Hot picking rode a chill wind on Saturday, as the two-day River City Roots Festival opened in downtown Missoula under unseasonably cold and blustery skies that threatened rain for much of the late afternoon and evening.
Yet the large crowds fed off the energy of a parade of high-energy bands to make plenty of their own heat.
"The wind sucks, but this chick is great," enthused Randall Chitwood of Missoula as he listened to Cajun rockers Amanda Shaw and the Cute Guys shred through a high-energy version of the Charlie Daniels Band classic, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Dressed for the weather, Chitwood was unfazed by the sky.
"I'm usually out of town during (the River City Roots Festival), cutting trees on forest fires," he said, bobbing his head to the music. "But there's none of that this year, so I'm just stoked to be here."
Shaw, a precociously confident and talented 19-year-old fiddler from New Orleans, held the middle slot in a day that saw six bands take the Roots Fest stage, each of them plying their own variation on the festival's theme of American popular roots music.
Local blues favorite Mike Bader and his band kicked off the festival at noon, serving up an hour and a half of Chicago-style blues spiced with hints of Latin and R&B. Next came MilkDrive, a subdued but harmonically adventurous string band from Austin, Texas, that performed a mix of originals and unusual covers, including a sleepy take on Ween's "Your Party."
Throughout both sets, the festival crowd grew, even as the weather gradually worsened. Winds from the northwest began to gust down Main Street, making the mid-50s temperatures feel considerably cooler and occasionally knocking over signs and displays in the art market.
Meantime, down in Caras Park, the Children's Fun Festival kicked into high gear early thanks to a "best-of" set of exhibits by the University of Montana's SpectrUM Science Learning Center. Under the Caras Park Pavilion, the sound of the bands on Main Street was drowned out by a cacophony of squealing kids, hooting kazoos, pounding drums, and other noisemakers.
"It looks like this is the winner of all the attractions, as far as the kids are concerned," said Alan Hisel of Lexington, Ky., as he watched a group of children mesmerized by SpectrUM's turntable exhibit, which featured a spinning metal turntable on which children could set discs rolling in place almost perpetually.
By the time Shaw and her band took the Main Street stage at 4:30 p.m., the festival crowd seemed ready to shake off the cold. Shaw got them dancing with a string of hard-driving, upbeat originals and a handful of well-placed (and well-played) covers.
"C'mon Missoula, lemme hear it," she shouted to the crowd, which responded by loudly filling in the chorus chant to the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go."
"What a diverse crowd," noted Kevin Head, owner of the Rhino Bar, as he looked out upon the crowd of dancers in the street. Head said that, despite the weather, Saturday was shaping up to be another "tremendous" day for his Ryman Street bar.
"It's our biggest day of the year - bigger than Griz-Cat," he said. "We love it."
Festival-goers who stuck around for the end of Shaw's set likely missed a homegrown display of precocious talent down in Caras Park, when local band Borland took the Youth Performance Stage. The five-piece band of teenage musicians powered through a polished and impressive set of hard-rock originals that took some of the lingering parents and kids off guard.
"They're amazingly confident, and super-good," said Cindy Laundrie Marshall, herself the lead singer of local band Vera. Marshall, who was in Caras Park watching the band with her husband, Bob, and their two daughters, said she was surprised by the quality of acts featured in Saturday's Youth Rock Band Showcase.
"I feel like there's an amazing new generation of young bands right now," said Cindy Marshall. "You didn't see this many good young bands a few years ago. It's really cool that they have a place like this to play."
"Of course, any high school band is better than bluegrass," added Bob.
Needless to say, Bob wasn't there when the Infamous Stringdusters took the Main Street stage a short while later. Hailing from Nashville, Tenn., the six-piece acoustic string band treated a crowd that by then numbered in the thousands to a similar style of music as MilkDrive, but at a distinctly notched-up energy level.
Then came the evening's headliner, Robert Earl Keen, a country-rock crooner from Austin, Texas. Under a darkened sky that seemed to have finally given up some of its chilly bite, the crowd which by then stretched a full block down the street, danced and cheered as Keen and his four-piece backing band shuffle-stepped a string of originals from Keen's three-decade career, wrapping up the evening on an energetic high note.
"I've never heard them before, but they're great," gasped Trevor Kennison as he paused from swing dancing with his girlfriend, Jenny. "It's been a great day."
The River City Roots Festival continues in the streets of downtown Missoula on Sunday, beginning with a four-mile fun run at 11 a.m. The weather forecast calls for more of the same, and possibly worse, with highs in the mid-50s and a 60 percent chance of rain. At least the wind should be calmer, at 5-7 miles per hour.