With the summer festival season looming and given the quality of events on offer, it’s time to make those difficult decisions of which ones to consider. Unfortunately, with the exception of Kilkenny Roots, there are not too many choices at home for festivals catering for the Americana, Roots and Hardcore Country followers, resulting in the prospect of trips to the U.K. and further afield to seek out the kind of acts that hit the Lonesome Highway sweet spot. Oberhausen in Germany is the location for the Static Roots Festival, one that we will most certainly be returning to after attending the festival last year for the first time.
Germany is becoming a target market for many Irish acts with John Blek & The Rats, Anna Mitchell Band, The Midnight Union Band, Malojian, Luan Parle, Shane Joyce and Clive Barnes all having toured there in recent years, often playing to sell out venues. Static Roots is a festival that is attracting increasing numbers of punters from Ireland and the U.K, given the simple travel options available. It is also very much a punters festival, not overcrowded, impressive venue and surroundings, allowing easy access to the performers on stage and indeed off stage, as they mingle with the attendees between sets. Accurately described as a boutique festival, this year’s line-up includes Hannah Aldridge, The Cordovas, Anthony Da Costa, Charlie Whitten, Bennett Wilson Poole, The Stephen Stanley Band, Donald Byron Wheatley, Terra Lightfoot, Prinz Grizzley, Susto and our own Midnight Union Band. Lonesome Highway caught up with promoter Dietmar Leibecke, a passionate music follower and regular visitor to Ireland, to discuss the history of the festival, his motivation for staging the event and his ambitions for the festival going forward.
What was your inspiration to launch the festival two years ago?
I always loved the folk/americana festival scene in Canada, Ireland and the UK. Even in the Netherlands there are a few Americana festivals (e. g. “Take Root” or “Roots In The Park” and the newly founded “Down By The River”). But there is no such thing in Germany. The only two that come close are the label-dominated “Orange Blossom Special Festival” by Glitterhouse Records and the occasionally happening “Blue Rose Records Christmas Party”. Since my wife and I had a couple of anniversaries in 2016 - like our silver wedding, my 50th birthday, the 20th birthday of our daughter, the fifth anniversary of a kidney transplantation surgery (my wife donated one of her kidneys to me!) - we decided to organize a festival on our own after then ten years of promoting shows (another anniversary), booking tours, and having an Americana house concert series called “Raumfahrtzentrum Saarner Kuppe” in Mülheim an der Ruhr.
Since the Static Roots Festival 2016 was a (mostly) invite-only event, my wife and I sponsored the event (fees, food, drink, accommodation, venue etc). And at the same time we set up a funding campaign for Doctors Without Borders which ended with a phenomenal 9.500 EUR. We had the best of times – and all for a good cause!
Another big inspiration for the Static Roots Festival was the Kilkenny Roots Festival. It’s got such a great quality of acts, the most passionate, attentive and friendly audience you could wish for, and it has become a legend of its own in the European folk festival scene. When I first attended the Kilkenny Roots Festival I instantly felt like being part of a big family. For our Static Roots Festival the idea was to make something like the Kilkenny Roots Festival happen in Germany, too. That’s how the subtitle for our festival emerged: “peace, love, rock’n’roll” and I think it perfectly captures the great atmosphere we were able to create at the first two Static Roots Festivals.
While preparing for the Static Roots Festivals 2016 and 2017 I’ve been in touch with Willie Meighan quite often, asked for advice, discussed acts with him, and he’s been a great mentor. Willie recommended to book the Kilkenny-based The Midnight Union Band for the SRF 2016 and, man, he’s been so right! When Willie Meighan died after a long battle with cancer at the end of 2017, we decided to have a permanent festival slot in remembrance of and to celebrate the late great Willie Meighan and for 2018 there was no other choice than inviting over The Midnight Union Band again.
It’s very much a boutique festival, perfectly sized, well-chosen acts and a particularly social atmosphere. Is it your intention to expand the festival or are you content to keep it at the present size?
Actually, I am completely excited about how the festival developed. In 2016 there was actually just one festival day with six acts (well, five when considering Daniel Romano took the wrong turn on the Autobahn and ended up about 700km away from the venue). In 2017 there were two days and nine acts, this year we’ll have eleven acts on two days. We’ve been discussing other ideas with the venue (Zentrum Altenberg, Oberhausen) e. g. an outdoor acoustic stage but then again I think it’s very charming to have the lovely outside beer garden for a chat, some lovely food, and a German beer (of course) while people pay attention to the music in the stage room.
The room itself has a capacity of 300 and the venue has another room with a capacity of 500 people. So there are options to grow from the number of attendees, too. But we’ll just see how things develop. I think it is important to keep the atmosphere of “peace, love, rock’n’roll” and it all might be just perfect the way it is.
As a smaller promoter how difficult is it to get your preferred acts to commit?
A big advantage of the Static Roots Festival: it’s the only pure Americana festival in Germany. The Americana scene is still a niche while it’s certainly growing these last few years. So we can offer a platform for acts that try to get a foot in the door of the German Americana market. We’ve had excellent press and radio coverage these last two years so the Static Roots Festival is indeed a great opportunity. And the acts I’m negotiating with usually recognize the chances. Except some managers who sometimes ask for unreasonable fees (“You’ve got to send a bus load of money to sign xxx!” – true story). All in all it’s not too hard to get my preferred acts to commit. It takes a while and I need to be persistent but my enthusiasm for great music is unbreakable and my optimism keeps me going. Even when an acts cancels, the disappointment doesn’t keep me distracted for more than fifteen minutes. Because it’s the opportunity to book another great act – and there are quite a few of them. As you sure know.
