Elephant Revival and Mountain Fair: A match made in Carbondale
July 28, 2011
CARBONDALE – A major communal vibe. Undeniably attractive. A bit mystical. An evident connection to its hippie roots. Most definitely a product of Colorado. Outdoorsy. A dedication to the environment. A broad appeal that brings in all sort of visitors.
That’s Carbondale Mountain Fair, right?
Yes, but actually what I had in mind was Elephant Revival, the Colorado quintet that headlines Friday’s musical lineup at Mountain Fair, with a 7:30 p.m. performance. If there’s a better musical group to kick off the 40th anniversary edition of Mountain Fair, I can’t think of it.
Elephant Revival is based in Nederland, Colo., which has much in common with Carbondale – a small, scenic mountain town with a music and arts culture that is oversized relative to its population, and which is, in some ways, a satellite of a bigger, better-known community (Boulder for Nederland, Aspen for Carbondale). Nederland has an analogue to Mountain Fair – NedFest, a three-day festival that marks the height of its summer season.
The members of Elephant Revival – singer and washboard player Bonnie Paine, banjoist Sage Cook, bassist Dango Rose, guitarist Daniel Rodriguez and fiddler Bridget Law – dress as though they had just gone shopping at the Mountain Fair booths. Just as Mountain Fair demonstrates a commitment to the environment by recycling or composting 85 percent of its waste and running a bicycle valet service to transport fairgoers to and from Sopris Park, Elephant Revival gets from gig to gig in a school bus fueled by vegetable oil and partners with Trees for the Future to plant a tree for every concert ticket the band sells. (Which could be a problem at Mountain Fair, which has free admission and doesn’t sell tickets. How about one tree planted for every fan who drives more than 100 miles to Carbondale specifically to see Elephant Revival’s set?)
Perhaps the biggest bond between band and bash is the communal emphasis. Mountain Fair, for all its history and popularity, has remained a Bonedale-oriented event. The town, from restaurants to retailers, dancers to designers, feel an ownership of Mountain Fair, and pitch in to make it happen. Proceeds go back into the community – to the Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities, and to the artisans and civic organizations that have food and vending booths at the fair. There are such attractions as fly-casting, wood-splitting and pie-baking competitions, meant to connect Carbondalians to an old-fashioned sense of community. And while the headlining musical acts tend to come from out of town (with a big tilt toward Colorado acts), there is always room made for a plethora of local musicians. (This year’s Mountain Fair lineup includes All the Pretty Horses, the Mile Markers, Tjaar, the Earthbeat Choir and Sirens of Swing; Friday’s lineup features singer-guitarist Bobby Mason, at 5 p.m., and Moonshines, a New York-based group that originated in Woody Creek, at 6:15 p.m.)
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Elephant Revival has a similar focus on building community. Since forming in 2006, their music – a mostly acoustic blend of bluegrass, old-timey music, Celtic, swing jazz and gospel that they have termed “transcendental folk” – has been pulling in fans at a fast rate. They come to Carbondale after making first-time appearances at the High Sierra Music Festival in California and the Oregon Country Fair, and those listeners seem to come from all corners. The band’s momentum is built on a close identification between the band and its crowd.
“The relationship they have with their audience, it’s like what you saw in the early days with Phish and the other jam bands,” Amy Kimberly, the Mountain Fair director, said. Kimberly also presented Elephant Revival in November at Carbondale’s Third Street Center. The sold-out show left an impression. “That’s when I got an inkling about what a strong following they have. We were filled with people I had never seen before.”
For Kimberly, that quality made them an ideal act for opening night at Mountain Fair. “I think Elephant Revival is perfect for Friday night because they’ll evoke the spirit and beauty of what the fair is about, They’ll set the mood for the weekend,” she said. “Saturday night, we look for a wilder, dancing band. Sunday, we go for a big blow-out thing. We see Friday night as a way to bring people together, young and old, and that’s what Elephant Revival has going on.”
Bonnie Paine recognizes that ability of the band. Though she is the primary lead singer, and stands center-stage, she says the group is at its height when the quintet is playing as one.
“It feels like there’s a force, a life force of the band that you surrender to when you’re making the music,” she said as the band drove around the northern Rocky Mountains. “And it becomes more powerful when it’s not focused on one of us, but on how the entire band is presenting it.”
While unity is the evident hallmark, Paine says another element, not so apparent, is key to the music. The members come from a variety of backgrounds. Law is from Denver; Rodriguez came from Connecticut. Paine and Cook are both Oklahomans. Rose, a native of Chicago, is primarily responsible for the band’s name: He used to busk outside the empty elephant cage in Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. When he learned that the two elephants who had occupied the cage had been separated, and then died on the same day, he called a bunch of musician friends he had made, and asked them to play a bunch of Colorado gigs under the name Elephant Revival Concept. When that round of gigs ended, five musicians were left standing as a band.
“We were musical buddies. We had a good time, had nice chemistry, a nice connection,” Law said in an interview last year with The Aspen Times.
“We were all raised differently, in different parts of the country,” Paine, whose hometown is Tahlequah, Okla., the original capital of the Cherokee Nation, and who began singing and playing drums at the age of 8 with her sister and step-sisters. “But we’re all interested in the roots of music – the roots, and then taking it somewhere new. Elephant Revival is its own amalgamation of things coming together.”
Kimberly, who has had a long career presenting music, is always enthused about turning Mountain Fair attendees on to a fast-rising act. But for Friday, she is equally looking forward to introducing the band to a new environment.
“We’re really excited to turn them onto Mountain Fair. Because they’ll love it,” she said. “They’ll fall in love with Mountain Fair as much as Mountain Fair falls in love with them.”
Paine has never been to Mountain Fair. But after hearing a description, she got into the right frame of mind. “I guess we’re going to the right place,” she said.
The Kyle Hollingsworth Band (Sunday, 7 p.m., closing the fair): Hollingsworth returns to Mountain Fair, after having appeared in the mid-’90s as the keyboardist for the then up-and-coming Colorado band, String Cheese Incident. That show became part of Mountain Fair lore when, the morning after their set, the fair director found the band members sleeping behind the stage, and asked why they hadn’t checked into their hotel rooms. “Hotel?” they asked.
“Kyle contacted us,” Amy Kimberly, director of Mountain Fair, said of this year’s gig. “I think he really wanted to come back. They pursued us and we were happy to oblige.”
Blame Sally (Saturday, 5:30 p.m.): “It’s four talented ladies,” Kimberly said. “To me they represent so much of San Francisco, that urban cool vibe.”
The Hillbenders (Saturday, 2:45 p.m.): Of this Missouri band that won the 2009 Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition, Kimberly said, “These guys have soul. I call what they do, soulful bluegrass.”
Truckstop Honeymoon (Sunday, 2:30 p.m.): “A husband and wife that travels around with their four kids,” Kimberly said. “Their lyrics are witty, the kind of things we can all relate to.”
Zivanai Masango and Pachedu (Sunday, 5:45 p.m.): Panjea, an American band that plays African-inspired music, played a memorable show in Sopris Park in 2008. Giving the performance the genuine African touch was Masango, a singer and multi-instrumentalist from Zimbabwe. “We don’t always get the authentic African music. But we have it this year,” Kimberly said. She also noted that Masango is friendly with Hollingsworth, so a guest appearance during Hollingsworth’s set is likely.