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After a close call, Rhode Island’s Rhythm & Roots Festival is back for another year

Little Feat will headline the third day of the Rhythm & Roots Festival in Charlestown, R.I.Hank Randall

The annual Rhythm & Roots Festival in Charlestown, R.I., returns Labor Day weekend to Ninigret Park for its 24th year, with headliners Little Feat, Cowboy Mouth, and Grace Potter. But it almost didn’t happen; Chuck Wentworth, who started the fest in 1998 and had run it since with his family, shut it down “permanently” in February. At least that’s what he thought at the time.

After riding out a cancellation in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wentworth was able to stage Rhythm & Roots last year but fell ill while organizing it and was unable to attend his own festival. Citing stress and other health factors, his doctors advised against him continuing to produce it.

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To the dismay of many fans, an announcement went out in February that the popular event would cease for good. At that point, Wentworth had no intention of selling the festival. But then conversations began with GoodWorks, a Hartford-based company that books music for a half-dozen venues.

“Chuck and I connected and talked about us taking over,” says GoodWorks CEO and cofounder Tyler Grill, who’s now the CEO and managing partner of Rhythm & Roots. “We did our due diligence to try to make it work for both sides and keep the legacy alive. It was clear that Chuck’s vision and ours were very similar. We wanted Rhythm & Roots to continue to be a comfortable community and family-oriented event. It’s not just about jamming people onto a field but making sure that they’re getting a great experience.”

The next question: Could GoodWorks make it happen in just four months? “We haven’t stopped running since [the agreement with Wentworth],” Grill says. “Everything is aligned and everything is happening. It usually takes a year to pull off a festival, so it’s pretty amazing.”

To help the new owners maintain continuity with the festival’s entertainment, environment, and overall “chill but lively” feel, Wentworth, his wife, Deb, their three children, and nine grandchildren will remain involved and stay on for a couple of years as consultants. And the crew chiefs in charge of vendors, the box office, camping, and other operations are the same as in past years.

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“GoodWorks’ goal is to shadow Chuck’s team and follow the nuts and bolts of how Rhythm & Roots operates,” Grill says. “That’s a huge benefit for us. There are no drastic changes. But also we want to see how we might improve bands’ and fans’ experience while keeping the vibe of the last 23 years alive.”

Just as there’s new energy guiding Rhythm & Roots, recent changes have re-energized one of its long-time featured acts, rockin’ Cajuns Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys, who perform Saturday and Sunday. Riley was the official host act for the first Rhythm & Roots.

“Rhode Island is like home away from home,” master accordionist Riley says by phone. “I’ve missed maybe one Rhythm & Roots since the beginning. And previous to that, I was playing [in Rhode Island] before the Playboys existed with [Cajun artist] Dewey Balfa at Stepping Stone Ranch.”

Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys are mainstays of the Rhythm & Roots Festival in Charlestown, R.I.Courtesy photo

Founding fiddler David Greeley has rejoined the band, joining guitarist Sam Broussard. Riley’s 13-year-old son, Burke, has taken over drums from Kevin Dugas, and there’s a new bassist, Philippe Billeaudeaux (formerly of Feufollet). “I really feel like it’s a new era with new energy in the Playboys,” Riley says.

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Riley is one of several Louisiana acts this year, a regular feature that lends Rhythm & Roots the feel of a mini-New Orleans Jazz Fest. “New Orleans Night” kicks off the weekend Friday with headliners Cowboy Mouth. “We try to turn every show into New Orleans during the middle of Mardi Gras,” says bandleader Fred LeBlanc.

Other New Orleans favorites at the festival include Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas, Samantha Fish, Anders Osborne and Jackie Green, North Mississippi Allstars, the Pine Leaf Boys, the New Orleans Suspects, Cedric Watson and Bijou Creole, Rose and the Bros, and first-timers Honey Island Swamp Band and John “Papa” Gros.

The weekend’s artists represent a broad roots mix of blues, country, Cajun, Zydeco, rock, dancehall, rockabilly, and funk. Grace Potter (Saturday’s headliner), Little Feat (Sunday’s headliner), and fest regulars Donna the Buffalo top a list of performers that also includes Veronica Lewis, Willie J Laws, Planet Zydeco, Nick Bosse & the Northern Roots, Los Texmaniacs, Superchief Trio, and more. There will also be workshops with musicians and special performances for kids.

RHYTHM & ROOTS FESTIVAL

At Ninigret Park, Charlestown, R.I., Sept. 2-4. Single-day tickets start at $49 (Friday), $79 (Saturday and Sunday); three-day tickets start at $199. rhythmandroots.com