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Russ Barenberg and The Greencards at folk festival

 The 14th annual Four Corners Folk Festival will take place Sept. 4-6, over Labor Day Weekend on Reservoir Hill right here in Pagosa Springs. The musical lineup features 15 outstanding national and international performers including Tim O’Brien, the subdudes, The Bills, The Infamous Stringdusters, Anne and Pete Sibley, Eddie From Ohio, Marc Atkinson Trio, The Quebe Sisters, the Wiyos, Shannon Whitworth, Sarah Siskind and this week’s featured artists: Russ Barenberg and The Greencards.

 In a world filled with guitarists renowned for technique, Russ Barenberg has always stood out for his intensely melodic approach to playing and writing, and his new album, When At Last, shows that the years since he, resonator guitarist Jerry Douglas and string bass maestro Edgar Meyer made the widely acclaimed, supremely influential “Skip, Hop & Wobble” have only deepened his musicality. Although Barenberg decided in the late ’80s to forego a full-time musical career—or, more accurately, to defer one—he hardly stopped making music, and “Skip, Hop & Wobble” was the most visible manifestation of that determination.

 Barenberg’s story is an interesting one. He moved to Nashville in 1986 to be on the scene and try to get studio work. The goal was to be able to make a living as a musician without having to travel so much. It didn’t work out quite how he planned — Russ found that playing “pop” music wasn’t much to his liking — and he ended up working a regular day job. Despite the restraints on his time, Barenberg was still able to stay wrapped up in music, not only with the trio but with a variety of other projects, most notably the Transatlantic Sessions — a set of filmed-for-TV performances featuring musicians from the British Isles, Canada and the United States in a stunning, evocative cross-cultural exchange.

   Still, despite the satisfactions of projects like the Transatlantic Session, the Barenberg-Douglas-Meyer trio and a miscellany of appearances with friends like fellow guitarist Bryan Sutton, fiddler Aubrey Haynie and singer Tim O’Brien, Barenberg looked forward to the resumption of a career fully devoted to music. The fruit of that long gestation and of his move back to full-time status, “When At Last” is likely to make a lot of people besides Barenberg happy too. Leading off with the taut groove of “Little Monk” (nominated for a 2008 Grammy Award), the set winds its way through bluegrass, Celtic and contradance-flavored tunes that frame Barenberg’s lyricism and rhythmic subtleties in intricate ensembles that feature long-time friends and collaborators.  Douglas, fiddle giant Stuart Duncan and percussionist Kenny Malone, who appeared on Barenberg’s last solo album, “Moving Pictures,” are back for the ride, while the bottom end is held down by Viktor Krauss and Dennis Crouch. 

 Still, while ensemble interplay is the foundation of “When At Last,” its heart and soul ultimately is to be found in Barenberg’s tunes — some dating back to the early ’90s, others composed shortly before recording began — and in his glistening playing.  Few guitarists so perfectly blend a mastery of roots music traditions with melodic originality, or so finely balance muscularity with delicacy, and each moment of the album is shaped by these artistic dualities — and by Barenberg’s newfound energy and re-dedication to making music central to his life.  Russ Barenberg will be bringing along three of Nashville’s finest to perform as The Russ Barenberg Quartet on Saturday, Sept. 5, at 11:45 a.m. on the festival’s main stage.

You could call it an attraction ... a curiosity ... an anticipation of surprise and delight. But there’s a better word to describe what the music of The Greencards inspires: Fascination. If you’ve followed this multinational threesome over these past five years, you know the feeling. From their personal histories through the content of their work, grounded in deep musical tradition but elevated by breathtaking technique and conceptual adventurousness, there is ample reason for interest ... for excitement ... for Fascination.

 Now, with their Sugar Hill Records debut, it’s official. Fascination describes the essence of this band. It was, first of all, their fascination with American roots music – bluegrass especially – that drew singer/bassist Carol Young and multiple string-instrument master Kym Warner from Australia, and violinist/violist Eamon McLoughlin from the U.K., to Austin, Texas, where they began performing together, and later to their current home base in Nashville. That urge to challenge themselves, to test the limits of any established genre, guided them on their first three albums. It kept them focused as they accumulated awards and acclamations, from the Americana Music Award in 2006 for “Emerging Artist of the Year” through tours with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson to last year’s “Best Country Instrumental Performance” Grammy nomination for “Mucky The Duck,” a track from Viridian in 2008.

All of which leads to Fascination, the band’s most daring accomplishment to date. These efforts don’t break down as simply as lead vocals and accompaniment. Rather, think of Fascination as a puzzle whose pieces form one varied but unified image, whose music speaks as one voice, directly to the heart.

More than that, Fascination represents the band’s achievement of its primary goal, which is to draw from the roots while also advancing the possibilities of the music that inspires them, with each side of this equation nourishing the other. Just as important, it challenges The Greencards to maintain this process onstage and in its future visits to the studio, by raising the levels of what they expect from themselves. The Greencards will bring their high energy (and high expectations!) to Pagosa Springs for a main stage performance on Sunday, Sept. 6 at 1:45 p.m.

 The Four Corners Folk Festival is supported by a grant from the Colorado Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Colorado General Assembly and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

 Advanced tickets can be purchased locally through September 2 at Moonlight Books downtown and at ReSport in the Pagosa Lakes City Market shopping center. They can also be purchased online at www.folkwest.com or by phone, (877) 472-4672. Additional festival information is available on the festival Web site: www.folkwest.com.