Review and Photos by: Phil Santala
Under the tall, quaking aspens and smoke-hazed blue skies of the Tetons, a different kind of music scene has been built. Hard scrabbled and grinding it out are the music festivals of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Events like Targhee Festival, the Annual Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival, and runs by Widespread Panic are unique offerings. They are smaller affairs than most of their counterparts. They also rely much more heavily on tourist participation. While the tri-state fans come out in support of these events, it’s the destination festival tourists that seem to flock in to keep these festivals alive. Talking to fans inside the shows, out on the chairlifts, and around the campground, the far-flung nature of this fanbase was apparent. People drove for 6 to 10 hours to come to these shows. They flew in to visit friends, and they plan a whole week or two around the event. Most reported that they had been traveling to these festivals (to one or both of the annual summer events at the ski area) for years on end.
It’s easy over the course of the weekend to see why this is so. Grand Targhee’s commitment to their events and guests is matched only by the surrounding activities and the beauty of the region. The resort is adamant about recycling, placing smiling assistants next to the trash and recycling cans to help direct the flow of waste. They offer a souvenir reusable cup that doubles as a cheaper way to get a larger portion of beer or their signature cocktail while being environmentally friendly. Multiple performers throughout the weekend would comment onstage about two things: the hospitality and the views. A strenuous or leisurely hike to the top of Fred’s Mountain reveals breathtaking views of the “Cathedral Group” (aka the Tetons). The Grand is so close one feels as though one can reach out and touch it. Hiking and mountain biking trails proliferate throughout the area, emanating directly out of the resorts’ base area. Rather than fleece patrons for all they were worth, tickets are sold under a tiered pricing system that rewarded early shopping. Hell, even the show posters were only 5 bucks, a price so low they sold out early on the first day.
The Royal Southern Brotherhood lit the firecracker that would be the weekend of music liftoff. The first of what will be several all-star supergroups to grace the stage this weekend, they clearly called the crowds in from the campgrounds and hiking trails. Sporting the legacy lineup of southern rock, they brought an unmistakably southern, New Orleans sound to the sunbaked Wyoming/Idaho crowd (or Wydaho as it’s known around here). Featuring Cyril Neville (of the Meters and Neville Brothers), Devon Allman (yup, that Allman…), Yonrico Scott (of the Derek Trucks Band), and Charlie Wooton, the lineup of talent here runs deep, and it showed in their set Friday afternoon. They closed with what could easily have been three set closers in a row. An original composition that featured the band members riffing off each other while cheering and backslapping one another built the momentum to a fever pitch. Then, the extended jam of “One Way Out” featured an extended call-and-response with the clearly engaged crowd filling in the chorus, taking the southern boys for a few extra laps. For the endings of each of the last two songs of the set, Devon grabbed his guitar from its bottom and lifted it high into the air. As the band ended the songs, he would drop the beast down, hammering the last note as he caught it with skill. For the final song, Cyril put his district stamp on the Rolling Stones cover “Gimme Shelter.” The range of Cyril’s vocals seems to be matched only by his wealth of amazing hats. The Stones cover was a drawn out affair with an extended instrumental opening that itself helped to build the set closer as it moved along.
