Down On The Farm – Gribsroed Farm (Halden, Norway)
As I drive my car up the Enningdal valley towards Gribsroed Farm, behind a horse and carriage filled with already half-drunk loafers in cowboy hats, I realize this is probably as close to a hillbilly highway as you can get in Norway. Gribsroed Farm is situated in a sparsely populated region outside the small town of Halden, close to the Swedish border. Down On The Farm, an annual festival held here, started 10 years ago as a private get-together with fellow musicians getting together to jam and drink. By the early ’90s it had become one of the most important country festivals in Europe. In recent years, Down On The Farm has played host to such artists as Emmylou Harris, Blue Rodeo, the Jayhawks, Billy Joe Shaver, John Prine, Old 97’s, Kieran Kane, Tish Hinojosa, Fred Eaglesmith, Tom Pacheco, Bob Woodruff, Kevin Welch, Iris DeMent, the Derailers and BR5-49.
Claudia Scott, a Norwegian with an “international name,” opened this year’s festival in front of a hundred heads, but people soon crawled out of their tents in the nearby camp and joined the crowd. The next band, 16 Horsepower, had, in my humble opinion, the most fascinating show of the whole festival. “Black Soul Choir” and “Scrawled in Sap”, both from their 1995 album Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes, were particularly strong, with David Eugene Edwards conjuring the most incredible twang out of his banjo. Some of their new songs hint to an even more “alternative” side of 16 Horsepower on their upcoming CD (scheduled for a February ’98 release in the U.S.).
The good mood that built up during their set was definitively maintained when it was announced from the stage that Chuck Prophet, who played in downtown Halden the previous night, would be up next, a surprise special guest. Though I’ve yet to be won over by Prophet’s records, he’s clearly a fine singer, songwriter and guitarist, and the band sounds far better onstage than on record.
Son Volt was next up for the warmed-up audience, and there were moments in their set, during songs such as “Back Into Your World” and “Tear Stained Eye”, when you could really feel the magic of Jay Farrar’s phrasing. Their rather introverted appearance onstage, coupled with a long stretch of slower songs in the middle of the set, sent some of the audience back to the restaurant for Borg beer refills. However, for those of us familiar with their records, the performance is everything one could have hoped for. The Hellbillies, a Norwegian group popular among the natives, rounds out the festival’s first evening.
Saturday breaks as a gray day, with the clouds hanging low over the scene. However, after a couple of Borgs and a taste of Louisiana cooking, most of the attendants appear ready for some local bands. Especially impressive is Home Groan from Halden, led by Martin Hagfors; their music places fits squarely in the middle of the alternative-country landscape (wherever that is).
Later, Ray Wylie Hubbard performs a convincing set with a percussionist; the crowd also appreciates his stories between the songs. For his intimate contact with the audience, Hubbard is rewarded with more than 2,500 voices when he asks the crowd to sing along. Although the sky is getting even darker and rain seems imminent, the festival area is now completely full.
Next up is Nanci Griffith, who is very popular in Norway; she has visited the country four times during the last five years. Griffith has recently announced that after finishing her next album, a sequel to her 1993 disc Other Voices Other Rooms (due out sometime in ’98), she will stop touring and focus on other art forms. Although it is the end of a long festival and small droplets of rain are falling from soaked clouds, I have never had a better feeling during a Nanci Griffith show than I had this time. I still miss a steel guitar and a fiddle in the band, and I regret that I never got to experience her performing all those beautiful songs from the “Pat Alger period” such as “Last Of The True Believers”, “Roseville Fair” and “Once In A Very Blue Moon” from a stage, but I must admire her radiance and her hold on the fans during the show.
Her remembrances of the late Townes Van Zandt, followed by a brilliant version of “Tecumseh Valley”, leave the audience as well as herself deeply touched, and with teardrops on her cheeks glimmering in the spotlights, she concludes her career in Norway with the following words from “The Wing And The Wheel”, expressing exactly what many of us are feeling:
The wing and the wheel
Are gonna carry us along
And we’ll have memories for company
Long after the songs are gone
Just let the rain fall!