20 years of Rhythm & Roots


I can tell you where I have been on every Labor Day weekend for the past 20 years: the Rhythm & Roots Festival. For me, Chuck Wentworth’s Labor Day weekend extravaganza is not the end of summer; it is the beginning of a great new season of entertainment in Rhode Island.

To celebrate the 20th annual festival, Wentworth has brought in the best of the best in roots music and extended the hours to pack three days and nights of music on four stages at Charlestown’s Ninigret Park.

The festival opens Friday, September 1 at 1 p.m. on the main stage with the Creole Cowboys and ends Sunday evening, September 3 with perennial favorites Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys tearing up the dance tent until midnight.

What do we all do on Labor Day? Sleep.

The festival is so much more than music, although music is certainly the draw. Many people take advantage of the campground, where jamming goes on into the late evening. There’s a kid’s tent and a kid’s camp with continuous activities. Cranston’s Len Cabral has been there every year to tell his stories.

Many people bring picnic lunches, but I prefer to enjoy the jambalaya at Chili Brothers, plus the many other food booths featuring BBQ, potato pancakes, Thai, Korean, seafood and other delicacies.

Arts and crafts tents line the edge of the huge field.

With four venues for music, the toughest part is deciding where to go and what to listen to. Many people stake their chairs around the dance tent and never leave. I like the Roots tent, where you can sit in the shade in a more intimate setting and listen to old time fiddlers, accordion players and young protégés jamming.

The Mavericks, a popular group that has had a few crossover hits and the Squirrel Nut Zippers are enough for me to make the trip south on Friday.

If you have never seen big, tall Marcia Ball attack her piano with some fabulous New Orleans style music, you’re missing one of the highlights of the festival. She’ll be on the Rhythm Stage (that’s the main stage) at 4:45 Saturday. Rhode Island’s own Sarah Potenza is at the Roots stage at 4 p.m.

Sunday afternoon features Cape Breton fiddler Natalie Macmaster. I first heard her at Wentworth’s Cajun and Bluegrass Festival at Stepping Stone Ranch in Escoheag over 20 years ago when she was a teenager. She played during the dinner hour. After the first number, people got out of line and returned to the stage to see where the incredible music was coming from. Macmaster will play with her equally talented fiddler husband, Donnell Leahy, at 6:15 p.m. on the Rhythm stage, followed at 7:45 by Roseanne Cash. If you saw Cash at the FirstWorks show at Vets last year, you’ll want to catch her again.


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