The River City Roots Festival returns this weekend to shut down a few blocks of downtown and jam your shoes off.
The bill is stacked with talent, both familiar and unfamiliar to Missoula, that covers the usual jamgrass genre well-known to Roots Fest attendees.
There’s a headlining set from Missoula faithful Leftover Salmon, who credit themselves as being architects of the jamgrass genre in 1990s Colorado. Right before their set, Acoustic Syndicate, another repeat visitor, will bring their own slight twist on bluegrass/roots music.
Both of those groups are on anniversary tours — Leftover Salmon celebrating 30 years as a group and Acoustic Syndicate going on 25 years.
“I think I’ve been listening to these guys all 25 years,” Roots Fest organizer Ellen Buchanan said. “Probably Leftover Salmon too.”
Buchanan made sure to highlight Cascade Crescendo, a Portland bluegrass outfit that plays before Acoustic Syndicate on Saturday.
“They’re really coming up hot,” she said. “We probably won’t be able to afford them in a few years.”
The only locals this year are blues-rock outfit Moneypenny and the kid-friendly Whizpops, who return to open up the bill Saturday.
Two notable groups this year reach outside the bluegrass trappings completely, something Buchanan’s been purposeful about booking the last few years.
Friday main stage headliners Honey Island Swamp Band ply a style of hard-stomping Southern rock that mixes influences like the Allman Brothers and The Band with their own New Orleans feel.
Boogie-woogie piano, old-school sax wailing, slide guitar and jumpy bass bring tracks like “How Do You Feel,” the leadoff from the group’s 2016 comeback album “Demolition Day” to the forefront as the life of the party. There’s no shortage of danceable, grooveable tunes from the Swamp Band.
Buchanan said she saw Honey Island Swamp Band at a music festival in Las Vegas a few years ago and filed them away for a Roots Fest booking.
“I thought they’d be a great fit,” she said. “They’re high energy, a lot of fun.”
Next up in the “actual band with actual songs that aren’t just a lead-in to a 20-minute jam” category are The Black Lillies, a Tennessee group that combines old-school country and classic rock for what is, essentially, a much better version of what I think Zac Brown Band is going for.
This approach is well-reflected in the chorus of “Midnight Stranger,” a brooding boogie with funky, scuzzy lead guitar wiling its way around the drumbeat:
“Midnight Stranger/tight pair of Wranglers/tickets to New Mexico
Sweet sangria/on Catalina/taking chances on a Midnight Stranger”
Well within three degrees of separation from the purely free-associative school of modern country lyric writing, but with just enough edge to keep it off mainstream radio.
The Black Lillies don’t hang around in any well too long, however. There’s touches of indie rock here and there, as well as old-school bar band rave-ups with double time drums and anything-goes lead guitar lines.
Their own press writeup describes The Lillies’ most recent record thusly:
“…listeners will realize that any governor on the throttle of this remodeled machine has been yanked and discarded.”
Opening up the day is Ashleigh Flynn & The Riveters, a former bluegrass band that transitioned to a rock sound, Buchanan said.
“Still roots music, but not just mandolins, banjos and fiddles,” she described them.
The one “listening music” performance belongs to a Guy Clark tribute on Saturday, featuring Shawn Camp and Verlon Thompson.
The duo has only performed about six times, Buchanan said, but she reached out to bring them to Roots Fest.
“This one’s for me,” Buchanan, a lifelong Clark fan, said. “The shows are phenomenal.”
Roots Fest will also experiment with some crowdfunding for the first time as well. Buchanan said they’ll have volunteers out in the crowd for about two hours during the weekend, collecting cash donations to help pad their budget for 2020.
“The bands are getting more expensive, as they should,” she said. “But our budget isn’t getting any bigger.”