Friday, July 17
Temps hit the mid-90s, and when we ventured from Camp Turtle to get ice it was almost pure liquid before we got back, the cold water leaking on our arms providing blessed relief. But 4:45 p.m. crept up, and it was time for the band competition with four very strong contenders: Montana Slim, Bucky Walters, the Irish edge of Ockham's Razor and the warmly infectious, everyman songwriting well of New Hampshire's Crunchy Western Boys. CWB would emerge the winners, and were very humbled and even graciously surprised. These cats are refreshingly unassuming talents, and I was looking forward to a second helping on Sunday morning. I've also got to give some love to Bucky Walters with their hard-stomping stage presence, running on speakeasy fumes, and the most finely cultivated 'stache of the weekend award going to banjo player Joey Goforth. Tight, fast picking, harmonica wailing (courtesy of Kat Fountain) and old timey vocal styles (fiddle player Kaleb Duncan's rapid fire delivery on "Come up to the cabin and smoke a big ole doobie with me gal" being a personal highlight), they served it straight up vintage.
|Crunchy Western Boys :: NWSS 2009|
"Back by popular demand," the program read about Greensky Bluegrass and even our lovable and spirited MC Pastor Tim exclaimed, "This band is the shit!" Genuine bluegrass souls with rock & roll hearts, they've put in serious elbow grease and get better with every show. This set was smoking in a way that made you want to grab your family photos and bolt from the house. A lot of their tunes feel like future classics, such as "200 Miles from Montana" or "Old Barns," and Paul Hoffman (mando) and Dave Bruzza (guitar) both possess appropriately old soul voices. Maybe some of these toddling, aspiring pickers in the crowd will play their songs someday. The band's deviations and sly pop culture pieces are executed seamlessly. A riotous "Broke Mountain Breakdown," (with a little "Smoke on the Water" tease courtesy of Bruzza) was a nasty beast that snapped at your ankles - with Michael Arlen Bont (banjo) racing on smooth blacktop, Hoffman bringing out the mando's silver tongue and Anders Beck viciously shredding dobro (Metal-bro! Raise those horns!) - that wandered in a blotter sheet swirl before raging full force into a timely "Beat It" with Mike Devol driving deep bass spikes through the core of the depth charge, as each musician passed off the lead with fury. At this point I was pogoing like crazy, taking in the beaming grins and the wild screaming.
Sinfully under-appreciated in their time, the rare set by the legendary Bad Livers demonstrated what a fine job Yonder has done educating us Kinfolk. Groundbreakers who loved Americana music to pieces, they took to their mission and ran with it on fearlessly freaky ground. Only recently reuniting for occasional gigs, this show was highly anticipated, and banjo player Danny Barnes, bassist Mark Rubin and guitarist Bob Grant took the stage to a rapt, ravenous audience. When he's got a banjo in his hands, Barnes is wired into the great wide unknown, and with Rubin's unabashedly badass bass kicking and Grant's fingers bolting across that guitar this whole set just oozed with their righteous weirdness, stuffed with dynamite, maniac cackles, chain rattles and pulverized corn liquor bottles. After a gas pedal "Ghost Train," Rubin's tuba came out for "National Blues" and then an even stickier, ickier "Turpentine Willy." With the tuba blasting, you gotta hunker down close to the ground and twist out those jitters. "Honey I've Found a Brand New Way" > "It's All the Same" took us from serious speed to lift us upwards towards fading sunlight, while "Country Blues" and "Horses in the Mines" exhaled chilling vapor, the ghosts in the songs beating their bones.
|Bad Livers :: NWSS 2009|
Jeff Austin, who came on stage to join the Livers for a good portion of their set, stood wide-eyed with enthusiasm, leaning in and watching intensely as the other three tossed around leads. "Crow Black Chicken" broke down into delicious anarchy, and "Deathtrip" swam through some serious murk, emerging with Rubin visibly amused. Spying two little girls in the front row singing every word, Rubin laughed, "I don't think you were even born when we recorded that record. But that was very cute. Nothing like little girls singing along to 'Death Trip.'" Gotta give the parents some props for that!
