The 17th annual Four Corners Folk Festival will happen over Labor Day Weekend — Aug. 31 through Sept. 2 on Reservoir Hill right here in Pagosa Springs.
The festival is one of the premier folk, Americana and bluegrass music festivals in the nation, owing primarily to its stunning site overlooking the San Juan Mountains, the extremely talented musicians who grace its stages and the overall friendly vibe at the event. Some 300 volunteers plus a small core staff work hard to welcome festival-goers from around the Southwest region and beyond. This year’s lineup offers performances from Railroad Earth, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Darrell Scott, Sara Watkins, Loudon Wainwright III, Elephant Revival, Caravan of Thieves, Anne and Pete Sibley, You Me and Apollo, Mike + Ruthy, The Milk Carton Kids, Rose’s Pawn Shop, The Well Pennies and this week’s featured artists The Wood Brothers and Sarah Siskind.
Two brothers decide to form a band, adapting the blues, folk and other roots music sounds they loved as kids into their own evocative sound and twining their voices in the sort of high lonesome harmony blend for which sibling singers are often renowned. While that’s not a terribly unusual story, the Wood Brothers took a twisty path to their ultimate collaboration. Indeed, they pursued separate projects for some 15 years before joining forces.
Growing up, they both imbibed the heady tones and stories of American roots music — notably folk, blues, bluegrass and country — at the feet of their father, a molecular biologist with a passion for performing. “Even before we discovered his record collection, we listened to him around the campfire or at family gatherings,” Oliver recalls of assorted hootenannies at their Boulder, Colorado, home and other locales.
“He’d entertain anybody,” adds Chris. “Having that experience of live music at home was pretty important. It definitely affected the way my brother and I view music.” Their mother, a poet, meanwhile, taught them a deep appreciation for storytelling and turn of phrase.
Though initially “too shy to sing,” Oliver became obsessed with the guitar, especially as voiced by bluesmen like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed. Chris, who cites the “roundness, warmth and mystery” of those same blues recordings as a primary influence, studied clarinet and piano but gravitated toward jazz sounds; by the time he took up the bass he was fully enraptured. The boys discovered classic rock artists like Hendrix and Led Zeppelin on their own along the way; Oliver followed those monster guitar riffs back to the electric blues of “the Kings” (B.B., Albert and Freddie), Albert Collins and other midcentury masters. He too spent some time spellbound by the complex filigrees of bebop — but, as he says, “I came back full circle” to roots music.
Their paths diverged after those teenage explorations. Oliver briefly attended UC Santa Cruz before dropping out to follow some fellow musicians to Atlanta, where he tackled Motown and other Rand B covers on guitar in local clubs. “I was learning how to be a working musician,” he remembers. “I didn’t yet have aspirations to be an artist.” Though that band didn’t last long, a regular Tuesday night gig at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack enabled him to hone his chops and learn from older players. He eventually secured a spot in the band of veteran bluesman Tinsley Ellis, touring widely and experiencing the elder musician’s “workhorse” schedule. It was his mentor Ellis who ultimately encouraged him to approach the microphone. “He gave me a Freddie King song, ‘See See Baby,’ to sing in the set,” Oliver relates. “He encouraged me to write and sing. That’s where I got the fire to do my own thing.”
He formed King Johnson with his buddy Chris Long, layering Rand B, funk, soul and country elements over their beloved blues influences. He toured constantly with that “labor of love” band during the 12 years of its existence; KJ released six albums and eventually became a six piece outfit (including a horn section).
Chris, meanwhile, went off to the New England Conservatory of Music, developing his virtuosic skills on bass, studying with jazz luminaries like Geri Allen and Dave Holland and gigging regularly as a sideman. It was during a fateful session in Western Massachusetts that he met keyboard wizard John Medeski; with drummer Billy Martin, they would go on to form the hugely influential, genre busting instrumental trio Medeski Martin and Wood in the early ’90s. MMW released a string of discs combining jazz, funk, blues, experimental noise and myriad other subgenres and styles into their own distinctive amalgam, and mesmerized audiences worldwide with their seemingly telekinetic improvisation. Wood’s colossal grooves on both electric and acoustic axes — not to mention his imaginative use of paper behind the strings and other sound altering techniques – made him the bass player’s bass player.