Next, the Wood Brothers were back again, playing their third year in a row at Targhee fest. While some in the crowd grumbled about the initially slower pacing of the set, others simply basked in the music. Late-night show leadman Jeff Crosby mused that, “These guys make me feel good about playing a 3 piece band… it can be done.” Jeff leads
his own 3 piece band, but also highlights another point. Throughout the weekend one could see many musicians doing the same thing, hanging out on the side of the stage or in the crowd soaking in their fellow performers’ sets. The set did have a slower feel to it at times, but the band built the pace and fed the energy of the crowd as they moved through their set. Complaints about the band’s placement in the schedule and its slower set would disappear into the ether at 8,000 feet by the time the set was over. Chris Wood, wailing on his stand-up bass, danced with it into the end of the second set, spinning it and then himself around the instrument. At times, he looked like he was working on beating a tunnel through it, having already beaten the polish off in one spot. The non-Wood of the group, Jano Rix, pulled double duty on both the “shitar” and percussion. The “shitar” (spelling approximated) that Jano plays is guitar played in a more upright-than-usual style, often not played per se so much as it is beat on with wire-brush drumsticks. Oliver Wood picks the strings on a more traditional guitar, both of the electric and acoustic varieties. The Wood Brothers here depart nicely from their own individual backgrounds. Fans of Medeski, Martin and Wood (yup – same Wood) will find some similar jazz improv stylings but with songs that highlight a lot more vocals and a lot less noodling. It sounded like Porno for Pyros mashed up with MMW. It was an intoxicating mix and prompted the crowd to continue singing along to choruses. Oliver commented near the end of their set: “We’ve played a lot of major markets, and I don’t recall anyone singing as well as y’all.” It might have been a line they used before, but it worked and was the final nail in the coffin of rumblings and grumblings about their initially-slower set. The Michael Jackson encore promoted the band to remark: “We’re gonna crush it, and by crush I mean maim horribly.” While I wouldn’t say it was maimed, I would say it was adapted liberally but done in a totally unique and fitting style for the Brothers, whose backgrounds include traditional training at Music Conservatories and touring with former Widespread Panic keyboardist Tinsley Ellis.
Rock and roll Hall of Fame honoree Buddy Guy took the stage long after the sun had set. Still, the 77-year old blues man showed no symptoms of lacking oxygen or of the lateness of the evening. What audiences in the Northern Rocky Mountain ranges might lack in size they make up for in sheer tenacity and determination: big sounds come from small crowds. 3,500 and change might not be much where some of y’all are from, but round here, it’s not the size of the crowd that matters at heart, but rather the size of the heart of the crowd. The crowd sing-along chorus and call-and-response line-filling continued in this set. During the Buddy Guy original “Someone Else is Steppin’ In,” the roar of the crowd evoked a broad, mischievous grin on the blues master’s face. After the song, he remarked, “After nine o’clock, at a lot of places, the neighbors start howling if you play too loud… You get this high up I guess the neighbors don’t give a damn…” The only howling that followed was from hoots of joy. But it wasn’t all grins and virtual high fives from Buddy. He did have to keep the crowd on track. After a weak chorus fill in by the crowd during “Hoochie Coochie Man” he stopped and was forced to reprimand the crowd. He commented, “I did this song in Tokyo 3 weeks ago, believe that they didn’t fuck it up like that…” Still, he didn’t let up. Buddy Guy’s set was a veritable history lesson in the Who’s Who of the US blues scene, from Muddy Waters and unnamed blues standards to more modern covers by Jimi Hendrix. He wove the covers together with interjections of his own musings and songs. All the while the showmanship never stopped. He played guitar with his crotch, he played it with a drumstick, he played it with thin air, he played with his shirt, he played it with his face, he played it behind his back and he played it with gusto all the while. It was a set so funky you could smell it.
The 1st of three late night shows at the Trap Bar was packed, as they all would be. Jeff Crosby and the Refugees took their three man show to new heights. Coming off a year in which they had two songs on the FX channel show “Sons of Anarchy” the band seems to be firing on all cylinders. Perhaps they were inspired by the music around them. Perhaps it is that Jeff and his bass playing brother Andy hail from just across the flat pan of Idaho, making this (by western standards) an almost hometown show. Perhaps it’s the studio time spent working on their new album. Whatever it was Jeff and company played one of the most inspired sets of music I have ever seen out of them over 4 years and a few dozen shows. They brought their blend of high energy pop-rock meets southern blues jams to new heights in the hot, crowded dimly lit Trap bar. Saturday was the beast of the weekend for music. Starting at noon, musical acts would parade on and off the stage throughout the afternoon and into the evening. All told, seven bands would occupy 13 hours of music. From the blazing hot sun to the cool alpine-glow to the brisk night air the sounds of electric guitars and raging amps would penetrate all.
