Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Storyhill Fest 2014

"Your fans are like a cult." So said Grace Pettis, one of the artists at this year's Storyhill Fest in Deerwood, MN. It's not entirely untrue; fans of the folk duo Storyhill are crazy loyal and supportive. Many of their fans have been following Chris and Johnny for over 20 years since their days at St. Olaf College. Even though I'm a relatively new fan, only jumping on the bandwagon upon hearing their eponymous Red House record seven years ago on the dear departed MPR Morning Show* (specifically, it was the song "Give Up the Ghost" that turned me into an instant fan), I completely get it. There's something about the songs that they write and the harmonies that they create together that's positively addicting. If there is a Storyhill cult, it's the only one I ever want to belong to. We can all live together in a beautiful location in the wooded lakes area of Minnesota, communing with nature and each other, eating good food and drinking good beer, making and listening to music. We'll worship the lake, the stars, and the music. But until the cult is officially formed, there is Storyhill Fest, where you can experience all of the above and so much more. Now in the sixth year of its Minnesota incarnation, five of which I've attended,** Storyhill Fest is two full days of music from over a dozen incredible artists from the local and national folk music scene. My iTunes library is filled with music I first encountered at Storyhill Fest, and my life is richer for it.

Held at Clearwater Forest Camp just outside of Brainerd on one of the hundreds of beautiful lakes in the area, there is more to do than just the music, including camping, hiking, kayaking, swimming, and yoga. Accommodations range from campsites to cabins to rooms at nearby Ruttger's Lodge. Interactive songwriting and guitar playing workshops allow budding musicians to learn from the artists. The festival attracts families who come year after year, and the kids all seem to find each other, forming roving gangs of teenage boys and little girls. It's the perfect late summer Minnesota backdrop against which the music plays out. My favorite activity is the nightly campfire. Artists and fans gather around a roaring fire to share stories and music, just like people have been doing for thousands of years. Sitting next to the lake under a starry sky, listening to all this incredible music by these talented artists, interspersed with the call of the loons and the pop of the fire, is truly one of the most magical things I've ever experienced.

Read about this year's artists below, and click on their names to be taken to their websites where you can find more info about how to purchase their music and see them perform live.

The May North's George and Stephanie
The May North
Storyhill Fest began with a short evening of music on Friday (which I did not attend for various lame reasons). Past Fest faves, the utterly joyful ellis (who sadly I did not see at all) and Connor Garvey (who happily stuck around for the entire festival and sang at the campfires) gave a concert, followed by a dance with music provided by the country-style band The May North. Lucky for me, a last-minute scheduling change put them up on the festival stage as the first artists of the first full day of music. Husband and wife duo George and Stephanie (on guitar and fiddle) performed without the rest of the band, and it was quite enjoyable and a great beginning to the fest. George sang lead on most of the songs in his deep, gritty voice, with shades of Eddie Vedder (how does a folky like me know about Eddie Vedder, you ask? his heartbreakingly beautiful soundtrack to one of my favorite movies, Into the Wild, of course, but I guess he was in some band too). Stephanie occasionally added some lovely harmonies to their originals like "Whiskey in the Rain" and traditional songs like "Sitting on Top of the World."

Sarah Sample and Edie Carey lull the crowd
Edie Carey & Sarah Sample
These two songstresses got together to make a lullaby album, but as they say, it's not just for kids, it's for "anyone who needs to be lulled." And in this crazy, busy, over-stimulated world, who doesn't? Performing songs from this album, they were like folk sirens in pretty black dresses. Each one of them possesses a gorgeous voice - Sarah (who performed at Storyhill Fest 2012) with a breathy voice reminiscent of Jewel, Edie with a warm luscious tone - and together they create harmonies that are just enchanting.

