Monday, September 5, 2011

Storyhill Fest 2011

I'm going to diverge from the theater world for a bit to tell you all about my favorite music event of the year: Storyhill Fest.  This was my second year attending this lovely little gem of a folk music festival in the beautiful wooded lake country of Minnesota.  I enjoyed the fest so much last year that there was no question I'd be back.  It's a wonderful respite from the world and a nice transition from summer to fall.  To borrow the tagline from Woodstock, it's two days of peace and music. Top musicians from the folk community in Minnesota, Austin, and around the country gathered to share their music with each other and the audience, both from the stage and around the campfire.  Nine singer/songwriters joined the main event, local duo Storyhill.  The fest is small and intimate with a community feel, and the musicians seem to be having just as much fun as the attendees.  All of these artists write their own songs, and each has a unique sound and style.  Some of them are old friends, some just met, but they play and sing together beautifully.  It's really a wonderful variety of music that I will be having fun listening to in the coming weeks and months.

Click on each artist's name to be taken to their website, where you will find information about how to buy their music, when and where to see them perform live, and more fun stuff.

John Elliot
Most of the artists in this year's line-up were new to me.  That's true of the first artist to perform on day one - John Elliot.  John grew up in Minnesota and now lives in L.A.  Several of his songs are about that idea - going home, missing home, remembering where you came from.  Some of his songs are funny and crazy, with lyrics like "my mom is a dog" and "I left my grandpa for dead," and some are poignant and will make your heart ache a little.  Some are both.  In one song he named several members of the '87 and '91 World Champion Twins, a surefire way to win my heart (Frankie V!).  He's very charming and entertaining, and sometimes his songs turn a little angry too.  I walked away with a $5 download card for his new CD plus lots of extras - a great deal!

Andrew Pressman and Raina Rose
The next artist to perform was Raina Rose, accompanied by her fiance Andrew Pressman on upright bass (he also accompanied many of the other artists for all or part of their sets).  Raina has a sweet voice reminiscent of folk singers from the 60s.  I particularly like her Jewish/Unitarian/gospel song "Let Me Down Easy."  Raina and Drew's next production is the baby they're having soon.  :)

Anthony da Costa
John and Raina regularly perform together along with Anthony da Costa.  They did a set together on day two under the name "Elliot Rose da Costa" (aka "Beggars and Mules"), in which they took turns singing one of their songs while the other two backed them up.  But back to Anthony.  He's surprisingly young for someone so talented and so comfortable on stage, and who's already released five solo albums.  He's a college kid (he's currently attending Columbia University in NYC), but his sound is much more mature than his age.  He writes great songs and has more of a country or country-rock sound.  He also played the electric guitar behind many of the other artists, which I didn't think was allowed at a folk music festival, ;) but somehow it worked!  I just downloaded one of his CDs and I'm listening to it thinking, this guy is 20 years old?  Unbelievable.  I'll be keeping my eye on this one.

I first heard Ellis on the dear departed MPR Morning Show a few years ago (which, incidentally, is where I first heard Storyhill, so thanks Dale and Jim Ed!).  I was captivated by her sound so I bought a few of her CDs, but I'd never seen her perform live.  It's a whole different experience.  She performs with such joy, it's infectious.  She talked about making an effort to cultivate wonder and possibility in her life, and that's evident in her music.  She sings a lot about being present and slowing down and enjoying your life as it is right now.  And she has a laugh that can't help but make you smile, which is the effect that her music has on me too.

Peter Mayer
The penultimate performance of day one was Peter Mayer.  I've been a fan of his for many years and seen him in concert several times, and even talked about him here.  So I was excited when I found out that he'd be joining the fest this year.  He was his usual storytelling, obsessively tuning self.  Which is to say, wonderful.  There's no pretense with Peter; he's real and present.  He sang my favorite song, "Holy Now," along with several other selections both silly and profound.  I was disappointed that he didn't make it out to the campfire; his songs are so perfect for a campfire.  I was hoping to hear one of his classics like "Yukon Sally" or "Camping Round the Sun" in the campfire setting, or maybe "Bountiful" with everyone joining in for the hu-nana chorus.  Maybe next year.

Day one ended with a nice long set by Storyhill, followed by an even longer time of sitting by the campfire listening to the day's artists trade songs and stories.  But more on that later.  On to day two.  (By the way, there's lots to do at the camp when the music stops - hiking, swimming, kayaking, all the usual Minnesota fun.)

Carrie Elkin
Carrie Elkin is the one (scheduled) repeat performer from last year's fest, and I couldn't have been happier about that.  She is perhaps my favorite find from last year.  She has a powerful, clear, gorgeous voice.  She's this tiny little thing, and she opens her mouth and just blows me away.  She had Andrew, Anthony, and Raina on stage with her for most of the set, but ended it with a solo, a cappella, unplugged performance of "Amazing Grace" that was just stunning.  In addition to her considerable musical talent, she also was an entertaining emcee on day one.  And she wears super cute dresses.  She'll be performing at the Landmark Center in St. Paul on Sept. 16 with her lover (as she likes to say) Danny Schmidt.  Danny's an amazing songwriter, a poet really, and Carrie has a voice like no other.  If you're free that night and in the area, you really should check them out.

