Remembering a beginning: Elephant Revival moves into its next cycle
November 28, 2013
Sitting in Belly Up one recent evening, Bridget Law brings up the fact that it has been almost exactly seven years since Elephant Revival, the Nederland-based acoustic band in which she plays fiddle, began performing. Law finds this fact somewhat momentous; she refers to the end of the band's first seven-year cycle. So I pick up the theme and ask what the earliest of those years was like. Most bands, established one and especially those first starting out spend an enormous amount of their lives driving, and Law tells me about Elephant Revival's first vehicle. It was a 1989 International school bus that belonged to banjoist Sage Cook, who converted it to run on vegetable oil. The bus was durable — the band used it for three years — but it wasn't fast. "It went 40 miles an hour," Law said.
Elephant Revival has been moving a lot faster than that in recent times. The quintet travels in a rented tour bus that has taken them to such venues as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and the High Sierra Music Festival. In January they ditch the bus for an airplane, to do a six-show tour of the U.K. Even though they have become used to increased velocity, the beginning of Elephant Revival's second seven-year cycle seems marked by a new acceleration. There are more tour dates, and bigger ones. There's more crew and more staff.
"It's not just the five of us floating around in a hippie bus," said Law, an attractive 30-year-old who, with curly brown hair, wide-open eyes and the flowing dresses she wears onstage, looks like a comfortable fit with a hippie bus.
Along with the growth in numbers and the speed of the their ride, Elephant Revival has seen momentum in their performances. Audiences are not showing up now because it's a Saturday night and there's a band at the local club. People are showing up to have an Elephant Revival experience.
"It's a new dimension," Law said. "The shows have taken off. Everyone knows how to take this music off; it allows this big energetic experience to happen, with a lot of people in a room. The touring is more rigorous. To me it's worth the harder touring because the shows are more exciting, impacting a lot more people. You adapt to what the demand is for the music. It's fun to play in a roomful of happy, lovey people who know all the songs."
Fans have a new batch of songs to learn with the release, in September, of "These Changing Skies," Elephant Revival's fifth album.
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This weekend, the band trades a room for the base of a mountain, and the crowd expands from several hundred to several thousand. Elephant Revival opens the Aspen Skiing Company's 2013-'14 Bud Light Hi-Fi Concert Series with a free show on Saturday at the Gondola Plaza.
The story of the five musicians coming together to form Elephant Revival is a tangled one. The first link came in 2003, when Law, who had started fiddling at the Waldorf School in her native Denver, met bassist Dango Rose at a bluegrass festival in Keystone. After that came various friendships and musical connections forged in Connecticut, Kentucky and Colorado; a significant gathering point was the massive Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas.
For a few years, the affiliation of musicians — singer Bonnie Paine and banjoist Sage Cook, both native Oklahomans; guitarist Daniel Rodriguez; and Law and Rose — would play with one another when and where they could.
"We were wandering minstrels searching for a way to harness what we wanted to do. For all of us, it was, What's next?" Law said. In a 2010 interview Law told me Elephant Revival "has definitely got that gypsy soul thing going."
In 2006 the loose ensemble tightened into a band. Rose was busking outside the elephant cage of the Lincoln Park Zoo in his native Chicago. The cage was empty; both of its previous occupants were dead. Rose learned that the two elephants had been separated, and that both ended up dying on the same day. Rose's response was to book a handful of gigs in Colorado and invite a bunch of friends to join him. When the run of shows ended, the five musicians left standing climbed into a hippie bus, started playing gigs around Colorado, and in 2008 released a self-titled album that spotlighted a style they called transcendental folk, a mix of bluegrass, Scottish fiddle music, swing and more. At the center of the sound was Paine's ethereal voice and presence. But beyond the sound was a vibe that was about community, the environment and the spiritual realm as much as it was about the music.
"I've been in love with this music from day one. A believer from day one," Law said. "I met Bonnie and already had this sense — I wanted to bring really meaningful music to the world, the popular world. I thought this music had a wide appeal — it was nice, it was easy to like. And it allows all of us to exist. It's about being a group, not about one ego. I always wanted to be in a band with more than one front person. I liked the way that looked."
Law says she didn't come from a musical family, but was invited into one. In third grade at the Denver Waldorf School, she was introduced to the fiddle, and perhaps more significantly, to the strings teacher, Chris Daring, who would go on to win a fiddle championship.
"I admired her from the second I laid eyes on her," Law said. "She kept me intrigued for a long time. One of those special teachers, you want to do your best for." Law ended her high school years living with Daring's family.
At the University of Colorado Denver, Law majored in the music business. "It was a weird time to study the music industry. So I just dove into all the ensembles," she said. She studied jazz, played funk and Dixieland. Her one semester of classical violin taught her that she was not meant to be an orchestra member. "I knew I was always a fiddle player. I wanted to play rock and blues." (Law counts herself a fan of classical music, and in August, Elephant Revival played a gig accompanied by an orchestra at Chautauqua in Boulder — "the highlight of my life," she said.)
After college, Law was in a bunch of "bluegrassy" bands, including the Lazy String Gang, and Oakhurst, who she joined for a tour of Europe. But her influences on fiddle ranged from the Canadian Natalie MacMaster to the gypsy-jazz icon Stephane Grappelli to Sugarcane Harris, known as a rock and blues player. And one of Law's early groups was Grain & Demise, with Kirk Rundstrom, who was also lead singer of Split Lip Rayfield before he died, of cancer, in 2007.
"I thought I was going to play experimental rock 'n' roll," Law said. "Then his health changed."
Among the great attractions of Elephant Revival for Law was that they weren't playing rock 'n' roll. There is a quietness and a patience to the band's sound, which Law appreciates.
"In Elephant Revival the vocals were really tame and gorgeous. And conscious, conscientious. Especially Bonnie," Law said. "And the way the boys chimed in, singing so peacefully, gently — that allowed me to focus on conscientiousness.
"I was kind of riled up, kind of a wilder one. In the last decade I've had to grow into the person who could make this kind of music."
One of the interesting things about Elephant Revival is the strength of the feminine presence. Paine stands at center stage and is a magnetic performer, whether singing or playing the washboard. Her bandmates uniformly praise her voice and spirit.
And over time, Law has become the band's standout instrumentalist. Her recent visit to Belly Up was to perform as a member of Everyone Orchestra, a shifting ensemble of players who, for this date, included John Kadlecik, the guitarist from the post-Grateful Dead band Furthur. In Everyone Orchestra, the music is entirely improvised, requiring a high level of skill.
"I always knew the kind of player I wanted to be, someone who could improvise with versatility, comfortably, let the music come from within," Law said. "I kind of knew that would happen to me eventually — improvise, play from the heart, but very technically."
Law, like her bandmates, embraces the mystical side of being in Elephant Revival. She said one of her goals as a musician is "to be the fiddle the song is asking for." When she pointed out that the evolution of the band to focus on three singer-songwriters (Paine, Cook and Rodriguez), Law said, "That's what the entity has spooled. It guides you to know what wants to be played."
When she speaks of the first seven years of Elephant Revival, Law talks about things other than the music. "It was a total adventure, lots of beautiful experiences, lots of layers of interconnectedness that has led to deep understanding of life, how to work in groups," she said. "We've seen so many gorgeous corners of the country. What a planet we live in. We jumped in the hot springs, swam on the rivers. We always made sure we made time for that."
The next cycle might be a bit less innocent — faster-paced, bigger. Law is anxious to see what's ahead.
"We've built a nice foundation," she said. "I'm curious about what the next cycle holds."
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