Rooting for Rhythm

Digging deep in Charlestown; plus, the Complaints
By BOB GULLA  |  August 28, 2007
BOYS TO MEN The Complaints, 10 years after.

You can bet that this week Rhythm & Roots Festival producer Chuck Wentworth will be spending a lot of time looking up at the sky — and hoping. No, it’s not that he, like Chicken Little, is waiting for an acorn to drop or that he’s looking for divine inspiration — he’s already found that. It’s that he’s attempting to divine the weather. “Last year at this time they were talking about Hurricane Ernesto, Ernesto, Ernesto. The forecast chased everyone away, and it didn’t even rain!”
This year, the forecast is good. Not only is the sun predicted to shine, but advance ticket sales have been brisk, as if everyone who missed Los Lobos’ headlining set last year is looking to make up for it in 2007. And what better time to make amends than the Festival’s 10th anniversary? “We think 10 years is a good reason to celebrate,” says Wentworth. “We’re really looking forward to presenting some good music.”
Presenting good music, at R&R and elsewhere, is a signature activity for Wentworth. Rhythm & Roots Festival has gone from an excuse to spend the Labor Day weekend outdoors to a must-see event and the open-air music highlight of the warm weather season. Every year, Wentworth’s innovative and open-minded bookings make for many satisfying and unpredictable moments, and the festival set-up — with its kids’ activities, workshops, dance floors, and good vibrations — never disappoints. This year Marty Stuart, Natalie MacMaster, Susan Tedeschi, and banjoist Bela Fleck anchor the weekend, while mainstays such as Big Sandy (this time with Los Straitjackets in a rock en espanol twist), Donna the Buffalo, and Steve Riley also add serious interest. In addition to the headliners and regulars, Wentworth is trotting out some youthful talent to underscore the arrival of a vibrant, new generation of roots musicians. “We’ve put a big emphasis on young bands,” he says. “There’s been a renaissance of old-time music with young acts like the Red Stick Ramblers, the Pine Leaf Boys, and Corey Ledet. These are kids who play real roots music with passion and add a 20something mindset to it.”
One of the not-so-young acts on Sunday will be a colorful guy with deep area roots. Johnny Nicholas, who appears with the Texas Allstars, has been something of a local luminary since emerging as a bona fide blues and R&B hero in the ’70s. He began his career in the mid-’60s and has worked with Asleep At the Wheel, Big Walter Horton, and many others. You can get caught up on his career at, the website of the restaurant he owns with his wife in Texas Hill Country.
This year marks his first appearance at Ninigret. “I love what they’re doing there,” he says. “It’s traditional music played with feeling by people who don’t give a shit about commercialization. I can’t wait.” Nicholas will be playing with Greg Piccolo, Joel Guzman (a Grammy winner from Asleep At the Wheel), among others, and will conduct a blues workshop.
Nicholas, along with a few friends and investors, is also helping to oversee the revival of the Knickerbocker Café, a legendary blues and R&B bar across from the train station in Westerly. Like many musicians and fans in southern Rhode Island, Nicholas came of age at the Knick and he hopes to bring back the same fiery vibes it had in the ’70s when the joint was really jumpin’. At press time, the group intended to close the real estate deal this week, and a grand reopening is set for the spring.
“Rhode Island’s got a serious blues legacy, man,” he says. “I’ve been living in Texas and Louisiana for a long time, and people there get together and dance and enjoy music all the time. It’s kind of old-fashioned. It could still be the same around here, too. You just don’t have that opportunity. We want to provide that and help this catch on so the people who enjoyed it back in the day can enjoy it with their kids.”
For the complete lineup of the Rhythm & Roots Fest, see “Concerts” listings in this section, call 888.855.6940 or go to

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