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Elephant Revival plays freebie in Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Anne StavelyColorado acoustic quintet Elephant Revival performs Wednesday, May 26 at Belly Up Aspen.
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ASPEN – The quintet Elephant Revival seems to be the sort of band that rises effortlessly out of Boulder County. Like Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident, and numerous less prominent groups that populate the towns around Boulder – Nederland, Longmont, Niwot and Lyons – Elephant Revival is rooted in acoustic American music, and they have an amiable, hippie quality in their sound, their look, the way they relate to one another, to their audience, and to the land they travel.

Elephant Revival is indeed based in the Boulder area, but the formation of the band didn’t happen there. Figuring out how the group came together is to follow a course much like a concert tour – it touches on Chicago and Connecticut, winds through Kansas and Kentucky and Keystone before landing in Boulder County. Bridget Law, the band’s fiddler, says Elephant Revival “has definitely got that gypsy soul thing going,” and the spirit of the wandering gypsy infects not only how the band formed, but the essence of what they do.

“We have traveled to three of the four corners of the country, and through the Midwest a ton of times,” Law said. “We feel traveling has been a good route for us. We’re out there learning, trying to be helpful, be loving to mankind.” At this point it’s almost unnecessary to point out that their ride is a bus fueled by recycled veggie oil.

Elephant Revival concluded a recent two-week tour of the Plains states. Among the gigs was a show at the Norman Music Institute, in Norman, Okla. that was part of a pilot project to spotlight native Oklahoma musicians. (Two members of Elephant Revival count: lead singer/washboard player Bonnie Paine is from Tahlequah, and banjoist Sage Cook is from Waynoka.) They finished the tour by spending time on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where they played for children of the Lakota tribe. It was a continuation of Elephant Revival’s work with the Lakota; in February, the band played a benefit in Boulder for the Buffalo Heart Project, an organization that aids the Lakota community.

Elephant Revival ended up spending an extra day at the Pine Ridge Reservation, but by the time they got back to Colorado, they were hardly sick of each other’s company. The day after the tour was Paine’s birthday, and the band was planning to gather for a celebration. It is a reflection of the band’s beginnings as friends who liked being in each other’s company – and, oh yeah, happened to make music together.

The first link in what has become Elephant Revival occurred at a bluegrass festival in Keystone in 2003. Law, who had developed an enthusiasm for violin at a Waldorf school in her native Denver, met Dango Rose, the bassist for the Colorado band High on the Hog. Law liked the music enough to follow the group to the massive acoustic music festival in Winfield, Kan. technically called the Walnut Valley Festival, but known to pickers far and wide simply as Winfield. There, Law met Paine, and the two women, both in their early 20s at the time, continued on to the International Bluegrass Music Association convention in Louisville. From Kentucky, Paine headed north to Connecticut to rendezvous with Daniel Rodriguez, a guitarist she had met back at Winfield. Paine and Rodriguez fell in love, then traveled to Colorado to visit Law.

For several years, this loose affiliation of musicians would jam whenever their travels brought them together. Then, three years ago, Rose had what Law refers to as a “vision” that tightened the group into a band. Rose, in his native Chicago at the time, was busking outside the elephant cage at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Rose’s music, however, was the only attraction. The cage was empty of wildlife, the two elephants that had been its previous occupants were both dead. It had been decided that the two should be separated, and in a sad episode of synchronicity, one elephant died in transport while its mate died the same day, back in its cage in the zoo.

“Dango reflected upon the nature of elephants, their compassion, their desire to travel as a tribe,” Law said from her home in Longmont. “He called up a whole bunch of us and said, ‘I booked all these gigs in Colorado. Come play them.”

When that round of gigs was done, there was a core of five musicians – Law, Paine, Rose, Rodriguez, and Sage Cook, a banjoist whom the rest of the bunch knew from Winfield – who decided to become an actual band. “We were musical buddies. We had a good time, had nice chemistry, a nice connection,” Law said.

In 2008, Elephant Revival released a self-titled debut album. The music – written and sung by all five members – was a style they called transcendental folk, a mix of old English balladry, bluegrass, ’30s swing and more. Law also brought into the group contemporary Scottish fiddle music that she had picked up on her travels to Scotland. But perhaps the most distinctive element is the feminine touch. Lead singer Paine is centered at the front of the band. Law calls her one of the best singers there is, and indicates there is something magical about her stage presence – “a prophet, almost,” he said.

Comparing Elephant Revival to other Boulder area bands with acoustic roots, Law said, “We’re much gentler, probably because of the feminine aspect. It’s not all about the party. It’s about something much bigger. We’re folk song-oriented, heart-oriented.”

Elephant Revival plays a free show on Wednesday, May 26 at Belly Up Aspen, where they will have available a five-song sampler from their new album, “Break in the Clouds,” due for release in a few months. The new album features a few noticeable strides forward – electric banjo, some electronic effects on Law’s fiddle. And Law says “Break in the Clouds” will show an overall step up in songwriting, musicianship and recording technique.

“As a band, as songwriters, there’s a lot more dimensions. We go a little more right, a little more left. The songwriting is deeper,” she said. “It goes further in all seven directions – above, below and within included. This one excels far beyond the first one. We’ve come a long way.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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