This is a story about a music festival in Germany that was launched for all the right reasons, succeeded without compromising its original spirit, and now looks forward with justifiable optimism to its fifth iteration this coming July. The Static Roots Festival is a two-day event held in the town of Oberhausen in the Ruhr valley; it has succeeded in attracting music fans from across Europe, who recognise its kinship to more established events such as Kilkenny Roots, Orange Blossom Special, and Take Root, without lessening its appeal to the residents in that most populous of regions.
That Static Roots exists and happens is down to Dietmar Leibecke, a music fan living in the nearby town of Mulheim. I first met Dietmar in the spring of 2015 while spending a long weekend in Hamburg. The trip coincided with a couple of shows by Danny & The Champions Of The World, and we were both at their gig at Musicstar in Norderstedt. Danny Champ had told me the band were doing some house concerts, and it transpired Dietmar had become the hub for a network of venues across Germany. Equally interesting to me was learning this had a lot to do with Steve Wynn, as Dietmar would explain:
“Almost everything I do in music goes back to Steve and The Dream Syndicate. I still remember the day in early 1983 when I held The Days Of Wine And Roses in my hand, put it on the record player, and was instantly blown away by that first song ‘Tell Me When It’s Over’; the guitars, the dry sound of the drums, the voice, just everything… I knew, this was my kind of music, it was made for me. It opened up a completely new world, diving into the garage/neo-psychedelia/Paisley Underground scene with bands like Green On Red, The Fleshtones, The Rain Parade, The Long Ryders, True West … well, from my point of view this was the perfect foundation for my enthusiasm for everything alt.country/americana.”
In 2006 Dietmar turned forty; he wasn’t accustomed to marking birthdays but thought this was significant enough to warrant a special celebration, and how better than to get the performer who’d had the biggest impact on the development of his musical taste to play at the party:
“I started hassling Steve to play on my birthday and in early 2006 he finally confirmed the gig. It was the first time I’d ever put on a show; he and the Miracle 3 played a blinder so I was completely enthusiastic and felt it shouldn’t be the last. That same night Steve asked me if I’d ever heard about the concept of house concerts. He thought I’d be the right kind of guy to give it a go, and he was certainly the right guy to sow the seed.”
A year later Dietmar was listening to the young Canadian folk-rocker Leeroy Stagger’s Depression River album. Being particularly struck by the song ‘Carol’ he then and there decided ‘if we’re ever going to do a house concert, it’s gotta be this guy!’. Contacting Leeroy through Myspace he turned out to be touring in the United Kingdom that November, so Dietmar suggested, having come all the way from Canada it’d only be a short hop to Germany to play a house show. Stagger said if he could get four shows in Germany he’d come, and that’s how it began:
“The show at our place was a revelation! Leeroy lit the fire and it’s still burning strong. Whenever there is an artist I want to have playing in our house, I offer to book a few shows just to make it happen. Aside from Danny & The Champions of the World I’ve booked shows for Malojian, Bennett Wilson Poole, and many more.”
2016 marked the tenth anniversary of the house concerts. It was also his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, and his daughter’s twentieth birthday. He and Marion decided to celebrate these various anniversaries by setting up a festival, seeing if they could actually manage such an event. They were particularly inspired by trips to the Kilkenny Roots Festival where the quality of line-up, appreciative audience, and friendly atmosphere had made them feel part of a family from the moment they arrived.
Failing to secure a suitable venue in Mulheim they settled on the Zentrum Altenberg in nearby Oberhausen, which turned out to be an inspired move. This is the heart of the Ruhr valley (Ruhrgebiet), historically a populous, industrial area, and a centre for coal mining and steel manufacturing. Zentrum Altenberg is an old zinc factory dating back to 1904. It was taken over by a collective, functioning as a social and cultural centre, in 1982 and it’s grown from there. A beautiful old red-brick building with great sound and light, an outdoor patio and beer garden, run by passionate and professional people.
That first festival was to feature seven performers, and though one of them was a no-show on the day, it was a great success, so much so it was voted one of the three best americana festivals of 2016, alongside Nashville’s AmericanaFest, and Kilkenny Roots, by readers of Lonesome Highway. The line-up showed a pleasing eclecticism and demonstrated Dietmar’s willingness to trust to his own taste. The presence of three Irish acts – Anna Mitchell, John Blek, and The Midnight Union Band – spoke to the influence of Kilkenny. The Scottish alt.country ensemble Wynntown Marshals were well-liked and equally well-established on the German circuit, while Leeroy Stagger bought continuity with the house concerts. Finally the Austrian blues singer Meena Cryle was testament to a determination to embrace americana performers from mainland Europe.
