Smile Politely

C-U Folk and Roots Festival 2016 in Review

The eighth iteration of the C-U Folk and Roots Festival took place this last weekend, and brought the most unique event of its kind back to the area. This all volunteer-run festival is put together for the community, by the community, with focus on cooperation and collaboration. Dozens of local and visiting musicians participated in the fest, coming from genres and subsects under the umbrella terms of “folk and roots,” but not exclusive to those sounds. Additional styles included bluegrass, jazz, americana, blues, country, old-time, and acoustic singer-songwriters. Over eighty different events were available to observe and participate in during this engaging and hands-on fest, and not just music. Also part of the fest were dance, vocal, and jam sessions, storytelling, workshops, and much more. It was impossible to see everything, but I was still able to catch some highlights.

Blues and old-time artist Hubby Jenkins was among several at the festival who took up a bit of a residency at a venue, his being the Iron Post. Jenkins, an African-American man, played there on Friday and got the crowd nice and loose by mixing in some brutally honest jokes, in addition to some frank commentary on race relations, which blew all awkwardness right out the door off the bat. His deft banjo work explained why he also hosted a couple workshops for the festival, including one for both the banjo and the guitar. During his Friday set, Jenkins pulled out a choose-your-own-adventure novel and walked the crowd through it, to the amusement of both parties. I would later see Jenkins fully enjoying the fest by mingling with the crowd and other musicians that evening and the next day.

Later that night at the Post I caught blues musician Gaye Adegbalola, who echoed the sentiments of Hubby Jenkins in many ways. Adegbalola is a hilarious and compelling woman who isn’t afraid to touch every nerve she can in her music. She whipped around with much candor and smashed through topics of racism, sexuality, gender identity, motherhood, ageism and more without losing an infectious grin and a loud guffaw. She joked and swore and lovingly plucked an old guitar, and made the audience feel like family. Adegbalola also played multiple sets and participated in some musician’s workshops over the weekend. I don’t know if she jammed with Hubby Jenkins at some point, but I’m pretty sure they at least enjoyed a drink together. (It’s a crime that I didn’t catch any (good) photos of them, so make sure to check out their websites.)


Bluegrass Jam at Pizza M. Photo by Scott Wells.

When it comes to musicianship, I personally (sadly) can’t strum more than a handful of chords. This weekend was one of those times when I especially felt that lack, because Folk and Roots Fest is about sharing the experience of music in every way. I would’ve loved to take part in one of the varying open jam sessions and workshops held over the weekend, where musicians from all walks of life were invited to participate in free sitdowns of improvised collaboration and shared experience. (Although, to be honest, my stage fright would have trumped any musical aptitude immediately.) The blues, bluegrass, and even mountain dulcimer jams were all great to take part in, if even just as a spectator. Jams at the Urbana Public Library felt at home there, and Pizza M provided a very distinguished acoustic environment for improvisation. All events that took place on Saturday in the daytime were FREE and ALL AGES, speaking to the truly all-inclusive heart of this great festival.

Shape Note Singing at C4A. Photo by Scott Wells.

I floated around from venue to venue over the weekend, but generally always found my way back to the Iron Post, which, in my opinion, provides the most conducive setting for this type of music. It’s inarguable, though, that Folk and Roots Festival has a perpetual problem with seating, regardless of location. It’s hard to remedy this; I mean, intimate venues have less space. But it’s still a big problem. My suggestion to help with this is a controversial one, but it still needs consideration: Show hosts, please – remove some tables and chairs and clear a bit of room. I know, it sounds silly, but a festival is a festival, and standees must be permitted. I would much rather stand and see a show than not see the show at all. Of course, this fest isn’t your typical festival at all (read: not full of sweaty, clamoring twenty-somethings), and many patrons would not have been able to attend without proper seating. But the removal of just three tables at the Iron Post or half a row of chairs at Bar M would’ve provided that little bit of standing room in the back, and another handful of ears able to take in the show. Or maybe I just need to arrive early and camp out. I don’t know.

Open Blues Jam at Iron Post. Photo by Scott Wells.

The last act of the fest that I caught was gothic blues and folk artist Amythyst Kiah at Iron Post. Kiah’s demeanor was more reserved and introverted than many of those I’d seen over the weekend. She sang her blues in a low and lilting register, and closed her eyes for much of her set, seeming to pull deeply from herself to coax out her intelligent lines and rich, full vocals. She personified blues for her set, which is largely terrible, because no one that young should know that kind of sadness – but really, everyone does feel it, one way or another, eventually. And that is somehow satisfying. This is how Kiah connected to me and to the community of Folk and Roots Festival. Because everyone sings the blues.

Amythyst Kiah at Iron Post. Photo by Julia McAnly.

The C-U Folk and Roots Festival ended this year after bringing locals and visitors alike together through the enjoyment of music and shared experiences. Those that were a part of it gleaned a bit of warmth from every harmonious activity until enough was gathered to last through the winter. Don’t forget that Folk and Roots Fest is a full-time initiative that organizes shows and other events all year long. Visit their website to volunteer and take part in the effort.


Check out Scott Wells’ photos of the event in the gallery below.

[gallery Folk_and_Roots_Fest_2016]

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