BELLOWS FALLS -- The stock market’s booming, and the housing market’s surging, but there’s no hotter ticket these days than one to Roots on the River.
The four-day celebration of roots and Americana music returns to the Bellows Falls area from June 6-9 this year, with a star-studded lineup of 21 musical acts. The market is bullish indeed.
Consider the numbers: Overall ticket sales in dollars are up 30 percent from last year; the number of ticket orders is up 26 percent and the average ticket order is 20 percent higher than it was last year. The all-acoustic show Sunday, June 9, at the Rockingham Meeting House sold out its 300 tickets about three weeks ago -- in the 13 previous years of the festival, it had never sold out. Underwriting is up 50 percent. Advertising sales in the program booklet are up significantly, too. On average, roughly 1,000 seats are sold to Roots on the River, and the best year was 1,500. This year should top that.
No wonder Festival Producer Ray Massucco is smiling like a man who’s cornered the market.
But there’s a bittersweet tinge to all this success. This year marks the last year Fred Eaglesmith will headline the festival. The Canadian troubadour and festival Pied Piper announced in December that it was simply time to move on. Eaglesmith and his enthusiastic fans, called "Fred Heads," have been there since the beginning and helped give Roots on the River its funky, friendly flavor.
"Not good," is how Massucco described his feelings, after hearing the news. But then he remembered a conversation, he had with Eaglesmith. "He told me three years ago, ‘If I drop out of this thing tomorrow, it will go on,’" recalled Massucco, who regrouped, built a great festival this year and is already spinning with ideas for the festival next year. "We’re definitely going forward. People have already committed to next year."
"I’ll be sorry to see Fred retire from this. ... I think there’s going to be a lot of tears and blubbering. Sometimes, it’s just time to call it," said Sam Creigh, a longtime festival volunteer, who this year will also be one of the featured acts at the free Bellows Falls Farmers Market show on Friday, June 7. "I think it’ll still carry on."
Certainly Eaglesmith’s swansong is one reason behind the increased ticket sales, but not the only one. This year’s lineup also features fan favorites such as Mary Gauthier, Roger Marin, Dave Alvin and The Steel Wheels, as well as some newcomers -- David Wax Museum, Grant Peeples, Shelley King, Carolyn Mark and Healther Maloney.
A quarter of the people who have already bought tickets are first-time festival goers. In all, three countries, three Canadian provinces and 19 U.S. states will be represented in the crowd.
As the festival contemplates its future without Fred, what bolsters confidence is what people say they like about the festival. Fred may have brought them here initially, but if people didn’t like it, they would not have kept coming back.
"What makes it special is the people you meet who become friends, and despite not seeing them until this festival again, they are friends," said Cris Rego, of Sudbury, Ontario, in an e-mail. "I have also discovered some truly wonderful musicians over the years that I still listen to."
First turned on to the festival because she was a fan of Eaglesmith’s, Rego keeps coming back -- this will be her seventh festival. "The town itself is beautiful, the people I have met are wonderful, and I have never experienced a negative reception from anyone. The town is filled with history, and a thriving community of real live people who are proud of their town and their stories," she wrote. "I continue to come because I love music and the magic of experiencing the town and feeling like a part of making history, one song, one year, one festival at Bellows Falls, at a time."
Roots on the River is indeed bound up in its community, in a way other outdoor festivals aren’t.
Partly, this is because Massucco brings the music right downtown. While the main venue for Friday night, June 7, and all day Saturday, June 8, is an outdoor setting at the Rodeway Inn, off Exit 6 in Rockingham, a considerable part of the festival takes place right in the heart of the village.
The festival opens on Thursday, June 6, with a triple bill at 33 Bridge St., featuring the Cold River Ranters at 7 p.m., Sean Rowe at 8:15 p.m., and Girls Guns & Glory at 9:30 p.m. The Cold River Ranters are a New Hampshire band which describes its music as "Hot Gonzo Primitive Folk Jive." American Songwriter paid tribute to Rowe by writing "In the world of singer/songwriters, such classic rumbling vocalists as Leonard Cohen, Mark Lanegan, Nick Cave and even Tom Waits, sound like Minnie Mouse next to Sean Rowe." Boston-based Girls Guns Glory combines early rock ‘n’ roll, country and R&B.
The scene continues downtown on Friday with more than six hours of free music. In the Downtown Square, Poor Old Shine ("old music performed in a new way") plays at noon, followed by The Milkhouse Heaters (Vermont-based alt-folk) at 1 p.m., After the Rodeo (Americana, jazz, blues, bluegrass and cowboy folk) at 2 p.m., and Skumm & Oats (acoustic music and vocal harmonies) at 3 p.m.
The scene shifts to the Waypoint Center and the Bellows Falls Farmers Market on Friday, June 7, at 4 p.m., for the Heather Maloney Band at 4:15 p.m., a Northampton-based band with a new CD, hailed by the Huffington Post for "lyrics that cut to the chase."
