Last summer, the Boulder Theater and Fox Theatre joined forces under the name Z2 Entertainment, and this week’s First Annual Blues & Roots Summit represents the most visible bloom on this new partnership. This inaugural festival represents what’s possible when both venues fully leverage their abilities.
Indeed, the entire weekend is a testament to their hard work, as it came together quite quickly. It began in November, when Z2 was approached by Media Mechanics, a group of veteran music and radio executives who, among other things, produce the House of Blues radio hour hosted by Dan Aykroyd (found on the Internet at Bluesmobile.com, and hosted locally Sunday mornings on 99.5 The Mountain).
Conversations progressed quickly, and by the beginning of the year they’d settled on a date and had started booking acts. In less than three months they’d assembled an all-star lineup that includes Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams, Leon Russell and world music artist Vieux Farka Touré, playing over three nights at both the Fox and Boulder Theater.
“We’re pretty excited. We’ve scheduled both the Boulder Theater shows to start earlier and the Fox shows to start a little later so that people who buy the VIP pass — which allows you into all the events — can catch two shows a night,” says Cheryl Liguori, former Boulder Theater general manager and now CEO of Z2. “The vision, which will be more apparent next year, is to really engage the blues audience and make this a destination for blues lovers across the country, to have workshops, and even maybe mentorship programs for younger blues lovers.”
They’re expecting around 4,000 people to attend the five shows, with VIP pass holders ($325) getting reserved seats at both venues, a preferential entrance and limited edition silk-screen posters and t-shirts. If this is what they can accomplish in three months, think what they could come up with given a whole year’s preparation.
“We’re really excited to see how we can grow this and help it reach its full potential with all the different components we think we can add in the years to come,” Liguori says. “Is there potential to explore other mini-festivals like this that are centered in Boulder? Sure.”
The bill is so strong it’s hard to believe they pulled it together so quickly. Sheryl Crow is supporting last year’s Billboard-topping rock album, 100 Miles From Memphis, which mixes her sunny roots rock with blue-eyed soul, reminiscent of Dusty Springfield’s classic, Dusty in Memphis.
Leon Russell is riding high after his 2010 collaboration with Elton John, The Union, and he’s been going strong, though in relative obscurity, for years. His 2007 album Angel in Disguise was an under-appreciated return to the Okie rock stomp and southern-fried rock that made him famous in the ’70s.
However, for many, the big draw will be Lucinda Williams, who kicks off the festival with the late show Friday night. The daughter of a professor/poet, Williams released her first album, Ramblin’ On My Mind, in 1979, featuring an acoustic collection of old blues, country, folk and Cajun songs.
She spent the next two decades making music that traverses the entire expanse of what’s now called Americana, releasing critically lauded albums that were the commercial equivalent of a tree falling in the forest. Her breakthrough came with her Grammy-winning masterpiece, 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, an album that took nearly six years and underwent several iterations, including the scrapping and re-recording of an entire album’s worth of material (twice) after a falling out with her guitarist/producer Gurf Morlix.
A wonderful writer, Williams possesses a gift for lyrical economy and precision. Her powerful images and sentiments can fill a room with but a few words. Her music is unbound by genre and frequently strives for a coarseness and grit that suits her gruff but evocative voice. While her subsequent five albums haven’t enjoyed the same level of commercial success, they haven’t sacrificed any of their power. But that hardly means nothing’s changed.
After years of troubled and broken relations that provided lots of fodder for her songwriting, Williams found love with former Universal Music executive Tom Overby. They were engaged in 2006, and many saw her 2007 album, Little Honey, which he co-produced, as a testament to her new outlook, particularly the album opening track, “Real Love.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
“Little Honey was really kind of [2006’s] West part two, because a majority of those songs were already written. I had wanted to put out a double CD when I wrote West. I wrote a few new songs when we were in the studio, but the majority of the songs were from before I met Tom, including the song ‘Real Love,’ which everybody assumed I’d written about Tom … but was written about this dickhead musician guy I thought I was in love with and was a total vanity song,” Williams explains from a tour stop in Indianapolis.
Instead, it’s her February release, Blessed, that represents her first true post-love album. Consistent with that, it’s an album that while it explores death (on “Copenhagen,” about her late manager who died in the Danish city, and “Seeing Black” about suicide) is ultimately about acceptance of who and what you are and all you have to offer. It’s a theme present from the bluesy waltz of “I Don’t Know How You’re Livin’” to the acoustic folk paean “Ugly Truth” and the elegiac, slowly rocking, album closing “Awakening,” where she promises to “kick the shoulds, I will not ask why” and to “honor the forsaken” and not “mourn my youth.”
The album also showcases a move away from the first-person and into a more narrative style, particularly on the cinematic “Soldier’s Song,” from the point of view of a dying soldier and his family.
“For me it’s more growth as a writer. It’s really easy to sit down and write an unrequited love song,” she says. “Almost any songwriter will tell you that. Oh I feel so bad my baby is gone. It’s much harder to do these narrative kinds of songwriting.”
Given the dark tone of the songs populating her catalog, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Williams has been fielding lots of questions about her career surviving her new-found marital bliss. Like saying “I do” wiped out the 58 years that came before it.
“I’m not happy all the time. Sorry, but nobody can make anybody happy 24 hours a day. There’s plenty of other stuff to be unhappy about,” she laughs. “That’s kind of the irony of it. When you look back at my songs, I don’t have that many that are sweet, kinda real love songs, but I’ve always been drawn to them … [probably because] they’re hard to do without sounding all mushy and sugar-coated.”
But finding some comfort and happiness (see Blessed’s tender “Sweet Love”) won’t temper her drive to create. Indeed, she has several songs leftover from the Blessed sessions and is considering touring less on this album so that she can get back into the studio quicker, since the notoriously laborious Williams is feeling as prolific as at any time in her career.
“I want to continue writing,” she says. “Whatever’s going on in my life on the exterior, whether I’m with somebody or not, or whatever, I’m not going to quit writing.”
The blues don’t quit just because you aren’t feeling them as poignantly as before.