The eleventh annual C-U Folk and Roots festival kicked off Thursday evening with an hour of wine and swing music. Collaborating with the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Folk and Roots took over Krannert Uncorked at Stage Five to open the festival weekend. The evening’s musical offerings began with the Urbana Hot Club, a local
group whose music pays homage to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli’s Quintette du Hot Club de France, one of the first significant jazz combos to come out of Europe in the 1930s.

The crowd at KCPA was already large and humming by the time I rolled in at 5:10. The people were soaking up Hot Club’s music (and seemingly the wine in equal proportion). 

Following the Urbana Hot Club was the St. Louis-based early-Jazz, swing, and ragtime band. The group played a lively set, with the front line players changing instruments in between and in the middle of songs, keeping the sound fresh and exciting. The group even pulled up CUFRF volunteers to perform some jazz standards with them. 

People sat, talked, enjoyed some wine, and listened to the band. Others took advantage of Krannert’s ample, open lobby space to try out their dancing moves. After uncorked came to an end, I caught up with some of those dancers at the Channing-Murray Foundation, where the Gaslight Squares were playing a second set. 

As someone who does not dance unless forced to, something was intimidating about being in a room full of swing dancers. However, once the band kicked things into gear, it was hard to feel anything but delighted. The Gaslight Squares bring with them such a high degree of showmanship to accompany their skill. That and being surrounded by so many dancing couples, I felt momentarily transported to earlier times in St. Louis or perhaps in NYC or NOLA. If you have a chance to catch them, the Gaslight Squares are a band to experience. 

The final stop of the night was Blackbird in Urbana. As we walked toward the bar, you could hear the band was already playing. The sounds of Southwest-by-Western Swing were floating out onto Main Street. As I walked in the door, Gerard Eagen was hammering away at a solo with a sound and skill that one usually can only find on the largest country western stages or in the unsuspecting honky-tonk that’s often ignored or avoided by those outside of the know. 

And after seeing their set, it seems to me that the Carolyn Sills Combo is that way as a whole: they could play any room, any size, and fill it with their sound and the energy they bring to the stage. Lead singer and bassist Sills has an animation to her performance that, if you somehow weren’t having fun the second you heard them play, lets you in on how much fun the band is having together and makes you want to be a part of that. 

Beyond being a fun show, the Combo has serious skill. Steel guitarist Charlie Joe Wallace effortlessly slipped between back up and lead, playing the instrument in ways that transported you around the United States: the slow, reverb-heavy sound of Hawaii and surf rock, the clean slides into the chords you hear in modern country and western, to the white heat and speed of the Deep South. The combination of Sills’ powerful, drawl-laden alto, and the smooth sweetness in Sunshine Jackson’s high harmonies were a perfect compliment to each other. 

Previewing their upcoming release for the crowd, the Combo played the five-song cycle Return to El Paso (from the album of the same name). The band returns us to Rosa’s Cantina, the setting for Marty Robbins’ 1959 hit “El Paso,” and explores the backstories of all the characters present that fateful night when Robbins shot and killed that handsome young stranger. The cycle, though a little wild in concept, lacks nothing in artistry or storytelling. Personal favorites included “I’m not crying, I’ve just rubbed jalapeños in my eyes,” and “The Ranger,” a song told from the perspective of the everyday lawman who is tasked with bringing Robbins to justice. 

The band ended their set with a rendition of their song “Big Canoe,” a fun swing-and-stomp numbed from their second album, Dime Stories, Vol. 2, that had most of the bar moving with them. If you missed them at CUFRF, keep an eye out for them when they come back around. They are a band worth going out of your way to see, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them break bigger in the scene soon. 

The night ended with The Bashful Youngens, a local band that started as a collaboration between Aaron Short and Carrie Chandler but has since rounded out to include a full rhythm section featuring Brian Hilderbrand, Mitchell Killough, Stephen Johnson, and Matt Chupp. The group’s sound lies somewhere between Margo Price and The Lone Bellow. Chandler’s voice is strong, emotive, and could carry any band on its own, but the band really shines when they lean into the three-part harmonies and the country anthem sound. 

The band played a killer set but unfortunately peaked too early, playing their best song “The River,” from their self-titled 2016 album, so early in the night. The performance was arresting and left the room speechless after the applause died down. Quiet enough that one patron yelled, “This place is so damn quiet, someone order a drink!” To which the band and the audience laughed and agreed. 

The Bashful Youngens seem to be at a musical crossroads with the addition of the full band. But with such a skilled rhythm section, I hope they lean into the folk-rock vibe — the excellent multi-voice harmonies and the searing guitar solos — that they do so well. 

If you missed out on any of last night’s bands, you can find the full festival line up and band information on the Folk and Roots webpage. There are a ton of acts playing Friday and Saturday, and if Thursday’s acts were any indication, this festival is going to be one to remember.