I want pounding drums
I want a million different voices speaking in tongues
--Bruce Springsteen, "Radio Nowhere"
(Note: for those of you who don't know about Treefort or the music scene here in Boise, you can read about both here. Also, apologies in advance for the extremely variable quality of the photos.)
5:00 pm: Neurolux
I'm sitting in a booth at the Neurolux, one of my favorite bars in town and THE hipster hangout in Boise since time immemorial. I'm nursing a PBR, reading a bit from my well-worn copy of Leaves of Grass, listening to Democracy Now on the PA system and waiting for Treefort to kick off.
Eric Gilbert, the artistic director of Treefort and keyboard player for the local band Finn Riggins, has a busy day ahead of him (I imagine). When I came in, he was talking with the mohawked gentleman behind the bar about festival logistics (how they plan to deal with crowds, what he's told the bands to expect, etc). Now, he's going through soundcheck with the drummer and the bar's sound man. The guitar player/ lead singer in FR shows up a little while later.
I'm excited. This will be the first festival of its kind both for Boise (as far as I know) and for me. I'm not entirely sure how it'll turn out--when I'd told some friends around town about Treefort, they'd told me that they hadn't heard anything about it. No matter. I've got a couple Clif bars in my jacket pocket; I don't want to waste precious show-watching time trying to get grub.
People are streaming in. I finish my beer, gather up my stuff and move toward the stage.
6:00 pm, Neurolux: Finn Riggins
It's appropriate that Finn Riggins should be the band to launch Treefort: on top of the fact that their keyboardist organized this whole thing, they've been one of the best bands in town for quite a while. They were one of the first bands I saw that made me realize that something really cool was happening in Boise.
As usual, they're great. Drummer Cameron Bouiss lays down the beat--everything from laid-back skank to full-speed-ahead locomotion (their songs tend toward the latter, but not so's you can't dance to them). Lisa Simpson's guitar jangles, riffs, shoots off perfect little solos and dips into Ron Asheton-esque distortion workouts as needed. Her warm, strong voice is in good form tonight: she sings the songs flawlessly. Eric Gilbert trades vocals with Simpson occasionally and provides hooks, colorings and textures with his carousel-like synthesizers.
After 40 minutes of FR's patented blend of New Wave, Garage Rock, Pop, Reggae, Disco, Fusion, Funk and I don't know what else, the gauntlet has been thrown down. Treefort is under way.
7:00 pm, Pengilly's: Aaron Mark Brown
I head out from Neurolux and walk down to Pengilly's on the other end of downtown. I get there just as Nampa-based indie-roots rocker Aaron Mark Brown and his band start their set.
I blame Randy Newman: every time I hear a rock-and-roller play anything that sounds even vaguely like Ragtime, I roll my eyes and think, "Oh great, they're trying to be ironic." Nothing wrong with irony, but pulling the Ragtime card's usually a cheap gag, and it can get tiresome. Brown isn't ironic. Or rather, he isn't just ironic: he's also down-to-earth, goofy, slyly absurdist, defiant, pained, pissed off and loving. He sings in a sweet, high, friendly voice that suits all of these moods perfectly, and his band ably handles material that evokes a variety of Southern and Southern-inspired artists (Harry Nilsson, Leon Russell, Lynyrd Skynyrd).
8:00 pm, Linen Building: Buffalo Death Beam
After Aaron Mark Brown, I head over to the Linen Building to check out Buffalo Death Beam, a seven-piece blues/country/folk-flavored rock outfit from Pullman, WA. I mean, come on--how can I NOT see a band with a name like Buffalo Death Beam?
I imagine that Ray Lamontagne might sound like this group if he hired Dave Grohl to play drums and occasionally smack him out of his mushy navel-gazing. They come off a bit arch (their first song starts as a celtic stomp and then shifts into a reggae groove), but that's overpowered by Chris Kiahtipes' drumming (believe me, the Dave Grohl reference is apt), Mike Marshall's rockin' mandolin, Caitlin Dooley's weepy fiddle and the crystalline beauty of their melodies and two/three/four-part country harmonies.
