No Depression Festival | 07.11.09

 

 

 

 

 

Seattle

When I first saw the lineup for the No Depression Festival, I thought it would be pretty cool, but also a little mellow for a daylong concert. At festivals, I tend to lean toward music that makes me either rock out or dance. Mellow music (or "gentle music," as my three-year-old daughter calls it) is usually for winding down at the end of a day, background music for meals, or getting work done. I do like me a mellow set of music mixed into a festival…but a whole day of it? Little did I know this would be a near-flawless concert experience.

This was the first-ever No Depression Festival. The aptly self-described "roots music authority" began as a internet discussion board way back in the mid-’90s, switching over to a bimonthly print magazine in 1995. They helped to popularize the term "alt-country" throughout the next decade, championing a branch of the musical tree that didn’t quite fit into any "marketing" category. Jam band, rock, country, indie, folk—No Depression sort of covered them all…yet didn’t quite cover them all either by classifying music as music.

Here are some thoughts on the venue and artists we were fortunate to see and hear on that beautifully sunny Saturday.

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VENUE

The festival was held at Marymoor Park, which is my absolute favorite outdoor venue in the Seattle area. Marymoor Park is located in Seattle’s neighboring town of Redmond (in other places, this would be called a "suburb"), which is home to a couple little companies known as Microsoft and Nintendo (among others), and many of their employees. The park is a large one (640 acres), and one part of it is home to a relatively intimate 5,000-person outdoor concert venue.

It is a well-laid out space and feels more like a park than a concert venue. There is lots of room for dancing, sitting or wandering, depending on what you like. There are clear views of the stage almost anywhere, except in the part where you buy the beer/food, which is behind a small hill.

ARTISTS

Thanks to the fact that we were bringing two children to the show, we were running very late and missed the first two acts (sorry Zee Avi and No Depression All Star Revue, nothing personal). If any of you have children, you know that silly things like "schedules" don’t apply when your kids don’t understand the concept of time. Not to mention the wrangling of gear (coloring books? snacks? bedtime stuff for later?) that comes with doing anything for more than an hour with small children. Fortunately, there was plenty of other great music to be heard…

Jessica Lea Mayfield

This not-quite-20-year-old is shows some songwriting promise with her first album. With Blasphemy So Heartfelt is a quality piece of work produced by Dan Aurbach of the Black Keys. Her tunes are pretty and bittersweet, with a heavy dose of the bitter (sample lyric: "I was walking with your left hand in my back pocket/ and I stared at the sky while you kissed me/ and all these words sound so sweet/ I could care less about you"). She was backed up in concert by her bass-playing, big beard-wearing brother and a platinum blonde chick with horn-rimmed glasses banging away on the drums.  

All the songs that I love from her album translated nicely into the summery, sunny day. I heard all of the songs that I didn’t love from her album, too, and found that maybe I do actually love them as well. When their not-so-great album work is given new life played live, so much that it changes the way you think about those songs, that is always a good sign. Jessica Lea has got a cool backing band; I think she needs a name for the whole band rather than just her own. It will be interesting to see what these crazy kids can pull off next.

The Tallboys

During the 15 to 20 breaks in between acts on the main stage, there were a couple bands busking in the back of the venue, keeping the old-timey spirit of roots music alive. Both of the bands were cool, and it added a nice community feel to the festival.

I was able to check out the Tallboys, who are a four-piece old-time band; harmonies, a banjo, stand-up bass, fiddle and cloggin. Wait, what was that last one? Cloggin. The female singer was tap-tap-tapping with her feet on a piece of wood for the percussion. That is way cool. Way cool.

Justin Townes Earle

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The guy has got a pedigree: son of Steve Earle and stepson of Allison Moorer (a folk singer in her own right), and the middle name of Townes Van Zant. Also, little Justin followed in daddy’s footsteps all the way into and subsequently out of rehab, which gives him some street cred in the livin’ department.

This tall, lanky Texan was on stage with another guy (Cory Younts) who was playing the mandolin and other stringed instruments here and there. They pulled off a nice, honky-tonk groove that felt fresh. Justin told some stories in between songs that were both interesting and entertaining. It didn’t feel like he was "on stage," rather that we were hangin’ in his yard and he was telling us about songs that he had written. This was the first time I heard his music, and the songs were strong.

