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By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
FolkWest’s festival season will kick off four weeks from tomorrow with the sixth annual Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass Festival, taking place June 7-9 on Reservoir Hill.
The festival will showcase more than 20 live performances from 16 different bands on the main stage and late night stage over the course of the three-day event. This year’s phenomenal lineup represents a variety of musical styles and genres — from gypsy-swing-jazz to alt-country rock. The bands who’ll be playing on the hill this June are The Band of Heathens, The Duhks, The Iguanas, Della Mae, The Defibulators, Matt Flinner Trio, Taarka, Front Country, The Haunted Windchimes, Paper Bird, Finnders and Youngberg, Corn Yeti, The Expedition Quintet, The New Shoots Trio and this week’s featured bands The Black Lillies and the Warren Hood Band. You can find links to all of the festival artists on the festival website, www.folkwest.com.
Both of this week’s featured bands are past festival favorites that we are thrilled to welcome back. Austin-based musician Warren Hood is accomplished at violin, fiddle and mandolin, and composes and sings as well. Well-known to the FolkWest festival crowd as the fiddler for popular band The Waybacks and also front man for Warren Hood and the Goods, Warren’s current solo project, The Warren Hood Band, plays a crowd-pleasing fusion of jazz/blues/newgrass and acoustic music.
In 2005, Warren was voted Best String Player and his band garnered second place in the bluegrass category by readers of the Austin Chronicle.
Hood began playing fiddle at age 11 and studied classical violin for a number of years. At age 17 he won the Austin Youth Award and performed as soloist with the Austin Symphony. Later he honed his playing and singer/composer abilities with several of his former bands including Warren Hood and his Allstar Band, Blue Light Special, and the South Austin Jug Band. Warren graduated from Berklee School of Music, where he was awarded the String Achievement Award, Berklee’s highest honor.
Warren’s musical influences range from Ray Charles, Stephane Grapelli, Walter Hyatt and Uncle Walt’s Band to his dad, Champ Hood. Champ (who played in Uncle Walt’s Band) was a big influence on Warren from an early age. Champ was the sideman for many years for Toni Price at Austin’s famed Continental Club Tuesday Hippie Hour. Warren used to sit in with Toni Price, along with his cousin — Marshall Hood (formerly of The Belleville Outfit and currently part of The Goods), at Toni’s Hippie Tuesday show and delighted a new generation of Hood fans.
Champ once said, “I don’t know where he gets that gypsy thing,” remarking about Warren’s favorite music key: Gypsy G. “He’s so good, it’s spooky.”
The Warren Hood Band plays the main stage on Saturday, June 8 at 5:30 p.m.
The Black Lillies’ front man Cruz Contreras knows a thing or two about the road. His band was conceived on the road, during a year he spent driving a truck after losing both his wife and his old group, Robinella and the CCstringband. Its ties were strengthened, its sound sharpened, its skills honed, in countless shows along the way.
And the band’s new album, “Runaway Freeway Blues,” was conceived there. When the Lillies weren’t playing their 200-odd gigs during 2012, they were in Wild Chorus Studio in their hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., working with Scott Minor of Sparklehorse to craft a beautiful ode to restless spirits and rambling hearts. Rooted in the mud-rutted switchbacks of Appalachia, “Runaway Freeway Blues” is the sound of a band that’s become something of a phenomenon across the country.
Contreras and his bandmates — harmony vocalist Trisha Gene Brady, multi-instrumentalist Tom Pryor, bass player Robert Richards and drummer Jamie Cook — have grown from a few friends sitting around campfires and living rooms to a band that shows up in far-flung cities where folks to whom they’ve never played before already know the words to the songs. Eschewing record labels, they still managed to put a track from the last record (“Same Mistakes,” off of “100 Miles of Wreckage”) in Country Music Television’s top 12 requested videos for four months. (Its predecessor, “Two Hearts Down,” was a top-requested video on CMT for three months.) Despite trafficking in a richer, more authentic brand of country and Americana than what gets played on mainstream country radio, they’ve still been invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry more than a dozen times — a record for an independent act.
The Black Lillies, in other words, have come a long way from those early days, when Contreras channeled heartache and regret into a stunning debut. “Whiskey Angel” was the sound of a man drowning his sorrows, but it was an introduction to a man who had languished behind the scenes for too long. As the guy who loaned out his initials to Robinella and the CCstringband, which flirted with national fame a few years ago with a hit (“Man Over”) on Country Music Television, an appearance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien in 2003, and albums on both Sony and Dualtone, he was known best as a mandolin virtuoso and bandleader.
Starting over, he stunned friends and peers in the East Tennessee music scene with a voice that makes you think of Randy Travis or Dan Tyminski or even the great Ralph Stanley in his prime: steeped in regret, seasoned with pain and tempered in the fires of hard times. It served “Whiskey Angel” well, and when “100 Miles of Wreckage” was released in 2011, the band had become one of the biggest things to come out of East Tennessee since The V-Roys.
That record was the sound of a man taking stock of his life and his past, regarding the pain and the turmoil with a measure of wistful acceptance — which brings us to “Runaway Freeway Blues,” a record that finds the band focused on the horizon, filled with the nervous energy of excitement at the unknown future waiting on the other side of that distant hill; enthusiastic about the journey as much as they are about the destination.
You can cherry-pick any number of songs from “Runaway Freeway Blues” and find gold. Banjo, pedal steel, piano and everything else lift this record up on wings of uncommon grace and stunning vitality, and when Contreras and Brady combine their voices, it calls to mind classic duets from times long gone: George and Tammy, Gram and Emmylou, Johnny and June. From the gentle Laurel Canyon folk rock of The Eagles to the honky-tonk heartache of classic country to the winding jams of the Grateful Dead, “Runaway Freeway Blues” is an album that defies easy categorization.
It’s breakneck, brazen and beautiful. It’s the sound of a band that’s rooted in East Tennessee but more at home piled into a van stacked with gear, windows down and aimed toward the next gig. It’s an album that lets longtime fans as well as relative newcomers to the Black Lillies phenomenon know that this train isn’t stopping anytime soon.
The Black Lillies return to Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass with a main stage set on Sunday, June 9 at 3 p.m.
Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass is supported in part with funding from Colorado Creative Industries.
FolkWest’s other big event, the Four Corners Folk Festival, takes place Aug. 30-Sept. 1. This year’s exciting lineup includes headliners John Hiatt and the Combo and Natalie MacMaster along with The Wood Brothers, Darrell Scott Band, Jimmy LaFave, John Fullbright, Elephant Revival, the Lone Bellow, Sarah Siskind and Travis Book, Rose’s Pawn Shop, Baskery, New Country Rehab, Aoife O’Donovan Band, Slaid Cleaves, The Giving Tree Band and Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams. Tickets are currently on sale on the FolkWest website.
For more information on either festival, or to purchase tickets, visit www.folkwest.com or call 731-5582. You can also find both festivals on Facebook, which is a great way to keep up to date on the latest announcements.