Justin Townes Earle ::: Photo by Abbey Simmons
Being a lifetime Seattlite (at least so far), it’s in my temperament to be naturally set against anything related to Pullman. It’s irrational and rather childish, yet this way of thinking persists on the west side of the mountains, to the point where Pullman might as well be Mordor, the only fount of evil from which all bad things come. I wanted to hate our jaunt to the college nemesis’ lair, but I couldn’t. I had way more fun than I would have ever expected. And truthfully, I saw no evil beyond the expected abuse of the color red.
For eyes unclouded by rivalry, Pullman is just a smallish town nestled among the impressive Palouse hills, a place that despite being a college town, remains off the beaten path when it comes to popular music. This being the case, small town “charm” was in many ways very evident at the First Annual Birds on a Wire Folk Festival, compared to if it was conducted in the impersonal big city. This charm made for the overall highlight of what was truly a volunteer driven festival of still modest proportions. It was that element which made the ins and outs of the experience enjoyable in a way that could never be possible with platoon of over-eager security personnel tasked with quashing people who are judged to be having too much fun.
The first night of the fest we hung around the larger venue, an old high school-cum-community center with stages on opposite ends of the building. A Pullman version of the Phinney Neighborhood Center or a Good Shepperd Center if you will, housing a hodgepodge of wholesome activities and community oriented events. One stage was housed in the Gym, a massive space that one could easily imagine hosted its share of sock hops. With only two stacks of speakers on the floor just in front of a makeshift stage, had surprisingly good sound, and a bit of natural reverb to boot. That a “beer garden” was situated under a retracted basketball hoop with very tasty beer at a reasonable price just to the side of the stage only endeared us more to the gym. Kicking off the evening with Goldfinch, beer in hand, I had to admit to myself this wasn’t such a bad situation at all. Moseying on over to the other stage in the school auditorium proper, we discover Rocky Votolato finishing up his solo set to a huge, appreciative crowd that then proceeded to pack the lobby and the only exit waiting patiently in line at his merch table. [Rocky wins. Cue the "Rocky Theme".] Now that’s a start to a festival.
The Moondoggies were on their last night of a month long tour that took them to SXSW and had accumulated magnificent beards via an ongoing bet. Anyone could shave their beard whenever they wanted, but the consequence was a square punch in the jaw. Not open handed, a punch… and by the looks of their beard, clearly a punch in the face was a strong deterrent to shave. You don’t need to see their faces to appreciate the rock though, and true to form, the Moondoggies brought out the first dancin’ in the aisles moment of the fest. Backstage they related stories aplenty of tour, including a harrowing tale of Deja Vu I would never have believed had it not come from the person who had just lived to tell the tale once again. (View a must watch $5 Cover band documentary on the Moondoggies to get the full tale about the first incident.) This would would be but the first note of mortality we would ponder this festival weekend.
Damien Jurado was to take us late into the night, which kinda seems his M.O. these days: filling hot rooms full of people and then cracking jokes between songs. This night’s repoire, no matter how weird the circumstances may have seemed, was easy-going from the start on Jurado’s part. Conscientious of the size of the room and stage he remarked that he wasn’t a performer, not like Neil Diamond anyways. All I could think was, “If only you could see yourself on stage. Sitting there all lonesome playing your guitar. All riveting and shit. Just hush.” He also remarked that he been a happier person recently, and doing his “new song a week” project was a positive experience so far. Jurado had a bundle of new songs to play as a result, some from Saint Bartlett that’s arrive in May, others of a more recent vintage. One song was just a day old. “Arkansas” from his soon-to-be-released record is just an incredibly good stripped down pop song. That’s right, a pop song. I didn’t forget to tell you he’s been a happier guy as of lately, did I?
Goldfinch ::: Photo by Abbey Simmons
Goldfinch w/ Steve Norman ::: Photo by Abbey Simmons
The Moondoggies ::: Photo by Abbey Simmons
Damien Jurado ::: Photo by Abbey Simmons
Damien Jurado ::: Photo by Abbey Simmons
Day two started out with local band Hueco, representing the organizer Stereopathic music, as well as the larger Inland Empire music scene. To my mind, more bands need to remember the blues as a foundation to other things, and the five members of Hueco would probably be happy to teach them a lick or two; they’d probably be trading solos to pass the time anyway. Saturday finally brought us to the the third venue, under the eaves of a re-purposed church called the Belltower while taking in Portland trio Mimicking Birds. Gaining recent notoriety for the support of fellow Portlander Isaac Brock, the only real support these three gentlemen need right now to make their splash is a looper pedal. Frontman Nate Lacy has a soft voice and a soft disposition, and when singing recalls the timbre and inner sophistication of Paul Simon. Our afternoon highlight was an impeccable set of new and old Sera Cahoone songs in the auditorium, followed by a two-hour Saturday dinner break for the entire festival. Wait. Dinner break? I’m telling you: small town charm. I’m not at all opposed to the idea of slowing down the pace of my life.