No Depression Festival, a weekend in review
It was going to take some doing to top last year. I knew that going in. Not that there was any thought swimming around my head which suggested I’d leave disappointed.
We kicked everything off with a set from the great and so-far under-appreciated Greg Paul at the Sunset Tavern pre-fest hoot Friday night. Paul recently (a year or so ago) moved to town from Rochester, NY, and has more recently been gaining traction in the local scene. His set at the hoot was a tremendous kickoff for the weekend. Stripped down with just himself on a banjo (which he occasionally bowed like a fiddle) and Holly Merrill on backing vocals, it was an arresting set of old time folk-inspired tunes. That gave way to the opposite end of the spectrum hard-knuckled rock blues of Betsy Olson, then Mark Pickerel’s haunting shadow-lurking solo work and a similar varietal from Widower’s Kevin Large. Lindsey Fuller and Olson were the only ones benefitting from their usual full bands (Fuller with Pickerel on drums, Jeff Fielder on Guitar, and Rebecca Young on bass – an all-star troupe of sorts; Olson with Sera Cahoone on drums).
A highlight of that night was hearing some new material from Zoe Muth, who hit the stage sans her band, for an understated, earnest short-set. Jack Wilson’s Wifestealers took the night off, as well, and he unleashed a bear of a set backed only by his own guitar and a pedal steel player. The absence of his full band (which can include everything from rhythm section to Hammond B3 to horn section) hung a certain sentimentality over the whole thing. Well done.
Maldive Jason Dodson was scheduled to close the night, but called in sick. What occurred in his absence was easily the night’s best moment – an impromptu series of band scramble sets, including several combinations of Fielder, Pickerel, Young, Fuller, Paul, Merrill, and more. It was the most hootenannyish thing that happened all night, and I’m only sorry it was the end of the show. Several people I talked to at the festival the next day had already taken off by then. Lesson: I guess you lose when you’re tired.
After sleeping too little, the clouds cleared just in time to head to Marymoor for Festival Day.
The Maldives kicked things off at 1:30 sharp. Crowd slowly filtering in, sticking to the perimeter, on their blankets, with picnics and hats and sunglasses. Though their typical bassist and drummer were out of town, the troupe was still seven-strong, covering their intense, rocking arrangements on everything from accordion to heavily distorted guitars, to tambourine. Dodson showed no indication of his previous night’s sickness having slowed him down for the festival. He was all rock and roll kicks and passionate performance.
Next up was Sera Cahoone, who showed up with her full typical band plus the bonus of Sarah Standard on fiddle. By all accounts, this set was the best representative for twang factor, pulling largely from her two SubPop albums, plus a couple of stirring and gorgeous newer tunes. I joined in to close out the set by clogging to her cover of “Rocky Top” – an event born of a night at the bar earlier this summer. I kept thinking she was kidding, she kept thinking I’d bow out. As it happened, we were both serious. I hadn’t performed a clog routine in decades, kicked the mic twice, and we both laughed through the whole song. But, hopefully it was fun for the audience.
Between sets, we were treated to some remarkable busking, courtesy of the Head and the Heart (quite possibly Seattle’s next big breakout band) and Gregory Paul’s Cast Iron Maiden Band. Both set up shop back by the food and beer, and it was good to see them drawing crowds of their own.
Chuck Prophet and Alejandro Escovedo delivered a back-to-back one-two punch of straight-up rock and roll. Both pulling from across their catalogs, but focusing particularly on the most recent releases. Prophet’s strongest moment was “I Bow Down and Pray to Every Woman I Meet” from 2002’s No Other Love. Escovedo’s set hit hardest on “Down in the Bowery,” which he wrote for his son. It was an emotional and memorable performance of the tune, from his latest Street Songs of Love.
But, it was the Cave Singers and Lucinda Williams who delivered the most notable sets of the entire day.
Cave Singers unleashed a number of new songs from an album they’re currently working on. I always have a hard time telling what frontman Pete Quirk is singing about in the live shows, so I can’t quite say what the songs were about. But, the energy was intense and undeniable, and guitarist Derek Fudesco was playing harder than anyone else that day, to that point. It was a terrific, energetic breakout set, and got the crowd on its feet, bouncing and stomping along.
By the time Lucinda Williams hit the stage, the field was so packed and alive, she couldn’t help but comment on the fact that the ND crowd is like her home audience. Though I heard complaints that she was reading lyrics from a music stand, I didn’t find this fact distracting. With 30 years of music career and songwriting behind her, I don’t find it at all surprising that she needs a reminder of lyrics now and then. She didn’t read from the book very often, anyway – mostly just connected with the audience and rocked hard. Guitarist Val McCallum was a tremendous addition to her band, delivering solos which lifted her songs ever higher. “Lonely Woman Blues” was a highlight for me, as was a badass nailing of “Changed the Locks.” Indeed, her set was thick with older, more familiar tunes. The new song she unveiled for the occasion – “Buttercup” – might take some getting used to. Indeed, Williams’ music is generally not a first-listen kind of animal, but something built to mature and evolve with each listen. We’ll see how it feels when the album drops in October.
The whole day came to an end with an arresting performance from the Swell Season. I’d heard this band was best experienced live. Indeed, the recordings are good, but lacking in melody and low on musicality. Live, the band’s passion is an impressive vehicle, adding its own musicality. The result is an intense array of emotion, augmented this night by the fact that, two days prior, the band’s set was interrupted in Saratoga, Calif., by a man who lept to his death on the stage. The story of the tragedy was heartbreaking itself, and Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova were clearly stirred. The rain began early in the set, though the drops were largely intermittent, never growing into a full shower. Like choked back tears, or maybe I read too far.
At any rate, rather than dwell too long on the news, they simply channeled everything they had into what was a powerful, if incredibly sad-song-driven, hour-long set. Its finest moment was “Leave,” which Hansard cheekily introduced as “a miserable song.” Other highlights were a Van Morrison cover and a singalong to Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town.” But, it was the band’s closing moment, which roped the audience into a group effort on the Irish funeral song “The Parting Glass.” It’s a song sung from the point of view of the dead, wishing his family and friends well, and thanking life for all it is. Though it’s a nice, friendly tune, typically, there seemed to be an obvious additional meaning this night.
Hansard stepped away from the microphone to sing with the crowd on the final, incredibly moving, apropos line, “good night and joy be with you all.” And with that, the lights came on, the crowd dispersed, and we put the 2nd ND Festival to bed…better, even, than last year.