The 14th Annual Porcupine Mountain Music Festival took place in late August of 2018, making this the 13th year that I have volunteered at the festival. In the early days, a typical four hour shift involved a little emcee work and manning the sound board at a couple of workshops. By the fourth year, emceeing at the Singing Hills stage became my steady gig and with less than an abundance of people available who actually like to stand on a stage and talk to the crowd, my job evolved into an all day Friday and Saturday commitment. As a church council member and the husband of a church organist, Sundays were always too busy to make it a three day weekend, but it seemed that the people organizing the volunteer schedule were happy to have two full days covered. It was always enjoyable working in our little corner of the festival because it involved meeting and greeting the artists, toting equipment, helping string and unstring wires, and (finally) getting to introduce the acts. Chatting with the artists (and in particular with the drummers) provided plenty of anecdotes to share in the PMMF follow-up articles. Like death and taxes, change is inevitable and this year the festival underwent some changes that altered my duties a bit.
The first change was the elimination of the Singing Hills stage. Understandably, there were some who felt that this was going to be a big mistake as there had always been a main stage, a second stage, and a busking stage. There are several reasons why (in my mind) it was time to make this change. The performance area used for the Singing Hills stage was the leftover platform from the decommissioned double chairlift and it was starting to fall apart. Sitting as it did in the middle of a ski run, the platform was eventually going to be removed, so it made little sense for the Porkies Ski Hill or the festival to begin spending money to keep it safe enough to use. Secondly, the two stages were run with a fifteen minute overlap. Many artists would begin their hour long set to a handful of people until the main stage act finished and more made their way up the hill. It was worse for the artists when the opposite occurred: they would have a good crowd and fifteen minutes before their set ended, the crowd would begin to trickle back downhill. Even when we forewarned them that this would happen, it still put a damper on the end of many a performance. The trek up the hill was not always easy for older folks or anyone toting chairs, coolers, and so on. Lastly, there were times when an acoustic act on our stage would nearly be drowned out by a larger, louder band down on the Peace Hill stage. Don’t get me wrong; The Singing Hills stage had a good run, but it was time for a change (and yes, this is my opinion, but it was echoed by many long time festival attendees that I talked to this year).
The biggest impact on my volunteer gig was the loss of the emcee duties, but when one of the stage manager positions at the Peace Hill (or main stage) opened up, it was a perfect fit. I was able to slide into that slot and keep doing everything I had done at the Singing Hills stage except announcing. When this year’s festival is analyzed, I am sure that there will be a few wrinkles to iron out in the scheduling of the acts who performed in the A-Frame Chalet when the main stage was being reset, but during the two eleven hour days I worked the main stage, things worked pretty smoothly. Even when the persistent Friday showers chased all the mainstage acts indoors save the headliner, things kept moving at a good pace. The sound crew of Marty and Mary I was used to working with at the SH stage was down to Mary this year as Marty had a previous work commitment and could not make it. With that said, I did get to work with Mary again, along with Doug, who I had only known from passing through on the way to the other stage. Armadillo Sound is Doug’s baby and he has wrangled the mainstage sound for many years. Getting a chance to talk to mainstage emcee Kenny Lee more was also a lot of fun (we would exchange a cursory ‘Hey’ on my way through to the SH stage in past years).
With all of the above in mind, the rest of this two parter will cover the 14th Annual Porcupine Mountain Music Festival from my new vantage point at the side of the stage. It was a lot of fun getting to know the mainstage acts and (here it comes) talking with drummers!
The first item on the agenda upon my arrival was to trot down to the Green Room and collect Friday’s first act, The Talbott Brothers, so Mary could discuss their equipment needs. It was less of a ‘trot’ and more of a ‘limp’ as my recent inspection trip to the WOAS West Coast Bureau had flared up an old injury in my right knee. Once it was limbered up (and as long as I didn’t over do it with too much heavy lifting), my mobility improved (at least until Sunday morning – more on this ‘sore’ topic later). The Talbott Brothers hail from Portland, Oregon and in our brief conversation, one of them noticed the Pick-A-Thon tee shirt (from a large three day festival that happens in their backyard back in Oregon) I was sporting thanks to my buddy Mitch in Gresham, OR. On the way to talk to Mary, they expressed a little concerned about the steady rain, but they brightened up when they were informed they would be playing in the A-Frame and not outdoors. That was my last contact with them because now things kicked into gear for the mainstage prep.
The sound equipment for the mainstage was still in Doug’s trailer as they were waiting for mother nature to tip her hand. With the rain still pelting down, the decision was made to set up the stage in the area at the west end of the main ski chalet, just past the concession area. There was a very small platform set up in that corner, and that side of the building offered more seating than the A-Frame part of the ski chalet. By 3:00 pm, this stage was set for the next act, The Wild Rivers, but Doug was having trouble (as in “no sound”) with the PA. He worked feverishly to find the problem and once it was corrected, we were able to get the band on stage and sound checked. In years past, I would have been able to watch the acts from the back of the stage, but in this indoor setting, my post was around the corner between the outdoor entrance to the mainstage and the door leading into the A-Frame section. I was able to hear the bands pretty well from here, but I just couldn’t see them perform. The Wild Rivers were good, but suffice to say that I enjoyed the music but can’t report anything about any of the on stage performances until the last act of the day.
