Story contributed by Andy Smith
CHARLESTOWN – Chuck Wentworth had just checked his heart rate at about 3 Saturday afternoon. “Normal sinus rhythm,” he announced. “At this point last year, I was at the opposite end of the spectrum.”
Wentworth, founder of the Rhythm & Roots Festival, a South County fixture on Labor Day weekend, went to the hospital last year due to stress of running the festival. In February, he announced the festival would cease operations.
But in April, a Hartford production company called Goodworks Entertainment announced plans to buy Rhythm & Roots and keep Wentworth as a consultant/ mentor.
So Wentworth was on hand at Ninigret Park this weekend for the festival’s 24th year. And while he still had some problems to deal with – trouble with one of the light towers, for example—he said life was much easier.
“It’s a good year for people stepping up and taking stuff off my plate,” he said. (Plus, eight of his nine grandchildren were at the festival.) “I still need some time to listen to music,” he said. “But that can come later tonight.”
Saturday’s Rhythm & Roots Festival was greeted with perfect weather, which helped draw about 4,500 people to Ninigret Park. The new guy at Rhythm & Roots was Tyler Grill, co-founder and CEO of Goodworks, who was at the festival with about 12 members of his staff.
“Chuck’s been a great mentor for the weekend,” Grill said. “It’s been an easy-working relationship with Chuck, his family, and the crew he’s had working here for decades. . . they’re able to troubleshoot situations and give me advice on how to handle things.”
Grill said he can tell how much people love the festival by the number who came up and thanked him for keeping it alive.
Max Baca, founder and lead singer for the Tex-Mex band conjunto band Los Texmaniacs has been playing Rhythm & Roots for 15 years or so.
“This is one of my favorite festivals,” he said. “I was very disappointed when I heard they weren’t going to have it. I really took it to heart, man. Life wouldn’t be the same if we weren’t coming here. Then two weeks later he [Wentworth] called and said ‘I hope you didn’t already book the date.’”
The Texmaniacs put on a dynamic show in the relative intimacy of the Roots Stage, one of three musical venues at the Festival, along with the larger Rhythm State and the Dance Stage, where Cajun and zydeco music reign supreme under a big tent with a dance floor.
The Texmaniacs played plenty of Texas border music, with Max Baca on the 12-string baja sexto and his nephew Josh Baca on accordion. They also played some scorching blues, the Freddie Fender classic “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” and Hank Williams’ ode to Cajun life (and food) “Jambalaya.”
This is a festival for people who like to dance. There are folks dancing in front of the big Rhythm Stage, at the dance floor built at the back of the Roots Stage and, of course, in the big tent that covers the Dance Stage, where signs sternly warn “NO DRINKS ON THE DANCE FLOOR!”
On that floor, couples twirl and two-step, many with considerable skill, others with considerable. . .enthusiasm.
The phrase “Rhythm and Roots” can cover a lot of musical ground, and the festival had everything from the acoustic singer/songwriters Anders Osborne and Jackie Greene to the edgy rock of Grace Potter. The festival has its origins in the old Cajun & Bluegrass Festival in Escoheag, so there’s always plenty of Cajun and zydeco music on hand. (Although festival mainstay Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys had to sit out this year because Riley had Covid.)
One of the festival highlights was when accordion player Wilson Savoy of Cajun band The Pine Leaf Boys switched instruments and took over the piano at the Roots Stage and tore through old-school classics such as Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” or Hanks Williams’ “Mind Your Own Business.”
Lots of people at Ninigret Park Saturday referred to the festival’s indefinable “vibe.”
One of the vendors, woodworker Jens Norman, had set up a workbench in the big grassy area facing the main stage, where he was fashioning a substantial piece of ash into a baseball bat. Norman, who grew up in Peacedale, said he’s been coming to the festival for three or four years.
“I love the vibe here,” he said. “I get to sit here, listen to the music, and get to do what I love doing.”
The festival continues Sunday, September 4. Tickets are available at the gate. Check out some photos from September 3 from Lifestyle Editor Ken Abrams below.