By Jim Stanford on July 31, 2012
“Is the air getting thinner?” Chris Robinson warbled into the microphone. “Are we getting high?”
The shaggy singer was correct on both fronts, with a wink and a smile, during the eighth annual Targhee Fest. As always, the festival held at 8,000 feet lived up to its billing as one of the highest times of the summer.
His new band, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, was one of many pleasant surprises on the ski slope above Alta, Wyo. Joan Osborne and Jackie Greene’s collaboration, Trigger Hippy, was another, as was a sparkling set by reggae icon Toots and the Maytals.
But the most outrageous performance of the weekend came late night in the Trap Bar, by Andy Frasco and the UN.
Robinson’s double entendre, during his opening tune “Rosalee,” captured the elation festgoers feel on reaching the secluded ski resort. The festival’s first day tends to have a giddy atmosphere, owing as much to the Sweetgrass ale flowing from taps as the altitude.
Friday night is usually the apex for me. After a crazy hailstorm on Teton Pass, Mon Frere and I arrived in time to catch the last few songs by Brokedown in Bakersfield, a country-Americana ensemble fronted by Tim and Nicki Bluhm, with Jackie Greene sitting in on keyboards.
Greene, who has performed several times at the ‘Ghee, cranked up his guitar next with Trigger Hippy, but it was Osborne, shimmying and tapping the tambourine, who stole the show. Picking up where fellow divas Grace Potter and Sharon Jones left off at Targhee last year, she pleaded, “Pretend You’re Still in Love with Me,” one of the band’s originals. Listening to her belt out sultry blues while shaking her hips, there was no need to pretend.
Anchored by drummer Steve Gorman of the Black Crowes, Trigger Hippy set the stage for the first night’s headliner, Toots and the Maytals. Coming into the festival, there were doubts as to how the 67-year-old Toots would handle the elevation, as in 2004 he had given a subpar performance at the Mangy Moose, attributed to poor sound. On this night, after taking a lot of oxygen, he came out as ebullient as ever, strumming an acoustic guitar he played for most of the set.
The group delivered a string of hits, demonstrating how their classic reggae remains “Time Tough.” On the hillside, the crowd sang along in a love fest reminiscent of Michael Franti’s performances in recent years.
This would have been enough to send most fans back to their tents with a heady buzz, but for those looking to take the night one step furthur, the Trap Bar awaited. On seeing Andy Frasco for the first time, his Afro flying, I just about hit the floor. A wiry-thin keyboardist from California, Frasco is the second coming of Jerry Lee Lewis. Dancing is a big part of his act, and fortunately he has a rock-solid band backing him, allowing him to leave the keys and cut loose.
The crowd went absolutely nuts, egged on by Frasco, who himself was going bananas on funked-up covers like “Old Time Rock and Roll.” “Legendary Music,” read the banner behind the stage in the Trap, which has seen its share of wild nights. Add this one to the pantheon.
One of the perks of attending a Targhee festival is that the dawn of a new day brings not only the potential for more musical moments but also outdoor adventure. The resort has worked hard on upgrading its mountain bike trails, and a cyclist who isn’t too hungover can enjoy some great riding and sweat out the night’s excesses before the first note is sounded.
Mon Frere and I rode out the south side to the newly built Lightning Loop, as a preface to the 2,000-foot Mill Creek downhill. A morning sprinkle of rain helped keep the dust down. Mill Creek is a twisting glide through spruce forest, wildflowers and aspens that drops into Teton Canyon near the base of the Targhee road. Those without body armor need not fret; while there are a few terrain features for aggressive downhillers, the trail is more of a cross-country ride, comparable to Cache and Game creeks near Jackson. In the past few years Targhee has worked with the Forest Service and volunteers to make it a lot smoother and more enjoyable. A dip in Teton Creek at the bottom refreshes those willing to pedal up the road and earn their way back to the music.
Day two of Targhee Fest brought intermittent showers. “Good afternoon, rainy mountain people,” Robinson greeted the crowd. He and his bandmates delivered a varied set, with a more relaxed groove than the heavy psychedelia he often used to play with the Crowes.
Earlier in the day, Chris Wood (of Medeski, Martin and Wood) put on an athletic display of plucking stand-up bass alongside his brother Oliver. Their stripped-down trio, Wood Brothers, with drummer Tyler Greenwell, galloped through blues, folk and Americana, leaving fans already looking ahead to a return visit at the Pink Garter Theater in September.
That night, Drive-By Truckers closed with a powerhouse performance of Southern rock heavy on “oldies but goldies,” as lead singer Patterson Hood calls them. “Box of Spiders,” “Three Dimes Down,” “Shut Up and Get on the Plane,” a cover of Eddie Hinton’s “Everybody Needs Love” and the culminating “Let There Be Rock” were among the highlights. Hood recalled driving over the steep grade of Teton Pass in winter during his first visit to the Tetons in 2002 with Jerry Joseph, to whom he dedicated “The Company I Keep.”
Before the gig, the entire band and crew had taken the Dreamcatcher chairlift to the top of the mountain, where they snapped photos and marveled at the views. Hood spoke of the experience in one of his patented monologues during “Let There Be Rock.” The sight of the Tetons left him feeling that he never would have to apologize for “any motherfucking thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said.
That sentiment summed up how it felt to be alive on a warm summer’s night in the Wyoming high country. By day three of the festival I was at work, but I heard J.J. Grey and Mofro put on a rollicking show that brought even the weariest of festgoers to their feet. And the finale of The Hooligans with Bill Payne of Little Feat on keys is always a treat.
It’s a shame promoter Knitting Factory canceled the inaugural Country Fest planned for last week, else a whole new audience could have been turned on to the Targhee vibe. Good thing an all-star lineup awaits at the 25th annual Bluegrass Festival on Aug. 10-12, when music fans will get another fix of the high, lonesome sound.