Static Roots Festival @ Oberhausen, Germany 9th/10th June 2017

Oberhausen is the location for The Static Roots Music Festival, being held for the second year in succession and is based on the river Emscher in the Ruhr area of Germany. It is a twenty-minute train journey from Dusseldorf and the town has a population of 210,000 people.

The festival promoter is Dietmar Leibecke who has been a regular attendee at The Kilkenny Roots Festival and now a popular member of the Kilkenny Roots Community. It therefore came as no surprise that many of the festival visitors were musical loving acquaintances of his; having flown from Dublin and various U.K. destinations to attend the festival.

The chosen venue was Zentrum Alterberg in Oberhausen. Constructed in 1853 the building is one of the oldest metal processing factories in Oberhausen and functioned as a zinc manufacturing facility until 1981. In its current life the facility is used to host cabaret, cinema, private parties and music events. Perfectly sized to cater for this particular festival the building also has the advantage of an external area, tree lined and semi seated, for punters and artists to mingle plus get some fresh air and refreshments between acts.

The success of any festival is all about knowing your audience when considering your line up and in this regard Static Roots got the mix absolutely spot on. With the large contingent of visitors travelling from Ireland and the U.K., a number of the carefully selected acts invited to play were guaranteed to hit the spot and the inclusion of one of Germany’s top roots bands and a few possibly less known but well researched artists worked an absolute treat. However, acts alone don’t guarantee a bonanza and the organisers had the foresight to engage Winnipeg radio presenter Jeff Robson as master of ceremonies. His knowledge of the artists and school masterly yet diplomatic introductions were an added bonus, ensuring that patrons were whisked indoors as the artists were about to take the stage which resulted in the acts performing to respectful and attentive crowds.

In addition, the sound engineer, although having limited time for sound checks, seemed to get the sound right for all the acts and an impressive stage lighting and perfectly sized music room all contributed to a hassle free and most comfortable two days of festivities. The torrential rain that fell on Friday morning and early afternoon also conveniently stopped a few hours before the festival opened on Friday evening and gave way to some glorious sunshine that evening and all throughout the following day.

So, what about the acts.  Friday evening saw David Corley, playing for the first time in Germany, open the festival having completed a quite extensive tour of Ireland over the previous two weeks. Accompanied throughout the tour by his trusted stage mate and producer Chris Brown, the U.S.  singer songwriter had availed of the services of some seasoned local musicians on his dates in Ireland. Joining him on stage at Static Roots were Brian Hassett (bass) and Cian Heffernan (drums), who both also featured later in their day jobs as members of John Blek & The Rats. Playing a selection of material from his breakthrough debut 2015 album Available Light and his most recent release Zero Moon, Corley’s mixture of upbeat and more often downbeat tales of struggle, agony and rehabilitation was the perfect start to the festival. Sharing guitar and keyboard with Chris Brown, particular highlights were the title track of his latest album Zero Moon and the six minute plus epic Desert Mission also from the same album. Gregor Beresford (Barenaked Ladies, The Bourbon Tabernacle), who played on all Corley’s studio work, took over drumming duties for a couple of songs and favourites such as Available Light and The Calm Revolution were also included in a perfect start to the evening.

 Visitors to Lonesome Highway will be quite aware of this writer's regard for the following act, Peter Bruntnell. His appearances at the Kilkenny Roots Festival (playing four times over that weekend) with his trusted band were memorable and expectations were understandably high for a repeat performance at Static Roots.  Bruntnell and his band (Dave Little, Peter Noone, Mike Clews) are perfectly suited to a large stage and they delivered a faultless set, rocking out to the maximum on Peak Operational Condition, Yuri Gagarin, Where The Snakes Hang Out and Mr.Sunshine from his 2016 classic album Nos Da Comrade and finishing their blistering set with favourites Have You Seen That Girl Again and By The Time My Head Gets To Phoenix.

John Blek and The Rats appearance was one of nine dates scheduled for their latest tour of Germany. They have established a loyal following in Germany in recent few years and well deserved on the basis of their closing slot. Concentrating on much of the material from their album Borders, their stage act is polished, visually striking, technically impressive both in the quality of the playing by The Rats and their ability to provide strong harmonies to charismatic lead man John Blek’s vocals. Funeral Home, Dead Friends and Dance With The Devil, all particularly strong songs on the album, seemed to even step up a gear into overdrive in their live show.

