One of the most sensational and downright likable performers at last year's Champaign-Urbana Folk & Roots Festival was Blind Boy Paxton, a young man proficient on fiddle, piano, banjo and guitar.
The old-time and early jazz musician who's based in New York is returning to the 2012 festival, happening Friday and Saturday at indoor venues in downtown Urbana.
This time he's bringing a friend, Brandon Bailey, a rising Memphis musician.
Rooted in traditional blues, Bailey pushes boundaries by using a percussive vocal technique and loop pedal to create multi-layered harmonica blues and old-time tunes.
"Blind Boy Paxton certainly shouldn't be missed," said Ed Hawkes, treasurer of the C-U Folk & Roots Festival.
Actually, Hawkes believes none of the acts should be missed. And there will be many.
The 2012 festival will present more than 80 performers, artists and storytellers celebrating American roots music, dance and visual arts. The activities will include jam sessions, dances, workshops (there's one on yodeling), singalongs, storytelling and family activities.
And you can experience it all for a $25 festival pass, one of the best entertainment bargains in town. Tickets for single events may be purchased at the door. The festival is also family friendly: Children 12 and younger are admitted free.
Almost all of the acts will be acoustic, but it will be an eclectic mix. Brenda Koenig, festival chairwoman, said organizers try to appeal to almost every taste and to break down barriers between performer and audience.
"Blind Boy Paxton has a special gift for doing that," she said. "You really feel like you're in your living room with him. He's channeling some really soulful stuff."
In addition to Paxton and Bailey, Hawkes and Koenig mentioned the following acts as major attractions:
The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra, a five-piece ensemble from Canada that draws on "flamenco flourishes learned in Spain, African percussion, bluegrass and other roots music from across the Americas," according to the band's website.
Robbie Fulks, a Chicago-based alt-country guitarist-vocalist who recently was part of an episode of TV's "30 Rock" that touched on the Chicago arts scene.
The Freight Hoppers, based in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, who play hard-driving old-time string-band music.
Gina Forsyth, a New Orleans-based award-winning singer/songwriter (an alto) skilled on fiddle and guitar. She's considered one of the best Cajun fiddlers in Louisiana.
Red Tail Ring, the Michigan-based Americana roots duo of Michael Beauchamp and Laurel Premo. They perform traditional as well as original tunes. In 2011, the two performed and taught as cultural ambassadors through the American Embassy in Denmark.
The festival also will feature many area musicians, among them Black Coffee Fridays, David Howie, Kevin Elliot, Dorothy Martirano's Almost "A" Quartet, The Young & Fretless, Emily Otnes, Margaret O'Brien and trumpeter Jeff Helgesen's Vine Street Syncopators.
Though the festival doesn't officially start until Friday evening, it will kick off with Resonation Station performing from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday at Krannert's Uncorked wine tasting event. That is free and does not require a festival pass.
Resonation Station — Jordan Schilling, Jeremy Taylor, Collin Richey and JB Faires — "bring energetic picking and lush harmonies to tunes from the 1920s up through today's roots music," reads the Krannert blurb on the band.
This is the fourth annual C-U Folk & Roots Festival, a grassroots event planned and organized by local musicians and music lovers and operated by 70 or so volunteers.
Each year organizers work out the kinks, trying to make the festival better. Koenig said this year organizers scheduled acts by genre so that, say, one bluegrass band won't perform at the same time as another.
Also, "We focused or concentrated our venues so we're not quite as spread out as last year," Koenig said. "Everything's within two blocks. The only thing that's 'out there' is Buvons, and that's only on Friday night."
The schedule also will be easier to read, so festival-goers can plot their course, she said.
The festival headquarters inside the Independent Media Center (the old post office in downtown Urbana) will open at 5 p.m. Friday. Festival passes also may be purchased at the Heartland Gallery, 112 W. Main St., U.
If you go
What: Fourth annual Champaign-Urbana Folk & Roots Festival, featuring more than 40 national and local acts and workshops, singalongs, jam sessions and other events
When: Kicks off with free Resonation Station concert at 5 p.m. Thursday in Krannert Center for the Performing Arts lobby; resumes at 5 p.m. Friday and continues through Saturday night
Where: Indoor venues in downtown Urbana, with Independent Media Center as festival headquarters.
Cost: $25 for a festival pass, with tickets available at the door for each concert; children 12 and younger admitted free to everything (workshops and similar events are free)