Saturday, July 28, 2007

Art on the Green: Four Musical Acts

Local Musicians a Highlight of Art on the Green Festival

Next weekend’s Art on the Green is the annual festival’s 39th year of bringing regional fine art, endless expensive pottery, legendary German sausages and unique performances to the lush campus of North Idaho College. Every year, festival organizers have a true knack for selecting top-notch local entertainment for both the main North Stage and the smaller South stage. Performers on the North Stage this year range from the grand Coeur d’Alene Symphony to Laura Hamilton’s perpetually amazing North Idaho Dance Ensemble to folk dancers representing Ireland, the Ukraine, and the Middle East. However, for music fans, the South stage will be where you’ll want to stake your claim to a shady patch of grass. A diverse assortment of musicians will be entertaining the crowds, including four acts who were gracious enough to discuss their music with me and answer some of my silly questions.

Singer/songwriter Cheryl Branz is excited about returning to the NIC campus when she performs on Friday evening. She attended classes here for two years before relocating to Colorado, where she earned a Vocal Music minor and a Journalism major. She looks back fondly at her time at the college by the lake, professing that “You just can’t beat the beautiful campus with its shade trees and knowing that the water is just across the road. Daydreaming about that water helped me through many of my classes!” After a brief spell in California, where she married her husband Clint, Branz settled once again in her hometown of Spokane, where she has been performing ever since.

She had been singing all her life in school choirs, in churches, at weddings and funerals, but six years ago it dawned on her that she was missing something important: a guitar. Inspired by artists such as the Indigo Girls, Jewel and Sarah McLachlan, Branz mastered the instrument and began writing her own original acoustic folk/pop songs. She’s been playing area coffee houses, wineries and festivals in earnest ever since, and has recently recorded her first professionally produced CD, Disappear. On the album, Branz’s voice is clear and strong, the tunes are highly melodic, and her lyrics range from intensely personal on songs like the title track and “I Judge Myself”, to rather silly tunes like “Flip Flops”, in which she cleverly describes said footwear as “an island vacation for my feet”.

Branz praises another act performing at this year’s Art on the Green, Sidhe. Their album Carnival is her absolute favorite local CD, and she enthuses that “Michael Millham is one of the finest guitar players in the region.” I obviously hit a sweet spot when I asked Branz to describe her music as a flavor of ice cream. She chose Rocky Road, musing “I can be a bit nutty on stage, but I can also sing about serious, sticky situations (enter the marshmallows). The chocolate part is just because I love chocolate. Mmmmm. Chocolate.” Cheryl Branz performs on the South Stage, Friday 8/3 at 6 p.m.

Sylvia Lazo of Brazillian Jazz act Olinda Duo loves performing at Art on the Green. “The event is so attractive and diverse and the audience warm and enthusiastic,” she says. “They come to enjoy the artists and an alluring summer day, two things that inspire me to get out there and sing." The Spokane twosome is comprised of soprano vocalist Lazo and classical guitarist Paul Grove, who also teaches the instrument right here at NIC. Olinda Duo perform a broad variety of material by mainly Latin American composers, from ballads and love songs to upbeat jazz and bouncy pop. The classical guitar is perhaps an unusual instrument for this type of music, but Grove adapts the instrument masterfully, creating lovely backdrops for Lazo’s slightly operatic Spanish vocals.

Sao Paolo native Lazo studied Jazz Improv at the Berklee School of Music, and has charmed audiences in four continents both as a soloist and as a member of several Latin ensembles. There’s an alluring sense of warmth in her voice, and Grove’s many years of experience shine through in his innovative and masterful instrumentation. Together they make a perfect match, like sweet corn on the cob and melted butter, which along with dazzling festival goers with their performance, must certainly be on Olinda Duo’s Art on the Green agenda, followed by a scoop or two of ice cream. Lazo describes her music as “an Acai ice cream, a delectable Brazilian fruit with a berry-coconut taste. I try to bring to my performances a nectarious selection of things I’ve grown accustomed to love, hear and play: Brazillian music, Jazz, and Spanish classical songs. The music is at times cool and intimate and other times spirited.” Lazo names the Latin fusion sounds of Milonga as one her favorite local acts, and also recommends jazz diva Shirley Horn’s album The Main Ingredient as essential summer listening. Olinda Duo play the South Stage, Saturday 8/4 at 2:30 p.m.

“Songs that echo in my soul like the sound of that freight train leaving the yard” is how Summit Sound owner Mark Stanton describes the music of Northwest folksinger Laddie Ray Melvin. Melvin’s songs are like a well-worn heirloom quilt, woven together from threads of traditional Americana, country, blues and a bit of Dylan-esque folk rock. His voice is weathered and rich, and his songs are dusty landscapes of life experience written from the perspective of a mature soul. His performances are captivating like hearing old ghost stories late at night around the crackling campfire.

Over the last ten years, Melvin has independently released two CDs, most recently In The Aftermath, which he describes as “a collection of tunes that considers what it means to be a human in times of trouble.” He has played countless festivals and venues throughout the Northwest, and his songs are frequently featured on local public radio shows, including the “Nacho Celtic Hour.” He says he is looking forward to playing at Art on the Green. “Any gathering of artists is bound to be a great time.” His music would be “homemade” if it were a type of ice cream, and when asked about his favorite local artists, he takes a democratic approach. “There are many, many songwriters in the region whose work I appreciate. I’m a member of the Spokane Songwriters Association and I encourage folks to check out the website.” Laddie Ray Melvin plays the South Stage Saturday 8/4 at 5:30 p.m.

Married couple Michael and Keleren Millham have been performing as Sidhe for over a decade and have become one of the most beloved and popular acts in the Inland Northwest. Their intimate performances are unforgettable, and their sound is truly uncommon among Spokane acts, or anywhere else for that matter. Michael’s intensely intricate and physical finger style guitar work has been known to make audience’s jaws drop. It’s difficult to succinctly describe the sound of Sidhe, although the Millhams do make an attempt with “Progressive Acoustic”, a term which may be too broad to really give an accurate impression of their ethereal, otherworldly music. Put traditional music of the British Isles, sufi, classical, Latin jazz, and art rock all into the proverbial sonic blender with Keleren’s opulent voice and evocative lyrics and you’ve got an addictively singular concoction.

Sidhe recently spent a packed three weeks touring, and according to Michael, the CD that saw the most airplay in the car was British cult folkie Nick Drake’s Way To Blue compilation, which gives you an idea what kind of music inspires them to greatness. They’ve graced Art on the Green with their presence before and Michael reveals that their favorite thing about the festival is “the visual art, the constant stream of music that is not our own, the competent sound guys, and the shuttle bus that goes close to Java on Sherman for a pick up (in more ways than one).” Hm. We’ll assume he’s referring to the cafĂ©’s famous lattes, and not their attractive employees. If Sidhe were an ice cream it would be “gelato, heavy on the chocolate, but swirled with myriad flavors that have yet to be invented,” says Michael. For an act whose music is so hard to describe that it has caused myriad writers to summon up vague and cliched adjectives like “ethereal” and “otherworldly” (see above), that sweet metaphor is about as accurate a descriptor as any. Sidhe play the South Stage on Sunday 8/5 at 10:30 a.m.

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