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Bearfoot, Finnders and Youngberg to perform at Pagosa Folk ’N Bluegrass Festival

Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass is less than two months away, taking place June 8-10 on Reservoir Hill.

The lineup has really stepped up a few notches for 2012 with headliners Mountain Heart, Austin singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave and Asheville-based troubadour David Wilcox.

Rounding out the stellar roster of performers this year are Sierra Hull and Highway 111, Elephant Revival, Bearfoot, Larkin Poe, The Deadly Gentlemen, Lake Street Dive, The Phoebe Hunt Project, Finnders and Youngberg, Jayme Stone’s Room of Wonders and Cahalen Morrison and Eli West. It’s an exciting musical lineup you won’t want to miss.

Once again, this year’s festival kicks off with two instructional bluegrass camps, one for kids age 8-16 and one for players age 17 and up that will be held on the Hill June 5-7. As I write this story, there are just a handful of spaces left in the Bluegrass Camp for Kids, which will be taught by members of the band Bearfoot, plus the talented Phoebe Hunt. We can still accommodate roughly 14 older bluegrass learners in the Jam Camp, which will be taught by members of the band Finnders and Youngberg.

Both of these bands have performed at past FolkWest festivals, but Bearfoot has done so with what has seemed like an ever-changing cast of characters each year. But with their highly accomplished newest additions to the band, that trend looks like it may be coming to an end.

It’s a commonly held belief that crises create opportunities, but this principle was thoroughly and successfully tested by Alaska-by-way-of-Nashville’s Bearfoot last year, when original members Angela Oudean and Jason Norris found themselves presiding over a prolonged period of shifting personnel. Yet the cliché proved true in the end when the pair recruited Todd Grebe, another Alaska-to-Nashville transplant, Nora Jane Struthers, a rising young singer/songwriter and one of her bandmates, P. J. George, to create a renewed ensemble full of energy and creativity. And now, with the release of “American Story,” the group’s latest effort for Compass Records, it’s plain to see that the crisis was little more than a blessing in disguise.

Following the success of Bearfoot’s 2009 Compass debut, “Doors And Windows,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass chart, American Story introduces three new members, showing off both their distinctive voices and the impressive level of integration the quintet’s already achieved. Lead singer, songwriter and guitar player Nora Jane Struthers is the best known of the additions, having already released one stellar album highlighting her thoughtful songwriting and cool, clear voice — and having won the tough Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition in 2010 with her Bootleggers, a group featuring the second new member of Bearfoot, bass player P. J. George (the original Bearfoot lineup won the same title in 2001). Rounding out the revamped lineup is guitarist/vocalist Todd Grebe, previously known for his work fronting the acoustic honkytonk group Todd Grebe and Cold Country. And while the group claims that they’re still settling into their new sound, one listen to American Story offers compelling evidence that they’re being more modest than accurate.

With veteran producer/engineer Brent Truitt at the helm, Bearfoot hits the ground running on the new project. Truitt and Bearfoot haven’t been afraid to explore new sonic territory, deftly blending the group’s acoustic instruments with touches of percussion, electric bass, accordion, banjo and more—many of them supplied by P. J. George, who serves as the group’s gifted utility man—yet always, each touch appears to underline, rather than draw attention from the songs.

“I love that the entire album has a really rockin’ element to it, with more energy than we’ve ever had before,” Oudean observes. “From start to finish, it’s an album of distinctive music that remains deeply authentic, true to the band’s rootsy origins even as it steps into more sophisticated musical territory.”

“American Story” would be a strong collection coming from a veteran artist and it’s certainly true that the individual members of Bearfoot, old and new, are genuine veterans. Yet it’s all the more impressive for being the product of a group that has yet to celebrate its first anniversary as an ensemble. That makes for a great story, and for an even greater appreciation of American Story, but as the members of Bearfoot would be the first to point out, in the end the only thing that matters is the music; here it is, and it’s mighty fine. Bearfoot’s single festival performance takes place on Friday, June 8, on the main stage.

This year, Colorado favorites Finnders and Youngberg return for their second appearance at Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass. Finnders and Youngberg is not a law firm. Oh, they might know some things about speeding tickets and noise ordinance violations, but they are most definitely a band. One could call them a bluegrass band, which they are; however, the band’s focus on original material, incorporation of the pedal steel guitar, and the entire quintet’s adventurous approach to all types of Americana music make FY5 truly an exciting development in acoustic roots music. Anchored in the northern Front Range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, this band plays music of its time and place, and plays it at a very high level.

Songwriter and guitarist Mike Finders (pronounced Finn-ders) is a two-time winner of the Merlefest Songwriting Contest.

Erin and Aaron Youngberg (yes, that’s right}, were founding members of Hit and Run Bluegrass Band, which won both Telluride and Rockygrass band contests in 2003, as well as subsequent SPGMA and IBMA honors. Fiddler Ryan Drickey is a former Rockygrass Fiddle Champ and a much-sought-after session player with the likes of Matt Flinner and Michelle Shocked. Rich Zimmerman is best known for his mandolin and vocal work as a founding member of the Colorado-based band Slipstream. With such combinations of musicianship, creativity and experience, the band is finding some serious momentum heading into the 2012 festival season.

The band’s performance breathes like an intimate porch jam, yet the tight arrangements, lilting harmonies, careful choreography around a central microphone, and instrumental precision display the group’s commitment to their music. You can catch FY5 (as they are known in shorthand) on the festival stage on Friday and Saturday, June 8 and 9.

As always, children 12 and under are admitted free to the festival when accompanied by an adult and there are activities and performances for children all weekend long in the kids tent. Several volunteer positions are still open, with festival volunteers receiving a 3-day admission pass. Tickets and information about Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass can be found online at folkwest.com or by calling (877) 472-4672.

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