The kick off Saturday act of the Charlie Hunter and Scott Amendola duo was a fitting band to help shake the cobwebs out. Patrons were treated to a couple of guys clearly having a good time. The music was energetic without being overwhelming. If last night’s bands had finished as whiskey shots, this morning’s group would be starting off like a cool mimosa. Just what everyone needed, a bit of the hair of the dog without getting the whole rabid beast. Their interactions were playful with themselves and with the audience. Their grins and picking were infectious. Towards the end of their set they played a nice mellow acoustic version of The New Zealand group Lorde’s hit song “Royals.” The song was a fitting tribute to big name acts and their values versus two men on stage, loving every second of it. The two man group filled the cover in nicely, and audience members were tapping their toes and humming along, long after the music stopped.
Robert Earl Keen and crew continued the ramp up as the crowds trickled in. The audience easily doubled in size during their set. Keen combines the perfect mixture of cow pie country, and drug innuendo laden hippie sensibilities. It’s the kind of music that would be just as home as a late night set after a Grateful Dead show as it would in a honky tonk in the wind swept high-line of Montana. Very “Workingman’s Dead.” It’s a combo that goes over well, especially in this crowd. Keen draws from a time that heralds back to the outlaw country boys, acts like New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Charlie Daniels “Uneasy Rider.” Cowboys hats bobbed on and off stage in the warm afternoon sun as Keen and company belted out the foot stomping original “I Gotta Go.” Their sunglasses reflected the Tetons back onto the crowd as their set weaved on.
Amy Helm and the Handsome Stranger’s set was a slow boil which ebbed and flowed throughout. Featuring semi-local musician Bill Payne from Little Feat on keys throughout their set, they rocked and rolled while still providing the occasional respite for labored breathing at 8,000 feet. Bill was so inspired at one point he jumped off his stool to play the keys with his foot. Shenanigans such as this brought a cheer from the crowd and a big Teton tall grin to the face of bass player Byron Isaacs. Guitar player Dan Littleton seemed to have a tendency to lean in and play across the stage to the rest of the band. Audience members chided him to “play towards us” during a break. Littleton responded with “you’re gonna regret what you ask for..I’m gonna show you something now…” before blasting off a blistering series of solos. It was fitting that the daughter of a member of The Band would cover a slow soulful version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” However, it was their encore which really stood out as the gem. A silky smooth and tear jerking acapella “Gloryland” by Ralph Stanley eased thing out of the gate, and was inspired by “the chairlift to the top, and we met God..” Bringing everything home was a foot stomping knee slapping cover of Sam Cooke’s “Ain’t That Good News.” Helm’s blues voice belted out this number and absolutely brought the house down. Amy Helm’s set was a scorcher. But not even that could prepare the attendees for the absolute devastation that would be unleashed upon them soon. The Hard Working Americans set was firebrand rock meets southern blues meets pure swamp ooze. It’s not too often in life that genuine surprises are ladled upon one.
When the Hard Working Americans took the stage Saturday a collective group of people received just such a genuine surprise. The kick off to their recently named “Hearts and Asses Tour” was a set so dirty that it seemed to have just crawled up out of the blood and muck and beer. The supergroup contains Dave Schools from Widespread Panic and Todd Snider as the proposed front men. Off to the side of the stage they often seem to chat and laugh throughout the set. These guys are clearly enjoying themselves. Neal Casal was pulling double duty he would be playing his first show with HWA followed immediately with his last for the tour with Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Rounding out the continued supergroup supremacy of Targhee fest were Chad Staehly, Duane Trucks (yup that Trucks family) and recent slide guitar specialist Jesse Aycock. The Hard Working Americans stole the show, and most likely the weekend as well. The group sound is big, full bodied and complex. The slide steel compliments the bass bombs of Dave who lit the low end up. The set consisted of deep cut covers which has the added benefit of exposing fans to a fresh group of musicians. Aycock commented that “when we come together on stage it’s just kind of an experiment.” The group seems to be meshing well together and the experimentations are clearly paying off. Todd’s stage presence is that of Joe Cocker, and his singing style combines that with a distinct early Jim Morrison feel. Todd’s singing style seems to lean on the staccato delivery style of the late Vic Chesnutt. Rambunctious and at times uncontrollable he and Dave have some clear stage presence. “It’s rare to have that kind of chemistry” commented Aycock when discussing the duo’s stage antics and playing. Schools seems to have found a new niche for himself that easily rivals the talent displayed with his other side band Stockholm Syndrome. Given time and further investment in the growth of the band the doors seem wide open. With future stops in Colorado where they will be supported by Jason Isbell, the southern rock-a-billy jam potential seems unlimited.
