A persistent summer sun quickly burnt off the dense carpet of low-lying fog hanging over the Doe Bay campgrounds on the morning of Saturday August 13; and each act playing that day either contrasted against the splendor or felt directly fueled by it.
Yours Truly clung to the Main Stage for most of the day, missing Otter Cove Stage sets by Elk and Boar, Hannalee, and Big Sur (the latter did enrich Doe Bay’s Busking Station with a lovely Thursday set that showcased Jake Hemming’s mournful, Townes Van Zandt-informed singing to great effect). Happily, he enjoyed breakfast amidst the dusky folk and weeping pedal steel of Sera Cahoone before jaunting to Frank Fairfield’s set at the Main Stage.
Fairfield was all over Doe Bay Fest, playing sets at the resort’s cafe and burning the midnight oils at the Busking Station Friday night/Saturday morning. It was all good, but his Main Stage set transfixed the early afternoon audience. Calling Fairfield retro is superficially valid–he’s a traditional fiddler who croons old folk and country standards in a plaintive backwoods twang–but he plays and sings with such focused purity that it’s nothing short of enchanting. Listening to him was like stepping into a timewarp that opened straight into the Depresssion Era Dust Bowl.
Remarkably, Fairfield didn’t tumble off of a flatbed truck in the corn belt: He’s a 24-year-old California Central Valley kid who just happens to look and sound like a character from a John Steinbeck novel. A short documentary on his life–and recent opening stints with alt-folk superstars Fleet Foxes–have garnered him international press. But onstage alone Fairfield wove a spell all his own; armed only with a fiddle and a voice that sounded like it was emanating straight from an old Victrola.
Ye Olde Concerts Examiner’s been long championing the work of Seattle songwriter Rusty Willoughby, so seeing Willoughby’s roots project Cobirds Unite amidst the natural splendor of the Doe Bay resort proved an unexpected treat. Willoughby’s current work casts his schoolboy tenor voice against a rustic country/folk tapestry, and the darkness of the songs provided bittersweet contrast to the glittering beauty of the setting. Willoughby’s vocals intertwined with those of fellow Cobird Rachel Flotard magically, and an element of the surreal surfaced when a small army of children began dancing unannounced onstage as the band played.
If Frank Fairfield sounded like a direct link to depression-era America, Portland’s Sallie Ford looked and sounded like she’d stepped out of a time machine from the early 1940’s. Ford’s a unique and compelling presence behind the mic: with her horn-rimmed glasses, vermillion lipstick, and mass of vintage curls she looks like a World War II Bell Telephone switchboard operator. Her voice, by contrast, combined Wanda Jackson’s rockabilly sass with the heavy-lidded sensuality of Billie Holiday. Her band, the Sound Outside, backed that singular yelp/purr of hers with down-and-dirty twang and smoulder.
The crowd (Yours Truly most emphatically included) was eating out of Ford’s hand by the time she and her band The Sound Outside performed “Against the Law.” The highlight of their great 2010 CD, Dirty Radio, it’s a slow burn of a seduction song that showcased Ford’s voice at its most alien-sexy. Guitarist Jeffrey Munger, meantime, picked out slow and nasty riffs that sounded like a Cramps record left out in the Doe Bay sun too long. It’s a combination that could find some left-field favor with a larger audience–Ford and the Sound Outside even have a recent appearance on the David Letterman Show under their collective belt to prove it.
San Francisco’s John Vanderslice backed his angelic voice with a spare acoustic guitar during his set, and his material sidestepped placid folkiness with a dark edge that touched on the airy melancholy of Nick Drake and the Zombies. The California singer/songwriter was joined for a few songs by a Who’s Who of Doe Bay mainstays: Campfire OK’s Melodie Knight and Fort Union singer Jace Krause both provided terrific harmonizing with Vanderslice at various points.
After Vanderslice’s set, I wandered off for an extended stroll to enjoy the island scenery, and was almost two miles from the Doe Bay grounds when Kelli Schaefer began. Happily, her loud, cathartic set made for an epic soundtrack as I wound around the sparsely travelled asphalt and clusters of lush foliage. Schaefer’s current incarnation flat-out blew me away at a recent fundraiser, and her work that Saturday marked her as the Doe Bay Artist most ready to fill an arena, in the best possible way.
Campfire OK gave Schaefer a run for her money in the room-filling-live-band department. This Seattle ensemble combines Polyphonic Spree-type chamber pop with Americana touches, and their energetic live show had the Doe Bay crowd hopping. Singer/keyboardist Mychal Cohen and vocalist Melodie Knight provided restlessly-fetching vocal interplay, and the songs found a great middle ground between Harry Nilsson quirkiness and almost gospel-y fervor.
