Monday, September 2, 2013

Storyhill Fest 2013

Every year on Labor Day weekend, at a beautiful site in the wooded lakes area of central Minnesota, magic happens. It's been happening for five years now, and I've been lucky enough to be a part of it for four. This magic goes by the name of Storyhill Fest, and it's the best music festival in Minnesota (granted I've only been to a few music festivals, but I just can't imagine anything better). Local folk duo Storyhill (about whom Garrison Keillor recently said "setting a new high standard for male duet harmony") invite a dozen or so of their closest friends, who also happen to be incredible musicians, to hang out and play music for a few days. And lucky for us, we are invited to come and watch. Not just watch, but take part in, by participating in songwriting, guitar playing, or poetry workshops, joining in the nightly group campfire sing, or mingling with the artists between shows or in the food line. In short, it's my favorite weekend of the year. Connor Garvey (the fest's first act) summed it up best when he said, "we have made it through the year, all the meaningless days, and we're back at Storyhill Fest." That's exactly how I feel about it. Of course not literally (just scroll down this page to see the many meaningful ways in which I've spent the last year), but the sentiment is true. So without further ado, I present Storyhill Fest 2013.

The music started at 3 pm each day and the concerts continued hourly (or so) until Storyhill's show at 8 (or so), after which the music continued until the wee hours of the morning at the campfire. A dozen or so musicians performed at this year's festival, hailing from Maine, Texas, Nashville, L.A., Portland, Colorado, New Jersey, and right here in Minnesota. One of the cool things about this festival is that the artists all seem to be friends, and frequently join each other on stage to sing or play together. If you'd like to know more about a particular artist, please click their name to be taken to their website, where you'll find information about how to purchase music, see them perform live, or otherwise support them.

Connor Garvey
As previously mentioned, Connor Garvey opened the festival with some wise words and his wonderful music. I've been listening to Connor's music since I first heard him at my first Storyhill Fest three years ago. His songs are hopeful, thoughtful, clever, silly, or some combination thereof, and listening to his music just makes me happy. He's working on a new album (with the help of Kickstarter), so it was fun to hear some new stuff in addition to some old favorites. He brought his new toy, a looper, and sang a multi-part a cappella version of "Stand By Me" that was very cool. I also enjoyed his first "Irish Song," an amusing little ditty about embracing (or not) his heritage.

Cary Cooper and Tom Prasada-Rao
Next up was Cary Cooper, accompanied by her husband Tom on various instruments and Justin Roth playing percussion (more on him a bit later). She has a quirky sound, sometimes plays the ukulele, and sings funny or moving story-songs. Each song is preceded by an introduction telling the audience about how and why she wrote the song, which I always appreciate. My favorite was a song about a yellow VW bug. Cary recently participated in the TV docudrama Troubadour, TX, which I'm now going to have to check out.

Robby Hecht with The Sea, The Sea
One of the two emcees, the gorgeous-voiced Carrie Elkin (who, along with her poet singer fiance Danny Schmidt, performed on the newly added Friday night, which I sadly missed), introduced Robby Hecht as one of her favorite singers, with "a voice like butter." Coming from Carrie, that's high praise, and I have to agree. He has a beautiful, smooth voice, and his songs are sort of sad and wistful (a sound that I love). He was backed for a few songs by the duo The Sea, The Sea (more on them later too), creating some gorgeous three-part harmonies. Another highlight was a duet with Amy Speace that they co-wrote, a love song between the sea and the shore, which we fortunately got to hear again the next day during Amy's set. In the video below, Robby is joined by a bunch of other singers for "A Reckoning of Us."

At this point the outdoor segment of the day concluded as the rain came in (it might have been a "Good Rain," but we were not waiting for it). After about an hour's delay, the music continued in a covered pavilion, at which point the rain naturally stopped. But it turned out that the pavilion was a cozy and cool place to listen to music.

Tim and Kate (aka Sweet Talk Radio)
The first of several male/female duos that we would hear during the festival was Sweet Talk Radio. Tim and Kate have very different voices that blend together beautifully, and both play the guitar (Tim also backed up several other artists on the electric guitar). Kate has a very unique sound that I don't have words to describe, but my friend (who is more musically knowledgeable than I) said that she has a rich alto tone with some similarities to Billie Holiday. In fact, they sang a song called "Dance With Me" that they had been tasked with writing to sound like a well-known song, perhaps this one. Their newest album State of the Union is not about politics, but rather about relationships. They also sang a completely charming version of "If I Only Had a Brain."

Raina Rose lights up the pavilion
The last time I saw Raina Rose, at Storyhill Fest 2011, she was pregnant, and now she has the most adorable curly-haired little boy. But other than that, it was the same old Raina, which is to say a lovely, warm, lilting voice and beautifully written songs. Entertaining, personable, and a great storyteller, it's such a treat to listen to her, whether on her own or joined by Storyhill's Johnny or her good friend Carrie (on clarinet!). Her beautiful new album Caldera came out a few months ago.

ellis joined by Chris and Johnny
Past Storyhill Fest participant ellis was not officially on the schedule, but that didn't stop her from showing up when the guys called, sharing just a "sprinkle" of songs between sets. And I'm so glad she did. She has the most joyful spirit and conveys that joy through her music. Even my friend who had never seen or heard her before agreed that she's a unique spirit. She's completely disarming with her adorably awkward laugh, and sings songs that are both simple and profound. ellis radiates pure joy in a way I've never seen.

At this point we were about two hours behind schedule, but the evening concluded as planned with a nice long set by the stars of the weekend, Storyhill, and a shortened (at least for me) campfire session. The second day of Storyhill Fest 2013 was a welcome 20 degrees cooler than the first day, with no rain to speak of, so all concerts could be held outside under the partly cloudy sky, trees, birds, and later, stars.