This template was adhered to over the following two years. 2017 bought David Corley whose debut album Available Light released at the age of fifty-three had so impressed the European americana community. There were a pair of much-respected English singer-songwriters in Peter Bruntnell and David Ford, along with Nadine Khouri the Lebanese-British purveyor of atmospheric, folk-tinged, dream pop. Nashville was represented by Erin Rae, and Canada by the gritty Jack Marks. From northern Germany came Torpus & The Art Directors. John Blek returned, and the event was completed by house concert veterans Danny & The Champions Of The World.
Danny Wilson would be back the following year with his new trio of cosmic janglers Bennett, Wilson, Poole, and there was an encore appearance from The Midnight Union Band; the latter performing in honour of the late Willie Meighan of Kilkenny who’d provided invaluable support and advice in the birthing of Static Roots. From Muscle Shoals came Hannah Aldridge with her impressive southern rock by way of southern gothic; The Cordovas – who Dietmar had stumbled upon at Take Root and signed up on the spot – played their Dead-drenched roots infusions, and Justin Osborne from Susto played an much-acclaimed solo set. Charlie Whitten and Anthony da Costa from Tennessee, The Stephen Stanley Band and Terra Lightfoot from Canada, and Hadley McCall Thackston completed the bill, along with the Austrian Prinz Grizzley.
By the end of the third festival it was clear Static Roots was an established success story; the weekend had been added to many people’s calendars and word of mouth had done its job. For 2019 it was possible, one more time, to increase the line-up and Dietmar scheduled thirteen, very strong and very varied, acts ensuring both a good spread of performers and a decent pace allowing time to hang out in the warm, friendly atmosphere of the courtyard.
In the days running up to the festival the weather forecast had looked decidedly dodgy. Friday dawned a little overcast but by mid-morning, aside from the briefest of rain showers, nothing had developed. Within a couple of hours the clouds had burned off and a trip to the Landschaftspark – an old steel and coal production plant, near Duisburg, now preserving the past but turned over to leisure activities – was enjoyed in bright sunshine. As the afternoon wound down people gathered expectantly outside the venue, and right on time the Canadian MC Jeff Robson opened proceedings, setting the house rules – essentially to respect the artists, and respect the audience.
The night opened with the Irish troubadour John Blek playing the Willie Meighan spot. Blek, who’s recorded with luminaries Joan Shelley and Nathan Salsburg, combines austerity with rich imagery, predominantly from nature, and creates other-worldly atmospheres transporting the listener from the immediate surroundings. A solemn grandeur was immanent in ‘The Blackwater’, and ‘Colours Rising’, while the deeply moving ‘Forever In Your Likeness’ drew tears from more than a few present.
The Brother Brothers from Brooklyn then combined instrumental prowess on guitar, fiddle and cello with harmonies reminiscent of Simon And Garfunkel, prior to John Murry taking the stage. Like a puppet swaying in the wind he wrestled his guitar as though his equilibrium depended on it; reworking tunes from The Graceless Age as ‘California’ turned into ‘Cold Turkey’, while ‘Southern Sky’ recalled Suicide with bottleneck lifting from ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’.
The Wave Pictures proved reliably versatile before The Cordovas climaxed the evening in fine style. Featuring the twin guitars of Toby Weaver and Lucca Soria along with charismatic frontman Joe Firstman they’re well in the tradition of The Allmans and the Dead, not only playing their own ‘Frozen Rose’, ‘Step-Back Red’ and ‘Louisiana Hurricane’ but raiding the canon for ‘Truckin’, ‘Barstool Blues’, and ‘Whipping Post’.
They set the scene for the Saturday; when, of the eight acts billed, six are bands and each in their different fashion provide excitements aplenty. That said it’s Ags Connolly who opened the second day, accompanied by Joe Harvey-White on pedal-steel. Connolly proved himself a masterful, traditional country voice continually confounding expectation by doing something new and intriguing while appearing to do nothing new at all. He seamlessly mixed up back-catalogue favourites like ‘ I Saw James Hand’ and ‘A Good Memory For Pain’ with the freshly-minted ‘I’ll Say When’ and ‘The Meaning Of The Word’.
