It’s festival season for sure as hordes of music fans pack both wellies and sun cream as they head off for a weekend of unbridled fun. Be it the massive set up at Glastonbury or the rootsier confines of Maverick there’s plenty to choose from but for sheer unadulterated Americana joy then one need look no further than this unassuming spot in Germany’s Ruhr district, the small, post industrial town of Oberhausen, home to Static Roots. Now in its fourth year, Static Roots has grown from an initial invite only event to being sold out for the first time with several hundred fans gathered together in a converted zinc factory to see and hear 13 acts, most of them surely familiar to readers of AUK. There’s no corporate funding, no kowtowing to fashion, the line up purely a reflection of the festival’s director’s musical tastes which are somewhat impeccable.
Festival director Dietmar Leibecke‘s initial vision was to capture the homely vibe and craic of the Kilkenny Roots Festival and in this he has certainly succeeded as Static Roots allows for an intimate experience as the artists play while there is time to mingle and swap chat in the beer garden outside the venue. The artists mingle also, several of them there for the whole weekend, drinking in the experience and chatting to fans. With beer and food on tap in the courtyard and the ability via a wristband to pop in and out to catch the music this was quite divine as friendships were forged or renewed, culminating in a “family” group portrait snapped by one of the official photographers with what one presumes must have been an extremely wide angle lens. There’s only one stage so none of the usual festival conundrum of having to decide which band to watch next and with an excellent stage crew on board the turnaround between acts was swift.
The festival took place over two days with the Friday events kicking off at 5:30pm while the Saturday gig opened at midday, both ending after the last band played around 11pm leaving the energy to transfer to the late night bar outside. Saturday’s opening act Ags Connolly admitted on stage that he was worried that no one would be there to hear him as he played a midday “graveyard shift” but he needn’t have as the hardy bunch turned up and filed in. It was gratifying to see that, despite the lure of the alfresco delights outside, all of the acts faced a sea of faces, be they solo troubadours or full blooded rock’n’roll mayhem. To see a crowd in thrall initially to the Celtic musings of Cork’s John Blek and then later going apeshit as The Cordovas whipped them into a frenzy was indeed a sight to behold.
Blek opened the festival in a slot which has been dedicated to the late Willie Meighan since Static Roots kicked off. Willie was the face of Kilkenny Roots and a mentor of both Dietmar Leibecke and John Blek and news that Blek had just been awarded a Irish Music Rights Association award for his album, ‘Thistle & Thorn’ reaching number one in the Irish music charts was icing on the cake. One of the weekend’s solo turns, Blek immediately grabbed our attention with his witty introductions as he spoke of his unintentional ornithological bent and of a drunken night with a Dutch sailor while his songs invoked a fine Hibernian hinterland.
Before Blek’s set, the weekend’s MC, Jeff Robson, had welcomed the crowd to the event and laid down some rules including the essential, “Shut up while the bands are playing.” Hence, Blek and the other acoustic acts had space to breathe and this was most noticeable on the following day when Canadian Joe Nolan strode on stage and just about captured the hearts of all in attendance. An unassuming chap who has the ring of the hobo tradition along with an element of beat poetry about him, Nolan was perhaps the star of the weekend although that’s probably unfair to the rest of the acts who gave their all. Safe to say that he gained a lot of fans as he delivered the likes of the magnificent ‘Ode To Sturgeon County’ before setting down his guitar to offer some poetry which harked back to the grand old days of Kerouac and Guthrie. Topping this, he sang a new song, written just the night before which was inspired by his catching a lyric from John Murry.
Also in an acoustic state of mind were the New York based twins, The Brother Brothers, a pair who, like Ireland’s Lost Brothers, take the sound of Simon & Garfunkel and run with it although they also have a decidedly Appalachian touch to some of their songs. As such, they sang hymns to New York’s East River along with some bluegrass-like instrumentals complete with yodelling while their ‘Banjo Song’ (with the pair playing guitar and cello) was the only sighting of that instrument all weekend. It’s perhaps not relevant to the music but the audience did seem to appreciate the Brothers’ apologies for having a racist in the White House.
Ags Connolly cheated somewhat as his honky tonk songs of love and loss were bolstered by pedal steel played by Joe Harvey-Whyte, the pair repeating their success at Maverick Festival the week before. Connolly’s a powerful performer but Harvey-Whyte’s sweet sad tones gave the songs an extra lift be it on the knockabout ‘I Hope You’re Unhappy’ or the tear stained ‘Slow Burner’ and Harvey-Whyte was bold enough to venture that old joke about playing country songs backwards. We should here offer Joe Harvey-Whyte the award of being the hardest working musician of the weekend as he graced the stage with four separate acts.
