Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Opal Creek

I think I've established that I don't go out for many concerts, and also that this prohibition mostly only applies to rock concerts. It's not that I don't like live music: it's just that it has to be under the right circumstances, and that includes sound quality.

The right circumstances came along a number of times this summer, and always with quasi-amateur local bands. Viz. Opal Creek, who we happened to see twice back in July.

The first time was on a 4th of July party in a park on the Willamette, called Art in the Vineyard. Basically a convocation of arts-n-crafts booths (one step up, in terms of highfalutinness, from the Saturday Market here in 'Gene, if that means anything to you) and wine-tasting tents (Oregon vineyards). But even more basically it was just an excuse to get a crowd together to sit in the sun by the river and listen to music all day, and then see fireworks over the river in the evening. An infinitely smaller version of the Esplanade thing we attended a number of times in Boston (but, curiously, a better fireworks-viewing experience, since most places you can stand on the Esplanade have badly obstructed views of the fireworks, and if you can see the fireworks you can't see the musicians and vice-versa: go figure).

There were a number of different bands playing at the festival, ranging from Scottish fiddle to Russian balalaika (only in Eugene would the finale group at a 4th of July festival be Russian - awesome) to rhythm'n'blooz. The best was Opal Creek.

They're an all-girl (except that the first time we saw them their bass player was a boy) bluegrass band. And they're good. Guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, bass, the standard bluegrass instrumentation, and four out of the five of them can sing, lead and harmony. Hell, one of them can even yodel.*

And what harmonies. The plaintive deadpan of the Carter Family, with just a touch, here and there, of the sweetness of Alison Krauss, and a good helping of the Stanley Brothers high lonesome sound. I mean, they're not world-class - a little wobbly on the rhythms now and then, a little warbly on the pitch occasionally - but they had that wrung-out heart that the best bluegrass has. They had the feeling.

A nice repertoire, too, including some familiar traditional numbers (they did a respectable "Orange Blossom Special," and a kick-ass "Going To Get My Baby Out Of Jail") and some originals that held their own. And I have to admit that the particular gender alignment of the band was part of their appeal. I don't just mean because they looked amazing standing up there in their Minnie Pearl dresses and Wayfarers; they had a definite female perspective that came through in their songs, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, that I found quite bracing.

I don't have a huge bluegrass collection - just a smattering of Bill Monroe, Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, Alison Krauss, and a few other people among my old-timey CDs. But sometimes I get an itch deep down in my soul that only bluegrass can scratch. Opal Creek found it.

A perfect thing to listen to on a 4th of July afternoon, against the blue sky over the Willamette. That was the first time we saw them. The second time was the Oregon Country Fair...and that deserves a post of its own.

*The guitar player and yodeler left the band at the end of the summer, according to their Facebook page. Bonnie's going to nursing school. They're looking for a replacement. Any takers?

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