Review 8-01-09 Hailey, ID

The Gourds, live at the Northern Rockies Folk Festival
Hailey, ID, 8/1/09
by Christopher Hess

Maybe it’s the mountain weather. Or it could be the amazing scenery, or the warmth of the locals, or the escape from too much delicious Tex Mex and barbecue. Whatever the reason, The Gourds sure were happy to be in Idaho. And Idaho was obviously happy to have them here.

The announcer and organizer of the Northern Rockies Folk Festival said it best when he called this Gourds show a continuation of last year’s Gourds show. If that was what this was, then last year the power must have failed just when it was getting good, because the Gourds killed it from the first strains of opener “Old Man from the Mountain.”

The set was a familiar long-form Gourds set. No new tricks, no untested tunes, just straight-ahead good times and mostly upbeat songs from throughout the band’s history. The setting was gorgeous, the fellas were on, and the crowd was, to say the least, into it. But there was something different about this show. Something in the way it was played as well as in the way it was heard and digested—by the crowd at large, and by me, too, inside my head and guts. It’s tough to explain, but:

Some of my earliest exposure to the Gourds’ music came during sleep. Around and before the release of Dem’s Good Beeble, one of the overnight DJs on KUT, the college station in Austin, had “Dying of the Pines” in regular rotation, and I always put that station on before going to bed. I can remember, through the gauzy haze of somnambulant memory, waking or half-waking on many occasions to the quiet, ethereal strains of that song, maybe falling back to sleep before it ended, maybe not. But it made that song, and subsequently that record and this band, more haunting, more otherworldly than they otherwise might have been.

That feeling came back to me during the Gourds set up here in Hailey last week. Maybe it was because of the setting—an outdoor stage framed by the foothills of the Sawtooth and Boulder mountain ranges during sunset and its transition to night—or maybe it was the setlist, which though leaning hard toward the raucous stompers, still had time for some more reflective moments. Or, maybe it was because I was stone cold sober, perhaps a first for me at a Gourds show.

Most likely, it was a combination of these things, plus one more. Like many who read this blog, I’ve got a close and personal connection to this band’s music. It stands for my time in Austin (I’m now in Idaho) more than any other, they were a big part of the first months and years of my relationship with my wife, they played at our wedding reception, and Kevin played two songs during our wedding. If my life has a soundtrack, The Gourds feature prominently. I’ve watched and written about these guys throughout their storied career, and I’ve come to think of them as one of my favorite things in the world.

A few months ago, my dad passed away. As I do when confronted with most difficult things in life, I’ve sought solace in music, and the Gourds have claimed as much time on my iPod as anyone else in the months since (except maybe Sera Cahoone or Animal Collective, but that’s another playlist and another story). Saturday, the night of this show, would have been my dad’s 78th birthday, which falls a week before my own birthday, and this year I turn 40. It suffices to say I had a lot on my mind this past weekend, and to be honest I was more than a little concerned that a Gourds show would be a bit much for me to handle with anything resembling dignity. Seeing them play always makes me homesick for Austin, and in this melancholy context, I was afraid of what it might stir up.

But we went. It was great to see the guys as always, and also as always, they ripped it up and threw it down, just rocking their ever-lovin asses off for what seemed like all night and what actually was well over two hours. Old stuff (“Pine Island Bayou”, “Grievin’ and Smokin’”, “Plaid Coat”), new stuff (“Country Love”, “Declineometer”, “Red Letter Day”), covers (“Old Man From the Mountain”, “Gravity Talks”, “Omaha”), it all got stage time, and the tangible sense in every song was that these 5 guys were loving every minute of it. Not that they ever go through the motions, but when they’re having a ball, you can just feel it. Kevin hammed it up as only he can. Jimmy was a little less weird and a lot more smiley than usual and sang with a conviction that makes my stomach tingle, Keith grinned throughout the whole set (and proved Kevin right: He is the best drummer in Texas), Claude bantered aplenty and played all dozen of his instruments with abandon, and Max brought his clearest voice and his headiest chops. You know how it is: it was just on.

Not to dwell on this fact, but did I mention I was sober? That’s only odd in the context of me being at a Gourds show, and it’s only notable in that I truly feel the songs hit me differently—maybe deeper, maybe just with less distraction, but definitely this was different.