Connolly, and Canadian Joe Nolan, were the only solo acts of the day. Nolan – for many the find of the festival – is open-hearted and Beat-tinged, enrapturing with an enviable directness. Playing solo acoustic he captivated the audience, winningly offering a new song, ‘What I Used To Be’ written overnight, and inspired by a line sung by John Murry the evening before. The compact was then sealed with the near-spoken word ‘Ode To Sturgeon County’ and the singalong to ‘Maybe Tomorrow’
London’s Orphan Colours bought both triple harmonies, and chiming guitar from Fred Abbott, rousing the mid-afternoon crowd with tunes like ‘Start Of Something’ and the thumping ‘High Hopes’ from the recent All On Red album. Main frontman Seebs stepped back to let Dave Burn sing his paean to English pub culture ‘Wasted’, and there was time to revisit a more power-poppy Ahab tune, before they hit the anthemic ‘Goodbye California’. Luke Tuchsherer then took it back to the rock with a tight four-piece featuring guitar-interplay with the impressive David Banks, revisiting old Whybirds tunes and Springsteen’s ‘No Surrender’.
Don Gallardo’s pick-up band of irregulars – perennial side-kick Travis Stock joined by drummer Steve Brookes, Jim Maving, and Joe Harvey-White – shone with a nigh-on perfect set of compelling country rock; guitarist Maving, given his head, relentlessly seized the opportunity. It was a mix of old favourites; ‘North Dakota Blues’ and ‘Banks Of The Mississippi’; along with standouts from the new In The Name Of Good Intentions collection among them ‘Shine A Light On Me’ and ‘How Many Days’. Finally Daniel Kamish and Luke Tuchsherer increased the cohort to seven for a lively revisiting of ‘The Weight’.
It was a joy to see Joana Serrat with her Catalan band; another of the day’s acts augmented by the busy Hanging Star Harvey-White. Serrat has two impressive albums but performing solo sometimes underwhelms. Not the case here as she delivered a vibrant, assured set drenched in a high and lonesome sound filtered through a patina of shoegaze. In this setting she soared as ‘Solitary Road’ and ‘Trapped in The Fog’ conjured vast desert vistas, at moments invoking the glories of Paula Frazer and Tarnation.
Serrat later would join The Hanging Stars to take the Miranda Lee Richards’ part in ‘How I Got This Way’. The Stars played a triumphantly cosmic set, 12-string rich, with Patrick Ralla shifting effortlessly between guitars and keyboards. As well as established highlights like ‘For You (My Blue Eyed Son)’ and ‘Crippled Shining Blues’ there were new songs ‘Three Rolling Hills’, ‘A New Kind Of Sky’, and the Sam Ferman lead-vocal ‘(I’ve Seen The) Summer In Her Eyes’ a song redolent of late 60s Los Angeles.
By the climax of the Stars’ set everybody was getting close to satiation so that The Dawn Brothers with their pleasing, easy blend of americana, soul, and funk were the ideal band to lead a merry dance to the conclusion of a splendidly enjoyable couple of days. All that remained was to wander back to the courtyard and chill with all the like-minded folk who weren’t quite ready to go home yet. And falling into a quiet study to contemplate all the highs and the moments of grace experienced over the two evenings it’s more than a little likely the spine starts tingling, and maybe there’ll be a few goosebumps…
Those goosebumps. When you get Dietmar talking about the festival they come up a lot:
“Looking back at the short history of the festival so far, I am very proud of the line-ups. I feel like I’ve booked quite a few ‘big names’ according to my musical universe. I’m still a fan, so I’m booking acts that I adore, music that touches me in some way; singing and dancing along, and getting goosebumps; and fortunately it seems the acts I choose trigger a similar reaction in the audience.”
It’s why he won’t pick out highlights:
“The good thing about being a fan and booking acts you really like is that every performance, at each festival, is simply amazing. I’ve had the time of my life, enjoyed the acts, realising how the audience was responding in a similar way. So for me every act is a personal highlight.”
Equally he has a pleasing equanimity about the inevitable hiccups:
“Some things can go wrong, and some things will go wrong. Over the course of the years, and especially after the health issues I’ve been through, I am not worried about anything at all. As long as no one gets hurt, or personally harmed, you can deal with everything and find a solution. I’m pretty relaxed during the festival, because my work has mostly been done before. And then again, I’m German. We are known for accuracy and precision. So what can go wrong? Actually I think the stories about bands not showing up, or pulling out four days before the festival, are the most funny stories because you couldn’t make them up.”
And now Static Roots #5 is all set fair for the weekend of the 10th and 11th July. So far five names have been announced: Pete Gow, The Curse Of Lono, Gabi Garbutt, William The Conqueror, and Native Harrow. Early-bird tickets are currently available here (if you’re quick) and everything else you need to know can be found at staticrootsfestival.com
Photos (in descending order): The Hanging Stars, John Blek, Orphan Colours, Luke Tuchsherer, Joana Serrat, Joe Nolan, Jim Maving & Don Gallardo