The 5:00 pm group was highly anticipated because the Joshua Davis Trio is fronted by a veteran of the PMMF stage who was last here with the band Steppin’ In It in 2008. Since then, Joshua Davis had become the first artist to perform an original song on the way to becoming the runner up on the TV show The Voice. The Trio were all great to work with, they sounded great, and Davis had the crowd in the palm of his hands. As past experience has shown, highly anticipated artists like Joshua Davis always take a couple of extra moments to thank the stage and festival crews for their help. Being appreciated by the artists make volunteering a pleasure.
The next group to appear was the Nashville based The Barefoot Movement. They played energetic, down home bluegrass music with a twist. I was minding my own business on my stool around the corner when they broke into a bluegrass version of Fire, a song I first played in my high school band The Twig…back in 1970-71. I kept thinking that “this isn’t going to work” and that was far from the case. When TBM got to their finale, they turned bluegrass on its ear again by playing a raved up medley that included Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train and The Beach Boys’ I Get Around. The crowd roared their approval and the band left the stage with big smiles on their faces. The two young ladies playing fiddle and upright bass laughed when I mentioned my 1970 adventure’s with Jimi Hendrix’s Fire, a song that no doubt preceded them both by three decades.
By this point, the rain had stopped long enough to allow us to pack everything back out to the mainstage in front of the ski chalet. Radar showed a large storm still heading our way, but by the time The Barefoot Movement was done, it was apparent that it was swinging to the south. Moving the entire sound system twice in one afternoon isn’t fun, but people were more than happy to see us moving the last act outdoors. When things had begun to clear during the Joshua Davis Trio set, Doug had set up a speaker outside allowing many patrons to sit outside and listen to what they hoped would be the last acts performing on the indoor stage. With an hour turnaround between The Barefoot Movement and the headliners, all it took was ‘all (stage) hands on deck’ to get the mainstage prepped for The Fred Eaglesmith Show featuring Tif Ginn.
The last time Fred Eaglesmith was at the festival (2012), he had a full band. I remember this rather distinctly because there was a big discussion about which group might be able to lend them a drum kit for their set. When Fred’s bus pulled up behind the chalet Friday, we unloaded enough equipment that I was sure he was touring with a band again this year. It turned out that it was only Fred and Tif Ginn this year, but the duo certainly made use of all the stuff we hauled on stage.
The emcee’s bio on Fred called him, “The enigmatic, countrified, Rock n Roll Troubadour.”
I never did see his band in 2012, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. What I witnessed on this night can only be described as a force of nature (and I am not talking about the earlier rain showers). Fred is an accomplished guitarist, songwriter, and a great story-song singer. Tiff is a talented multi-instrumentalist with a set of pipes that have to be heard to be believed. What sent the whole thing over the top for me were the stories Fred spun with a religious fervor that one would expect to hear in a country revival tent. How about ‘The Reverend Fred Eaglesmith’?
The last time Fred was at the festival, he was a little excited and some of his monologues got a little blue for the family friendly atmosphere of the PMMF. This time around, he had some fun with his past indiscretion and poked a little fun at himself for “getting a little too excited” the last time he was here. His take on rock ‘n’ roll (“It is all about freedom”), his descriptions of the timeline of recorded music (albums to 8-tracks and up to the digital platforms of today), and his dislike of man-buns and electric cars all rolled up into some gut wrenching belly laughs. As the songs unfolded, Tiff jumped between standup bass, drums, melodica, ukulele, and electrified mandolin without missing a beat. The sounds she pulled out of the mandolin via her extensive pedal board were enough to make Sharkey from Gandalf Murphy’s band blush (he was the first person I ever heard play slide mandolin, after all). It was a rocking good time.
The one problem with having a bus load of equipment to unload is the fact that at the end of the night, it has to be put back on the bus! The few of us left after the cords had been rolled and the electronics stashed for the night did double duty helping Tiff and Fred pack up. The night was humid and when we finished, we were all puddles of sweat. Tiff and Fred let the crew know how much they appreciated the load out. I hope everyone has forgotten Fred’s 2012 visit because the 2018 Fred Eaglesmith Show featuring Tiff Ginn would be a blast to see again down the line!
In part 2, we will run down the Saturday doings of the 14th Annual Porcupine Mountain Music Festival. Don’t forget that WOAS-FM 88.5 spins music from past, present, and future PMMF artists every Friday evening throughout the broadcast year.
Top Piece Video: The Barefoot Movement take Jimi Hendrix into the realm of Bluegrass (Fire from Are You Experienced)