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Columbia Blues: The 2018 Roots, Blues & BBQ Festival

Published by Elliott Hibbitt

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Since 2007 Columbia, Missouri, has hosted one of the nation’s top roots and blues festivals at an admission price that should be the envy of music lovers.

Spread out over the heart of downtown Columbia yet anchored at the University of Missouri’s Peace Park, the Roots, Blues and BBQ Festival offered both music and food enthusiasts something to crow about. For a mere $65 for the two day event it was possible to enjoy 19 live concerts. For $190 a Whole Hog Pass gave a festival attendee front of the stage access with seating, a cash bar and toilet facilities as well as a dedicated lounge area in Peace Park that included a free barbecue buffet among other amenities.

The Free Festival

But making money has never been the Festival’s goal. Anyone could wander the closed to traffic downtown core enjoying a plethora of street vendors selling food, drinks and crafts as well as hear eight bands at the Flat Branch Park stage all for free. Many bars and restaurants hosted their own music groups. The performers at Flat Branch Park were as professional and top quality as any of the headlining groups.

Community Bank Support

The festival was the brainchild of the Boone County National Bank who for over 150 years has had a commitment to giving back to the community of Columbia. Bank management envisioned a double festival. Bill Watkins, retired Columbia city manager, told me “The original organizers wanted a unique event. They not only wanted to bring in the best blues music, but they wanted other things to attract people and BBQ is this All American event.” The barbecue competition has turned into the Missouri State Championship. Little did they realize that first festival in 2007, entirely free and bank funded, would attract over 65,000 people.

The Blue Note Theater’s Richard King and Richard Spicer

From the start the Boone County National Bank enlisted the collaboration of the city’s premiere roots and blues impresarios, Richard King and Richard Spicer. With years of experience operating Columbia’s Blue Note Theater and Mojo’s, these gentlemen were able to attract some of America’s top talent.

The legendary Taj Mahal opened that first festival and has been a fixture ever since. The success and expense of that first festival, coupled with the economic downturn, forced the bank to abandon underwriting the entire venture, yet they were determined to continue generous financial support if someone else would provide the organizational and fundraising talent. Naturally, this fell to King and Spicer who created Thumper Entertainment to organize and operate the Roots, Blues and BBQ Festival.

65,000 Participants and Green

Despite the loss of its totally free status, the succeeding four years of the festival have seen the number of attendees remain in the 55,000 to 65,000 range and yet the festival grounds remain remarkably litter free. Columbians pride themselves on being a green community. The crowds are well behaved and sober, enjoying the freedom of a mostly traffic free city during the festival weekend.

It’s the Music

I’m not a music critic although I love all genres and have played the piano for eons. Since I was specifically attending the festival as a guest of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau to cover the barbecue competition, I did not attend all the concerts. Yet the artists I experienced, given the beautiful weather and comfortable venues, prove that the Roots, Blues and BBQ Festival ought to be on any music lover’s agenda.

Mavis Staples, the legendary scion of a legendary gospel music family and an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was no “spring chicken” yet her voice was powerful both in its beauty and inspirational lyrics that did not mince words in advocating for social justice. She opened the festival and set the bar exceptionally high for quality.

Toubab Krewe was a fascinating instrumental band fusing African and American styles and instruments in a folk/rock/jazz blend of sounds.

Dale Watson, a smooth Texas country and western musician who, during a more than two decade career, has garnered major awards in both North America and Europe.

Sam Bush, a bluegrass, mandolin and fiddle master, had me dancing with my feet while standing still.

Los Lobos, the quintessential three decade old Latino folk rock band, could have lowered the electronic volume and demonstrated more enthusiasm. I was eager to hear them live yet wished I’d just listened to their recordings so that I could imagine genuine engagement.

The Flatlanders, a 40 year old Tex-Mex trio, enthralled the audience with their superb instrumental virtuosity and lyrics.

Taj Majal opened the festival five years ago and closed it this year. His brilliance still shined and his voice soared. As the closing act, the audience neither wanted to let him nor the festival end.

Roots, Blues, BBQ…and a Wedding?

Casey and Marilyn fell in love while attending the second festival in 2008 and courted during the next three. It was natural to desire a wedding during the festival and equally natural for imaginative Thumper Entertainment to not only comply but find sponsors for everything from the ring to the caterer. On Saturday evening, 10 September 2018, at 7:30 pm on the Flat Branch stage, Casey and Marilyn became man and wife. Awesome music, fine barbecue, friendly happy people and love, that’s Columbia.

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