By Jim Stanford on July 29, 2013
Last Sunday’s performance by Alabama Shakes was the most highly anticipated set at Targhee Fest, and the young rockers from Athens, Ala., did not disappoint.
“Are you scared to wear your heart out on your sleeve?” the quartet’s lead singer and guitarist, Brittany Howard, sang late in the show on “You Ain’t Alone.”
Howard poured her heart all over the Targhee stage, wailing on vocals and guitar on achingly beautiful songs like “Hold On.” A crowd of nearly 4,000 swayed and danced in appreciation. After a 90-minute set, the band returned for a four-song encore as the sun sank low over the distant hills of Idaho.
While the red-hot Shakes were a highlight as expected, what made the ninth annual Targhee Fest such a stirring weekend were unexpected high points seemingly around each bend.
The 75-year-old New Orleans pianist, songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint invited 16-year-old Ryan Garnsey, son of festival promoter Tom Garnsey, to sit in with him on Saturday. Sporting a kelly green suit, Toussaint left the teen tickling the ivories while he tossed Mardi Gras beads to the crowd.
While many festgoers came not even knowing who Toussaint is, despite his esteemed career, they sure left impressed not only by his charm and grace but the boogie-woogie grooves of his piano. He sang of people bringing a little bit of New Orleans with them wherever they go, and he did just that.
Later that night, Bruce Hornsby sat at the 9-foot Steinway concert grand and led his band, the Noisemakers, through an expansive set. While most fans remember Hornsby’s rock and pop hits and stint touring with the Grateful Dead in the 1990s, he threw the crowd a few curveballs, trading piano first for accordion and later a wooden dulcimer.
He proclaimed himself in a country mood and proceeded to pay homage to George Jones with a few covers, including “The Grand Tour,” and showcased several bluegrass songs from a forthcoming album recorded with Ricky Skaggs. His guitar player, Doug Derryberry (once of Derryberry and Alagia), strummed the mandolin for nearly half the set, including a well-worn and comfortable “Mandolin Rain,” while drummer Moyes Lucas ditched the kit for a washboard and sat up front for a lively duet.
Those fans not fully sated sauntered up the hill in the moonlight to the Trap Bar, where the Boulder, Colo., rock band West Water Outlaws held court. The quartet of 20-somethings pounded out a raw, energetic set evocative of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Lead singer Blake Rooker bounced for most of the show, and the sweat line ringing the neck of his T-shirt eventually stretched to his belly. Keep an eye out for this band in the months ahead.
The surprises continued on Sunday, the festival’s final day, starting with a large sound from the diminutive Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds. For anyone who did not catch the group’s performance at Jackson Hole Live last year, the name Sister Sparrow conjured images of delicate bluegrass warbling. “You thought we’d probably suck,” is how singer and bandleader Arleigh Kinchloe later described the perception to a fan caught off guard by the powerhouse horn section and thumping rock.
Rather than warble, Kinchloe roars with a bluesy voice that belies her small frame. Many festgoers were still mountain biking and had to do a double take when strains of Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” echoed around the mountainside.
The horn section wasn’t through for the day. By nightfall, after the stage was reset following Alabama Shakes, Tom Garnsey and The Hooligans came on to serenade the few hundred remaining fans. They had a few surprises in store, too, starting with Bill Payne of Little Feat on keyboards. The Sister Sparrow horns returned to jam, and suddenly the stage became a springboard for in-the-moment collaboration — a hallmark of Targhee festivals for nearly 30 years.
Payne had played at the late Levon Helm’s barn the night before and traveled all day to reach the Tetons. He brought with him the spirit of The Band, and the supergroup had no choice but to pay tribute with a cover of “Ophelia.” While the horn players wailed, other members of Sister Sparrow danced on the side of the stage. To cap the session, The Hooligans gave the nod to Payne for a 20-minute rendition of “Dixie Chicken.” Underneath the moonlight, there was magic in the air; the merriest of revelers might meet a Western belle.
And with that rousing finish, the festival was over — or was it? As the musicians straggled back to one of the Targhee lodges, a small crowd began to gather in the lobby for what started as a party but turned into a late, late-night jam. Sister Sparrow’s Kinchloe sang bits of vocal improv, while West Water Outlaws bassist Vince Ellwood strummed a mandolin. There was clapping of hands, snapping of fingers, stomping of feet, and some random guy shaking an egg. Every last drop of liquor was passed around. The singing and carousing carried on past 4 a.m.
Sleep came easy for the weary. Once again, the melding of music and mountains had been like a dream.