Chris Robinson Brotherhood took the stage and didn’t miss a beat. Featuring a set with extended jams and segues between songs CRB kept the fevered and well lathered crowd rolling along. It wasn’t hard to miss Adam MacDougall and Mark Dutton basking in the afterglow of the HWA set they had watched from side stage. They battled their way through their set with grins just as big as the ones they displayed as Dave Schools walked by them after the last set. Chris’s smooth guitar playing matched nicely with Neal’s lit up whaling. Still sounding as fresh is if they just started tour they finished up their tour and their set as the sun began to sink below the far side of the hills.
As night descended on the Tetons again Big Head Todd and the Monsters took to the stage. History runs in both directions; while the Hard Working Americans might be making it tonight The Monsters were taking another trip down it. As a band, Todd Park Mohr remarked, they have been playing Jackson “since the beginning..back in 1985.” Since that time these guys have sure grown in scope and influence. They recalled fondly “the Dominos pizza guys gave us free pizza for playing Johnny Cash” back then. The days of playing for free pizza might be past them but the larger crowds are just as welcoming and not just of the covers but the original tunes as well. The blues energy wove it’s way into the night. Dedicated fans sung along and sported shirts and logo wear from tours gone past. Smiles, smirks and big toothed grins were the name of the game, on stage and off. While some eased their way into the night early others stuck around to the very end, pacing themselves for another late night set at The Trap bar.
Musketeer Gripweed, hailing from Ft. Collins, Colorado brought the blues band southern jam band, Black Crowes-esque sound with them into the bar for the late night set. They are self proclaimed “American Revival Stomp Shake Ass Holla” musicians and it shows. Think heavy metal Robert Randolph, if you can warp your brain around such a beast. Their CD features a well rounded mix of their sound, but their live performance this Saturday night was all stomp and all holler. It was just the right energy for the sunbaked and whiskey drunk patrons. The stomping and hollering didn’t just end on the edges of the tiny Trap stage, but it spilled over into the crowd. They swarmed in and filled the bar to the rafters while shaking it to it’s foundation. Front man Jason Downing sported sunglasses, when he could keep them on his head, and climbed onto the chair he had used for his dobro to call out to the crowd.
Sunday would be a day of sun, church like revelry, and ladies. Lots and lots of blue-powered ladies. Nicki Bluhm commented that “it’s like a ladies power day…I love it.” She would not be alone in her appreciation of the lineup Sunday. Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds took flight early on Sunday. Arleigh Kincheloe, lead singer, is a diminutive soul. It’s hard to imagine or fathom where she keeps that soulful voice or all those blues. She trotted and sashayed her way around the stage smiling at the band members and the audience, clearly enjoying the work she does. The seven piece backing Dirty Birds are composed of horns and the traditional stringed line up as well. The result is a soulful blues band style mashed up with a high energy rock and roll ensemble. The cover version of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” highlighted this. Arleigh spun and twisted as she belted out the lyrics clutching her wooden microphone grip in her hands. At times she laid her head back absorbing both the breeze and seeming to feed off the sound wave emanating from Sasha Brown’s guitar. The time this group has spent pounding out the festival and bar circuit over the last 3 years since their inception has not diminished their capacity for big joyous sound and fun onstage. Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers brought sunny coastal California vibes to the high mountains of Wyoming. Her deep booming voice and tall set of legs tugged not just on the audiences’ dancing feet, but their heart strings as well. Despite already being married to band mate Tim Bluhm, Nicki still received at least one quasi-marriage proposal as she was signing posters…and countless other crushes. But it wasn’t just the look that would inspire admiration, it was the soul and feeling in her singing. The band disperses the load amongst the members nicely, allowing each their time to shine. This also seems to give Nicki time to pause and catch her breath, before taking ours away again. Sunday was Jackie Green’s day to pull double, or even triple duty. After joining the Gramblers for one song he left seemingly done with the sit in. But as he did so Nicki commented “that boy! All he wants to do is play guitar…he’s gonna grab another one and come right back…” The crowd erupted into cheers as he rejoined the stage, a big mischievous grin under his beard and broad brimmed sun hat. Just like the fans, one female band just wouldn’t be enough for Jackie Green. He left the stage following the Gramblers set to join it again onstage with his fellow band mates drummer Steve Gorman,Tom Bukovac, singer Joan Osborne, and bassist Nick Govrik.
