Saturday, July 18
Saturday began with Jessica Kilroy, joined by Head for the Hills, both past band competition winners, plus fiddle player Jack Ausick. Kilroy wowed everyone last year and has since become part of the Yonder extended musical family. With a laid back, witty stage presence, she exudes effortless magnetism. Her voice is both earthbound and ethereal, and her songs paint a tangible sense of place, grounded in Montana vistas and notched with asphalt scars. Galloway joined her on stage for a new song they co-wrote called "Ain't No Coming Back," with eerie vocals clawing one with fevered intensity. The brimstone pickers of Head for the Hills provided the perfect frame, full of vivid brushstrokes and burning rail ties, and Ausick's and Joe Lessard's winding fiddles kicked off a day that would become a veritable celebration of the instrument. The skies were blue, and the musical kinship just kept on growing.
Modern musical gypsies Taarka play the kind of music to soundtrack bus window views, when you've absconded, eager to leave the past behind and look to unwritten pages. Ryan Drickey (octave fiddle), Enion Pelta-Tiller (fiddle) and Daniel Plane's (cello) strings combined cast a potent spell, and their music's globalized sound evokes bustling, colorful metropolises and mysterious marketplaces as easily as open spaces. The gorgeous cover of Iris DeMent's "50 Miles of Elbow Room" stretched over the horizon, and when they played the John Hartford tune "In Tall Buildings," a sighing comment on the workaday path many take when they grow up, it was a reminder not to lose that spark that the kids who charmed us this weekend possess. Watching youngsters run back and forth as the dust sifted between my toes, I let the song's lessons sink in.
P. Whipped definitely win the best footwear of the weekend award, between Davies' cat woman boots and Sharon Gilchrist's snakeskin platforms. Any chance to see the vivacious duo of Davies and Gilchrist throw down is a welcome one. Playing songs to melt your heart and kick your ass, they accompanied Megan McCormick, a Nashville-based singer-songwriter with a DIY vibe that I could certainly dig. McCormick has some serious blues snaking in her soul, wringing the notes out of her electric guitar, then traveling into spaciousness where the melody would just dissolve. Then Darol Anger made his first on stage appearance of the weekend to thunderous applause. It was "bluegrass time" and the foursome threw us face down in the dust. That's some strong stuff.
|P. Whipped :: NWSS 2009|
This was my first time seeing Infamous Stringdusters live, and lord almighty, was I impressed. A rich full sound that's classic, caffeinated and tight, all six Dusters are forces of nature on their own (I even noticed Greensky's dynamic dobroman Beck videotaping Andy Hall), but combined they push it up to a category 5. It's certainly a refreshing gale and a well-oiled machine that isn't afraid to get a little gritty and a little greasy. Their version of Barnes' "Get It While You Can" featured some clutching vocals on the surface and some clammy funk tickling the underbelly. The Dusters were overflowing with joy, falling under Horning's bewitchment as they playfully ribbed each other. At one point, a lizard crawled up on one of the mic stands, just chilling while they played, a sweet little moment. "I don't know how you people do it," bassist Travis Book said, his perma-grin now etched in my memory, "I've been here three hours and I already smell terrible." In response, someone yelled, "Welcome home!" Yup, I have a feeling these cats are going to be part of the family from now on. After the Dusters' set, Pastor Tim led us in the traditional "beer, water" chant, advising us on how to proceed with the festivities (drink a beer, then drink some water before you drink another beer). Listen to that advice. Trust me.
One of two bands from Sweden in attendance this year, Väsen's appearance was certainly special. Mike Marshall and Anger, who released an album with the group in 2007, set the stage. Like Barnes, they both have a finely tuned cosmic tap, making everything look so damn easy. Marshall's mando skittered across psychic walls while Anger's fiddle split the cracks open. As they moved, I just stood there, watching with my head tilted like a thunderstruck peacock. Then Väsen joined them. The trio of Olav Johansson (nyckelharpa), Mikeal Marin (viola) and Roger Tallroth (guitar) were about to give us a crash course in the nyckelharpa (aka the key harp), the polska (a Swedish dance) and why you should never piss off a composer with a pen knife. And you got to be in awe of a setlist with music that stretches back to the 14th century - living ancient roots. As they journeyed through their set, I found myself settling in on the hill to watch. The sound painted a landscape in my head of frozen mountains, rushing rivers, purple light. As one musician would come to the front to take over, it wasn't soloing so much as a new piece of the picture coming into focus. Dense and otherworldly, the reverberations and afterimages hung in my imagination long after it was over. Going back to that killer composer, before performing a polska called "Penknife Killer" they introduced it by talking about how the man who wrote it spent ten years in prison for murdering his butcher with a penknife. As it built and built, the fiddles screamed, carving another notch in a cold, stone wall.
|Väsen :: NWSS 2009|
That unmistakable voice. Those timeless tunes. That eternally unruffled hair. It must be Del McCoury and The Travelin' McCourys. Flanked by his sons Ronnie (mando) and Rob (banjo), with Jason Carter (fiddle) and Alan Bartram (bass), their suited and shined presence cut quite a contrast to those of us baptized in dust (no matter how many baby wipe showers I took, by the time I walked from the campsite to the stage, it was pretty much a lost cause). It was noted a couple times that weekend that Ronnie is starting to sound more and more like his dad, and seeing the two of them lean in close to the mic for "Count Me Out" was like Del in stereo. While I love it dirty and messy, you just can't argue with absolute timelessness. Rolling out classic after classic, spiked with cuts from their recent album, Moneyland, like the hilarious "Forty Acres and a Fool" (author Joe New was even in the audience), this set was bluegrass perfection, pure and simple. Bartram lifted our souls with a wonderful "Road is Rocky," and "Cold Rain and Snow" was sublime, while "Beauty of My Dreams" reminded me that even though Yonder ignited that bluegrass spark for me it was Phish that first laid some kindling down. Del dropped the setlist at times and began taking requests, graciously playing "Wheel Hoss" and "Orange Blossom Special" for the eager audience. He's got a great spirit, genially laughing about forgetting the words to songs and friskily flirting with the fillies ("I'll take that request... because you're real pretty"). "Bean Blossom has a lot of chiggers," he noted at one point. "I'd rather be here than Bean Blossom," eliciting laughter from the delighted crowd.
