Saturday, September 18, 2010

Crow Quill Night Owls at the Oregon Country Fair

So the second time we saw Opal Creek was at the Oregon Country Fair, exactly a week after the first time we saw them. This time their bass player was a girl, in a cowboy hat. Nice. We saw them playing at the Shady Grove stage at the OCF, which was a much more intimate venue: a small natural amphitheater, with trees on one side and a dusty path on the other, with the creek on the other side of that. They put on another excellent show.

But the big serendipity of it all was that we showed up early to get a patch of ground for Opal Creek and ended up catching the second half of the Crow Quill Night Owls' set, and that was just as confoundingly awesome as you could possibly imagine.

Now, I'm on record on this here blog as having an abiding tolerance for hokum; the CQNOs are loving curators of hokum, wild-eyed bodiers-forth of it. Picture R. Crumb's Cheap Suit Serenaders if they were fronted by Captain Beefheart, imagine if Roxie Hart (in Renee Z's knobby-kneed version) had a jug band, conjure up the mental image if you will of Gentleman Jim dressed like a gas station attendant and thumping on a tub to accompany a troop of liberated Sasquatches who learned everything they know about music from reading the names of '20s orchestras from the labels of shattered 78s: the New Orleans Feetwarmers, the Red Onion Jazz Babies, the Mississippi Sheiks, the Washboard Ragamuffins, the Golden Pheasant Hoodlums.

All of which is to say that they were as visual as they were musical, a conceptual art schtick as much as a performing unit, and while that sort of thing should rub me the wrong way, they were absolutely perfect. I loved them.

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?