Moors and McCumber with just
a few of the instruments they play
Moors and McCumber
These guys are super cool and one of my favorites of the festival. Playing no less than seven instruments between them (guitar, fiddle, mandolin, keyboard, harmonica, ukulele, and Irish bouzouki, a mere subset of all that they have in their repertoire), their music is an intriguing mix of styles, "a little blues, some bluegrass, a little smokey hills, and a skosh of Celtic." Which just happens to be a few of my favorite things. With their friendly and comfortable banter, beautiful harmonies, and incredible musicianship, James and Kort provided one of the highlights of the fest. After the fest they left immediately for Ireland to lead one of Johnsmith's Inishfree Music Tours - nine days hiking the Irish countryside and listening to music. I would love to join them some day; it's been ten years since my own musical tour of Ireland and I've been itching to go back.

The Barn Birds, aka
Chris Kokesh and Jonathan Byrd
The Barn Birds
It's an all-duo day at Storyhill Fest, and here's another one with two individually fantastic artists who come together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Comprised of Jonathan Byrd and Chris Kokesh, The Barn Birds play guitar and fiddle, respectively, and sing in old-timey harmony. Chris is a lovely singer and fiddler, and there's no one like J Byrd. He's a true modern day cowboy poet, with lyrics that are profound in their simplicity, wearing his signature orange pants, cowboy boots, and cowboy hat, that only he can pull off. His campfire song/speech/science lesson about how the world is made up of molecules vibrating at different frequencies, a subset of which create music, and that when you sing you harness the greatest power in the universe, was truly profound and the most meaningful sermon I've heard in quite some time. Follow him on Facebook for more of his entertaining and well-written stories.

John and Molly of Communist Daughter
Communist Daughter
Day two of Storyhill Fest began with another duo. John and Molly left "the four hairy sweaty guys" that make up the rest of this Minneapolis band at home. These two are yin and yang, tall and short, he loves to talk while she refuses to talk on mic, he has a gritty grounded sound and she's more ethereal. Somehow it works and they create something beautiful together. John studied songwriting with Storyhill's John Hermanson, and has a few TV credits to show for it.

Aaron Howard
Aaron Howard
These next two solo artists are new young singer/songwriters produced by Storyhill's Chris Cunningham, and seem to have a sweet bromance between them. They're very different in personality, style, and sound, but both have something to say that's worth listening to. Aaron's songs are raw, honest, real, delivered with passion and charm. He sang several songs from his forthcoming coming of age album as well as previous albums, and closed his set with "Hallelujah." It's a song that everybody sings, but somehow Aaron managed to make it his own, and brought the house down as they clamored for more.

Wes Kirkpatrick
Wes Kirkpatrick
I first heard both Aaron and Wes at the campfire the night before, which is a fun way to experience a new artist. When asked to play a song at the campfire, Wes joked that he could do "sad or sadder." His songs are personal, heartfelt, and earnest, with a tinge of melancholy and wistfulness. But I love a sad song, and his are beautifully sad, sung in a smooth and soulful voice. And his self-described "rambling and awkward" stage banter is actually quite charming. Wes' buddy Aaron backed him up for a song or two, so they weren't completely left out of the duo theme of the fest.

Grace and Pierce Pettis
keeping it in the family
Pierce & Grace Pettis
Like the final season of Mad Men, the Pettis family hour was split into two, perhaps not intentionally to spread out the goodness, but that was the effect. Not only has Pierce had a long career as a folk singer/songwriter, but he's also raised a passel of folky children, including daughter Grace (who also appeared at Storyhill Fest 2011). Their father/daughter harmonies, cultivated over a lifetime, are perfection, and they have a fun and easy chemistry. They traded off singing their own songs, each other's, or covers. After a sudden rainstorm moved the show indoors (kudos to the sound crew and volunteers for making the transition as smooth as possible), they continued the set, culminating in an absolutely fantastic rockin' rendition of Bob Dylan's "Crash on the Levee."

Lucy Kaplanski entertains the crowd
that is "soggy and packed in like sardines"
Lucy Kaplanski
Even though the sun broke through the clouds to set spectacularly across the lake, we stayed indoors as the weather watchers kept their eyes on another possible storm cell. One of Storyhill's labelmates, Lucy released her first album with local label Redhouse Records 20 years ago. She writes personal, touching, relatable songs, informed by her hometown (New York City, aka the greatest city in the world), her family, and a doctorate in Psychology. She has a natural and comfortable onstage presence, and sings with a rich, warm, earthy voice. Several of her songs brought a lump to my throat, including the title song of her most recent album Reunion, about the importance of families and generations past.

