Smile Politely

2023 C-U Folk & Roots Festival showcased world-class musical talent for delighted audiences

A stage is set up for a music festival, bathed in the glow of stage lights. The backdrop is a large banner that reads “2023 Urbana Folk & Roots Festival”. Several speakers and amplifiers are arranged on the stage, along with a drum set. A guitarist is positioned on the left side of the stage. The audience is seated in front of the stage, their attention focused on the performance. The room has art work projected on the walls and is adorned with several paintings, and a high ceiling.
Derrick Philips

Over the weekend two of our writers took in just a few of the multitude of incredible performances at this year’s Champaign-Urbana Folk & Roots festival. Here are a few of their observations on the shows they attended.

Eddie Barbash with Kasa String Quartet and Friends

Having found a comfy seat at the bar at Rose Bowl, I settled in to watch arguably the most technically proficient combo of musicians of the entire festival: the incredible Eddie Barbash and the equally talented KASA Quartet. Barbash is a saxophonist renowned for his eclectic musical prowess. He notably served as a core member of Jon Batiste and Stay Human, the house band for the Late Show with Stephen Colbert through 2016​. Barbash’s music notably traverses various genres, with his latest self-released album, For Murray and Lillian, encompassing jazz, folk, mariachi, opera, swing, bossa nova, ballads, and waltzes, showcasing a rich blend of musical styles​​.

As most of his backing band this night, the KASA Quartet, founded in 2016, is known for their innovative and genre-defying performances as well. They are lauded as one of the country’s newest string quartet “rock stars” due to their fluency in a wide range of music styles, seamlessly fusing classical string repertoire with jazz, musical theater, folk, and pop standards​​. Their collaborations with Barbash further demonstrate a harmonious blend of jazz with strings, infusing a timeless tradition with a fresh, vibrant energy​.

A jazz band is performing on a stage in front of an audience. The stage is bathed in purple and blue lights. The band consists of a saxophonist, a bassist, a drummer, a guitarist, and a pianist and four other playing string instruments. The audience is seated in rows of chairs facing the stage. The backdrop is a red wall with white stripes.
Derrick Philips

While Barbash may have been the band leader for the performance, he was in awe as much as the audience was for most of the performance, especially when he wasn’t completely mesmerizing the audience with his sax. They opened with a song called “Dança Da Fauna” off his latest album, For Murray and Lillian. After the last few notes, Barbash swung around to smile widely at his bandmates, and introduced “and Friends”, drummer Joel Spencer and guitarist Dan Schneider. Throughout the performance, whenever another musician had a solo, he would duck down on the stage amidst the members of KASA, and just take in the world-class musicianship surrounding him. He even told the audience how much he enjoyed just watching and listening to his bandmates this night.

Together, Eddie Barbash and the KASA Quartet encapsulated an entertaining and awe-inspiring fusion of classical and contemporary musical expressions, delivering a rich, captivating experience for the Rose Bowl audience at the Champaign-Urbana Folk & Roots Festival. (DP)

3 members of a band performing on a dimly lit stage. On the left someone is playing a baritone sax, the drummer is in the middle and the guitarist/singer is on the right.
Hooten Hallers on URBANALOGUE

Hooten Hallers

Emerging from the vibrant core of Columbia, Missouri, and based in St. Louis, The Hooten Hallers encapsulate a fiery amalgam of blues and rock’n’roll since their inception in 2007, swiftly carving a distinct niche through their live gigs. Born out of the creative minds of guitarist/frontman John Randall and drummer/high-pitched songster Andy Rehm, their kinetic stage charisma is a living ode to their musical fellowship.

The Hooten Hallers were in stark contrast to Eddie Barbash and KASA in profound ways. The crowd leftover from Barbash weren’t sure what to expect, but they were greeted with a rousing, rockabilly blast of blues-infused rock and roll. Kellie Everett held down the low-end with a baritone sax and a bass sax, and added a jazz-influenced flavor to the distinct sound of the band. Guitarist Randall wailed on what was described as a “very old guitar,” which he had to meticulously tune after every song due to the stress and duress he was heaping on it by his playing. The only time the poor thing got a break is when he switched to a slide guitar, on which he played bluesy riffs beautifully.

Andy Rehm, who I recently spoke with, not only added his rockabilly backbeat to the music, but his falsetto vocals added harmonies that were rough and tumble, and added to the Hooten Hallers vibe appropriately. His contributions contributed to a high-energy, rock and roll explosion that filled the Rose Bowl with tapping feet as some hoots and a few hollers. (DP)

A musician is performing on a stage in a dimly lit venue. The musician, dressed in a black shirt, is playing the drums and guitar simultaneously. The stage features a drum kit, a microphone, and a banner that reads “The Music Shoppe Pro Sound Center”. The venue has pink walls and a high ceiling, creating a moody atmosphere with low lighting. A large sign reading “Folk & Roots” and a window with white curtains can be seen in the background.
Derrick Philips

Jaik Willis

I’ve seen Jaik Willis play with Chicago Farmer and the Fieldnote a few times. His guitar skills add a rich addition to Chicago Farmer’s folksy vibe. But seeing Willis play solo is an entirely different experience, and one I’m glad I was able to witness first-hand. I had heard much about his virtuosity, but until you are there in the room listening to Willis play guitar, harmonica, an 11-piece “drum” set as well as sing, you can’t possibly get the whole Jaik Willis experience. 

