The Steepwater Band, a Chicago-based band known for their blues and Midwest-style rock. All the guys in the band were extremely impressed with the venue and the festival. Two of the guys, Jeff Massey and Joe Winters, were telling me of a horrible experience at a festival they were supposed to play the night before in Minnesota when the promoter couldn't come up with the money in advance. "The guy told us that he could pay us $400 in cash, and give us the rest in the form of a check," Jeff told me. "But then he said, 'You can't cash it until next Wednesday.' "
When I asked what they did next, Joe said, "We cut our losses, packed up our stuff and left. I mean, they CHARGED us for parking! $10 bucks to park! And we were the headlining band!"
Since we were paying them in cash before their performance, I joked, "Well, you'll notice that your payment is a little lighter because we charge $20 for bands to park and we just take it out of your pay rather than you having to pay up front." They both got a good laugh out of that. The guys in Steepwater hung out after their show and were great guys to be around. Before they left, they popped up to say good-bye and gave me one of their discs. The CD is pretty damn good.
The last band who finished out River Roots Live on Saturday was a Denver-based alternative-rock band by the name of The Congress. Not to be confused by a show-band from the Washington D.C. area with the same name, these three guys - Jonathon Meadows, Scott Lane and Mark Levy - were easy going fellas who cranked it up and put an exclamation point on the festival. I got to hang with them quite a bit during Better Than Ezra's set and afterward during their load-in. They were telling me of their brutal schedule that had them driving about 3000 miles in a week. "Our booking agency must hate us," Scott told me. "We have a relatively easy trip tomorrow to play up in Cedar Rapids, but after that we go to Lawrence, Kansas, then over to Lexington, Kentucky, then back down around the Southeast." But he said it was all right, they just love to play. The guys also gave me a copy of their CD. I've played it a couple times in my car and I'm impressed with their music.
Jason Gilliland told me during the festival, "If you ever decide to hang it up doing this gig, you've got to give me a two year warning. I'll need to have your replacement shadow you for a year. I guess I didn't realize all the stuff you really do during River Roots Live."
I always think at the end of the festival that I'm gonna have to think long and hard if I want to continue to do the job. But for the most part, I have fun doing what I do. The bands enjoy the fact that there's someone in charge to make sure things run smoothly, but more importantly the people who come to SEE the bands are the ones I care about more. It's no fun for anyone when bands are not on time or when there is too long a lag between acts. My job is to make sure that things run like clockwork around the stage area. And when that happens and no one complains, I did my job. And, once again, I heard of no complaints other than from a few people who thought a couple three bands would have played longer. And I happened to agree with them. So, I'm happy about that.
I won't be giving Jason my "two-year-warning" anytime soon... (Photo courtesy Brian Barkley.)