Yesterday, I had my strongest Oregon Country Fair show ever. The crowd was generous at Shady Grove Stage. And I felt good. They didn’t even seem to mind as I had trouble tuning my guitar under the hot sun. (Read further for my theory as to why this year’s set is better than the past.)
I’ve been performing at Fair for two decades now. Almost every year, I’ve appeared on one of the many side-stages — semi-acoustic or entirely acoustic.
A few blissful times, with my old band The Renegade Saints, I’ve rocked the main stage.
This evening, Matt Butler’s Everyone Orchestra headlined. And I am fondly reminded of year I was exceedingly blessed to join them. I say “exceedingly,” because E.O., as an entertainment act, is what Country Fair is all about. They are not a “band” so much as a “gathering of musicians” by invitation — a different lineup every time — horns, guitars, percussion, strings, turntables, old-timey stuff, banjos and mandolins, exotic things like sitars and ouds. Whatever and whomever Matt finds intriguing. They are absolutely unrehearsed. Matt directs them with hand signals and a grease board through a series of improvised pieces.
My bands — The Saints, The Blue Rebekahs, The Scapegoats — and my solo act, for the most part, have leaned towards the serious side of song. Not exactly what you’re in the mood for when surrounded by painted bodies, stilt-walkers, centaurs, clowns, fairies, carnival barkers, and other swirling odditorium entities.
The Fair is a vaudevillian/circus sideshow melded with rootsy hippiedom and craft-booth creative capitalism. It’s where you go to see entertainment that you can’t get at your average local venue. Yeah, there is some fairly conventional reggae, hip-hop, jamband, and socio-political folk. But the real appeal is the unusual stuff: juggling troupes, burlesque, circus music, exotic vaudeville, and some acts that I can’t even describe.
There are a lot of homemade instruments, played by the makers who have mastered them. My own set on the Shady Grove stage was preceded by Shovelman, who built a guitar out of shovel, and plays virtuosic weird blues. After me, came the legendary Baby Gramps with his eccentric old-timey dobro.
This year, I was promoted as “Thurberian character-filled Americana.” Ha! If there is one thing that Oregon Country Fair is all about… Well, The Fair is about a lot of things. (Strange and bizarre things.) But one thing here, that we celebrate mightily, is the ancient art of story telling. And if there is one way to make “Americana” sound like it’ll fit the Country Fair vibe, it’s to call it “Thurberian.”
All that dovetails nicely with the developments in my own craft and career over the past 3 years. Between songs, I must have talked to the crowd nearly as long as the songs themselves. And my songs nowadays are full of a lot more stories and characters than they used to be.
By the way, if you’re interested, James Thurber was a mid-20th century satirist who wrote my favorite fairy-tale: The 13 Clocks.