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Cutting edge sounds at Folk ’N Bluegrass Festival

The start of Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass is growing ever nearer as we at FolkWest prepare to bring you the biggest and best June event we’ve ever produced.

The festival has expanded into three days on Reservoir Hill for the first time since it began in 2006 and the change has been very well-received by the festival audience, who are buying tickets in record numbers. It’s hard to say, though, if the uptick in sales is due to the expanded schedule or the quality of this year’s lineup: Mountain Heart, Jimmy LaFave, David Wilcox, Sierra Hull and Highway 111, Elephant Revival, Bearfoot, SHEL, the Phoebe Hunt Project, Finnders and Youngberg, Larkin Poe, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West, Jayme Stone’s Room of Wonders and this week’s two featured bands —The Deadly Gentlemen and Lake Street Dive, whose music proves that Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass is so much more than just folk and bluegrass.

 The Deadly Gentlemen is perhaps the most cutting edge band in this year’s Folk ‘N Bluegrass lineup. The band is a side project of Crooked Still’s banjoist, Greg Liszt, as well as young bluegrass luminaries Stash Wyslouch on guitar and vocals, Mike Barnett on fiddle and vocals, Dominick Leslie on mando and vocals and Sam Grisman on bass and vocals.

 The Gents started out a couple years ago as an experimental spoken word bluegrass band, but they’ve changed the game plan this time around.  Now the guys mostly play epic folk and grasscore.  Their latest CD is called “Carry Me To Home.”

Instead of having a lead singer, they use a nonstop orchestration of somewhat unconventional vocals, with everybody in the band doing everything they can. Expect a lot of three-part harmony singing, group shouting, really dense rhymes and an almost rap-like phrasing. The Deadly Gentlemen clearly aren’t your grandad’s bluegrass band.

 Most of the songs on the group’s new CD are reinventions of traditional folk songs, but you might not notice that if you weren’t a big folk music enthusiast. There’s a murder ballad (done acoustic death metal style), a song about moonshining, a rockabilly blues tune, and a rewrite of an old-time song about the police coming to get you.  There are also a couple songs about the ups and downs of living the dream — you know, playing music.

 The CD’s songs have kind of a rock ‘n roll feel despite the acoustic bluegrass instrumentation.  The melodies tend toward the anthemic, and the upright bass is usually pretty in-your-face.  The album does have a slight sense of humor but no real jokes, per se. “The Bad Habit Blues” (Track No.9) does have kind of a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas vibe — some might call it Gonzo folk.  It’s a modern take of a 100-year old song.

 A lot of the album’s song lyrics started out as miniature epic poems based on folk songs.  That’s where the term “epic folk” comes from.  The grasscore songs are the ones where everybody in the band throws caution to the wind and goes completely berserk.  Kind of the punk or hardcore mentality, but applied to bluegrass.

 There are so many ways to describe this fresh, energetic bunch of accomplished musicians, just please don’t call them a boy band. The Gents will take the main stage by storm on Saturday, June 9 at 2:30 p.m.

 Although I gave the Gents the distinction of being the most cutting edge band on this year’s lineup, Lake Street Dive would have to be a close second, but their edge is more of a retro one: Classic soul and R&B, jazz, and British invasion form the backdrop for the quirky and irreverent brand of pop for which Lake Street Dive has become known.

 Combine this with the unstoppable joy of their live shows and near viral collection of Youtube videos, and you get the sum of the Lake Street Dive equation: pure pop music fun. Knock- your-socks-off vocals and virtuosic instrumentals top it all off, and with the release of their third and self-titled record on Signature Sounds, which Popmatters calls “a staggering, monumental disc,” this Brooklyn-based quartet is garnering a growing fan base in and beyond their native East Coast. Incorporating the unlikely elements of upright bass and jazz-inflected trumpet along with more traditional rock staples, drum set and electric guitar, Lake Street Dive are equally at home in a jazz club, a dive bar or a festival stage.

 How is it that something so unlikely can also be so infectious, so naturally exhilarating? Pulling in familiar elements and irreverently scrambling and recombining them, Lake Street Dive is at once jazz-schooled and classically pop obsessed. Beginning with catchy songs that are by turns openhearted and wryly inquisitive, this northeastern quartet proceeds to inject them with an irresistible blend of abandon and precision.

 Composed of drummer Mike Calabrese, bassist Bridget Kearney, vocalist Rachael Price, and trumpet-wielding guitarist Mike “McDuck” Olson, Lake Street Dive encompasses a myriad of possibilities within its members’ collective experiences, and the resultant music is a vivid, largely acoustic, groove-driven strain of indie-pop. “It seems the only limitation we have,” Kearney explains, “is that we try to make music that we would like listening to.”

 Hailing from such disparate locales as Tennessee (Price), Iowa (Kearney), Minneapolis (Olson), and Philadelphia (Calabrese), Lake Street Dive first gathered in a room together when they were students at Boston’s New England Conservatory.

 “Mr. McDuck assembled the four of us, said we were now Lake Street Dive, and we were a ‘free country’ band,” Bridget Kearney remembers. “He wrote this on a chalkboard in the ensemble room that we had our first rehearsal in. We intended to play country music in an improvised, avant-garde style — like Loretta Lynn meets Ornette Coleman. It sounded terrible!  But the combination of people and personalities actually made a lot of sense and we had a great time being around each other and making music together.”

Lake Street Dive makes the most of pop music virtues: solid, evocative song craft; propulsive grooves; and Price’s disarming, forthright vocals. However, it’s a personal strain of pop that is refracted through the band members’ rich backgrounds: a sinewy Motown bass line is reborn with woody heft on Kearney’s upright, Calabrese’s drumming mixes timekeeping with more adventurous jazz-inflected outbursts, McDuck’s nimble trumpet is an unexpectedly warm counterpoint to Price’s singing. It all makes for a sound with familiar roots, but with a slant that is entirely their own. Lake Street Dive’s eventual artistic breakthrough came not without struggle, and still surprises original instigator Mike “McDuck” Olson.

 “Now we’re a pop band, leaning very heavily on soul and rock, with hook-y writing, which I never expected,” he concludes. “If I could travel through time, I’d go back six years and play the new record for my younger self, just to assure him that the awkward, new-band phase doesn’t last forever.”

 Intrigued? Come and check out Lake Street Dive for yourself on Sunday, June 10 at 1:30 p.m. on the festival main stage.

 There are still a few volunteer positions remaining. Working a six-hour shift will earn you a three-day pass to the show and a warm feeling in your heart. If you’d like to find out more information, call Dan at 731-5582.

 The festival is a family-friendly affair where children 12 and under are admitted free with an accompanying adult. Tickets and additional information about this year’s FolkWest festivals are available online at folkwest.com or by calling the number above.

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