Sunday, August 27, 2023

Storyhill Fest 2023

My favorite weekend of the year is Storyhill Fest, the sweetest little folk music festival in the gorgeous wooded lakes of central Minnesota. I believe I've attended all but one of the Minnesota fests (it has its origins in Montana, where Storyhill, aka Chris Cunningham and Johnny Hermanson, hail from). Every year from 2010 (coincidentally the year I started this theater-and-occasionally-music blog) to 2014 I spent Labor Day weekend at Clearwater Forest Camp in Deerwood, a beautiful campus with lodges, camping, hiking, boating, and other activities. But of course, we were there for the music - two full days of folk/country/bluegrass/Americana artists from Minnesota and around the country. I discovered many new favorites in that time (Carrie and Danny, Connor Garvey, Moors & McCumber, Anthony da Costa, and many more), but the reason we were all there was Storyhill - the high school friends who became folk sensations, well, if that's a thing. For over 30 years (with a few breaks) they've been touring Minnesota (beginning with their time at St. Olaf College in Northfield, which of course has a great music program, as well as musical theater) and the country, recording many albums. After the 2014 fest came one of those breaks, but seven years later (it would have been six if not for a global pandemic) Storyhill Fest was back! This is the third fest of this incarnation, and there are rumors it could be the last, as Chris and Johnny are taking yet another hiatus from the duo to pursue other interests. But every Storyhill Fest I've ever attended has been rumored to be the last, and it's always returned - whether that was a year later, or seven years later. No one can say if or when this festival will return, but judging by the music, joy, magic, and love shared amongst the artists and attendees, I believe it'll come around again someday. And I can wait.

Four artists performed each day beginning at 4pm as a leadup to the Storyhill show every night at 8-ish. The setting is a wide green lawn surrounded by trees in front of a gorgeous stone lodge, with a lake just on the other side. Loons and eagles fly overhead. Sometimes it's hot, sometimes it's freezing, whatever Nature has in store that day. People sit in camp chairs or on blankets, kids run around, and the great sound system delivers the music (this year it was also livestreamed - thanks covid! - and is still available to watch here). This year's line-up featured mostly new-to-me artists, and I'll be downloading a bunch of their music for a Storyhill Fest 2023 playlist I'll be listening to throughout the year (click on artist name to be taken to their website to learn more about them or purchase their music).

The Two Tracks
A husband and wife duo from Wyoming, Dave and Julie give all of the great country/folk duet feels. He plays cello and she plays guitar, providing a unique sound, as they take turns singing lead or full on duets. They sang the most perfect song to open the fest, which I don't remember exactly because that was like 100 songs ago, but it was something about being here, now, in nature, and enjoying what we have, aka #nodaybuttoday. Their new album It's a Complicated Life came out the day they performed, and I will be downloading it as soon as I finish writing.

Nikki Morgan
This uber talented singer/songwriter/guitar player is from North Carolina but spent about ten years in Chicago studying and performing theater; maybe that's why I like her so much. Or it could also be because of her gorgeous voice, or her smart, emotional, fun story-songs, or her authentic but fresh country sound, or her charmingly awkward and very real stage presence. If country music is smart, she'll be the next big thing in country music (but I'm not sure how smart country music is currently). Nikki is the first Black artist I can recall seeing at Storyhill Fest, a much welcome and needed addition. Because of course country music, and Americana music, and rock and roll music, and pretty much every American musical style has its roots in African American music.

Sarah Morris
I don't know why this is the first time I'm hearing from this Minneapolis-based artist, but it won't be the last. Sarah has a lilting and hypnotizing voice, singing original folk songs about the humans and dogs she lives with or other common themes of life. She introduced me to my new favorite German word - Tapetenwechsel - literally meaning a change of wallpaper but figuratively a change of scenery or surroundings. She wrote "Champagne on a Wednesday" to remind her mom, and all of us, that we're awesome, an great example of her hopeful, poignant, life-affirming music.

Justin Roth
Justin is the one musician on the bill that I was familiar with before the fest. More than familiar with, he's one of my Storyhill fest (and beyond) faves. He goes way back with Storyhill, back to their college days in Minnesota nearly 30 years ago, and has performed and recorded with them countless times. This is his first time back at the fest in this second incarnation, and I was thrilled to see him again. He's an incredible musician and guitar player, and noted that for a folk singer he has the most gadgets and buttons, including playing with looping and other effects. He's the most obsessive tuner I've seen on stage, except perhaps for Peter Mayer (whom I saw at the fest last year and a million other times). He now calls Colorado home, and has been too busy with life to record any new albums since I saw him last, so instead it was like a greatest hits show, including the cheekily playful "Shower with a Friend," the Young and Restless-featured "Surrender," a couple instrumental tracks (including one played entirely on the neck of the guitar), and the gorgeous "Shine," for which Chris and Johnny joined him. This feels like the familiar Storyhill Fests of old (or like ten years ago).

