The weather is finally warming and spring flowers are in full bloom. That means summer isn’t too far behind (please, oh please) and what better way to kick off summer than the Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass Festival?
This year’s show gets underway with our annual Free Friday concert in Town Park at 5 p.m. Friday, June 5. Featuring music from Jeff and Vida and The Boston Boys, the concert is free and open to all ages.
The rest of the festival takes place on Reservoir Hill later that night and over the next two days, with music on three different stages from a stellar lineup of musical acts including the bands mentioned above plus The Belleville Outfit, John Jorgenson Quintet, Tony Furtado Band, The Infamous Stringdusters, Sarah Jarosz, Missy Raines and the New Hip, Sweet Sunny South, The Expediton Quartet, the Badly Bent and this week’s featured band, Bearfoot.
Bluegrass music from Alaska may sound like a bit of a non sequitur, but Bearfoot, from Anchorage, is proving that the two aren’t as unrelated as you might think. Comprised of Kate Hamre (acoustic bass), Mike Mickelson (guitar), Jason Norris (mandolin), Angela Oudean (fiddle), and newest member Odessa Jorgensen (vocals/fiddle), Bearfoot’s rise from über talented music camp counselors to an established national touring band has been nothing short of meteoric.
A mere two years after their initial meeting teaching at their namesake’s bluegrass camp for kids, Bearfoot earned one of roots music’s most prestigious awards — Telluride Bluegrass Band Champions — an honor they share with artists Dixie Chicks and Nickel Creek. Soon, they were touring extensively during summer breaks and became regular crowd favorites at prestigious festivals including Wintergrass, Grey Fox, Strawberry Festival, and six consecutive years at RockyGrass.
The original band members (Hamre, Mickelson, Norris, and Oudean) had known each other and played together in various combinations in Alaska’s small but vibrant music scene and the community of musicians, fans, parents, and friends rallied around the fledgling band. “We wrangled some support from them in the form of mileage and airline tickets,” says Norris. “People wanted to see us succeed and travel. Very few bands in Alaska, particularly young bands, get the opportunity to do that so the community was excited about it and jumped on board with us. Those same people still go to our shows now.”
The original band name was Bearfoot Bluegrass, but as the band evolved, they dropped “bluegrass” from the name. “We were never really a traditional bluegrass band because there was no one our age who played banjo in Alaska,” says Mickelson with a laugh. Bearfoot has adopted the Americana moniker to describe their music but haven’t left their bluegrass roots behind. “Even if it’s not a bluegrass song, it’s not too hard to see where it all came from,” Norris points out. “You can definitely tell that we play bluegrass by how we structure our phrasing, our instruments, and how our harmonies are set up.”
Although Bearfoot has nine years, major festival performances, and three albums under their belt, “Doors and Windows” contains many firsts. This is the first Bearfoot CD to feature guest musicians, in this case Andrea Zonn of James Taylor and Band (fiddle), Andy Hall of The Infamous Stringdusters (dobro), Alison Brown (banjo) and Larry Atamanuik, whose drums also represent another Bearfoot first. The band, all of whom sing, have also elected to rely more on a lead singer approach, with newest member Odessa Jorgensen taking charge of the vocals. California-born fiddle player and vocalist Jorgensen, formerly a member of The Biscuit Burners, joined Bearfoot in September 2008.
Produced by Compass Records’ Garry West, “Doors and Windows” is made up of eleven gorgeous songs steeped in the bluegrass music tradition but unafraid to befriend other genres. “Overall, I think this album is more collaborative,” says Hamre. “In the past it’s always been ‘we have to have a fiddle break, and a mandolin break, and another fiddle break’, but this time it’s more about the sound as a band than it is about individual solos.”
“I think that what’s really cool about this album is that it captures our energy and when you listen to it, you want to move,” muses Norris. “I don’t know if I can say that about what we’ve done previously; every song is like that. It’s physically lifting.”
Collaborative, uplifting, energetic, haunting, beautiful, inspired: all words that anyone should feel comfortable with while describing the sound of Bearfoot. Music fans can catch that sound on the Folk ‘N Bluegrass main stage on Saturday, June 6 at 1:30 p.m. and on the Rendezvous Stage at 5 p.m.
Folk ‘N Bluegrass tickets are on sale at Moonlight Books downtown and at Re•Sport in the Pagosa Lakes City Market shopping center. Tickets and additional information are also available online at www.folkwest.com or by calling (877) 472-4672.