Trigger Hippy is an all star supergroup now, as it has been in the past, if there ever was one. Audley Freed and Jimmy Herring have been members of the lineup at one time or another. The talent pool in Trigger Hippy runs deep. Band members don’t just swap solos, they swap lead vocal duties. Joan Osborne has run the gamut in her illustrious career, from backup singer to lead in her own bands. From The Dead to Motown her range is impressive. So was the joy she showed on stage. She reached deep into her soul and pulled out vocals with a smile on her face and sweat rolling down her cheeks. And then there was one. One lead group left for the big stage and one more woman left to soothe our souls.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band holds one of the jam band scene’s original power couples. They could even be seen as the original power family. Often accompanied by their two boys on the road, they also tote around a veritable school house full of musicians. They didn’t just take the stage at the beginning of the set, they stormed it and swarmed it. Still, that many musicians didn’t overwhelm the jams at all. The consummate professionalism and timing of all on stage keeps things in check. Derek and Susan’s timing and love are evident on stage. The wistful looks over her shoulders and the warm heartfelt glances down his fret board are telling. The occasionally traded whispers in one another’s ears could be song related, or not. But they roll back and forth as sweetly as the traded licks off the dueling guitars. The triple song encore embodied as much of the show. A sweet soulful Susan on lead for the John Prine standard “Angel From Montgomery” which segued into the Grateful Dead’s “Sugar Ray” before winding back into “Angel from Montgomery” again. It would have been a silky smooth mellow jam to end the show on. But there would be nothing mellow about this show closer. The band launched into an instrumental song that sounded like a Led Zeppelin inspired riff, but with heavy distortion smeared over the top. It was a distinct departure from their more blues standard approach that seemed to go over well with the crowd.
Targhee Festival closed the book on their 10th year with a set at the Trap Bar featuring The Hooligans. Bill Payne’s sitting in Saturday with Amy Helm was no accident. As keyboard player for The Hooligans he pulled his fair share of double duty over the weekend. In the band he would not be alone in that regard. Front man Tom Garnsey is also the head cheese for Vootie Productions, which was responsible for the weekend’s shenanigans. The band moved through their original works and wide wealth of covers. Their set also begs the question, is “Dixie Chicken” really a cover if a band member who wrote it is playing it? Joining the band for their second set was the obviously enthusiastic San Francisco girl herself Nicki Bluhm. Ending the day as we had begun it, dancing and swaying as a woman belted out some soulful hits seemed just about right. Between the 31 hours of music over three days, the starry starry nights, and the miles of tacky dirt berms to ride it’s almost hard to pull a single memory out as the predominate event of the weekend. Rather than just one thing, it’s probably all of them that combine to create the right setting and the right time. Looking up at the Milky Way while standing next to one’s tent is inspiring. Ripping down some dirt berms or soaking in the views of the Tetons from the top of the chairlift are absolutely breathtaking activities. Doing all of these while knowing that the rest of your day will be filled with bluesy jams and smoking solos makes it almost too much to imagine. If you wonder why you missed it, you’re not alone. Thin crowds and ample dance space typify this event. Being able to walk up to the rail during any set at any time is the norm here. The 27th Annual Bluegrass Festival has been going at it for 26 years for a reason. If you hurry (well even if you don’t) you just might make it. It might take a little bit more time and effort than your local festival…but it’ll be worth it…
Full photo gallery can be found HERE