Eventually, King Johnson opened for MMW in Winston Salem, N.C., and Oliver sat in with his brother’s band. “It was a slightly creepy experience, like watching myself,” Chris notes. “He had a lot of the same impulses I did. Part of it was influences and part of it was blood.”
Oliver agrees, “It opened our eyes that we could communicate on a musical level.”
In 2004, the brothers seized the opportunity presented by a family reunion and recorded some material together on Chris’ mobile gear. The sound of their blended styles was instantly compelling. “It was pretty amazing to get together with Chris,” Oliver muses. “We played together as teenagers, then we went in separate directions for 15 years. We’d developed our own thing and seemingly different styles and roads, but we were both blown away by how much we had in common. The roots are still there.”
Oliver took the music they’d recorded, added lyrics and finished it as a song. Encouraged by their initial foray, the Woods decided to take the next step, with Chris learning a batch of Oliver’s songs and the pair tracking a demo. Though they’d done it for their own amusement, MMW’s manager was sufficiently impressed to pass the music on to Blue Note Records. No sooner had they begun to think of themselves as a band than the Wood Brothers had a record deal.
Oliver had spent years polishing his singing and songwriting but felt his guitar chops needed work. Chris, meanwhile, was a monster player who’d spent 15 years making instrumental music and had to reacclimate himself to vocals and pop song structure. These different emphases ended up serving them well. “I had these songs and could sing and play ‘em well,” reflects Oliver, “and Chris’ strength — at the time — was to take my songs and make ‘em sound completely cool and unique. Instead of a typical band situation, you had this incredible upright bass.”
2006 saw the release of their first album, “Ways Not to Lose,” which was named top pick in folk by Amazon.com’s editors that year. “Modern folk and blues rarely sounds as inventive and colorful,” declared Amazon reviewer Ted Drozdowski, who deemed the disc, “delightful” and declared the brothers “in absolute synch creatively.”
Ways was produced by MMW’s John Medeski, who had been stunned by Oliver’s compositions. “He’s an unbelievable songwriter — his material is deep,” the keyboardist marvels. “I can’t tell you how many of Oliver’s songs I thought were old traditional standards. They just sound classic.” Medeski went on to produce the Brothers’ 2008 follow up, “Loaded” (heralded as one NPR’s “Overlooked 11”); he also contributes some tasty organ playing to the band’s latest effort, “Smoke Ring Halo.”
“I just love his musical sensibility,” Oliver says of his brother’s longtime band mate.
Working with Jim Scott on Halo, the Woods were able to explore new sounds. “Because he’s also an engineer, he’s very technically knowledgeable; he’s a fantastic sonic guy,” Oliver volunteers. “That’s why this record sounds so different from our others.” Also, Chris points out, “We recorded on two-inch analog tape this time, so it has that fat, natural sound we love.”
In 2010, the Woods and drummer Greenwell hit the road with roots rock phenom Zac Brown. “It was about the best opening band situation I can imagine,” Chris says of the tour, which sometimes put the Wood Brothers before crowds of 20,000 — many times larger than the usual audience for their headlining gigs. “Zac was really great; he’d come out and play with us during our set, and invite us out to join in during his.” Oliver notes that he and his brother “learned a lot by watching Zac and his band.” Brown also wooed the Woods over to his own label, Southern Ground; he served as executive producer on “Smoke Ring Halo.”
And so the two brothers continued pursuing the musical adventure they’d begun in childhood. For although their paths diverged for many years, and they forged very different careers in disparate places, the Wood Brothers are never far from the musical currents that formed their musical impulses in the first place. It may be, in Chris’ formation, part influences and part blood. But it’s all magic. The brothers will be bringing their magic to close out the Main Stage on Friday, Aug. 31, with a 7 p.m. set.
Sarah Siskind’s music is not easily explained or contained. She’s a singer and songwriter based in Virginia and grounded in Appalachian roots, but one who transcends category with a beguiling fusion of the traditional and the modern. Whether solo, fronting an electric band or in her harmony-laden trio The Novel Tellers, Sarah creates emotionally charged soundscapes that consistently delight and surprise even her long-time fans.
