I’m not a big music festival person. I know people who travel thousands of miles, spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars to join others in communing with their favorite musical artists at indoor and outdoor venues. But that’s not me. I like music, but I often don’t know the names of artists and, frankly, the music usually sounds better on the stereo in my living room. When a friend offered me tickets to Columbia, Missouri’s renown Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival (RNBNBBQ), I wasn’t particularly thrilled. But, happily, I discovered that there’s a lot to love about Roots N Blues N BBQ.
Easy Peasy Transportation. Too often at music festivals is parking is a nightmare. Not at RNBBNBBQ. They have a fleet of school buses that continually circle the city picking up and transporting festival fans to the venue for free. We stayed at The Broadway, a terrific hotel right downtown, and the bus picked us up right outside the hotel for the quick trip to the festival.
Wonderful Venue. Many outdoor music festivals are too crowded. Not RNBNBBQ. The festival’s venue, Stephens Lake Park, is located just on the edge of downtown across from the picturesque campus of the University of Missouri. It’s a large, grassy park with some big trees and festival organizers fence off a big portion for Roots N Blues. I never once felt crowded and the grassy park was a joy to wander.
There aren’t formal seats or bleachers at RNBNBBQ. Festival goers bring their own chairs and blankets, which contributes to the casual, community-picnic atmosphere.
Plenty of Stages. The festival offers two big stages, the Great Southern Bank Stage, and the Missouri Lottery Stage. They’re nestled into the landscape, taking advantage of the park’s natural rolling hill, amphitheater-like setting. The stages are separated by several hundred yards so there are no sound conflicts, but they’re close enough that you can quickly move from one musical venue to another.
Cool Cashless System. RNBNBBQ has gone cashless with clever wristbands that you load up with a dollar amount. Each food or product vendor has a scanner that automatically deducts your purchases. There are also several “top up” stations where you can load more cash onto your wristband. At the end of the festival, they’ll load anything you didn’t spend back onto your credit card.
Several Ticket Levels. You can spend as little or as much as you want for tickets because the festival offers several different packages from single day tickets ($49.50-70) to more cost effective weekend packages ($109-135). Veterans are offered discounted tickets.
In addition, you can purchase special VIP Whole Hog tickets ($250-295) and Platinum Pig ($495-550) tickets that include cool perks like private, close-up, covered lounges and up-close stage seating areas. Folks bring their own chairs into the VIP spaces, but there are also loveseats and couches and straw bales so there is always a comfortable place to sit. Whole Hog tickets also include private cash bars, porta-potties, and free, small-plate meals and appetizers and snacks. Since I hadn’t brought a chair and I’m not a big sun person, I found the lounges the perfect place to hang out. And the up-close stage seating offered a great way to listen to performers like Emmy Lou Harris without having to fight my way upfront.
Additionally, The Platinum VIP Pass offers all of the above with the addition of backstage tours, artist meet and greets, a swag bag full of festival merchandise, and transportation to and from the parking lot via golf cart.
Knock Out Music Artists. While I’m not a huge music person, even I was impressed with the musical line-up at RNBNBBQ. There were musical acts to suit every taste: 60’s-inspired country honky-tonk with Paul Webber & The Scrappers; rockabilly with Big Sandy and His Fly-Right Boys; soulful rhythm and blues from the Suffers; blues classics and originals with Gary Clark Jr; rock n roll blues with the Hoot and Hollars; sultry soul from Lee Fields & The Impressions; and more, so much more. Sunday’s headliners—iconic Emmy Lou Harris and John Prine—were perfect. Harris’ angelic voice affirmed that there’s hope that the world will get better and Prine and his band brought the audience to their feet.
Delectable Local BBQ. Festival food is always fun, but RNBNBBQ takes it up a notch by featuring some really good local and regional BBQ, all washed down with smooth-as-glass Keck’s Rootbeer or local beer from Logboat, Bur Oak and Broadway breweries. For the 2017 Festival, there were more than two dozen food vendors offering smoothies, pies, caramel corn, handmade root beer, freshly made donuts, pizza, gourmet grilled cheese, biscuits, tacos, and plenty of pulled pork and BBQ ribs with gourmet sauces.
It was BBQ I was after and the BBQ experts at RNBNBBQ didn’t disappoint. Now BBQ shows up in a variety of surprising dishes at the festival, including polenta, beans and BBQ donut sandwiches from Harold’s Kitchen; pulled pork biscuits at Ozark Mountain Biscuit Truck; and pork nachos at Dickey’s Barbecue Pit.
There were plenty of traditional BBQ offerings too that kept us busy. We started with Sugarfire Smokehouse’s 4-rib plate with beans and slaw. The ribs, tender baby backs, were meaty, smoky and, with Sugarfire’s signature sweet BBQ sauce, delectable. The coleslaw was just-right crunchy and the beans were tasty and not overly sweet.
We quickly wolfed down those ribs at a shady picnic table, but we were still feeling BBQ hungry. So we ordered a half rack of ribs from Smokin’ Chicks BBQ. These were huge beef ribs, super meaty and tender, with the perfect pinkness and smoke ring. They cooked with rub rather than sauce so we added some sweet BBQ sauce, which made them even more delicious. There was one problem: the ribs were so large, we couldn’t finish them. We offered our last rib to a guy at our table who pronounced them “really awesome.”
Late in the afternoon, I ordered two rib dinners to-go from Big Daddy’s BBQ. Size-wise, Big Daddy’s ribs come in between Sugarfire’s smaller baby backs and the Chick’s giant beef ribs. They were plenty meaty, with good, chewy tenderness. However, they were spicy, a little spicier than even I like, and left my mouth zinging. The coleslaw was nice and crunchy, offering a needed coolness, and their beans featured the perfect smoky sweetness.
More to See in Columbia. If you go to the Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival (and you should), there’s plenty to do before or afterward. Columbia, a picturesque city with three colleges, is worth a walk around. The town has preserved its historic brick buildings and there are plenty of cafes and restaurants worth a taste such as iconic Ernie’s for breakfast, Uprise Bakery for fabulous bread and sandwiches, and Sycamore for casual, farm-to-table dining. In North Village Arts District, you’ll find plenty of artist studios, galleries and collectives like Artlandish. It’s fun to talk with the artists and many offer original artworks at reasonable prices.
Just outside of Columbia, Rock Bridge Memorial State Park is terrific for hiking and cave exploring. The trails wend through shady, deciduous forests and the caves and sinkholes are extraordinary.
If wine tasting is more your style, check out Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport. They have a wine-tasting and wine-making facility right off the highway and, just down the road towards Rocheport is their Blufftop bistro and their A-frame wine garden, both overlooking the Missouri River.
So, I stand corrected. I do like outdoor music festivals. At least I really like Columbia’s Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival and I think you will too. – Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor; Photos Anne Weaver, RFT Editor
Check the RNBNBBQ site often and mark your calendars for 2018’s Roots N Blues B BBQ Festival in beautiful Columbia, Missouri. rootsnbluesnbbq.com