Portland outfit The Builders and the Butchers play folk, I reckon, but with a ripsnorting fire-and-brimstone edge that impressed Yours Truly mightily that Saturday. Lead singer Ryan Sollee sounded like a testifying cross between The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle and Roky Erickson, and homey interjections of banjo and mandolin rounded out the band’s sound without softening it. If Ennio Morricone ever composed tracks for a roots band, it’d sound something like this.
Pickwick’s musical evolution is already the stuff of Seattle music lore. The band started out a few years ago as just another player in the crowded regional roots/Americana scene, when singer Galen Disston found an epiphany (and new musical direction) listening to an old Sam Cooke record. Now Pickwick proffers an utterly addictive blend of Stax/Volt soul and garage-rock directness that routinely packs local venues.
The band’s roof-rattling open mic session on Thursday turned out to be a mere taster for their exultant, groove-laden Saturday set. Disston’s titanic pipes remained Pickwick’s big calling card, and God knows the kid displayed onstage charisma to match that voice. But the rest of the band’s contributions really shone brightly: bassist Garrett Parker, drummer Matthew Emmett, keyboardist Cassady Lillstrom, and guitarist Michael Parker laid down a spare groove that sounded even better live than on record–and they all contributed a warm bed of backing vocals that sat well with Disston’s lead firepower. No wonder fans and friends rushed the stage at the set’s close, joining along with the band as things hit rock-revival heights.
Since playing a low-key set at last year’s Doe Bay Fest, The Head and the Heart have become one of the Seattle alt-folk scene’s biggest success stories this side of Fleet Foxes; touring internationally with established acts like Vampire Weekend and Death Cab for Cutie, topping City Arts magazine’s Best New Artist Poll of 2010, signing to Seattle’s biggest little indie label Sub Pop, and selling out local venues like the Showbox in short order. Not surprisingly, their set (the climactic mainstage gig at Doe Bay Fest 2011) felt like a homecoming.
Live, it was easy to see why they’d become such a sensation. Between singers/guitarists Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell and violinist Charity Rose Thielen, THATH sports an embarassment of vocal riches (seriously; any of these three possess the pipes and skills to launch a solo career); and they’re undeniably a charismatic and buoyant live act whose blend of folky-gospel harmonies, rich acoustic guitars, and rising-sun percussion seem like the perfect representation of Seattle’s current alt-folk scene. Ironically, with all that undeniable talent and energy, the band inspired more respect than outright love within Yours Truly. The thousand other folks jammed at the front of the Doe Bay Main Stage, however, offered heary rebuttal to that ambivalence.
Sadly, massive crowds kept Ye Olde from taking in Doe Bay’s late-night Saturday schedule. Yoga Studio sets by local electro-soul duo Fly Moon Royalty and hip-hop collectives Mash Hall and Don’t Talk to the Cops sounded great from the outside, though; and acoustic interludes by Matt and Mike Gervais of Curtains for You and Hey Marseilles’ Matt Bishop satisfied a packed Doe Bay Cafe crowd well into the wee hours.
By the time Sunday rolled around, festival volunteers and staff had already begun dismantling the main stage area and cleaning up the grounds. The party, however, moseyed back down to the Otter Cove Stage, where fans reclined under the sunny skies and took in laid-back sets by several artists. Among the highlights: A stripped-down set from Fort Union, the new project by Friday Mile vets Jace Krause and Jake Rohr; Kris Orlowski, whose raspy, feral growl of a voice sounded like a happier variation of Mark Lanegan; Kris Doty (bassist for Kelli Schaefer and a throaty, expressive singer in her own right); and The Local Strangers, a Seattle duo equipped with some of the most evocative harmonizing I’d heard all Fest.
Things ambled to a close with a set by Seattle folk quartet Youth Rescue Mission. Their opening number, a lush reading of that old chestnut “Sentimental Journey,” set the tone perfectly: Languidly sunny harmonies were the order of the hour, delivered at an unforced pace that felt informed by the heat and the brightness. Hannah Williams (former lead singer of Seattle popsters Friday Mile) formed YRM with her brothers Daniel, Luke, and Jesse; and this collaboration mined the best of both worlds, indie-pop-wise. There’s enough off-kilter quirkiness in their sound to nicely offset the deep-set warmth of their familial harmonies, and they averted over-sincerity with a sense of humor that bubbled forth frequently onstage. You couldn’t ask for a better place–or frame of mind–in which to wind out a four-day musical festival.