This was my first trip to the Gallery Art Bar, and I was thoroughly impressed. That night, the walls were lit up with the artwork from the Folk & Roots Festival. I looked up on the wall to see Cody Jensen, and here he is sitting beside me. Oh look, there’s Charlie Harris up in the top corner of the room, and the actual Harris is sitting over there taking in his bandmate’s solo set. It was surreal but very entertaining, especially trying to identify the other performers in the artwork projected on the walls. 

Willis’ performance was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Many musicians go through life trying to master one instrument, but here’s Willis making a mockery of them. Not only is he proficient in playing a multitude of instruments, he can weave in and out of genres seamlessly. I was especially impressed when he beautifully played a reggae song, requiring playing an “offbeat” or “upbeat” on the guitar while playing an accented third beat on his kick drum. The difficulty of that feat for one person to play simultaneously is off the charts, but he did it skillfully. He also delighted the crowd with his “stupid human tricks,” which displayed his incredible human beatbox skills. I smiled to myself knowing this tall, slender man, with a beard seemingly down to his knees, was going to teach a beatbox workshop the very next day at the festival. (DP)

A musician is on a stage in a dimly lit bar, wearing a green shirt and blue jeans, playing a wooden acoustic guitar. The stage is equipped with a drum set, a keyboard, and a microphone. The setting is atmospheric with red curtains and blue lighting. In the foreground, audience members are present, though their details are indistinct.
Kerrith Livengood

Dom Flemons

As always, it was a fun and charming performance from the multi-talented Dom Flemons, with a dazzling array of folk instruments, including tiny panpipes, harmonica, banjo, and guitar. His set included a nice mix of old-times finger-picking tunes like “Railroad Bill” alongside originals from his recent album Traveling Wildfire, like the heartfelt waltz “Slow Dance With You.” Flemons’ cover of Bob Dylan’s “Guess I’m Doing Fine” had great appeal, and was sung in Flemons’ warm but softly gritty baritone voice. Songs that stood out from the set included a song about Bass Reeves, the first Black U.S. Marshall, and a minor key lament about the overlooked history of Black settlers of the old West, including Flemons’ own ancestors, entitled “Nobody Wrote It Down.” Flemons delivered a captivating set of all catchy and authentically old-timey, toe-tapping tunes. (KL)

A band is performing on a stage in a music venue. The stage features a black curtain backdrop with a white logo of a dat playing a fiddle and "Champaign-Urbana Folk & Roots Festival" written on it. The band members are playing various instruments such as guitar, bass, drums, and accordion. A banner in the foreground also reads “Austin, Texas”. The venue has a wooden floor and there are some audience members visible in the foreground.
Kerrith Livengood

Son Monarcas

Son Monarcas were an energetic group with danceable tunes and a talented lead singer/guitarist, Mercedes Inez Martinez. Their set provided lots of fun for everyone in the crowd, both sitting and standing in the back dancing at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center. Their repertoire is a blend of traditional Mexican folk tunes including a very soulful rendition of “La Llorona,” some mariachi standards, and an original funky Latin fusion numbers that are extremely catchy and very danceable. There is lots of varied talent in the band (violin, trumpet, Latin percussion) and everyone in the group seemed to be having a wonderful time, a vibe that came across to the whole room. (KL)

A musician is on stage in a dimly lit venue, playing an acoustic guitar while seated on a stool. The stage is illuminated with purple and blue lights, and houses a drum kit and other musical equipment. The audience, visible in the foreground, is focused on the performance.
Kerrith Livengood

Adeem the Artist

This was a very odd and compelling set by a talented but strange and slightly prickly stage persona. Adeem did lots of chatting with the audience, at times verging on mini-rants. Many of their songs started and then abandoned halfway through (sometimes fragments of unfinished songs Adeem looked up on their phone, while still chatting with the audience). Adeem’s set featured really beautiful singing, really nice guitar playing, lots of heartfelt moments including a sweet cover of Collective Soul’s “Spit Me Out,” and very clever and appealing originals including the show-stopping “Going To Hell”. Adeem put on a memorable show that makes me look forward to the next time they come to C-U. To learn more about this amazing artist, you can read Derrick’s conversation with them.  (KL)

A band is performing on a stage in a small venue. The stage is awash with blue and purple lights. The band consists of three members: one on the keyboard, one on the drums, and one playing the saxophone. The saxophonist, dressed in a green suit, stands in front of a microphone. The drummer, in a blue shirt, plays a drum kit with a colorful design. The keyboardist, wearing a gray beanie, is at a keyboard on a stand. In the foreground, an audience member is clapping their hands.
Kerrith Livengood

Tee Dee Young

I got to witness an amazing set by an authentic blues master that caught me completely off-guard. Tee Dee Young’s band dominated the room from the moment they took the stage, with dazzling technical chops and a tremendous energy that got the whole bar dancing immediately. Seamlessly the band grooved without a break for over an hour, pivoting from blues to swing to funky grooves, all through which Young himself shredded absolutely amazing guitar licks, frequently while walking through the crowd or teasing the keyboardist. The ensemble players were likewise amazing; this reviewer spent a lot of time hypnotized by the drummer’s intricate snare and hi-hat work. This band might be the single coolest thing ever from the state of Kentucky and I really hope they come back to C-U again. (KL)

Derrick Philips and Kerrith Livengood contributed to this article.

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