Kim and Quillan Roe
The last time I saw day two's first artists, the Minnesota-based Roe Family Singers, they were performing with Dan Chouinard in his Trail of Two Cities concert last year. Husband and wife Quillan (banjo and guitar) and Kim (auto harp and Appalachian clog dancing) were accompanied by a couple of musicians on bass and fiddle. The band has a wonderful "old-time" sound, unique at the fest which mostly consisted of modern and traditional folk. And when they say "old time," they mean it; they sang a traditional song that was over 600 years old! With a mix of genre standards (like Bill Monroe and Johnny and June) and original tunes, delivered in a playful and engaging way, I found them to be quite enjoyable. See for yourself in this video of "Jackson."

Justin Roth
Justin Roth is another frequent Storyhill Fest participant, having known Chris and Johnny for 20 years, although he's missed the past few years. He's an incredibly talented guitar player, and the only artist to perform not one but two solo instrumental songs. Justin is also a great singer/songwriter, so much so that two of his songs have been featured on the number one soap opera (and my personal favorite) The Young and The Restless - "Surrender" and "Now You Know." (The intersection between folk music fans and soap opera fans may not be very big, but it includes at least one person.) He was joined on stage by several of his friends, creating gorgeous harmonies on the song "Shine."

Mira Stanley and Chuck E. Costa,
aka The Sea, The Sea
I first heard the duo The Sea, The Sea, consisting of Mira Stanley and Chuck E. Costa, on the radio show Mountain Stage a few months ago, and was instantly captivated by their sound. Knowing that they were on the Storyhill Fest line-up, I bought their one and only album and have been listening to it ever since. Unlike some of the other duos, Chuck and Mira have a very similar tone to their voices, so much so that in "Boat Song," when they sing alternate words, it almost sounds like one person singing. Maybe that's why when they sing harmony, it sounds so right. They're also multi-instrumentalists (electric and acoustic guitar, banjo, percussion). I look forward to hearing more from these young artists, who have written a palindrome song:

Amy Speace
And now - a theater connection! I loved listening to Amy Speace sing and tell stories, because she spent many years as an actor and playwright in NYC (-ish, aka New Jersey) before deciding to go the folk singer route. Her background in theater is obvious in the songs that she writes, which are like little plays in themselves, and she often talked about the play (mostly Shakespeare) that inspired the song. She also told us the beautiful and heart-breaking love story of her grandparents, that also inspired a song. And besides her songwriting skill and her great stage presence, she has a beautiful voice that's somewhat reminiscent of Judy Collins. No surprise that Ms. Collins chose her for her record label and covered one of her songs.

John Gorka sings as the sun sets
I feel like I must have seen Minnesota-based John Gorka before (possibly opening for Mary Chapin Carpenter or at a MPR Morning Show concert). I've certainly heard his music on Radio Heartland (the only radio station I listen to), and I love his cover of "Just Like a Woman" on Redhouse Record's Bob Dylan tribute. So I was looking forward to seeing him as the penultimate show of Storyhill Fest 2013, and I was not disappointed. With 11 albums (some of them recorded in the late 1900s), he was the most experienced musician to take the stage, and it was great to hear a selection of his many songs. In addition to these songs and his soothing mellow voice, he's incredibly entertaining and very funny; he had me cracking up for the whole show. He's quite the storyteller, and his light-hearted banter is a bit of a contrast to his admittedly more sober songs. John dedicated one of his songs to the other artists, and it perfectly describes Storyhill Fest: "when you sing, you make the world a better place."

Storyhill and friends
And now we come to the musicians for whom the festival is named - Storyhill. I've run out of words to describe how much I love their music, so I'll just say that they're my favorite local artists and I never tire of listening to their music. Whether I'm happy or sad or anything in between, listening to Storyhill always makes it better. Chris and Johnny have a decades-long camaraderie that is evident on stage, as if singing together has become second nature for them. As Garrison Keillor said, their harmonies are incomparable, and their songs are often nature-based and invoke feelings of wide open spaces (they grew up in Montana), wistful nostalgia, love, regret, simple joy, and even sometimes a spiritual connection to the universe. On the final night of the fest, the concert continued at the campfire, where they sang another half dozen or so songs, before other artists arrived and started trading songs across the campfire. The magic of Storyhill Fest is most evident at these campfires, with the unamplified music from voices and guitars ringing out into the clear Minnesota night air. There's nothing else like it.

Storyhill Fest has ruined me for all other concerts; any other venue pales in comparison to this festival. As usual, I left Deerwood with a handful of CDs to make the two-hour drive home a little more interesting, including some "new" Storyhill music - their 2005 cover album of 1970s duos, which I did not previously know existed (how I've lived this long without hearing Storyhill sing the Carpenters, I'll never know). I'll be downloading a few more albums this week I'm sure, as I try to make the magic last a little longer.

So there you have it. Storyhill Fest is over for another year, but it sounds like it's going to happen again next year. Until then, I'll have to find something else to do to fill the 360 or so meaningless days in between. Maybe some of these artists will be passing through Minnesota again in that time, and although they didn't mention it this weekend, Storyhill took the year off of touring to focus on writing for a new record that's supposed to come out next year, so hopefully I'll be seeing them before next fall. And besides that, I'm sure there will be some brilliant, innovative, moving, hilarious, entertaining, heart-breaking, fascinating, thought-provoking, unsettling, comforting, creative, heartfelt, amazing local theater to help me fill the time.

one of the benefits of staying in the VIP lodge
is a private Storyhill concert

View these and other concert videos on the Cherry and Spoon youtube channel. I also found some great Storyhill Fest videos here.