An old-fashioned folkie revue coming to ArtsCenter

May. 09, 2014 @ 12:47 AM

The Rolling Roots Revue always ends its shows with an invitation for audience members to participate in an on-stage jam session and sing-along. There is a standing joke among revue members that goes with the invitation, said Jack Radcliffe, who leads the group. If you bring a recognizable musical instrument to the concert, then hop on stage. But if you bring an instrument that is unfamiliar, hop on the tour van.

No one has hopped on the van yet, “but there’s always a first time, and we are prepared for it,” Radcliffe said in a phone interview from New Bedford, Massachusetts. The anecdote reflects the philosophy of Wepecket Island Records, the music label Radcliffe heads, and Rolling Roots Revue, the annual tour of label artists that comes to the ArtsCenter in Carrboro today.
Radcliffe started the record label 10 years ago after retiring from the newspaper business. “I’ve always played and love traditional American music,” he said, and decided to dedicate a label to new artists who play blues, folk, gospel and other American music. Radcliffe had a recording he made in 1961 of himself in a rock band on which John Kerry, now secretary of state, played bass. He re-pressed the recording in 2004, when Kerry was making his presidential bid, sold some 130,000 copies, and used some of those proceeds to bolster the nascent Wepecket label. The label currently has more than 20 artists, and soon will release its 28th recording, a collection of tributes to the late Pete Seeger.
The Rolling Roots Revue grew out of the label. The musicians got together and envisioned a tour that “embodies the whole spirit of American music,” which is not just a performance music but social music, Radcliffe said. That social aspect of the music “is why we invite people on the stage at the end of the show,” he said.
The first tour was in 2008, and the musicians used to pile into his 1993 Ford van “Vanessa” and hit the road. The van has been retired, and for this tour the musicians have rented a van that will take them to nine concerts over 11 days in Wepecket’s home base of Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina.
Artists at Wepecket (named for an island in Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts) include blues musician Andy Cohen, guitarist Andru Bemis, guitarist Laurie Sheehan, banjo player Evie Ladin and more. The lineup for the Revue tours can change, but at Carrboro the core group will be Radcliffe on keyboards, Sherman Lee Dillon on guitar, Don Barry on bass, and Debbie Palmarini, a new gospel artist on the label.
The lineup reflects the diversity of American music styles, Radcliffe said. “You put that combination together and you’re bound to learn something you didn’t know about music. It’s cross-pollination, which is where American music has always excelled,” he said.
For this show, M.S.G. Acoustic Blues Trio will join the tour. Radcliffe said he met the trio at a Folk Alliance International conference. The trio – Jackie Merritt on harmonica and vocals, Miles Spicer on guitar and Resa Gibbs on vocals and percussion – participated in the Blues in the Schools program during the 2010 Bull Durham Blues Festival.
That kind of outreach also is part of Wepecket’s mission. Artists with the label often perform for free in libraries, retirement centers and schools. Radcliffe has put together a brochure of free events and residencies, and would like to incorporate them into the annual tour. The label also is considering adding a fall edition of the Rolling Roots Revue.  
Radcliffe still goes out and listens for new artists to record. “It’s amazing how easy it is to find good people who have not been recorded,” he said. Wepecket artists “are much more interested in connecting with their audiences than achieving stardom,” according to the label Website. “In fact, most of them feel strongly that the star system of modern show business is antithetical to making good, honest music.”
Radcliffe, who will be 70 in October, said he feels fortunate to have this second career. “I wake up every day with a smile because I have good work to do,” he said.


WHAT: Rolling Roots Revue
WHEN: Today, 8 p.m.
WHERE: The ArtsCenter, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro
ADMISSION: Tickets are $14. To purchase, call 919-929-2787 or visit