The name of this festival is Storyhill Fest, so obviously we all came to hear the one-of-a-kind music created by Chris Cunningham and John Hermanson, which we did at the end of each night. They each do great things independently - Chris produces many great artists, including some of the above, at his recording studio in Montana, Johnny is a member of I don't know how many other bands - but when they come together, they create magic. It's really difficult to describe just how much their music means to me; perhaps only my fellow cult members*** can truly comprehend it. Their lyrics are laden with nature images so clear that listening to their songs, I can close my eyes and see the mountains and smell the clean fresh air. And the harmonies they create are out of this world. But don't take my word for it, take Garrison Keillor's, who referred to them as "setting a new high standard for male duet harmony." Watching them perform together is such a joy. They have the kind of camaraderie and comfortable rapport that only comes with knowing each other and making music together for almost thirty years. It sometimes feels like witnessing a therapy session as they reminisce (and disagree) about memories long past. It's truly remarkable that they are still performing songs they wrote when they were teenagers or college students, alongside new songs written for their upcoming album, and they're all still such great songs, no matter how many times you've heard them.

one of the benefits of staying in the VIP lodge is a private intimate
informal concert with Chris and Johnny, in which they sing pretty
much any song they're asked to, if they can remember it
The second night's concert began outdoors but was moved back indoors when the rain came back (after Chris and Johnny took the opportunity to sing "Good Rain" unplugged). The set-up from the previous concert was already taken down, so volunteers and fans quickly set up rows of chairs, and Chris and Johnny sang with no sound system. I always say that my favorite musical sound is the unamplified human voice, whether at concerts or in musical theater, so the sudden rain turned into a blessing, as we got to hear about a dozen songs with nothing between the music and our ears but vibrations. The night turned into a singalong; turns out the camp cafeteria is a great space in which to sing "Love Will Find You" with a few hundred of your closest friends.

All of the artists that perform at Storyhill Fest are so talented, and follow the example set by Storyhill - hardworking, dedicated, friendly, approachable, and willing to share themselves through their music. They really seem to love being there and playing music together. Even if I can't quite put it into words, Storyhill's music touches me and gives me comfort or inspiration or whatever I need. And that's my ultimate judge of any art, whether music or theater.

With rising costs and a desire to keep the festival affordable and intimate for fans, while still compensating the artists for their time and talents, the future of Storyhill Fest is uncertain this year, as it often is. Everyone involved wants to continue the tradition, and I trust that they will find a way to do so, even if that tradition morphs and changes over time. I don't know if I'll ever again experience an informal concert in the light and airy lounge of the Leaning Tree Lodge, or sit by that lake under the stars with my favorite musicians singing into the crisp fall air just a few feet away from me. But here's what I do know (which I learned from my favorite Fringe Festival show this year, Failure: A Love Story): "just because something ends doesn't mean it wasn't successful." And I can say without a doubt that whatever happens in the future, Storyhill Fest is successful, in every way that counts.

Steady on.

*The spirit of the MPR Morning Show still lives on in Radio Heartland, available for 24-hour online or HD2 radio listening. They play many of the above artists.
**You can read about my experiences at past Storyhill Fests by clicking on the following dates: 2010201120122013.
***If any of you other Storyhill cult members would like to see their set list for both evening concerts and the private VIP concert, click here. Since I've only been a cult member for seven years, there were a few songs I wasn't sure about or couldn't identify, so please feel free to correct me.

A few more photos from the festival:

a welcome sight after a two-hour drive
sirens Sarah and Edie against the backdrop of Eagle Lodge
evening descends upon The Barn Birds
Communist Daughter under the blue sky
the sun breaks through and shines on Aaron
buddies Aaron and Wes
don't you wish your family was as talented as the Pettis family?
the Storyhill Band is back together
what we've been waiting all day for - Storyhill's evening show
the rain created a wonderful opportunity for a
singalong with Chris and Johnny
oh the magic that can be created with guitars and campfires