Alison Krauss has championed Sarah and values her songs so highly that she’s recorded two of them, both of which became singles and videos that received widespread airplay. Boston folk icon Jennifer Kimball once dubbed her the perfect hybrid of Joni Mitchell and Gillian Welch. Steve Binder, the legendary LA based TV/Film Producer who has worked with Elvis Presley, Dianna Ross and Liza Minnelli calls Sarah “the best female singer-songwriter in America today.”
Sarah grew up in a music-filled household in North Carolina, surrounded by not only the bluegrass and old-time her parents played at countless jam sessions, but a wide slice of the best that’s been composed and recorded across all genres, including Celtic, gospel and jazz. Her love of and affinity for music was obvious, and by four years old she was singing and playing piano. She wrote songs starting at eleven, and when she was 14, she completed her first album. Over the next few years she won numerous songwriting competitions and appeared on stage with luminaries like Doc Watson and Maya Angelou.
By the time she moved to Nashville at age 21, she’d released her third recording and astonished those around her with the boldness of her songwriting voice and became a respected and acknowledged master of her craft in the crowded scene.
In 2002, Sarah released the full length album “Covered.” Despite its title, it featured mostly original songs that dealt with love, family and relationships. It included contributions from special guest Jennifer Kimball, whose 1990s vocal duo The Story with Jonatha Brooke had been an important influence on Sarah and who supported Sarah’s development with performance opportunities and generous praise. Sarah’s inspired choice to invite Bill Frisell, a modern-day giant of jazz guitar, to anchor the studio band gave Covered a shimmering, unforgettable sound, while Sarah’s striking lyrics and melodic ideas made the songs both hummable and sophisticated. Bon Iver’s frontman Justin Vernon plans to re-release this under-discovered album on his record label Chigliak in late 2012/early 2013.
Sarah battled sinus ailments that threatened to derail her career during her 20s, braving several surgeries in the process. Despite the setbacks, she continues to achieve new landmarks in what are still the early stages of her career. She made a keepsake double EP featuring intimate performances from her home aptly titled “Studio.” Living Room then collaborated on the first album by Old Black Kettle, a vocally thrilling, genre-bending band with friends and fellow artists Julie Lee and Jodi Haynes Seyfried. Her song “Simple Love” became the signature single from Alison Krauss’s “A Hundred Miles or More” compilation album of 2007. The recording earned a Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Performance. In 2006, Sarah signed with prestigious Nashville publisher Big Yellow Dog Music, home to such extraordinary writers as Mindy Smith and Shawn Camp. There she spent five years exploring the intricacies of co-writing, and also recorded her highly acclaimed full-length album “Say it Louder,” which Bonnie Raitt called, “a masterpiece” and made numerous feature spots on NPR.
The self-produced, performed and engineered album Novel followed in 2011, which was mostly written and recorded during a summer in the mountains of Colorado. Novel may be Siskind’s most intimate full length album to date, exploring all aspects of human relationships as well as solitude, and an ode to Mahalia Jackson on her foot-stomping rendition of “Didn’t it Rain.”
Sarah’s extraordinarily unique voice and songwriting caught the ear of Bonnie Raitt and along with inviting Sarah on stage to sing “Angel From Montgomery” with her in June 2012, Raitt has asked Siskind to support her on a string of fall tour dates in 2012.
Sarah will release an EP, “In The Mountains,” which includes songs written in and inspired by her new surroundings of Nelson County, Virginia where she moved in early 2012. All songs were recorded live with one microphone. Sarah brings her incredible talent to the festival with an 11 a.m. performance on Saturday, Sept. 1.
Tickets to this year’s festival may be purchased by phone at (877) 472-4672 or online at www.folkwest.com. Complete festival information, including Main Stage, Late Night, Workshop and Kids Tent schedules, is also available at that website. Children 12 and under receive free admission when accompanied by an adult and can enjoy a selection of free activities and entertainment in the Kids Tent throughout the weekend.