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As the smooth, melancholic tones of famed blues musician Taj Mahal and his trio echoed through Peace Park late Saturday night, a crowd of hundreds gathered to end yet another year of the Roots N Blues N BBQ festival.
Senior Shane Kuse attended the festival for the third straight year. He took a particular liking to the band that came directly before Mahal; the Tex-Mex rock fusion group, Los Lobos.
“My highlight was seeing Los Lobos perform,” Kuse said. “They have a very unique style and are a really good live band. The mix of their Mexican culture and experiences in rock music is what impressed me.”
Every year at summer’s end, thousands of people from across mid- Missouri gather in downtown Columbia to celebrate two of America’s unique pastimes — blues music and barbecue.
Frequent festival-goers and true lovers of American music, however, say the festival features much more than that.
“The [festival] is essntailly paying homage to all American music of the past,” Boonville resident Harold McNeal said. “Everything from folk to R&B is here. It’s likestepping like walking into an American museum of music history or something.”
This year’s festival was no exception. The featured artists were as diverse as R&B queen Mavis Staples (member of the legendary 1960’s soul group The Staples Singers) blues giants Taj Mahal and Robert Cray, and the Tex-Mex group Los Lobos. Hallsville resident John Schloot believes the festival has quickly grown into one of the best in the country.
“I’ve been to a lot of these and this is maybe the best year in and year out,” Schloot said. “You get everything. You get country and blues and everything in between. There’s nothing with that kind of variety. Considering it’s only been around for a few years, that’s pretty amazing.”
Junior Shelby Richardson attended the festival for the first time, and the bands impressed her just as much. Officials estimate there was an increase in attendence from last year’s total of 65,000.
“The amount of people [there] really amazed me,” Richardson said. “And on top of that they were so into it. I saw people by themselves dancing to the music.”
Genre isn’t the only thing that’s varied at the festival, even simply in terms of music. Centralia resident Glenn Meador believes what makes Columbia’s festival so wonderful is how different the bands are, not just in sound, but also in experience.
“You have the lesser known, up-and-coming bands, and then you have the superstars like Los Lobos and Taj Mahal,” Meador said. “It’s not just only the all-stars or only the rookies like most festivals. You get to sample everything in the business. It’s a great mix.”
And great music wasn’t the only thing to sample at Roots N Blues. After all, the festival does have barbecue in its title.
Although they came for the music, both Schloot and McNeal say the food may just be the highlight of their weekend.
“I have to admit, even though I consider myself a music aficionado, the food was my favorite part,” Schloot said. “There were judges there figuring out what food was the best and what wasn’t, but I loved it all. I have to say the brisket was the best, though. ”
The judges for the barbecue contest came from as far as Tennessee, Wisconsin and Georgia and sampled everything from brisket to ribs and steak. McNeal frequently visits the famous Kansas City barbecue contests, and echoes Schloot’s opinion of the food.
“The food just puts [the festival] way over the top,” McNeal said. “I mean how many shows can boast about being as good as any in the country when it comes to music, and as good as any Kansas City barbecue competition at the same time? It’s really an amazing thing.”
But perhaps the best thing about the festival is the opportunity it affords musical enthusiasts. American music lovers from across the state are able to bond in the name of their favorite art form.
“I saw some people who must have been old friends stumble across one another and become super excited about seeing each other again,” Richardson said. “I guess it makes the whole ‘arts bring people together’ saying really true.”
By Mike Presberg