When the Livers left the stage early, Pastor Tim wandered out, confused as to their truncated set time, only to be accosted by three musicians in wrestling masks. The mad trio launched into "Bluegrass Suicide" > "Saludamas a Tejas" before exiting the stage again, to wild cheering. It made me incredibly happy to see them with the receptive, enthusiastic crowd they deserve. Rubin's hilariously sardonic stage banter peppered the set, but his joy and appreciation couldn't be contained, and he was in absolute amazement at the scene unfolding before his eyes. Looking up at the painters above the sound booth at one point, he said, "That's the coolest damn thing I've ever seen!" He mused how at Livers shows in the past they would purposely change the tempo when they spied dancers. Contrast it to String Summit, where the crowd hung on every turn for dear life, fingernails clutching at the rearview mirror. Before their second encore of "Dallas, TX," Rubin said, "Hey man, seriously... thanks. That's all there is to say." And for the record, he rolls on Shabbos.
With barely enough time to sit down and eat dinner (the quality more than makes up for quantity in the vendor department at String Summit, so supper becomes a heart wrenching decision), I preciously made my way towards the bowl. As the opening notes of "Midwest Gospel Radio" swelled, I navigated through the audience, eyes transfixed on the stage, and almost ran into a little kid in a cape. You got to look out for those kids at Summit. Their presence makes us all be a little more respectful and caring, and their excitement can't help but rub off on you. I watched him bound away, scooped up by his mother, who put him on her shoulders. He pushed out his arms in a Superman pose, his little cape flapping while they bounced away, as Austin stepped up to the mic and said, "Welcome back... welcome home... I can't tell you the overwhelming joy that comes over you at Horning's." Relishing that emotion, he sang, "This is just the way it feels when you come home." The embrace drew us close and then – bam! – sent us somersaulting with "New Horizons," limbs flying, feet pounding dirt, the rug pulled out in a free fall, a rubber band drawn back to the penultimate breaking point and then snapped free, flying breakneck across the room.
As is the String Summit ethos, Yonder were soon joined by musical buddies. Before "Kentucky Mandolin," Barnes took the stage, with that head down, tongue sticking out grin that means you're in for some serious business as he brandishes his weapon of choice. Taking his place on stage next to Dave Johnston (banjo), his presence is always a reason for big excitement. Bryn Davies and Rubin came out, to do the old bass switch-off, with Davies rocking the show with her funk before Rubin laid waste to the whole operation. All three then played Ben Kaufmann's bass at once, laughing hysterically. Here, I was drawn to the eye of the storm, to catch wide-eyed rail riders' grins during the "oh-here-we-go" moments, trying not to step on anyone's toes while dancing and taking in the on stage antics up close. Before the break in "Ramblin' in the Rambler," I noticed hard-working front-of-house man Kevin Gregory was gathering not only shots but also party hats and noisemakers. It was guitarist Adam Aijala's birthday, and the calm center of gravity cracked up grinning while the crowd sang to him. "Rambler" was sandwiched with "Pockets," a newer Aijala tune that is rapidly becoming one of my favorites with its sidewalk shuffle groove, and featured an added bonus of Austin making crafty use of his noisemaker.
|Barnes & Johnston - YMSB - Friday :: NWSS 2009|
The heat of the day catching up with me, I watched the second set cozied up in the beer garden. Looking at the vista below, I spotted two glowing gnomes bouncing above the crowd, as Ted Atwell worked his light show magic. This bearded duo (or was it a trio?) would catch my eye all weekend, one of those random, yet functionally distinguishable ("Just look for the gnomes!") pieces of festival flair that can't help but make you laugh. The second Yonder set traveled tightly, and as the atmospheric wash out of "Sidewalk Stars" gave way to those opening notes of "Dawn's Early Light," I felt it in my toes. A tale of murder and revenge that could be taken straight from a grainy John Ford film, it started in body counts and mire, hurtling through Aijala's zen, picked up by Barnes' gutbucket banjo, which gave way to harmonic splinters. In the bright, stoney sunshine of "Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown," the Livers' influence was felt strongly in the outro, with Austin and Aijala both bouncing off weird walls. The "Sharecropper's Son" encore sent us off into the night with an extra shot of springy adrenaline, ready to take on the adventures and misadventures that waited in the darkness of the pines.
Continue reading for Saturday's coverage of the NWSS 2009...