9:00 pm, Neurolux: Janka Nabay
After Buffalo Death Beam finish their set, I walk back to Neurolux to see Janka Nabay, a musician originally from Sierra Leone and now based in New York. In a 2010 Village Voice article, Jesse Jarnow writes that Nabay "has traced an arc [in the past decade] from elbow-rubbing with African heads of state and rebel generals to working at a Pennsylvania fried-chicken joint to sweating it out in Brooklyn DIY venues with a new band."
He certainly sweats it out up on the Neurolux's stage. Nabay sings his songs in a charmingly rough, conversational vocal style and almost never stops dancing and jumping and smiling out at his enraptured audience during his 40-minute set. His bass player and drummer handle the African rhythms with ease and make it impossible for listeners to keep still; the atmospheric guitar, keyboards and samples call to my mind the serene, cool electric jazz of Miles Davis' In a Silent Way; and Nabay's female backup singer dances and sings joyfully along with the leader. Between songs, Nabay gives a shout out to Sierra Leone ("It's not just blood diamonds. It's not just civil war. We've got music too.") and thanks the two local girls who had helped him find his way around town earlier (they're right in front of the stage). Finally, he and his band end the set with a sweet, brotherly (and sisterly) sing-and-clap-along. I do my best, but I've always been somewhat rhythmically challenged. In any case, this is the best show I see all night.
10:00 pm, Linen Building: Pickwick
After Janka Nabay's awesome set, it's back to the Linen Building for what will be my second favorite show of the night: the Seattle-based, six-man, quietly twisted R&B group Pickwick. Smooth yet sharp, their blue-eyed pop-soul sound strikes me as less Hall and Oates and more early Al Green. Frontman Galen Disston isn't Al Green (nobody is), but he's entirely more soulful than any bespectacled white boy has the right to be. Not only does he have perfect pitch, belting power and a falsetto that would make Mick Jagger and Bono envious, he's savvy enough to know when to deploy them and when to play it cool and stay out of the song's way. Pickwick doesn't do straight genre homage, though: they write lyrics about prostitutes who murder their johns and guys who can channel the souls of their dead girlfriends, and they close their set tonight with a cover of the ultra-obscure Lou Reed song "The Ostrich" (not to mention take their name from the label that released it).
11:00 pm, Red Room: Dinosaur Feathers
After Pickwick wraps up, I head to the outskirts of downtown to the Red Room. When I enter the main room, the flat-screen TV behind the bar is playing L.A. Confidential. I look behind me and find that the other flat-screen TV on the rear wall is showing Neil Young rocking out on his electric guitar. This is one reason why I love the Red Room.
Not long after I arrive, a four-man group from Brooklyn, NY called Dinosaur Feathers takes the stage. Their punky pop-tunes (which detour occasionally into arty noise) get some pizazz from the lead singer's guitar, some elasticity from the bass, some muscle from the drums and some extra luster from the keyboard and the three-part harmonies. Not bad at all. May go see 'em again when they're back in town (their Facebook page says that they'll play the Neurolux on May 17).
12:00 am, Red Room: Mr. Gnome
Mr. Gnome, an art-rock duo from Cleveland, OH, close out my first day of Treefort. The floor in front of the stage is jam-packed as drummer Sam Meister and singer/guitarist Nicole Barille blast out their oddball, humorous take on primal sludge metal. From another band, such quirks as split-second tempo shifts and filtered, echoed vocals might suggest show-off virtuosity and self-involved pretension. With this group, though, everything feels somehow light and playful.
With no more shows to see for the day, I stop by Mulligans for a drink. My feet are on fire and my chest feels like it's going to implode. I can't wait to do all this again tomorrow.
You can find more info about most of these bands and hear samples of their music on Facebook and on the webpages listed beneath their pictures. For info on Janka Nabay, employ your search engine of choice and you'll find plenty.