Andrew Pressman, Anthony da Costa, A.J. Roach, Raina Rose
I first heard A.J. Roach sing at the campfire at the end of day one, but didn't get the full experience until day two.  He has this crazy weird brilliant voice that I can't even begin to describe.  Our day two emcee, J Matt, said it best - mesmerizing.  Something about it just draws me in.  His songs are kind of dark and twisty; at one point he asked the audience, "is this too weird for you?"  It's just the right amount of weird for me.  I listened to his most recent release, Pleistocene, on the drive home, which features a haunting song I first heard at the campfire, "The Poet."

Tom Murphy and Connor Garvey
Next we had a "surprise treat."  Connor Garvey, who was at last year's fest, wasn't on the line-up for this year but just couldn't stay away.  He stopped by after a gig in Duluth the night before and sang a few songs from his just released album Where Ocean Meets Land.  He's another one whose music just makes me happy when I listen to it.  Anthony demanded that Connor sing "Soul on the Line" at the campfire, which turned into a sing-along.  He almost lost control of the song when everyone wanted to keep singing the chorus even when it was time for the bridge!  He's coming back to Minnesota this fall and will be performing on October 22 at the Ginkgo Coffeehouse in St. Paul.

Anthony da Costa and Grace Pettis
Grace Pettis has a lovely voice, and writes really thoughtful, beautiful songs.  She's another young one, and she sounds youthful and hopeful, but also plaintive at times, as in the song "Haley's Comet," which she wrote about her parents' divorce.  She's from Alabama, but like a lot of people in this group, has spent some time in Texas.  She wrote a beautiful song called Abilene inspired by the name of the town.  Grace has won a few up-and-comer songwriting awards, so she's one to watch as well.

Ray Bonneville shares a label with Carrie Elkin and Storyhill - Red House Records, based in St. Paul.  They recently released their second tribute album to another Minnesota folk singer, Bob Dylan.  Ray and Storyhill are both featured on A Nod to Bob 2, and it's fabulous.  I think it's safe to say that Ray is the veteran of this group, and it shows.  He has a rootsy, bluesy sound and was switching back and forth between multiple different guitars and harmonicas.  He sings his story-songs as if he's lived them.

Chris Cunningham and John Hermanson, aka Storyhill
I could listen to Storyhill all day every day and never tire of it.  I don't know why that is.  Maybe it's their gorgeous harmonies (as Garrison Keillor said, they're "setting a new high standard for male duet harmony").  Maybe it's the songs they write that capture a specific place or feeling.  Maybe it's the camaraderie that Chris and Johnny share from singing together since they were kids.  But whatever it is, they have won over a legion of loyal fans, of which I am only one.  They played for about 90 minutes or so at the end of each day, singing old favorites (even a few I'd never heard, being a relatively recent convert) as well as selections from their newest CD Shade of Trees.  On the second night Johnny gave the audience permission to sing along, which was all I needed to join in (especially after a few beers from an excellent local brewery).  Too many favorite songs to mention, but "Steady On," their anthem (as Chris put it), is always thrilling to hear.  And a little bit sad, because it always signals the end of the concert.  But in this case, the end wasn't the end.  The music continued at the campfire.

There's something about campfires.  You can just stare at the fire and get lost in it.  I find that there's also something wonderful about the unamplified human voice.  It's always my favorite moment of any concert if the artist puts the mic down to sing a song.  So when you combine a campfire and the human voice, magic happens.  The musicians gather around the large campfire, with festival attendees behind them (although the divide is blurred at this festival in general and at the campfire in particular).  They take turns singing, usually something they've written but occasionally covers.  Passing guitars and capos (a word I learned last year) around the circle, backing each other up on guitar, mandolin (Tom Murphy was another unscheduled attendee and can play along with anything), harmonica, or vocals.  The night sky overhead was littered with stars that you never see in the city, and the call of the loons on the nearby lake mingled with the music.  Magical.  There's no better word to describe it.

I'll leave you with "The Storyhill Band" singing a Storyhill song, "Sacramento."  Chris and Johnny are joined by Andrew on bass, Anthony on electric guitar, and the sirens Raina and Carrie on vocals.  To see even more videos from Storyhill Fest, including a clip from the campfire, visit the Cherry and Spoon youtube channel.  And if you don't have any plans for next Labor Day, consider attending Storyhill Fest 2012.  It's not 100% for certain yet, but my fingers are crossed that they'll be back.  And so will I.  Steady on.