Oberhausen in the Ruhr area of Germany was once again the location for the third Static Roots Festival, promoted by Dietmar Leibeche with more than a little help from his wife Marion and his team of enthusiastic helpers. Held over two days the Festival featured four acts playing on Friday evening and a further seven on Saturday.
To kick the festival off and for the benefit of those arriving early on the Friday, a StaticRuhrTour had been arranged by Marion and tour guide Robert Gerlings. Taking approximately four hours the tour included a short hike to the spectacular mountain dump Halde Rheinelbe. With glorious blue skies and temperatures reaching the late twenty degrees the hike terminated at a local Budchen (corner shop) for refreshments before a short trip to the World Cultural Heritage site of Zeche Zollverein in Essen, considered to be the most historical coal mine in Germany.
A twenty-minute train trip back to Oberhausen and a quick freshen up at the hotel and it was time to take the short walk to Zentrum Alterberg where the festival was hosted for the second year in succession. With a medium sized indoor auditorium and a tree lined outdoor area for refreshments between acts, it’s the perfect setting to enjoy the music, chill out and mingle with fellow punters and artists. Of note also was the price levels of both the drinks and food, a fraction of what's normally charged at other festivals.
The event could not be any more inviting for Lonesome Highway as the promoter, using a similar philosophy as ourselves, seeks to champion emerging and under the radar artists when selecting his acts. His bill for 2018 was inspired, offering acts from all the Roots genre with Austrian honky tonkers Prinz Grizzley & His Beargaroos joining acts such as the UK supergroup Bennett Wilson Poole, our own Kilkenny supergroup The Midnight Union Band, Canadian rocker Terra Lightfoot, South Carolina psychedelic folk rockers SUSTO solo front man Justin Osbourne. Wolfe Island Records were well represented by indie folk rockers The Stephen Stanley Band and the stunning young Hadley McCall Thackston, who was originally to perform as backing vocalist with The Stephen Stanley Band but was also given her own showcase slot when Donald Byron Wheatley had to postpone at short notice. Nashville residents Hannah Aldridge, Charley Whitten, Anthony Da Costa and Cordovas completed the line-up.
Memphis born but currently residing in Nashville, Hannah Aldridge must qualify as one of the hardest working touring singer songwriter, regularly crossing the pond to play solo gigs in support of her two albums. The daughter of Nashville Country songwriter Walt Aldridge,she opened the festival with a fifty-minute slot that featured material from both albums including her ‘country cheating’ song Old Ghost, Goldrush and (‘the song I wrote after the worst gig I played in my life’) Burning Down Birmingham, which included audience participation to sing the chorus for her. Always approachable, she hung around side stage for the other evening’s acts, enthusiastically engaging with anyone that approached her for a chat.
Cranking the sound up a notch or two were The Stephen Stanley Band that followed. Previously the frontman with The Lowest Of Low, Stephen Stanley and his band raced through a set containing material from their Jimmy The Moon debut album in the main. Guesting in the band were our own drumming maestro Michael Mormecha (Malojian) and Ger Moloney on accordion. A glorious mix of jangling guitars, crisp keyboards, thumping bass and drums and some killer backing vocals from label mate Hadley Mc Call Thackston. Early REM and The Jayhawks came to mind. Highlights included Things I Wish I’d Never Seen, Troubadour's Song and their closer Jimmy And The Moon.
Having modelled his festival on many of the features that work at Kilkenny Roots and often seeking advice from our late friend Willie Meighan, the set by The Midnight Union Band was particularly emotive given Willie’s untimely passing last November. Playing a larger stage with a superb lighting system and equally impressive sound provided them with a platform not often available to them. Anything but fazed, they played a stormer lead by frontman Shane Joyce, Peter Flynn on keys, Brian McGrath on bass, Cian Doolan on guitar and John Wallace on drums. They treated their travelling fan club to a trawl through their most popular anthems with I’m Your Leader, Moon, But I Am The Night and Behind The Truth all getting an airing. Their set was dedicated to Willie Meighan and poignantly they finished with two songs so close to his heart, Rainy Night In Soho and The Smiths classic There Is A Light.
Canadian roots rocker Terra Lightfoot was the perfect closing act on Friday evening. A powerful vocalist and equally impressive guitar player, her dynamic set was bluesy, rocky, rowdy and badass with a vibe that nodded in the direction of Chrissie Hynde one minute and P.J. Harvey the next. One-minute prowling menacingly around stage, the next minute on her knees effortlessly ripping out blues riffs from her Gibson SG alongside her bass player. Highlights that rocked the room from wall to wall were Paradise and Pinball King, straight down the middle urban blues delivered by her three-piece combo.
Recently married, Justin Osbourne has been on a Euro solo tour with his wife over the past month. His band SUSTO’s album & I'm Fine Today featured in our albums of the year in 2017 with a sound that can only be described as psychedelic Americana, combining layers of instrumentation and vocals across some breath-taking songs. It was interesting witnessing him play stripped down versions of songs such as Hard Drugs, Cosmic Cowboy, Waves and Gay In The South, together with some really impressive new material. His closing song Jah Werx , about community and living in the moment, perfectly reflected the ambience both on and off stage. Given the opening slot at lunchtime on Saturday, he had the audience wooed two songs in with material delivered by vocals that ranged from whispers to whiskey hoarse. Not easy to perform solo for fifty minutes as an opening act but his set was met by pin drop silence from start to finish. Observing how well his albums were moving off the merc desk there’s no doubt he won over a lot of new admirers and rightly so.
