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By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
We are just two weeks away from the ninth annual Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass festival. Festivities get underway on Friday, June 6, and run through Sunday, June 8, on Reservoir Hill.
This year’s lineup comprises 16 outstanding bands hailing from all over the United States: Peter Rowan’s Twang an’ Groove (featuring Yungchen Lhamo), the Claire Lynch Band, the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band, the Tony Furtado Trio, The Deadly Gentlemen, The Steel Wheels, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West, SHEL, Grace Pettis and Pierce Pettis, Shook Twins, The Railsplitters, Jon Stickly Trio and Moors and McCumber, plus this week’s featured bands, MilkDrive and Finnders and Youngberg.
Jazz-grass band MilkDrive features award-winning instrumentalists Brian Beken on fiddle and lead vocals, Noah Jeffries on guitar and harmony vocals, Dennis Ludiker on mandolin and harmony vocals and Matt Mefford on double bass. But awards reveal nothing about the Austin string band’s exhilarating sound. Fueled by equal parts tradition and innovation, MilkDrive delivers a distinctive acoustic experience that crosses genres, geographies and generations.
The band’s much anticipated sophomore studio album “Waves,” produced by Bil VornDick, was released in June 2012. Capturing the band’s sophisticated arrangements and fierce musicianship, the album showcases a number of original compositions and features guests Noam Pikelny (of Punch Brothers) and Futureman (of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones).
Ludiker, Beken and Jeffries met as youngsters competing in the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest in Weiser, Idaho. Eventually, they migrated to Austin, where they toured with an eclectic mix of bands and honed their songwriting chops before joining up with bass player extraordinaire Mefford and forming MilkDrive.
In June 2009, the band recorded and released a live album, “MilkDrive Live ’09,” which spotlights the band’s vigorous picking technique and charismatic writing style. Their debut studio album “Road From Home,” released in April 2011, combines haunting ballads with their signature instrumentals — “achieving a rootsy feel with a sophisticated edge,” as reviewer Graham Robertson put it. “A fantastic canvas for solo work.”
Andrew Dansby of the Houston Chronicle calls the MilkDrive repertoire “a virtuosic blast of bluegrassy string-band music.”
With labels that range from jamgrass and nu-folk to redneck gypsy jazz, the band has built a following that is as funky and friendly as they are. The group plays festivals from coast to coast every year, with stops in between at Colorado’s beloved RockyGrass Festival and at home at the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
MilkDrive will play on the Folk ‘N Bluegrass main stage on Saturday, June 7, at 1:15 p.m.
Colorado’s own Finnders and Youngberg proudly swim in the deep currents of American music — classic bluegrass, tried-and-true honky tonk, country swing and skillfully spun folk tales. While their sound evokes timelessness, it is a decidedly contemporary, well-traveled 21st century sensibility that informs their songwriting. Their tunes draw on the bumps, bruises and laughlines earned when we find ourselves in the “bogs” of backroads, dive bars and long, lonesome nights.
In this stream, a vibrant cast of characters populates their latest album, “I Don’t Want Love You Won’t Give Until I Cry” — smitten lovers, shamed philanderers, dejected diner waitresses and enthused rug-cutters. The album, freshly released in September of 2013, has already garnered some impressive reviews. No Depression muses, “I wouldn’t be surprised if this group takes off and becomes one of the new staples of the genre (8/30/13).”
Musicians with a palpable sense of place, the members of Finnders and Youngberg have all laid strong foundations as veterans of the vibrant Colorado Front Range acoustic music scene. Two-time MerleFest songwriting competition winner in both the gospel and bluegrass categories, Iowa native Mike Finders possesses an arresting and emotive stage presence. The principal songwriter and guitarist for F&Y, his finely honed storytelling forms the bulk of the band’s cannon.
Erin Youngberg (“E”) provides a muscley bass and beautiful, worldwise vocals, while husband Aaron Youngberg (“AA”) plays a mean banjo and seductive pedal steel. Both were founding members of the Hit and Run Bluegrass Band, which won the RockyGrass band competition in 2002 and Telluride in 2003. AA also is proud owner and chief engineer at Swingfingers Recording Studio in Fort Collins, while E has performed and recorded with Uncle Earl.
The group is rounded out by Rich Zimmerman on mandolin and Ryan Drickey on fiddle. Zimmerman was a founder of the innovative acoustic Boulder band Slipstream. Meanwhile, Drickey’s chameleonic fiddling has earned him a RockyGrass fiddle competition win and marked him as a much sought after session player for the likes of Matt Flinner and Michelle Shocked.
Together on stage, F&Y possess an undeniable chemistry and an energy that flows with might. Marked by an intimacy with the audience, their performances feature precision picking, soaring harmonies and joyful, energetic choreography centered around an old-school, single microphone setup. The emotional richness of their music resonates throughout their stage show. Heartbreakers slip in between anthemic glass raisers. Driving tales of working men and women shimmy alongside wryly humorous numbers. Quick-witted stage banter keeps folks laughing. Tightly wound instrumental breakdowns keep dancers on their toes.
Audiences nationwide are taking notice and falling under their spell. The group has made extensive touring tracks in the past few years, bringing their unique brand of classic, yet contemporary, acoustic roots music to stages across the country.
They were showcasing artists at Folk Alliance International 2010 and were one of 13 acts chosen as official showcasing artists at the IBMA’s World of Bluegrass conference in Nashville, in fall 2012. As they journey through the landscape that inspires them, you, too, may find yourself swept away by Finnders and Youngberg.
In addition to teaching and running the Bluegrass Jam Camp (only a few spots left — contact us for details), Finnders and Youngberg will kick off the music on the main stage on Friday, June 6, at 5 p.m. and play again on Sunday, June 8, at noon.
Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass is supported in part by funding from Colorado Creative Industries, a state agency whose mission is “to promote, support and expand the creative industries to drive Colorado’s economy, grow jobs and enhance our quality of life.”
The FolkWest website features hundreds of photos from past festivals. Tickets and information are available online at the website, www.folkwest.com, or by calling 731-5582. Children 12 and under receive free admission to the festival when accompanied by an adult.
(MilkDrive and Finnders and Youngberg provided the bio information found in this story.)