Review and Photos by: Phil Santala
For the 27th year in a row musical patrons and creators have been mingling in the high alpine environment around the Teton Cathedral group. Shadowed by their majestic geological counterparts the attendees of this annual event have been inspired by the beauty of the mountain around them, both on and off the stage. Bluegrass and high country just seem to go hand in hand with one another. The Targhee Bluegrass Festival followed a tried and true plan. They combined contemporary and traditional bluegrass styles together. They offered the whole color palette of blue grasses. Friday’s line up seemed to feature more traditional bluegrass styles while Saturday’s slowly progressed across the spectrum to finish up with slam-grassers Leftover Salmon and Sam Bush. Sunday’s line up meddled the two together nicely and finished strong with the Greensky Bluegrass set. Saturday and Sunday late night sets featured members of Greensky, Leftover Salmon and others sitting in with Scott Law and Tony Furtado. Word of advice: anytime something is billed as so-and-so “and friends” is worth checking out. You can guess these guys probably have some interesting friends. After all, interesting friends is what festivals are all about.
Friday would lead the bluegrass patrons into the provincial grass-past. Minimal pickups on acoustic set ups were the standard bearer on stage. Town Mountain exemplified this. They did a solid job of melding traditional grass with more contemporary new grass. They played songs of a more modern color and feeling, staged around a single microphone. The tempo and pace of the playing was catchy and upbeat. For an opening act of the three day run, they set the bar high. While not shabby in any regards, the following act seemed almost a bit too evenly paced to keep the established energy up. Maybe Town Mountain needs to be moved up a few slots in their placement, or perhaps they just need to learn to pace themselves more. Still the tempo and pacing worked well as the clouds had opened up again for their final shower of the weekend, soaking the patrons and putting a chill into the air.
Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project featured a set based around traditional field-grass bluegrass. Acting as an extension of the Lomax Project they featured a set of music all taken from the recordings of folk songs from around the country. Their styling drew in the audience slowly at first, based around the lead female vocalist gently calling us all in. As the clouds began to break apart the Lomax project gathered around the single microphone, leaning in and sharing with us a piece of bluegrass roots. These roots run deep from the rich red dirt of the Appalachian range. Tim O’Brien has spent his “whole life making old songs new again” it was explained as he joined the stage. Fittingly he would step in and lend a hand and a voice to these traditional arrangements. The set closed out with a rousing call and response of a new ballad based around the antics of the Targhee Bluegrass camp during the previous week. All on stage shared a laugh, and as it wound down Jayme commented that “every time he (Tim) plays that song, the lyrics change on us.”
The Targhee Music Camp is an opportunity the week before the Bluegrass Festival for musicians to sit in with, rub shoulders with, and learn from their fellow bluegrass aficionados. Led by professional musicians and songwriters, it takes all types of bluegrass musicians and mixes them together. The participants and instructors alike join the stage for one big send off to the week on the 1st day of the festival. They picked a very fitting song for the especially rainy week in the Tetons. Easily over 30 members of the camp filed onto the still wet stage and grinned and picked through “If I was on Some Foggy Mountain Top.”
For two guys and a big open stage, Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott filled up the speaker stacks and chided the crowd into picking up their collective feet. Traditional numbers wove in and out of new covers. With an eclectic mix of hippy grass and political activism grass they left an indelible mark on the crowd. Their set included songs about polluted waters and dirty coal which were as politically poignant as musically salient. It’s a hard combo to keep your toes tapping and your mind thinking at the same time. Tim and Darrell have done just that. “Keep Your Dirty Light On” is as fine of a bluegrass folk song as has even been written. It easily matches pace with Bob Dylan or Pete Seeger for political activism and motivations.
