Writing On Roots

And the word of the day is: July music festivals. (Wait, that’s three words..)

A new statement on roots music by our columnist –and a songwriter you want to listen, too– Tori Sparks. As summer is here and July is the top month for festivals, here’s a round-up of live shows and artists you shouldn’t miss. Have love, will travel: from Chicago to Barcelona, roots are all around.

Summer: Beach. Mojitos. Music Festivals. It’s pretty much the Holy Trinity of July and August.

Flash back to the 1960s: Rock ‘n’ roll was still in its infancy, the folk music scene was on the rise in a big way. The gods of live music said, “Let there be Woodstock. Let there be the Monterey Pop Fest.” And so it was.

But that was more or less it. There were fewer festivals, although the festivals that did exist were big-time.

These days, there are as many music festivals as there are bands who want to play them. As a musician and music fan, it’s gratifying to see the sheer number of fests that have sprung up over the last few decades in every genre from experimental to classical. It can also be slightly overwhelming. Where to go, what to see? How to decide? Googling “July music festivals” brings up more results than “naked pictures Lindsey Lohan.” But don’t panic, we’re here to help.

With the focus being artists in the roots, folk, blues, and Americana vein, here is a selection of artists that we highly recommend this month, as well as the festivals where you can catch ‘em. Some of these are straight-up folk fests; others cater to a variety of styles. Fasten your proverbial seatbelts… away we go!


The Band: Bon Iver

From: Eau Claire, Wisconsin, United States

Sounds Like: trippy nature folk

Catch Them At: Latitude Festival – Suffolk, UK

Finger-picking guitars, xylophones, lap steel, layered vocal harmonies. The band is primarily Justin Vernon’s project (think one-man band a la Sam Beam = Iron and Wine), but in Vernon’s words, “you are who surrounds you.” He often collaborates with musicians such as Greg Leisz (pedal steel for Lucinda Williams, Bill Frisell), Colin Stetson (saxophone for Tom Waits, Arcade Fire), C.J. Camerieri (horns for Rufus Wainwright, Sufjan Stevens), and so on. He hasn’t left behind his stable of regular musicians – Sean Carey, Mike Noyce and Matt McCaughan – who played on his 2008 debut, “For Emma, Forever Ago”. Click onto their website, and you’re met with visual images such as rolling seas, misty fields with flocks of birds alighting in the dew, and aerial shots of Earth, undulating under a bio that reads more like poetry than marketing. (Which is, in and of itself, marketing…) But what sets them apart from arguably similar artists is their perpetual willingness to experiment with arrangements, such as in the song “Calgary” from their new album Bon Iver, Bon Iver. What starts out sounding like a funeral dirge turns into indie folk-pop, all within four minutes. Don’t worry if you can’t understand their lyrics. They don’t necessarily make sense when you actually sit down and read them, but therein lies the fun of artistic license. Vernon paints beautiful and vaguely apocalyptic pictures if you just close your eyes and take it all in, rather than trying to analyse or understand in a literal or linear way.

Catch them in Spain on July 22nd (Palacio Euskalduna, Bilbao) and July 27th in Barcelona (Poble Espanyol), but if you can’t wait, you’ll have them at the Latitude Festival in Suffolk (UK) on July 13th. The festival itself runs from Thursday, July 12th to Sunday, July 15th, and features a variety of artists on no less than nineteen stages or locations. Other artists on the bill include Esperenza Spalding, Buena Vista Social Club, Explosions In The Sky, Ben Howard, and many more. Check out for the full line-up. Film, music, children’s activities, poetry, theatre, art, comedy, fashion – ask and ye shall receive. Whatever you’re into, they’ve got it at Latitude…

…well, almost whatever you’re into. For those of you who just don’t get turned on by the above and are in need of the extreme, there’s always Burning Man in Nevada (US) in August. And now back to roots…


The Band: DePedro

From: Madrid, Spain

Sounds Like: smart Spanish folk rock

Catch Them At: Cruïlla BCN -- Barcelona, ES

Singing mostly in Spanish, occasionally in English, this Madrid native turns “folk rock” into a good thing. The musical influence of his extensive travels in the US and Mexico are reflected in the dusty Western edge that pokes through the otherwise shiny sheen of the songs on their album “DePedro”. The space in the arrangements lets the sound of each individual instrument shine, especially the sometimes smooth, sometimes raspy voice of frontman and founder Jairo Zavala. The music is good, in that it’s memorable without being so poppy as to get on your nerves, melancholy without being depressing, exuberant without being cheesy. The lyrics range from politics to family ties to lost love to philosophy of life.

It’s a bit strange that more people don’t know about these guys. I saw them play at South by Southwest in 2011, they have been written up by National Geographic World Music, and Zavala has sung televised duets with Spanish über-trendy folkie Russian Red. He started his career writing for Spanish stars Amparanoia, Los Coronas and others, and was put on the international stage after American indie rock group Calexico asked him to go on tour with them as a guitarist. To date, DePedro have released two albums, and tend to appear in smaller rock fests such as this one.