Molly Maher
A legend of the Twin Cities music scene whom I have previously not heard but of whom I am now a big fan, Molly performed with two of her "Disbelievers" (Erik Koskinen on electric guitar and Steve Murray on bass) to kick off Day 2 of the festival. Molly had the most instruments of any of the artists at this year's fest - two dobros, which she sometimes played slide guitar style, and one acoustic guitar - all left-handed. She brought the cool factor way up at this little folky festival. She has a really cool, gritty, bluesy folk rock vibe. She's played clubs in Minneapolis and opened for big names, and her experience on stage is evident in her confidence, professionalism, and natural way of performing. Her new album Follow is on my "to buy" list.

Scott Cook
His Instagram page says he's "putting the true in troubadour," and I found that to be an accurate statement. A true storyteller, his songs are masterful little journeys, like an epic poem. For this tour (from April to October), the Edmonton based singer/songwriter/guitar player has brought along Pamela Mae to add lovely harmonies and upright bass. His songs range from novelty songs like the ode to their camper van (in which he rhymes hobo with mofo and popo) to the most political songs in the fest - my new favorite song "Fellas Get Out the Way," references to "I believe Anita Hill," a non-partisan song skewering all polticians and advocating getting along with your neighbor, and a rousing anthem dedicated to NY Attorney General Letitia James which he sang at the campfire. Scott is analogue in a digital world, and has become so enamored of writing liner notes that his most recent offering is a hardcover book "with a CD in the back."

The Minneapolis based indie-folk-rock band Humbird is singer/songwriter/guitar player Siri Undlin with Pat Keen on vocals and upright bass (often played like a rock guitar) and Peter Quirsfeld on a one-drum drum set. This trio brough a fresh, young, hip vibe to this festival of aging hippies (myself included). From their playful new single "Help Me, Willie Nelson" to a song dedicated to Siri's young neighbor learning to ride a bike in the wake of George Floyd's murder just a few blocks away, Humbird's songs are soulful and poignant and beautifully written. They ended with an original song "sung in the traditional way" that sounded just like that, and a perfect description of this band - hearkening back to the traditions of Americana music but wholly original.

Vance Gilbert
I have to admit, when the final artist of the fest took the stage before Storyhill's final-for-now show (he later joked that he broke up Storyhill, and coined the phrase "Storybroke"), I didn't know what to expect. Dressed in an eclectic combination of what looked like pajama pants with a red shirt on top of an orange skirt all askew, topped with a red hat, I had no idea what was going to come out of his mouth. Pure magic, that's what. First of all, he's hilarious, and definitely brought the most laughs of the fest. The second Black artist I've seen at Storyhill Fest (after Nikki Morgan the day before), he joked about that and the Whiteness of the crowd in a disarming way ("if you want more Black people at your festival stop talking about bears!"). But when the comedy routine stops ("this song's a hit in my house... I live alone") and the music starts, it's profound. Some songs are full of that humor, others are moving, all are beautifully sung. At one point he held an exhale hummed note for an impossibly long time as he continued to play the guitar. At a later point he started beat-boxing. Vance is one of the most surprising and delightful artists I've seen at Storyhill Fest. I guess they saved the best for last. His final song was an unplugged a capella rendition of a song called "The King of Rome," an English story-song about a champion racing pigeon and his owner, that was like a mini play. No wonder I love folk music.

And now we get to the main event, and the reason hundreds of people gathered in the woods for one magical weekend - Storyhill. They performed both nights of the festival, singing nearly 40 songs which is less than half of their 30+ year repertoire (see the set list here). And they sounded better than ever - gorgeous harmonies, impressive guitar (and harmonica) skills, effortlessly in synch with each other. But why do I go listen to the same musicians sing the same songs over and over again, year after year? Their music has become like a security blanket for me (and apparently many of their cultishly loyal fans). It's familiar, it's comforting, it's still meaningful no matter how many times I've heard it. Connection with nature, with community, with the universe, it just speaks to me in the way few other artists do. I believe, and they've proven throughout their history, that Chris and Johnny just can't quit each other; I suspect making music together is as familiar and comforting and inspiring to them as it is to their audience. So I wish them well on their separate journeys (one might say "Parallel Lives"), I hope they find joy and fulfillment. And when they're ready to come back together again, I, and their legions of fans, will be here, waiting. In the meantime I'll be listening to my playlist of 100+ Storyhill songs, from "Abasorka Air" to "Worst Enemy," to give me comfort on a bad day, or to celebrate a good one, or to give me inspiration when I need it. That's what music (and theater, and all art) is for.

Steady on.

the stage at night - Storyhill

the magical campfire, with almost all of the artists trading songs for hours