Starting musical proceedings early Saturday afternoon was Beirut born UK resident Nadine Khouri. Joined on stage by a stunning young violin player from Poland named Basia Bartz and slick drummer Jake Long, her style visited dark places often inhabited by P.J.Harvey and Angel Olson, yet at times her sound also brought to mind the more haunting offerings of Jesse Sykes. Playing material from her recent album The Salted Air the singular stand out delivery was Shake It Like a Shaman with its driven, almost robotic, rhythm. Particularly impressive was the dazzling violin work by Bartz who at one stage, while giving the impression of playing with her teeth Hendrix style, somehow managed to deliver a haunting string sound vocally manipulated, not exactly sure how, but wonderfully atmospheric.  Finishing her set with "one more sad song" Khouri played the Leonard Cohen classic Bird On A Wire.

Canadian singer songwriter Jack Marks has been recording for almost ten years now. Very much the travelling troubadour type artist with an exceptional ability to create landscapes and mental images with a minimal few words. His story telling delivery is very much in the same vein as John Prine to the extent that on certain songs you’d be forgiven for assuming they were Prine covers. Playing as a three piece with Alistair Christi on bass and his wife Leslie-Ann on stand-up drums, you could actually sense the audience straining to catch his every singing word from opener Hardware Store to his closing song Greasy Maggie.  Including Heartbreak, Used To Be An Outlaw, and Isabelle from his most recent album Wicked Moon, he was the perfect mid-afternoon entertainer and you could literally hear a pin drop throughout his set.

Erin Rae and the Meanwhiles was an act that I was particularly looking forward to, having seen the young Nashville resident appear briefly at a Margo Price interview show with NPR in Nashville last September. Her debut album Soon Enough made quite an impression on Lonesome Highway last year featuring in a number of our end of year best lists. Playing the first date of her European tour she was accompanied on guitar by Jerry Bernhardt and Dominic Billett on drums and occasional keyboards (both of who played in Andrews Combs Band at Kilkenny Roots), each also adding delightful harmonies. Rae excelled with a set that included Minolta, Pretty Thing (inspired by her childhood obsession of all things relating to the Great Depression), Soon Enough and Clean Slate from her album, together with Playing Old Games, released as a single by Clubhouse records in the U.K. last year. Apologising for having to retune her old trusted acoustic guitar (a 1970’s model given to her by her father), she also introduced some material from her forthcoming album to be released over the next twelve months, Goodnight Sorry For Coming being particularly impressive. The combination of Rae’s exquisite breezy vocals and the flawless playing of her band was bordering on the hypnotic by times and you got a most definite sense from the manner in which her set was received that Rae is a young lady with the songs, vocals and stage presence to make quite a name for herself. Simply divine.

The only act to perform solo at the festival was Kent born artist David Ford. His early musical path began with Indie band Easyworld and his solo career has seen him support Elvis Costello, KT Tunstall and Suzanne Vega. Unfortunately, I was only able to catch the last few songs of his set but strong vocals and confident stage presence were obvious and he certainly made his mark judging by the reception he received when finishing his show.

German band Torpus & The Art Directors were a totally unknown quantity for me prior to the festival but most certainly left a lasting impression after their action packed, high energy and full on set. With immediate comparisons to Wilco coming to mind – and what’s wrong with that – band leader Sonke Torpus had both locals and visitors eating out of his hands from the word go. Comparisons with Arcade Fire had been offered by people familiar with their sound prior to them taking the stage, which accurately described their delivery and energy, though personally I found their sound more Americana than Indie and none the worse for that. Their set featured material from their latest album The Dawn Chorus, well worth checking out on the strength of their live performance.

A more suitable act could hardly have been lined up to close the festival than Danny and the Champions of the World.  With possibly half the attendance being Champs devotees it was always going to be a celebration and more akin to a hometown gig than an away fixture. In football jargon if away goals counted double the result was sealed after only a few songs into their set. Transforming the venue effectively to a dance floor, the band gave the impression of enjoying themselves in equal measure to ourselves. Fast being acknowledged as The Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes of the Euro circuit they rattled out crowd pleasers effortlessly with their customary good humour, high octane delivery, exquisite guitar, bass, keyboards and pedal steel playing with the occasional ripping sax solo and Danny Wilson’s sweet soulful vocals. Gotta Get Things Right, Clear Water, Thinking About My Friend, Just Be Yourself, (Never Stop Building) That Old Space Rocket, Stay True all had the venue hopping before they slowed things down with the sing along encore of Henry The Van that sent a buzzing and sweat soaked audience out the doors smiling from ear to ear.

All in all, an enthralling action packed and fun festival with opportunities to renew old acquaintances, meet new like-minded music lovers and mingle with the artists in a friendly hassle-free environment. Thumbs up to all at Static Roots for managing to create, in only their second hosting, a boutique festival that seemed more like a private party from start to finish!

Review and photography by Declan Culliton