Jumping off the platform Del laid down, YMSB, joined by Anger, kept things grassy, with a ripping new Johnston instrumental and a bust-out of Galloway's "Blue Collar Blues," a working class reflection about waiting on that quitting time whistle. As Del, now dressed casually in neatly pressed jeans and a crisp white shirt, strolled out, Austin rightly said, "He's an American treasure." No matter where Yonder find themselves in their boundless explorations they always deeply appreciate their roots. Del's pipes wailed strong as they rained "High on a Mountain" and "Prisoner's Song" down upon us, and then Barnes cooly snuck on stage, ready to shake up some cerebrums. During a creepy-as-hell "Funtime," he cackled, stirring some evil banjo elixir with Johnston.
|Del McCoury & The Travelin' McCourys :: NWSS 2009|
Then, Väsen came on stage, joined by Carter (fiddle, Travelin' McCourys), Pelta-Tiller (fiddle, Taarka), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle, Infamous Stringdusters) and Mike Marshall. Consuming the whole amphitheatre in a hydra-headed bow attack, the strings sighed, cried, serenaded. Austin then led us gently through "Years with Rose" as the fiddles brewed, measuring out their meanness, until blowing up the bank with "Raleigh and Spencer." Austin was the mad conductor of the crazy train, incorporating the players into the lyrics as he barreled down the track ("They laid Danny Barnes in his grave!" only to have Barnes jump out with zombie attack vigor!). Player upon player, it was passed back and forth, going down the line at frightening speed. Threatening to veer off the rails, it tottered, tilted, gravity pulled it towards the edge, and then, from the depths, Austin screamed, "FIDDLES! UNLEASH HELL!!!" And, oh my lord, did they ever, ramming it upright, running that engine hotter and hotter, sparks shooting from the wheels, pushing the iron horse to the brink before riding her down into the set break station. Safe for a few moments, I found myself lounging in the grass and listening to sound engineer Ben Hines play Todd Snider's "America's Favorite Pastime" through the speakers.
Set two: time to boogie. A new Kaufmann tune, "Complicated," shows his affection for the poppier side of things, but with a ripping Aijala solo in the middle, this baby runs on rock and/or roll. It was cool seeing people ease into it, taking it in, gathering the beat and then bringing arms up to dance. From the brand new to a fiddle tune so old it has no author, Marshall, Anger, Barnes and Carter strolled back on stage, later joined by Rubin, for "Elzic's Farewell." "We are blessed to know these people," Austin mused, as the gang fled with "Elzic," winding through each musician's weapon, tempestuous as the gale passed through. Shafts of light began to break, moving into "No Expectations." The reflections of impermanence that sweep through the song always hit my ears hard during a time in my life when I need a shift badly. Nothing lasts, we are all water, crashing on the shore - first we're here and then we're gone. Leading into it, I stood transfixed on the hill, watching the glowing jellyfish and dragonflies dancing across my field of vision as I took in the music, and I knew this was a moment I would hold onto. Crystalline, the musicians similarly held the notes, breathing out before breaking into the journey.
Earlier in the evening, Austin said someone told him that the space station, with the shuttle docked to it, would be flying over at 10:57 p.m. The time was approaching, and as the music surged, the crowd lost in their dances, their own stories, Austin shouted to Atwell to kill the lights. We all stared up into the sky as Atwell brought the lights down, the last remaining notes of "No Expectations" filtering into the night, leaving us all in darkness. "Can you see it?!? Can you feel it?!?!" Austin cried. All that was visible was a clear star field framed by the jagged tops of pines, and below, amongst the lustrous festival flair, thousands of hands pointing to the same corner of the sky. I ran from behind the sound booth where I was standing to fix my own gaze skyward. Then, I caught it, like a fast moving plane, as Austin yelled, "This is brought to you by NASA!"
I saw Strings for Industry last year on Friday afternoon and they threw quite a party, but I wasn't quite prepared for what they would unleash late night. After a day of bluegrass goodness, this was the electric trip we needed. Anger's collective draws on a variety of musical pieces, from soul to psychedelic, all heavily steeped in a booty-shaking groove. Ten-minute opener "Burnitarus" dealt out the insanity, especially with Scott Law's bouncing guitar lines and Anger's distorted, slicing fiddle reminding me a little bit of moe., with its lethal combination of poppy side swipes, darkly metallic jams, and eerie noise breakdowns. As drummer Carlton Jackson got the crowd revved to some high RPMs during "Soul Power," everyone's arms were moving, and under the lights it looked like some great flesh anemone squiggling on the seabed. Guest vocalist Beth Quist came out for the final song and the unmistakable introductory guitar notes of "Layla" hit, Anger's wailing fiddle tearing apart the lead, and we were burning rubber. For some reason, I have never been a huge fan of the song (unless I'm watching Goodfellas), but this cover had me rethinking my position as the crowd whistled zealously. Keyboardist Asher Fulero's piano lead, combined with Anger and Law's playing, coalesced into a stadium-worthy cup-raiser to propel us into party liquor and picking circle time.
Continue reading for Sunday's coverage of the NWSS 2009...