As we’ve said, these acts were accorded full respect and attention despite playing acoustic songs in a crowded venue with no milling about or loud chatter. The matter of chatter was somewhat relegated, however, as the excellent band line ups treated us to some powerful sets. There was Cosmic Americana, full tilt southern boogie, jangled country rock and distorted power trio guitar spanking all on offer.
John Murry has proved himself something of a musical chameleon live over the past few years, draping his magnificent songs in various cloaks. Here he played with a bass player and drummer who laid down a thuggish beat as he tortured his white Stratocaster with squalls of feedback and gobsmacking fuzz fuelled solos. Stomping the stage in a feral mood, Murry transformed songs from his albums, ‘The Graceless Age’ and ‘A Short History Of Decay’, into bone shaking rock workouts with all who witnessed it admitting to being totally fired up. Wave Pictures were an unknown quantity to this writer but with elements of The Dream Syndicate woven into some of their songs and a charismatic front man in Dave Tattersall they certainly had the audience going.
As for The Cordovas, what can you say? A band with a twin guitar attack a la The Allmans and with the tremendous presence of bass player and front man, Joe Firstman (winner of hat of the weekend) commanding attention, this lot can ape all the greats in the Americana canon. Their songs ring out with the clarion call of The Band, The Allmans, Little Feat and The Dead and they nail it every time, although there’s an element there of them just being an excellent cover band as their own songs pale alongside covers of Neil Young, the Dead and The Allmans. The hyperkinetic Firstman played drums and keyboards alongside his bass and the band turned in two encores, the second lasting over 20 minutes, ending in an extended duelling guitars face off between Toby Weaver and Lucca Soria.
It certainly was a weekend to see some great guitar playing. Aside from The Cordovas’ twin attack and Murry’s sonic adventures there were some awesome sounds winging their way from Jim Maving’s Telecaster as he rocked the joint as part of Don Gallardo’s band. Gallardo has some impressive albums behind him but he was on fire on stage with Maving and the ubiquitous Harvey-Whyte injecting some fury into Gallardo’s impassioned songs. As with Ags Connolly, Gallardo flies the flag for the more traditional end of Americana name checking Cash, Waylon and Willie and Kristofferson as he delivered the devastating ‘North Dakota Blues’, a grand cowboy ballad. Gallardo was not shy in tackling the Trump problem denouncing the blimp every chance he got and he closed his set with an excellent and crowd pleasing cover of ‘The Weight’, bringing Daniel Kamish and Luke Tuchsherer on stage to sing along with the crowd joining in, a genuinely moving moment.
Luke Tuchsherer had his own guitar star with him in the shape of David Banks as he and his band, The Penny Dreadfuls slammed through a piledriving and muscular set stuffed full of blue collar anthems while Orphan Colours, featuring a three guitar line-up reminded one of the glory days of Poco with their fine harmonies while throwing in some of the blues rock of Free.
Away from the testosterone, there was the quiet majesty of Barcelona’s Joana Serrat, backed by The Great Canyoners who added a torchy twangy swell to her haunting songs. They were joined on a couple of numbers by that man Joe Harvey-Whyte again. His pedal steel here was just sublime, slipping into Serrat’s songs with such finesse that it was a pity he wasn’t on board for the full set. Harvey-Whyte clocked out his shift with his own outfit, The Hanging Stars, adding some sublime sounds to the band’s engaging mixture of cosmic country and mild psychedelia with a whiff of Gram Parsons and early Fairport Convention, with Joana Serrat supplying some divine vocals when she joined them on stage. It was left to Rotterdam’s Dawn Brothers to close the festival and, in a similar manner to the previous night’s The Cordovas, they delivered a set which showcased a pile of instrumental dexterity with more than a nod to the funkiness of the American south, although they didn’t deliver an encore the length of The Cordovas, bowing out with the funky Sweet Love.
As the band ended and the crowd got ready to file out, MC Jeff Robson summed up the weekend wonderfully, describing the whole set up as a beautiful community of like minded folk coming together to celebrate music and friendship and musing, “If the whole world were like this, then…” It might sound like a hangover from Woodstock but there’s no denying the sense of community engendered over the weekend with bands and fans mingling to the extent that there was an afterhours sing-along in the beer garden until the early hours. It was also great to see that the artists’ merch was selling well with vinyl in particular flying off the table, while all profits from Static Roots’ own merchandise were to be donated to Médecins Sans Frontières. In this day and age of mega festivals, Static Roots reminds one that “small is beautiful” as E. F. Schumacher said, and as such it’s a great continental addition to the likes of Kilkenny Roots and Rambling Roots. Should you decide to go next year it’s certain you’ll be welcomed as part of the family. In fact, if you have read this far, then you’re already family.