I attended the River Roots festival in Madison, Indiana, this past weekend. I was struck by the incredible variances in the artists’ albums and their live performances in a way I never had been before.
For example, Rusted Root. Before I go cracking on their live show, let me say there was a complete meltdown of the sound system prior to their headlining performance, and that probably didn’t help their rhythm and cohesiveness. However, based on their albums and what I’d heard from pals who had already seen Rusted Root live, I expected a drum-heavy set, probably more reggae- or African music-influenced. What I got was an above-average, middle-of-the-road, rock-and-roll cover band. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t worth the headliner billing and definitely not what I – and the increasing number of people heading for the doors during their set – was looking for.
Contrast that with the Black Lillies. They were the headlining act the opening night, and I had been thoroughly underwhelmed by what I’d heard on their albums. But the Black Lillies I saw at River Roots put on one helluva country-inflected rock and roll show. The difference in the energy between the Black Lillies live and on disc was substantial. It really was almost like I was seeing an entirely different band.
That dynamic played out a lot over the course of the weekend. Elephant Revival put on a nice show, but they sounded awfully close to their recorded selves. It would’ve been nice to see them go more off-script. Cincinnati’s Shiny and the Spoon delivered on the second stage, but the quirky folk group I heard on their albums evolved to a more straight-up country act at the festival. Not bad, but unexpected. Spirit Family Reunion were solid on record, but when they played live, it was like I expected to see the words “Passion” and “Intensity” tattooed on the each of the band members’ knuckles, a la Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear.
But the band who took it to another level was St. Paul and the Broken Bones. I’ve already raved about them on my best albums of 2014 (so far) list, and I was psyched for the live show. I’ve never had a come to Jesus moment, but I think watching St. Paul live was as close as I’ll get. The band is absolutely tight, just wrecking each soul track with precision and passion. Lead singer Paul Janeway looks a bit like a guy who might try to sell you life insurance, then the show starts and he’s singing like Otis Redding and moving like a lost Blues Brother.
Apparently, for St. Paul and the Broken Bones, the medium doesn’t matter. They’ll own it no matter what.