Then Sam Creigh and some friends wrap up the free music at the Farmers Market at 5:30 p.m., playing what he describes as "country folk." A veteran of the Tuscon, Ariz., music scene before moving to Vermont in 1987, the Springfield resident is recording a new CD titled "Wanted Man" and will be joined by old musical pals Linda Allen and Mick Leonard.
"The all-day, all around Bellows Falls Friday is a cool and quaint highlight," said festival-goer Dave Tartiglia, who sums up the festival as "a great opportunity to experience a four-day getaway of excellent, diverse music and share it with like-minded music enthusiasts."
Some people think Massucco is nuts for giving away six-plus hours of music he could be charging for.
"We do it because I want to give back," said Massucco.
The festival is good for the town -- one merchant told Massucco that Roots on the River weekend is his best weekend of the year, period. Massucco alone has booked 150 motel room nights in the area. And visitors come from all over and stay for a while. One group of four Canadians, for example, booked five nights in local motels for their trip to the festival.
The festival gives back in other ways. It announced early that its non-profit partner is the Vermont Foodbank, and festival-goers will be asked to buy a raffle ticket and donate cash or non-perishable goods to help feed Vermonters in need.
All this good business and good will has not gone unnoticed. The Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance and the Town of Rockingham have signed on as underwriters this year, and the Village of Bellows Falls also provided support. Massucco is grateful for all of it.
The action heads to the Rodeway Inn on Friday night for a bad-ass triple bill of Grant Peeples (7:30 p.m.), Shelley King (8:25 p.m.) and Dave Alvin and The Guilty Ones (9:40 p.m.).
Peeples, dubbed "a guitar-slinging poet" by Music News Nashville, mixes humor with slap-in-the-face reality. His latest CD, "Prior Convictions" includes songs titled "Gunning for the Buddha," and "Pole Dancing to Gospel Hymns."
King is a powerhouse singer-songwriter from Texas, who will "rock the place," according to Massucco.
Alvin rocks his roots music hard, too.
"That’s going to be an outlaw night," said Massucco of Friday’s show.
On Saturday, music starts at the Rodeway Inn at noon with The Sea The Sea, the duo of Chuck E. Costa and Mira Stanley, whose harmony-rich, lyric-driven songs mix old and new, acoustic and electric.
At 12:55 p.m., Dan Weber, who played at ROTR last year during the Friday free shows and made an impression, returns. At 2:05 p.m., Roger Marin, who shares with Eaglesmith the distinction of having played at every Roots on the River, is back with his band to play and to celebrate his birthday.
Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers made their debut at the festival in 2011 and return from Seattle this year with music and lyrics whose honesty recalls classic country songs. They play at 3:15 p.m.
Festival newcomer the David Wax Museum, a duo which plays Mexo-Americana, takes the stage at 4:35 p.m. They were named as one of "Ten Acts That Rocked SXSW 2012" by Time Magazine.
At 5:50 p.m., The Steel Wheels, from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, return to the festival with their compelling mix of bluegrass, blues, fiddle tunes and gospel.
Carolyn Mark, a witty, irreverent Canadian alt-country chanteuse who has been touring with Neko Case as the Corn Sisters, performs at 7:05 p.m.
The night concludes with The Fred Eaglesmith Travelling Steam Show, featuring Eaglesmith, Justine Fischer, Kori Heppner, Matty Simpson, Mike Zinger and the Fabulous Ginn Sisters and Bill Poss.
Throughout Friday night and Saturday, the festival scene features vendors, a merchandise tent, a family-friendly atmosphere that includes the popular children’s tent on Saturday, rare access to musicians who often hang out to watch other performers, and plenty of the friendliest people you want to meet.
"I come to the festival for many reasons. Firstly, there’s Fred, and the band members. ... The music: being exposed to new bands I would have never heard otherwise. ... Then there’s the people I’ve come to know and now call some of my best friends. ... Then there’s Vermont. Love Vermont, it’s beautiful," e-mailed longtime festival-goer Liz Virgint.
Sunday brings the sold-out all-acoustic Rockingham Meetinghouse show featuring festival favorite Mary Gauthier at noon, followed by Eaglesmith and the Travelling Steam Show.
That doesn’t quite end things for Eaglesmith. After the show, the annual street hockey competition takes place at 3 p.m.
"Fred wants one more chance to hip check me over the hay bales," said Massucco.
The final notes of the festival will be sounded on Sunday, June 9, starting at 6 p.m., when the Ray Mason Band plays at the Farmers Rock Farewell Ball at Cafe Loco.
Tickets to the festival are available as a four-day full-weekend pass ($99 in advance, $109 at the gate) or per day ($20 and $25 for Thursday night, $30 and $35 for Friday night and $40 and $45 for Saturday night.
Tickets are available locally at Shona Grill and Village Square Booksellers in Bellows Falls and at Misty Valley Books in Chester.
For tickets and more information, visit www.rootsontheriver .com.