So when, after the encore’s “All the Labor” (one of a few of my all-time Gourds favorites), Kevin spoke of Bowe Bergdahl, the Hailey resident recently captured and made prisoner of war in Afghanistan, for whom the entire town is covered in yellow ribbons, and of Kit Nerras, one of the festival’s long-time organizers who died only the day before, I was already in, let’s say, an emotionally heightened and vulnerable state. And when this dedication led into one of the most beautiful, pained, and heartfelt turns through “Amazing Grace” that I have ever witnessed in all my days, it was all I could do to keep myself together. Soft drums, steel, and keyboards accompanied him almost inaudibly, and the entire crowd—the whole, huge, drunken, unruly, wound-up herd of festival-going mountain folk—went silent.

During this song I thought about my dad. I rewound through my time in Austin, the years since, the things I’ve gained and lost and that I miss and that I regret and that I accept as the life I’m living. I stood there and let a few tears fall, and I wished my dad a silent Happy Birthday. I wished joy to the world. I wished everyone on the planet could experience this gorgeous, exquisite sadness. It brought to mind a quote I saw scribbled out in the bathroom in Jimmy Smith’s house, back before he got all married and respectable and didn’t write on his walls with Sharpies anymore. It said “"He who binds himself to a joy does the winged life destroy, but he who kisses it as it flies lives in Eternity's sun rise," credited to "William Blake Fruitcake.” I’ve read my share of Blake, and I like to think I have a good grasp of the meaning and the beauty in his work. But never did I get it more clearly than at that moment.

And then, most appropriately, The Gourds turned that funereal dirge into a celebration and broke into the life-affirming “Hallelujah Shine.” The world slid back onto its axis and grinded into motion. I swayed in time with my wife, neither of us saying anything, both of us knowing what the other was thinking—that this band, and this night, would always be with us, no matter what.


  1. what a lovely review and tribute


  2. "Jimmy was a little less weird" crap, they got to him


  3. Indeed and I agree, All the Labor is definitely in the top 10 Gourds songs of all times and I would have loved to hear Amazing Grace--I got a lil' teary eyed at that article...nice tribute, well done.


  4. Thank you for putting my feelings into words; my story's just different. Music = the great equalizer. Wonderful review.

  5. Wow. Chris, that was wonderful. Thank you for being so open about these very personal feelings. I cried right along with you while I was reading this. You have a beautiful approach to writing and life.

  6. Thanks for the touching story and review, I wish I could have witnessed Amazing Grace for personal reasons much the same. The Sawtooths are one of my favorite places in the world, a great setting for music. If anyone ever gets to chance to check out the area, do so; its a backpackers paradise with a ton of high alpine lakes and crazy rock formations. I have seen Muzzie and sons a couple of times in Boise when I was going to school there (GO BRONCS, LETS BUST SOME BCS THIS YEAR!!!)and they are quite an Idaho treasure. Maya and I will have to make Hailey an annual migration for some homecoming/Gourdlove, anyone in? A perfect vacation would be: 1. Watch the Broncos crush UO (or V Tech next year) at home 2. Follow up with hike up to Sawtooth's Goat Lakes for some floatin and flyfishin 3. Gourdlove in Hailey. Ed & Shelbs, we won't be crushed if ya dont make the BSU game but you'll be better human beings if you do!


  7. That review was great! I've spent some time in central Idaho- such a beautiful place. Would have been great to see the boys there. Some other Texas music has some reverse roots there, whether you like em' or not- Reckless Kelly and Mickey and the Motorcars. The Braun brothers (now in Texas) and family (father Muzzie Braun) hail from the Stanley/Challis area of Idaho, just north of Ketchum and have a pretty huge reunion concert and party once a year


  8. chris,

    anything that you send me in the future will be posted immediately, sight unseen. that review was gold. thanks again.


    p.s. william blake fruitcake. I haven't thought of that in over a decade!

  9. I know it's kind of late in this blog-string, but can I just say, that as Kit Neraas's friend/co-producer in the Northern Rockies Folk Festival for dang near 30 years, the Amazing Grace performance, brought tears to my eyes. We all knew it was out of regard for us and Kit. We didn't know there was so much more behind it. The Gourds own Idaho. We are pleased, proud and damn giddy to be having them back. Pete Kramer, NRFF Festival Director.