Check them out at Cruïlla BCN music festival in Barcelona (ES), on the first day of the festival, July 6th. Cruïlla is a compact event -- two days, two stages -- but this festival is special, as it always programs a huge variety of quality music. Be aware that this is not exactly an “acoustic” festival. M.I.A. is one of the headliners. The artists this year range from rock icon Iggy Pop to all-female Flamenco quartet Las Migas, from blind African duet Amadou & Mariam to gypsy punk freaks (in a good way) Golgol Bordello. Check out for more information. Two euros per ticket sold will go to benefit non-profit organization Amnesty International. Learn more about them here:


The Band: Feist

From: Amherst, Nova Scotia, Canada

Sounds Like: atmospheric indie folk

Catch Her At: Pitchfork Music Festival – Chicago, US

Her arrangements draw on the best of ambient sounds, electronic elements, and acoustic instruments to create an intriguing sound that’s been copied dozens of times since her solo debut album “Monarch” in 1999, and even more so since her first commercial success “Let It Die” in 2004.

Leslie Feist started out singing in choirs and in various bands, ultimately hooking up with Canadian rockers Broken Social Scene, which led to her first taste of commercial success. She has since collaborated with – well, everyone. Wilco, Grizzly Bear, Beck, has covered the Velvet Underground, the list goes on and on. But even after winning Juno and Grammy Awards, she still sounds homespun in her own quirky way. Feist incorporates puppet troupes into her videos and sounds of lapping waves and flocks of birds into her records. Songs like “Brandy Alexander,” comparing a lover to a strong drink, are almost classic in their simplicity. “1234” is bouncy enough that it was featured on The Muppet Show, while “The Park” is a lament that could break your heart. All-around cool stuff, highly recommended.

Feist will be playing at The Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago (US), on opening day, July 13th. The festival runs through July 15th, and also features Hot Chip, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Vampire Weekend, making her one of the few bastions of folksiness in the line-up. For those of you who may not be aware, Pitchfork is a music mag that has created a name for itself in the realm of thoughtful-yet-edgy, as reflected by their relatively hipster roster for this year’s festival. The event will take place in Union Park in the Windy City, rain or shine. For tickets and more info, go here.

4. The Band: Mike Farris & The Cumberland Saints

From: Nashville, Tennessee, United States

Sounds Like: roots + gospel x blues = rock (Somehow. It really does.)

Catch Them At: Vancouver Folk Festival – Vancouver, CA

Mike is the former frontman for 90s-era rock band The Screaming Cheetah Wheelies. After kicking the drug habit and finding religion, he was also “born again” as one of the most distinct voices on the roots music scene. He’s won Dove and Americana Music Awards in the US, which is no small feat if you factor in his adventurous past with the generally conservative nature of both groups.

His voice cuts through any mix like a New Orleans trumpet, and his music ranges from gritty originals spawned from personal struggles, to new takes on 200-year-old traditional songs. All are spiked with soul and a killer horn section. Farris’ albums and his live shows might feature twangy pedal steel courtesy of some of Nashville’s best session players and the McCrary Sisters on butter-smooth backing vocals, but they have all the energy of an underground rock ‘n’ roll show. He contributed vocals to Patty Griffin’s latest album “Downtown Church”, and is a regular on the festival circuit. Catch him at the Vancouver Folk Festival, date and time to be announced. He’ll perform in a stripped-down band format ( “The Cumberland Saints”), in lieu of the more complicated nine-piece “Roseland Rhythm Revue.”

As you can probably tell by the name of the festival, this one is definitely folk-oriented. Though the spirit may be rockin’, the music will be acoustic-based music from all over the world. Also appearing at the Vancouver Folk Festival: American country star Lucinda Williams, Canada’s Amelia Curran, Mexico’s Alejandra Robles, American Mistress of DIY Ani DiFranco, Sidi Toure from Mali, and many others. The Vancouver Folk Festival runs July 13th through 15th (the stars have aligned, and these three days in July are the days of many, many festivals). The organizers have been steadfast in their support of this genre of music for the past 35 years. Seven stages, an artisan market, and a “Little Folks Village” for the kids, all situated on a gorgeous lakefront. Not to be missed.

[note: In the interest of full disclosure: Mike Farris contributed backing vocals to two tracks on the author’s last album, which was released in the fall of 2011. She asked him to do so because she thinks that he rocks. Enough said.]


The Band: Guy Forsyth Band

From: Austin, Texas, United States

Sounds Like: Texas-flavoured Americana. a.k.a. “late night radio, and thrift store record bins” (accurately put by Guy’s official Facebook page).