Well if you’ve never heard them you probably have heard of them: Nickel Creek was the main stage closer. They are back from a long absence hitting the touring scene in celebration of their 25th year since their inception. They are out on the road in support of a new album as well. For a trio-group they provide a big sound and an equally impressive stage presence. A high energy act from start to finish they did a great job of keeping people on their feet and the cold at bay. Later in the summer at 8000 ft, it does get cold, so cold it even prompted the band to joke about wishing someone would blow on their fingers to keep them warm. If the cold affected their playing it wasn’t evident from the audience. Smiles widened and the feet flew as the recently reunited group ran through a set hallmarked by spot on timing.
As the night wore on and the cold crept in some crept into their tents, others jammed in circles in the campground. Those seeking shelter, and possibly libations, settled in for a more rock-grass set from the local late night band Screen Door Porch. The most interesting moment of the set was clearly the use of a kazoo that resembled a trumpet, and was worn around the neck of the lead singer like a harmonica. It’s presence on stage was perhaps a bit too short lived, and could have possibly been worked into more songs. Still it provided some much needed lightness to the 1 a.m. crowd.
Haas Kowert Tice trio kicked off Saturday helping the audience “push thru the fog” as they phrased it. A mostly seated crowd basked in the warm sun and light mountain breeze. With a set composed of mostly instrumentals the band engaged the audience not just through music, but stories as well. They began songs with explanations of their origins and even a humorous story about almost driving into a river the night before. This is a more common occurrence around the Tetons than one might think. The sparse crowd enthusiastically rose to their feet to cheer the band off after their final number. The trio willingly obliged with an equally enthusiastic encore.
The Reel Time Travelers slowly started up the bluegrass temperatures on stage. Accompanied by guest Brittany Haas on fiddle they moved the gauge shifting more to vocalized bluegrass style. The vocalized stylings relied heavily on Carol Elizabeth Jones but filled in the chorus with the collective band leaning into the singular microphone together. Mandolin player Thomas Sneed took a turn on lead vocals as well, rounding out his week’s worth of work, from bluegrass camp instructor to stage act.
As the threatening clouds burned off under the mid day sun the bluegrass aficionados began to pour into the venue in earnest. With more of an emphasis on blues than grass David Bromberg brought out special guest Jordan Tice. The corner of the Saturday sets had been turned. It was definitely not strictly bluegrass anymore.
The jams and sound kept growing louder as the afternoon wore on and the Jeff Austin Band took to the stage. At times it seemed like Jeff’s facial expressions are the embodiment of surprise. It looks as if he is just as amazed as the audience, regarding what’s coming out of the speaker stack. It engages not just the audience but band members as well. The result is infectious for all. The band moved cohesively from faster ballads to looser spaced out grass-jams. They dedicated the encore of “My Sisters and Brothers” to Jerry Garcia…for being around even today “in the ether all around us…helping us have a good time.” It was a rousing send off that elicited hoots and cheers from the audience.
Promoter Tom Garnsey promised Leftover Salmon’s set would take us to “hell and back.” He wasn’t lying. Vince Herman declared early in the set “there ain’t no more pacing…it’s Saturday night.” Sam Bush joined the Leftover boys for a big chunk of their set, warming up for his festival set to follow. Leftover blasted through their time allotment with such a seamless flow that by the time they left the stage it felt like they had just gotten there. Sam and Drew Emmitt share so much chemistry on stage its amazing to experience. Sam is like a rambunctious child at times resorting to joking and physically messing with Drew, even fiddling with his mandolin strings as he plays. The two of them look to be muppets or a pair of Pom Poms bobbing in time and grinning together.
