Bearfoot Wows Eagle Hill Audience

Ends Season with Panache

By: - May 16, 2010

Angela & Odessa harmonizing Jason Norris Sam Grisman Mike Mickelson Odessa BFheader

It's Saturday night, May 15th. While not sold out, the theatre at the Eagle Hill Cultural Center in Hardwick is well attended for its final concert offering of the season. I am settled in my seat, anticipating the experience of a live performance by a group I have previously known only on CD. It is a group, nonetheless, for which I have become a fervent admirer.

Director, Sean Hunley, takes the stage to make a brief announcement about the season to come and then introduces Bearfoot.

As the group troops on stage and I am fumbling with my camera. I begin to feel disoriented. Something is not quite right and it takes me a moment to realize that the group onstage is not the group I expected. The bass player is male.

As the band breaks into a country tune, Odessa Jorgensen starts to sing, and all the elements fall into place. Though this opening number and the second piece, the traditional, Single Girl, feel just a little bit rushed, by the third number the pace is settled and feels in the groove. The audience as well has fallen into the wavelength and each number is received with growing applause.

Instrumentally, the band is sharp, in sync and every individual excels.

Visually fiddler Angela Oudean anchors one end of the ensemble with an air of serenity. She handles her instrument in a manner that projects competency and confidence that clearly indicates she always knows exactly where she is in the music and exactly where she and the music are going.

In contrast, Odessa, lead singer, fiddler and sometimes guitarist, is like grass in the wind. The music seems to flow through her like an electric current and her movements seem to broadcast the palpable effect it has upon her.

At the other end of the stage, lead guitarist Mike Mickelson is laconic, his facial expression staid, letting the musical excitement flow from his fingers to the strings of his instrument. Fluid, yet consistent he provides a reliable foundation upon which the other members are able to build.

Jason Norris is positively demonic in the ferocity of expressions that flow across his face as he demands the utmost of his mandolin. Whether providing a comfortable assist to the vocal forays of Odessa, complementing the harmonies of Angela and Odessa, or soaring into the melodic lead, his musical line is central to every piece. Prodigy, master, even genius are not exaggerations of description

Finally, dead center on the stage, replacing Kate Hamre, is the new bass player. Sam Grisman is no novice and if you happen to wonder if the name is familiar, you are, of course on the right track. Sam is the son of '60s icon David Grisman and grew up in the milieu. Although a member of Bearfoot for only a few weeks, musically he is as woven into the fabric of the band as could be expected. Visually though, he seems not quite assimilated, his position in the group something with which he and the group are still becoming familiar. He, like the others, has been performing onstage since his early teens and the proficiency on his instrument matches their high standard.

While Bearfoot has been constantly evolving, a requirement for survival over ten years of performances, this latest change, it seems to me, is going to provide it with its greatest challenge. The historical predominance of female harmonies in the group’s repertoire is a thing of the past. The new vocal balance with additional harmonizing by Jason changes the signature sound of Bearfoot’s vocalizations and I found myself distressed by the departure of Kate Hamre. Speaking with Mike after the concert, he explained that for Kate, ten years was enough.  I am sorry that I  missed hearing the band live with her.

So used am I to hearing a banjo in bluegrass, that I was quite taken aback to note none. The touches of  banjo I had assumed I had been hearing on other tracks, I now know were provided effectively by contrivances on fiddle or mandolin.

Bearfoot performed two sets bracketing an intermission. While honoring their bluegrass origins they also included mountain folk, western swing, a Beatles tune and original songs by Odessa. The love song, Heaven, is a bright little gem. Her composition, Doors and Windows, serving also as the title of their newest album, is dark enough and fierce enough to achieve status as an art song. I would not be surprised to find both of these being covered by any number of artists.

Bluegrass music is an offshoot of Appalachian string band music which according to Joel Cohen, for years the esteemed director of the Boston Camerata, owes its origins to the instrumental quartet music of 17th century Europe. Listening to Bearfoot, one can easily hear the complex weaving of musical motifs that might very well serve a more refined and restrained classical rendition.

Bearfoot’s performances however cleave more to the revitalized, ebullient expressions of folk living close to the earth. Musicians who had to make do with homemade instruments without eschewing the sensibilities of that music's ancestry.

Applause broke out any number of times during performances a tribute to the outstanding solos by each of the performers and at the end of the concert, two standing ovations surrounded Bearfoot’s encore.

In what musical direction Bearfoot will go with its new make-up, I can not predict. I do recommend that you get your hands on the latest CD, Doors and Windows. It is a snapshot of a band at the pinnacle of its artistry. Whether or not this new combination matches or excels the former is something we will have to wait to see.