Preview 7-11-09 & 7-12-09 Veneta, OR

© Dennis Wiancko

March to a New Beat
Honoring tradition and diversity on the Main Stage

By Vanessa Salvia

The fertile crescent. That’s how new Main Stage entertainment manager Brian Keogh felt about Eugene when he first saw the place on a crisp, sunny day in May 1985, after leaving behind a still-frozen Chicago landscape. “We did a typical post-high school road trip, and we drove out here thinking that we were going to go to Colorado,” he says. “It was one of those May weeks when it’s 70 degrees and you’re like, ‘This is incredible.’ As soon as I landed here I knew that this was where I wanted to be.”

He returned to Colorado, but in 1988, he left for the valley of green for good, this time by plane. “I’d never even heard of the [Oregon Country] Fair,” he recalls. “I got off a plane and some guys were like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna miss Michael Hedges and Zero!’ They took me out there … it was an instant love affair.”

Keogh began working at the Fair in 1991, becoming the “entertainment camp mom,” mentored by Cory Sullivan. When Sullivan retired in 2002 (or so, as years become malleable when talking about history with Fair people), she was managing Shady Grove, Blue Moon, Hoarse Chorale and all of the ambience entertainment (path performances, stilt walkers, general craziness) plus running the entire entertainment camp. “She mentored me,” he says. “I’m kind of a music hound, and she saw that I was a good fit and knew a lot of the musicians already. What I do now is actually smaller than what she did then. We separated out the one job to three different people.”

Since 2006, Keogh has coordinated Main Stage entertainment alongside David Paul “D.P.” Black. This year, though, Keogh took control. “We reversed roles,” Keogh says. “D.P.’s retiring as co-coordinator, so this year I’ve been booking and doing the entire management part of it.” Keogh is an independent operator, buoyed by nothing but a love of good music (“anything with a good groove,” he says), and other than performing once a year or so with his wife, Jennifer Slater, under the (clever) name Slater-Keogh, he’s not affiliated with the music scene or other festivals in any way.

Keogh manages a corps of 30 souls, including sound people, stage builders and a “well-oiled” in-and-out crew. By day Keogh is a “produce pusher” with Organically Grown Company, yet he spends 300 to 400 hours annually on his booking responsibilities — all unpaid. “We probably get 300 to 400 applications a year, and I listen to all of them. And it takes a hell of a long time!”

You can expect Keogh to honor the traditions of entertainment that Black brought to the stage, but he’s reaching out more than ever to new sounds, new styles, and looking for what’s relevant to youth. “I want to stay focused on our heritage,” he says. “But we’ve got an incredible young crowd who have been volunteering since they were kids and now they’re teens. I always try to keep with the history of what’s been created but bring it into the next generation.”

Keogh’s goal is diversity. “I wanted to represent three continents and I wanted to have a few more bands that were fronted by women or had woman-dominance, to try to even the gender balance,” he says. “It’s part of the mission of the Fair to try to create the world as we want to see it for three days, and you want to represent some of the unrepresented as part of that. The more multicultural and the more colorful, the better.”

The Country Fair performers don’t come for the pay; it’s peanuts. They do come for the “psycho-spiritual rejuvenation.”

“It’s been the mantra of Main Stage for years … once they play there they want to come back,” Keogh says. “We get inspired performances for an inspired crowd and it’s a win-win situation for everyone.”

As a booking agent, Brian Keogh is a facilitator of experience. It’s not enough to give the crowd more of the same-old they saw last year, or increasingly, last decade. But nor does anyone want those past experiences and traditions to disappear. Personally, Keogh is into a little bit of everything: ’70s rock, Thievery Corporation, acid jazz, the Pass Out Kings, the Pass Out Kings covering Peter Wilde. “I think a really good coordinator brings in more than just what they like,” Keogh says. “But I would say that you go with the crowd pleasers and the new things that people might never have heard, or that you’re trying to turn them onto.”

That mix of styles, sounds and color keeps things shaking for Keogh. It’s what drives the Fair and keeps the creativity turned up to 11 year after year. “You don’t get to see that anywhere else in the United States, where you get a mixture of this entertainment,” he says. “The expansion of people’s musical knowledge and repertoire is critical to our mission of being more diverse and creating more of a ‘one’ universe.”

Keogh isn’t taking much of the credit for the stage’s success, though. “David Paul Black. He’s the reason this machine is what it is,” Keogh says. “Without him being in that position for that many years it wouldn’t be a position that would even be tolerable. But he’s made a great impact so, hats off to him.”

Brian Keogh’s top picks for Main Stage music:

Chicago Afrobeat Project (Friday, 3:50 pm): “Like Fela or Femi Kuti. It’s jazz-oriented, James Brown kind of stuff within the African style. They can lay that dance beat down! It’s upbeat and happy music that invokes people to dance and to smile. What more can you ask for at the Fair?”
BK3 featuring Bill Kreutzmann, James “Hutch” Hutchinson and Scott Murawski (Friday, 5:20 pm): “Kreutzmann is going to be a big hit with all the old-time folks there, and that should be a special show for people on Friday.”

The Gourds (Saturday, 5:30 pm): “I think they’re going to rip the place apart. People will love it! It’ll be kind of the Americana flavor thing that seems to be a big hit right now, plus they’re really funny. They’re going to feed off of the crowd really well.”

Bongo Love (Sunday, 12:15 pm): “Really incredible! They bring Western style into their music using all mbira and traditional African instruments (besides guitar). They’re from Zimbabwe with a super positive message. Talk about the kind of Bob Marley, one-world message — they bring it.”

Manooghi Hi (Sunday, 2:50 pm): “It’s kind of like Seattle-post-grunge meets Bollywood. They call it “psychedelic bomba grunge.” Jarrod (Kaplan) from Trillian Green is also singing with them along with some Seattle singers.”

Fareed Haque & the Flat Earth Ensemble (Sunday, 4:20 pm): “Incredible! It’s something completely new for us to have a jazz performer up there. And he’s doing traditional Indian music with jazz guitar that is just ripping.”

Heavyweight Dub Champion (Sunday, 5:55 pm): “We’ve never had DJ, sonic-oriented, mix-master bands at the Fair. It’s competing with the cover of the Beatle’s White Album at the same time in the tent, so we wanted to have something completely different.”

And there are a few “surprises.” Discover them for yourself. What memories will you take with you to the next Fair? The Shook Twins? The Pimps of Joytime? The March Fourth Marching Band?

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