Riverhawk 2021: A Satisfying Sampler of Roots Music
Like many of the smaller roots-oriented music festivals, Riverhawk has a large group of dedicated attendees who consider themselves part of a family. People have been RV-ing or setting up tents at the Sertoma Youth Ranch facility near Brooksville, Florida, for decades to see a diverse group of roots musicians, many of them from Florida. It’s a family-friendly affair with organized activities for kids in the Youth Pavilion, and it’s especially dog-friendly, with a mutt parade with great doggy costumes. It’s always an enjoyable festival (this was my third time), in part because of the collective-like atmosphere. Lots of spontaneous acoustic jams in the camping area, old friend reunions, and people willing to help with problems that arise. It’s a friendly and cheerful place to be for a few days.
This year’s festival included some fine musicians and, as usual, a diverse lineup at the location’s three stages: Electric blues with Damon Fowler (his recent CD dropped as number one on the Billboard Blues charts when it was released); the traveling Swamp/Motown extravaganza known as Shinyribs; the straight-ahead bluegrass of the Appalachian Road Show; Connor Christian and Southern Gothic, and many others.
Several acts really caught my attention. Appalachian Road Show is a collection of well-known Grammy-winning and -nominated musicians that just blew away the crowd at their two sets. Barry Abernathy’s banjo, Jim VanCleve’s fiddle playing, and Darrell Webb on mandolin anchor the band; Abernathy’s and Webb’s duet harmony vocals are a high point. Whether singing about hard times in the mountains, doing a heartfelt four-part gospel song, or roaring through the “Milwaukee Blues”, they were tight and professional. One of the highlights of the festival for me.
Appalachian Road Show Photo credit: Rick Davidson
I recently saw Shinyribs at Merlefest, and it’s an act that pretty much defies description. Chief Rib Kevin Russell has put together a show that is part Motown Revue, part swampy New Orleans bluesfest, and big band swing with a little funk thrown in; they are a must-see. With a horn section and backup singers, you’ll not find another act like this anywhere. Kevin also did a solo session, playing ukulele.
Shinyribs Photo credit: Rick Davidson
Several of the regional acts were very impressive as well. Passerine, a group from the Sarasota area, has been playing together for over a decade. Featuring the solid, soaring vocals of Carmela Pedicini and fiddle player Sara Stovall as well as David Brain on dobro and Doug Conroy on bass, they provided a set of folk-oriented originals, including “Little Leslie Ann,” described as being written about a “sassy teen” who takes no prisoners, “Crash Burn Love,” and covers from Hazel and Alice’s “The One I Love is Gone” to Prince’s “When Doves Cry.”
Passerine Photo credit: Rick Davidson
I haven’t seen him perform in a few years, but I’d have to say that the hard times during the past few years have energized Brian Smalley. The virtuoso guitarist and singer/songwriter is the very definition of a live-wire entertainer. He puts all of himself into each set, and as one musician told me at the beginning of his set, by the end of it he’s drenched. While occasionally he sits down at the mic, more frequently he’s careening around the stage and stomping out rhythm, never missing a note. He plays in multiple different tunings and genres: another musician calls him a “New Age Cracker.” Brian writes some wonderful songs, “My First Crazy Wife” and the hilarious “The Greasy Palm Marina” among them. His acoustic turn on “Norwegian Wood” involved him acting the lyrics to the song while playing and never missing a beat: he ended up laying flat on his back playing the song. This guy absolutely loves what he does and it shows. You should not miss a chance to see him if you can.
I’ve known Grant Peeples for several years, but this was the first time I had seen him with a band, and the band was composed of Passerine’s fiddle player Sara Stovall, guitar master Michael Lagasse from the band Wild Shiners, and Brian Hall on bass. The activist poet and songwriter has few filters; there’s not much he’s afraid to say or sing. Whether he’s reflecting on some of the mores of rural life in “Okra and Ecclesiastes” or “Down Here in the County,” raising hackles with “Morning After the Coup,” or presenting his soul crushing version of Mishkin’s “Market Town,” he’ll step right up and express himself with no regrets. While he tends to generate strong feelings one way or another, I guarantee he’ll make you think; that’s what makes him a unique artist worth seeing.
Grant Peeples Photo credit: Rick Davidson
Some of my other impressions… right in the middle of Damon Fowler’s blazing electric blues set, I hear him say, “I think this is the perfect location for a Guy Clark song,” which wasn’t expected at all, but then he launched into his version of the Guy Clark/Verlon Thompson supernatural song called “The Guitar,” and it worked perfectly.
The somewhat unlikely duo of Allen Shadd, national flatpicking champion, and Kristen Holloway, flautist and regular member of Gypsy Wind, put together a great set of diverse tunes. Opening with Orleans’ “Dance With Me” and including an acoustic version of the fiddle tune “Gold Rush” plus Dan Fogelberg’s “Morning Sky,” they were a perfect addition to the diverse line-up.
Other great sets that I managed to catch included the Chicken Wire Empire, a bluegrass jam band from Milwaukee; the Oak Hill Drifters with accomplished vocalist Rachel Decker; and Sugarcane Jane, the gulf coast duo that provided a great set of original Americana tunes. Roy Book Binder did two acoustic blues workshops for guitar players as well.
Riverhawk provides a relaxed atmosphere, a great bunch of performers you might not have seen before, and a chance to meet some truly dedicated fans. At least three people, regular festival-goers and one of them a musician, told me that Riverhawk is their favorite festival. I’m planning on being there next year.