You appear to be as excited as the punters when you confirm acts that have been booked. Have you some set criteria for selecting the range of acts?
First of all, I am a fan. I don’t want to see the Static Roots Festival as some kind of business. I want to enjoy great music, I want to enjoy the people, the craic, the love that’s almost tangible at the Static Roots Festival. I’ve met so many amazing people through music, made tons of friends all over the world – it’s what I want our guests to experience as well. If music touches me in some way, it qualifies to be chosen for the line-up of the Static Roots Festival. That’s it. And I hope the music touches the audience as well – and mostly it does. Sometimes I feel like a little kid unwrapping presents on Christmas eve when an act confirms. Thinking about the lineup of the Static Roots Festival 2018 and the people that will attend makes me happy as a pig in mud. One thing is for sure: we’ll have a blast.
You engage a dedicated MC to introduce the acts. What motivated this?
At the first Static Roots Festival in 2016 we had six dedicated folks announcing the six acts. One of them was my good friend Jeff Robson (radio host for Tell The Band To Go Home on umfm.com, a Canadian community radio station from Winnipeg, Manitoba). He introduced Leeroy Stagger and the way he did it was just phenomenal. He has a great sense of humour, an endless knowledge of music, he knows how to make the punters pay attention, he sends them to the merch table in a very charming way and he is totally perfect for the job as an MC. In 2017 we invited him over to be the MC for the whole festival and he was simply BRILLIANT! You don’t find good MCs too often and most festivals don’t even have an MC. I myself hate being the centre of attention, I like working in the background, I don’t want to stand in the light, I am much better at other things. So Jeff is actually doing me a big favour too. And then I think Jeff has become the face of the festival – which is totally great! He is such a great person, his radio show is my Sunday night tradition for at least ten years, I love him and he totally deserves it. And I think he loves being the MC, too. Which makes it even better.
How much local knowledge is there for Americana in Germany?
As mentioned before, Americana music is still some kind of niche over here in mainland Europe. While the UK has some smashing success (from my point of view) since setting up their Americana-UK committee, there is not much going on in Germany. There are no particular Americana-related print or online magazines (except for maybe countrymusicnews.de). But there are a few German radio shows which are flying the flag of Americana music such as:
•HappySad, Christine Heise (radio eins, RBB), which in my handsome opinion is the most important one
•Songs to play, Markus Bäcker (674.fm)
•Blue Rose Records Radio Show, Edgar Heckmann (rockradio.de)
•Hillbilly Rockhouse, Gerd Stassen (countrymusic24.de)
What acts particularly excite you at this year’s festival?
Once again, I’m a total fan of Americana music. Each and every act at the Static Roots Festival has at least a couple of songs that touch me in some way or the other, some songs will make me shed a tear (e.g. when thinking of Stephen Stanley’s Troubadour’s Song which to me has become some kind of farewell song to our friend Willie Meighan), some songs will make me jump for joy, a ton of songs will give me goosebumps, I will have the best of times and will be wearing a big fat smile in my face all weekend long! The last act that hasn’t confirmed yet (we’re close to confirming though) will let me stand in the audience with both hands up, rooting for them after each song. There will be mesmerizing singer/songwriters, country acts, acts with a blues rock touch, indie-rock Americana, 70s guitar-and-harmony-driven music, soulful Americana… To me it’s such a great line-up, it wouldn’t be fair to name just one particular act. I see excitement all over the two days of the festival!
Your dream act, in realistic terms, to perform at the festival?
Dream act? Hm, my first thought was “I’ve booked all my dream acts already!”. But then again, there is one particular act I want to book for the festival at some point in time. And I think it would close a (very personal) circle.
I’ve got to go back in time to tell the story because somehow it’s the foundation to all I do in music (I took this text mainly from my invitation to our latest house concert with the legendary Steve Wynn from New York, USA):
Spring 1983: the 16 year old Dietmar is sitting in his tiny room and puts on a new album, “The Days Of Wine And Roses” by The Dream Syndicate. First song, Tell Me When It’s Over, 30 seconds in, completely blown away, knowing that this music was made for him, the album a total cracker. The next decade was musically shaped by The Dream Syndicate and its frontman, Steve Wynn. The album is still one of his all-time-favourites.
Spring 2004: never really having partied any of his birthdays, 38 year old Dietmar thinks about something special for celebrating his 40th birthday. And starts bothering Steve Wynn, the guy who had the biggest impact on the development of Dietmar’s musical taste, about playing his 40th birthday party. 18 months later finally the confirmation: Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3 will be playing at the party!
June 2006: Dietmar’s 40th birthday party is big fun and Steve Wynn and his band play a blinder of a show. After the show Steve Wynn comes up and says: “Dietmar, have you ever heard of the concept of house concerts? I think you’d be the right guy to do it.” House concerts? WTH is that?
November 2007: the idea of house concerts has been growing big time on Dietmar and in November 2007, the Canadian folk rocker Leeroy Stagger plays the first ever show at Raumfahrtzentrum Saarner Kuppe. The beginning of a series of about 60 shows until today.
Finally the Static Roots Festival is some kind of natural development from the house concert series, from booking tours for my favourite acts, promoting public shows etc. So it all goes back to Steve Wynn and his band, The Dream Syndicate.
At some point in time I want The (reunited) Dream Syndicate to play a slot at the Static Roots Festival. This will finally close the circle from where it all began about 35 years ago. And then I might go and see what is the next step I can take.
Interview by Declan Culliton