Having previously seen Anthony Da Costa perform with artists such as Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz and being unfamiliar with his back catalogue, I had been expecting a fairly low-key affair. His guitar work has always been exceptional and he’s always in demand as a session player but his set which mixed power pop, blues and straight down the middle rock was a revelation. From New York but currently working in Nashville his relaxed and laid-back stage banter contradicted his intense and technically note perfect guitar playing. Using Danish band The Sentimentals as his backing musicians was a masterstroke, the combined guitar playing of Da Costa and M.C.Hansen was sublime and Nikolaj Wolf on bass and Jacob Chano on drums provided the perfect rhythm section. Sins Of Your Father, Thanksgiving, Neighbours and Anywhere But Here stood out in his fifty-minute set.
Anyone who attended Andrew Comb’s shows in Ireland last year could not have missed his bass player. Standing well over six feet tall and with a long mane of blond hair Charlie Whitten is a striking young man. From North Carolina but currently living in East Nashville he is very much part of the burgeoning East Nashville music community and released his debut EP Playwright in 2017. Performing songs from the album solo accompanied only by his electric guitar, his set was the perfect mid-afternoon laid back buzz. Casual and relaxed with engaging stage banter, Whitten melted a lot of young lady’s hearts during his slot.
Coincidently, Hadley McCall Thackston’s debut album arrived to be reviewed at Lonesome Highway last week, coinciding with her upcoming performances as backing vocalist with The Stephen Stanley Band both in Europe and Ireland. The album immediately struck a chord and had been practically on rotation in my player all week, so when she was rewarded with her own set in the absence of Donald Wheatly I immediately looked forward to seeing her perform live. Her backing band was The Stephen Stanley Band, the common denominator being that Hugh Christopher Brown, who produced and played on her album. Kilkenny accordion virtuoso Ger Moloney was invited to join the backing band at short notice given that he contributed to her album. With only two opportunities to rehearse prior to her slot and it being her first show in Europe she opened by telling us that she was more nervous than she'd ever been on stage. However, one song in and the nerves dissipated given the audience’s positive reaction. Her beautifully fragile voice absolutely mirrors the content of her song writing and she possesses the gift of sounding like June Carter on songs like Wallace’s Song (Sage Bush) and Amy Winehouse on Devil Or Angel and No. After performing the album in its entirety, she finished with two well chosen and well delivered covers Ode To Billie Joe and Brass In Pocket.
Bennett Wilson Poole played two sell out shows at Kilkenny Roots in May and there was a homecoming atmosphere in the air with the very large numbers that also attend that festival. I’m unsure whether the air of anticipation and expectation was stronger in the audience or the band as Robin Bennett, Danny Wilson and Tony Poole seemed to be looking forward to their slot every bit as much as the rest of us. Performing as a three piece in Kilkenny, on this occasion they added a bass player and drummer to their line-up. Remarkably, even though their self-titled album was only released earlier this year, the songs already play out as anthems, with the chorus from Hate Won't Win, Wilson General Store and Ask Me Anything all being sung loudly from the floor. Three and four-part harmonies, shared vocals, wicked playing by all the band, the biggest on-stage smiles of the festival and in particular the king of the Rickenbacker Mr. Tony Poole, all combined to bring the house down.
Prinz Grizzley and his Beargaroos are no strangers to Lonesome Highway having played a number of sets at Kilkenny Roots earlier in the year. It was business as usual as they sailed through a set of headachers and heartbreakers, with Chris Comper soaring vocals and polished guitar playing blending perfectly with the silky pedal steel by Johannes Bischof. Wide Open Country, Fiery Eye’s, Mountains Milk, Irene and I Can See Darkness all even surpassed the studio versions on their debut album Come On In. Sweet honky tonkin’ with a side of knockout blues courtesy of two Austrians and two Swiss (Claude Meier on bass and Andreas Wettstein on drums), these guys have progressed over the past eighteen months from a bar band to an act worthy to grace any festival stage.
One look at Cordovas and you get the picture. Dietmar had been working on getting these dudes booked to play for months and they were the perfect curtain closer for the festival. Facial hair of Biblical proportions, head to toe denim and mops that haven't encountered a comb or barber in yonks, they could be The Allman Brothers circa 1972 and they have a sound to match. With a band that boasts four lead vocalists you’d expect some God gifted harmonies and they certainly delivered on that front, but what also hit the biggest spot was their musicianship to match. All I Found, Southern Rain and numerous Grateful Dead type instrumental jams went down a storm before they closed their set and the festival, accompanied by Anthony Da Costa and Charlie Whitton on stage, with a blistering version of Neil Young’s Down By The River.
Dietmar had again invited Jeff Robson from Canada to act as MC and credit to him for his knowledge of the bands and informative stage announcements. With eleven acts to soundcheck and a number of bands having multi vocalists the quality of the sound throughout was also exceptional. Hats off to Alex Shulte who got it spot on with every act.
I'm not sure that any other festival ends up with a sing song out in the open, with both musicians who played the festival and punters alike taking turns to belt out songs from all ends of the spectrum, some delivered to perfection and some bordering on the unlistenable but the perfect finale to a fun filled couple of days.
A final word again about the promoter Dietmar. His one objective is to bring people together to enjoy quality music in an environment where artists and punters mix, share a drink and good food, talk music and put aside the worries of their worlds for a few short days. He achieved that and much more at what we accurately described last year as a ‘’boutique festival’’. It happens all over again on July 12th & 13th of 2019. Tell your friends, but not too many mind, this is one festival we do not want to get too big!
Review and photography by Declan Culliton