Nahko discusses solo album, two nights with Medicine for the People at Belly Up Aspen
IF YOU GO …
Who: Nahko and Medicine for the People
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Wednesday, Aug. 29 & Thursday, Aug. 30, 8:30 p.m.
How much: $35/general admission; $60/reserved seats
Tickets: Belly Up box office; bellyupaspen.com
Digging into his song archives and rekindling memories of a pivotal time in his early adulthood led Nahko — frontman for the band Nahko and Medicine for the People — on a journey of self-discovery last year.
He then brought his fans along, opening up on the revelatory and personal debut solo album “My Name is Bear” and a short-story collection of the same name.
“I really went deep into remembering that time frame and remembering the transition I was going through and the craziness that I was living at that time,” Nahko said in a recent interview from a tour stop in Michigan.
The project focused on a three-year period for Nahko, from age 18 to 21 — just before he formed his band — when he hitchhiked around the U.S. and wrote music and eventually met his birth mother for the first time. Adopted as a child, he’d been raised as “David,” but at the end of this transformative period and learning about his Native American heritage, he reclaimed his native Nahko name and formed Medicine for the People.
In the spring of 2017, he dug through his notebooks and his cassette tape recordings from that time to make “My Name is Bear.” He’s re-recorded these deeply personal songs in intimate folk arrangements.
“I’m glad I did it now and not 10 years from now,” Nahko, now 32, said with a laugh. “I’d rather remember 10 years ago than try to remember 20 years ago. I’m trying to get ahead of the game before I start losing my memories.”
The record includes interludes from those original recordings, along with deeply personal songs like “Early February,” about meeting his birth mother for the first time, songs marking milestones of his youth like experimenting with psychedelic drugs and road-tripping to Burning Man for the first time, and early stabs at political writing such as “Die Like Dinoz,” a love story about dinosaurs doomed by climate change.
Nahko had been planning to polish this material for years, but kept it on the back burner as his Medicine for the People collective took off and gained a massive following for its blend of folk, rock, world music and hip-hop (Nahko has taken to calling it “thump-hop”).
“I was waiting for an appropriate time to do it,” he said. “And last spring I was like, ‘OK, I think I’ve got some time now.’”
He and the band have adapted the mostly acoustic solo material for rocking full-band treatments, and this summer have been playing those songs alongside material from its three full-band records.
They’ll play a two-night run at Belly Up Aspen today and Thursday.
“It’s great having a collage of our work and being able to play it and just create cool sets and cool vibes,” Nahko said. “It’s super fun.”
And the process of self-examination is ongoing for Nahko. He recently got his hands on a few more old hard drives that hold yet more old songs on them. He’s now mining those for a planned second volume of solo material.
“Most musicians look back on their previous recordings and go, ‘Gosh, I wish I could change all this stuff,’” he said. “I still think that. But it’s far more mature than it would have been years ago. I’m happy with it. And there’s always room for remixes. When you do it live, it’s always a little bit different.”
The band’s extraordinary live performances, after all, are what Nahko and Medicine for the People have built a worldwide following on. The community of fans, dubbed the “Medicine Tribe,” has grown around the shows and Nahko’s earnest message of environmentalism, spirituality and social justice.
Last month, Nahko performed at the Youth Climate March on the National Mall, a rally organized by the teen-led activist coalition Zero Hour. The Trump era, he said, while disheartening for the progressive causes that Nahko champions, has given rise to a new generation of activists who give him hope.
“It’s a beautiful thing to witness kids who are not old enough to vote, yet are so wise — they’re putting up a good fight, saying, ‘This is our planet you are leaving us and we don’t even get to vote on the issues that are going to affect us,’” he said. “We are a global mess right now. The human race is fighting to sink or swim. Either you’re on fire or you’re under water. But I have a lot of faith in young people and in the goodness of creation. I think we’re in for a wild ride.”
And while Nahko takes his role as a public figure seriously — using his platform to inspire social change — he and his band mates are still committed entertainers.
The band has become a Colorado favorite thanks to its notoriously fierce and fun shows. At the band’s 2016 Hi-Fi Concert in Base Village in Snowmass, they played a cover version of Blackstreet’s 1990s R&B hit “No Diggity,” a very unexpected cover choice that nonetheless turned into an enthusiastic call-and-response number.
“I’m a fan of any live show busting out a cover, especially if they can initiate interaction with the crowd,” Nahko said of the “No Diggity” rendition. “I find those little tidbits to be places where people can have a moment of union and go, ‘Oh yeah, we all know that song.’”
The band’s two-night run at Belly Up comes on the heels of some huge summer concerts, including a handful of dates supporting Zac Brown Band and OneRepublic, and a summer tour with Dispatch that included Red Rocks Ampitheatre and that picks up again in mid-September after a run of solo Nahko shows. (Just last week, Medicine for the People and Dispatch released an exuberant video of a choreographed jam on their tour bus mashing up Nahko’s “Manifesto” with Dispatch’s “Letter to Lady J.”)
This swing through Colorado also includes a sold-out show at the Mishawaka Amphitheatre and a set at the Four Corners Folk Festival in Pagosa Springs.
On the band’s frequent stops in Colorado, Nahko always makes time to get into the woods. Growing up in Oregon and Hawaii, he’s an ocean kid, he proudly says, but he spent a lot of time around here in the years when he “was just vagabonding around.”
“Colorado is a trippy place,” he said. “It’s an axis point for so many dimensional anomalies and it’s a spiritual vortex for traditional peoples. Anytime I come there I can feel the vibe, the layers — it’s like a freeway for traffic in that sense. … I love Aspen town: gondola central!”
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With the likelihood that some level of COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings will still be in place come Mountain Fair weekend, July 23-25, organizers are taking some aspects of the fair to the streets and elsewhere around town.