As the sun set over the Big Hole Mountain range, Sam Bush took the stage and the full moon beckoned revelers to dance into the night. “Take a little time” encouraged Sam “for Howlin’ at the Moon.” The energy of this original melody was just what the frosty Teton night dancers needed to help fire them up. The night wore on sans slower ballads. The faster tempos lifted the crowd up to the tree tops, propelled there by Sam’s infectious smile and joyful vocals. Later joined by special guests Bill Payne and Vootie promoter and Hooligans lead guitar Tom Garnsey, Sam began running thru some New Orleans ballads. Little Feat and Allen Toussaint featured heavily into this part of the set with “Dixie Chicken”>”On Your Way Down”> “Spanish Moon.” Slowly Sam jammed the tunes further south covering Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster” with a distinctly reggae flair. The band seems just as at home covering Earl Scruggs as they do Little Feat or Stevie Wonder. In typical style Sam brought just about everyone he could find backstage onto the stage for the encore with him. Ah, the joys of Bluegrass: it feels like you’re sitting around the fire with all your friends, even if 15 of them are professional musicians.
At the Trap Bar for the late night set Scott Law and Tony Furtado began their journey into the three sets of Targhee Bluegrass they would present over the weekend. Billed as “The Banjo Killers” (and friends) they earned their keep 3 times over during the weekend. Working their way through Grateful Dead covers, they filled up the stage with their friends. Eventually the space was getting too full and Tony stepped aside, yielding his banjo duties to Andy Thorn. Throughout the night Scott never seemed to stop grinning. In fact it was a trait which followed him throughout the weekend. Clearly here was a man enjoying what he was doing in life.
Sunday morning would find Tony and Scott take to the stage as the opening act following their barn burner late night set at the trap. The opening set of Sunday had a distinctly different feel than the jam-till-last-call of the night before. A repeat performance of “Peggy O” was given more room to mature and develop within the chords. While the overall performance was tightened up within the two artists it was given equal liberty between them. The lack of “friends” meant the dynamics of the duo were clearly evident.
Chris Jones and the Night Drivers easily took the award for best dressed performers of the weekend. With a style as smooth as the sport coats they wore, the Night Drivers delivered a solid performance pushed along on the drive train of Chris’s smooth vocals. Chris’s peaceful easy feeling is evident on stage; his cool collected smile radiates out from behind the microphone. Ned Luberecki easily followed suit, and the two of them trade as many smiles as they do jokes on stage. Following their set they followed the pathway of many other performers of the weekend, taking the chairlift to the top of the resort to soak in the views of the majestic Grand Teton.
The Travelin’ McCourys are as much about playing songs as they are about telling stories. Their songs are ballads which describe people and the past. Their banter on stage is much the same. They use storytelling to tie the fans to the history of bluegrass and its roots. It’s much like a good fishing guide telling you about the ecology, geology, and history of the river you’re on. It creates for a more knowledgeable fan, and a much more rewarding show experience.
Greensky Bluegrass came in “as the clean up crew to make sure you absolutely, absolutely absolutely had a good time.” Their self proclaimed mission to bat cleanup for a ripping weekend of bluegrass was easily pulled off. By the end of their set it was time to hang the banner: mission accomplished. The crowd eagerly soaked up everything the boy from Michigan could spit at them. Then the audience danced up the dirt and served it right back up. The final encore of the weekend didn’t just bring the house down, it smashed it to pieces. It was the oft-covered by the late Levon Helm, originally composed by Bruce Springsteen ballad “Atlantic City.” The story of the 70’s Philadelphia Mafia and it’s low level enforcers lends itself to a new bluegrass sound. Much like ‘shiners and coal miners did in the past.
Dobro player Anders Beck and Guitarist Dave Bruzza didn’t seem to have had enough. Without my cajoling they joined The Banjo Killers as their post show friends. As the post festival vibe glowed off the band and fans alike, they picked into the night. At the end of it all this might be what Targhee Bluegrass Festival is all about: sharing the stage and sharing experience. Throughout the weekend the bands could be seen milling about. Drew Emmitt was picking into the night around a circle in the camp grounds. The jam sessions popped up all over, on and off the stage. It’s a formula that has been working for 27 years: great musicians, great scenery, great fans, and amazing inspiration for all. Y’all keep pickin’, we’ll keep grinin’!