As I type, a hard rain is falling, the temperature has dropped well into the 60s (I'm guessing) and thunderstorms await us as the day moves on. My cat is curled upside down on the couch and the stupid crows are squawking way too loud outside my window. All this is in stark contrast to the events of just under 24 hours ago, when I headed out to Marymoor Park in Redmond for the first ever No Depression Festival.
The sky was clear, the temperature reached just above 85 at the hottest point of the day (I'm guessing right around the time Ian Moore broke into his mind-blowing rendition of Doug Sahm's "At the Crossroads" during the all-star revue), and a steady stream of folks were already pouring in when I arrived around noon.
Zee Avi got us started off with a sit-down set of hot weather music. The Malaysian-born Hawaii resident channeled her South Pacific roots, pulling just as hard from the clear influence of various indie Americana artists. I kept thinking everybodyfields with hula skirts. It was sweet and cool and easy - the perfect way to start a festival. The slow build. I'm only disappointed more people weren't there to hear.
The locals came, though, to see their neighbors rock through one of the clear highlights of the day. The Seattle roots all-star revue has gotten a lot of attention in the local music blogosphere in the past few weeks (not to mention a sampling on KEXP and a spread in Seattle Weekly). The band, led by multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Jeff Fielder, was remarkably tight and seemingly wound with magic thread. Zoe Muth kicked things off with a Carter Family tune (my mom's favorite). Kristen Ward took on Emmylou Harris, Star Anna nailed Lucinda Williams (guitar solo tag between Fielder and Justin Davis of Star's Laughing Dogs, with Ty Bailie on keys, was a highlight), and Sera Cahoone tackled a Hank Williams tune so well she could've written it herself. I already mentioned Moore's exceptional performance. With no shortage of outstanding local roots artists to pull from, it's hard to imagine a better way to showcase some of our best.
Jessica Lea Mayfield came out strong, too, no doubt wooing a large crowd of new devotees. At 20 years old, Mayfield's potential is undeniable. Her brother added tight, intuitive harmonies, and her band brought the rock and roll behind her introspective, earnest vocal twang. I heard later that a group of folks had driven up from Eugene, Ore., strictly to see Iron & Wine's set and were won over by Mayfield's performance. That's one of the best things about a festival - watching lesser-known artists win their way into the hearts and minds of the headliners' fanbases.
I was looking forward to Patterson Hood and the Screwtopians (just got my review copy of DBT's oddities and rarities collection a few days ago and have been bouncing back and forth between that and Hood's Murdering Oscar disc). They didn't let me down. Granted, it was the one set during which the sound system was not at its finest, but Hood and company delivered finely despite the technicality.
It was a large stage for small acts, but Justin Townes Earle and his incredibly talented sidekick, multi-instrumentalist Corey Younts, filled it right up. His cover of Buck Owens' "Close Up the Honky Tonks" was a finer point of the set, as was Younts' hugely energetic harmonica solo on "Halfway to Jackson," but mostly I just marveled at how much sound and punch Earle gets out of that guitar using just his thumb and forefinger. This wasn't the first (or, I reckon, last) time I've seen him perform, but I'm always amazed at how big of a sound he pulls out of that thing. His fast-talking, wry-humored between-song banter always gets the crowd humming, too.
Jesse Sykes' set was fantastic, but it was also the point in the day when everyone and their five best friends poured into the festival. I got lost in conversation during this set and only managed to experience it tangentially. These things happen at festivals, but what I was able to tune in for was enough to make me want to see her again. Not sure how I've lived in Seattle for six years without ever catching a Jesse Sykes show, but that's how it is. Iron & Wine's Sam Beam delivered what was, for many, the highlight of the day. With the sun now fully behind the clouds and the heat long since broken by the march toward dusk, Beam's calm, near-whispered poetry was a welcome reprieve. He flubbed a few lines here and there, delivered some memorable stand-up comedy about God being the boob for babies to feed from, but sealed up an exquisite solo set that most of us could have listened to for much longer.
Which brings me to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, who wasted no time pulling out the crowd pleasers, and opened their set directly into "Look at Miss Ohio." "Elvis Presley Blues" came out early; "Time (the Revelator)" was held for later in the set. Welch shared a memorable anecdote about the first time she met Loretta Lynn backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. In the course of about 90 seconds, she and Lynn managed to talk "television, speed, and hairspray." She shared a new hilarious tune called "Sweet Tooth" from that forthcoming disc everyone has been waiting on for a few years now. When someone called out from the audience regarding how much everyone's looking forward to it, Welch just laughed and said "Believe me, I know," then launched into the tune.
The duo came out for the night's only encore, closing out the entire festival in the best way a show called No Depression Festival could have closed - with a Johnny Cash cover ("Jackson") and a country gospel tune. After nine hours in the hot sun, hopping from mainstage to where the buskers played back by the food court, the crowd needed no encouragement to join Welch and Rawlings in singing "I'll Fly Away." It was such an impromptu sing-along that I wondered if the artists had even expected it themselves. After a while, Welch just walked away from the mic and let the crowd sing the chorus with all its pooled zeal and optimism:
I'll fly away, oh glory
I'll fly away in the morning
When I die, hallelujah by and by
I'll fly away
Stay tuned in the coming days and weeks as exclusive video interviews with the artists, photos, and other highlights pour in (I'm told the video editing takes some time). We'll also be adding festival posters to the store starting this week. Our many thanks to everyone who put their time and effort into producing, promoting, and performing at this festival. It's going to be a tough thing to top for ND Fest 2010, but a high bar is always a good thing to reach for.