Catch Them At: Congnac Blues Passions Festival – Paris, FR

I have to say, I’m a fan of any man who has an interactive animated version of himself on his website, playing with toy windmills, musical saws, and singing goofy a cappella versions of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And the music is pretty great too. His voice is not necessarily beautiful, but it gets the job done, and is appealing in a Nick Cave kind of way. The musical arrangements are simple: twangy telecasters and screaming harmonicas that play to the country side of the Americana world. His beginnings as a busker took him to New Orleans and Nepal and into a record label deal in the 90s, though he now releases his albums on his own label, Small and Nimble Records.

On Guy’s latest album, he plays “acoustic, national, baritone and coral sitar guitars, ukulele, harmonica, saw, loops,” and also sings. The first track, “Where’d You Get The Music?” is a pointed attack on fans who choose to steal music rather than purchase it. “True Friends” and “Leave Me Alone” are honest, if at times lyrically extremely simple. These are sentiments that could resonate with anyone, anywhere. In a desolate, semi-drunk drawl, he sings slowly: “I keep joking about taking off to London. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea.” And in “Calico Girl,” he repeats “where will I find her, where will I find her, where will I find her” – over and over again, until his desperation is palpable. Good stuff from a Texas country boy who isn’t afraid to just lay it out as it is.

The Congnac Blues Passions Festival is set in the City of Lights – that’s right, Paris. In spite of the name, the line-up isn’t strictly blues. With Sting and the Cranberries headlining, the festival is definitely geared for mass appeal, but there is also a healthy helping of blues bands from France, Canada, Africa, the United States, the United Kingdom, and others. It runs from 3rd through 8th July. There are eleven separate performance spaces, ranging from tents to clubs to theatres to the “street music” space (a fancy form of official busking). Their website is here, with the program, ticket info, as well as the rundown on how they’re keeping their fest eco-friendly: C’est bon.


The Band: Neko Case

From: Tacoma, Washington, United States

Sounds Like: anachronistic alternative country

Catch Her At: Lowdown Hudson Blues Festival – New York City, US

She’s headlining a blues festival, but blues she is not. At least, not exactly. Ambient-yet-rockin’ anachronistic alternative country, she is. Or you could just call it a very cool brand of Americana. (Note: If you read the article last month attempting to define “Roots,” “Folk,” and/or “Americana” music, now you’re probably getting the idea.)

Neko stands out for more than just her flaming red hair and vintage look. Her mix of old and new sounds, combined with her pure and strong voice and haunting “folk noir” lyrics, set her apart from the crowd of would-be girls with guitars. (You won’t find lines like: “He laid down on the floor and slept like iron, while the dirty knife worked deep into his spine” on a Jewel record. No offense, Jewel.) She sounds simultaneously like a little girl and like she’s one hundred years old.

Neko started out singing with the band The New Pornographers, and went on to release a string of seven solo albums in thirteen years. She blogs about Visqueen and Horchata and about hating WalMart. She threatened to “seriously f*ck up” a fan who hit New Pornographer singer Carl Newan in the head with a CD during a reunion show in 2010. She’s quirky, but can afford to be, because her music speaks for itself. Aside from her originals, she has also recorded cover versions of songs by Loretta Lynn, Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Buffy Saint-Marie, and Hank Williams.

Case and Buddy Guy will be the headliners at the Lowdown Hudson Blues Festival (New York City, US). The fest will take place July 11th and 12th in the plaza outside the World Financial Center in Manhattan. This is New York’s only free blues festival, and only the second year since its inception. Other performers include John Mayall, Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires, and He’s My Brother She’s My Sister. The music runs from 6 pm until 9:30 pm both days. Details are here.

For the record, Buddy is not to be missed either. I once saw the guy jump offstage in the middle of an extended at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. You couldn’t see him, but you could hear him playing his signature polka-dottted guitar down among the screaming members of the audience, who couldn’t decide whether to mob him or get out of his way. He broke two strings and still managed to sound like one of the kings of the blues. Which at 75 years young, he definitely is.

Had enough? Excited yet?

These are only a few examples of the dozens of musical options for your summer. July is the month to get out and discover new music, or rediscover a classic act, wherever you might be located on this funny blue planet. One of the benefits of checking out specifically folk festivals (where the instruments are typically traditional, even if some of the music is not), is that most of the music can be reproduced pretty exactly in a live setting. Arguably no, or very few, computers are necessary, so you’ll be hearing the music as it was envisioned and produced by the artist.

A few basic festival survival tips, from someone who’s forgotten to do all of the above: Check out the festival schedule in advance. Bring sunscreen. Bring cash. Bring a friend. Drink at least one water for every beer or plastic-cup-cocktail. Have fun.

A list of festivals of all genres from around the world have been compiled by our friends at Music Festival Junkies. Click here for more info.


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