That, and he is a pretty sweet finger picker. He has those long-ass fingernails that serve as picks, and one of them apparently had come off, prompting him to contact the No Depression people on his way into town to request superglue, sewing needles and guitar strings.

Jessie Sykes

I am not exactly sure what I was doing while she was playing. I had gotten a couple of her CDs from the Seattle Library a few weeks prior, and I was interested in her music live. I think it was good; I was either socializing or playing with my kids. Sorry, Jessie, catch you another time.

Patterson Hood

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One of the guys from the Drive-By Truckers is out doing his own thing now. Actually, a lot of the guys from DBT are out doing their own thing now. They are all pretty great songwriters, and anyone that listens to DBT can hear the different sounds coming out of them. Patterson Hood is the crazy storyteller one.

He rocked a little more than anyone else of the day, which I certainly appreciated. Like the work that he does with DBT, the songs were fun journeys into his life, mixing country and rock fairly seamlessly.

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Sam Beam is an interesting guitar player and songwriter. His understated, whispery and oddly melodic vocals come at you fast, at times almost like a rapper. What’s amazing is that people find themselves dancing to the rhythms of one guy singing with his acoustic guitar. He has an album that he worked on with a band (2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog), but live he tours solo most of the time.

Beam’s songs are generally long stories, so it is understandable that he will occasionally forget the lyrics. A lot of his songs vary only slightly in chord structure, too, so it is understandable that he sometimes also forgets how that works. However, those that would note that and pick on it are snobbish jerkyfaces. The only reason that I noticed this was that he kept stopping and talking about it. Just keep playing, buddy!

The crowd was intensely quiet, so much so that you could hear the coughs and the rustling of paper. So much so that if one had a three-year-old, one might feel a little guilty about her talking. But that three-year-old could be forgiven when she says, "Mommy, this song is from my nigh’ nigh’ CD. It makes me feel happy."

Snapshot of the Day

I Can Still Feel the Dead Thing on My Foot

Our one-year-old son, Riley, was enjoying himself by running around the large open space near the back of the dance floor. He is at the stage where he likes to grab pretty much everything. He doesn’t put everything in his mouth, but he does still sample things occasionally.

As he was running, I would see little things in the corner of my eye, and then I would flick them back away from us with my bare foot (that’s how I roll at concerts when I can, baby). I flicked a broken twist tie, a stick, a cup, a wood chip, a bunch of…hmmmm, what was that?

A few yards away from us, a couple who was watching us said something about…a dead thing? Well, Riley kept walking, and seemed to suddenly be focused on the unknown thing I just flicked away. I flicked it back a couple more times, and then noticed an unpleasant smell. I picked up Riley and looked at the thing I was flicking (and barely touching). It appeared to be a dried out, desiccated varmint of some kind, like a marmot or a squirrel.

We left the area and spoke to one of "security" people walking around. In this case, it was a middle-aged woman and a teenage boy, who literally took a step back from me when I told them there was "dead thing in front of the soundboard." Eventually, when they realized I was not a crazy person, they sheepishly got someone with a shovel and gloves to take it away.

Gillian Welch

Backed by David Rawlings on banjo and harmonies, the headliner for the day did not fail to impress. As they were with Iron and Wine, the crowd was respectfully silent throughout her set. Well, that’s not quite true; the crowd did sing along a lot more, and there was an element of excitement the other bands didn’t seem foster.

Just as Welch was taking the stage, people ran to the front to get a better vantage point. As I mentioned, the views are pretty great everywhere, and it was not very crowded anyhow. I would guess they were not looking to see better, but rather to immerse themselves in the music, which was top notch.

Their sound was crisp and clear, and Welch added some percussive elements by stomping her boots, something that always gets extra points in my book. She chatted with the crowd easily and unselfconsciously, playing a variety of tunes from her albums. She ended with her version of "I’ll Fly Away," which was featured on the O Brother, Where Are Thou? soundtrack with Allison Krauss and Emmylou Harris. It was during this song that we escaped from the parking lot into the night, feeling satisfied with our day of music. | Tony Van Zeyl

Additional reporting by Lorie Betelyoun. Photos by Christopher Nelson.

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