This year’s Utah Arts Festival features some of the most successful, widely acclaimed local bands. Among them are Pixie and the Partygrass Boys and Brother.
Brother. (Aug. 28, 5:15 p.m., Park Stage)
Brother., the indie rock band originating in Provo, had ambitious plans in 2020. Performances were slated at SXSW and Treefort, as part of a tour highlighting a new single Oxidate and the release of their latest album Vol. III. “Three days into the tour, everything was being canceled,” Chuck Emery says in an interview with The Utah Review. “While on the road, we thought that shows could be rescheduled but everything still was being canceled.”
Staying home without any shows to anticipate in the suddenly blank calendar, Emery says the band decided to focus on the music, which has been described frequently as ethereal, dreamy, hypnotic, danceable retro and mesmerizing. Happily, the summer of 2021 has brought a windfall of fortune to the band, which now has five members along with three album releases to their credit. With a new recording deal (Handwritten Records) and booking agent, their Vol. III tour is proceeding apace, which also includes music written during the pandemic lockdown.
Emery says the band returned to legendary country song writer Harlan Howard whose 1950s quote is widely cited by musicians of all stripes: “All you need to write a country song is three chords and the truth.” To wit: one of their newest singles, EZ. The lyrics, cast over quintessentially chill instrumentals, offer a much-needed tonic after a long angst-ridden period: “There’s nowhere left to run/Take it or leave it/And I pocket all the pain/’Cause someday you will need it/I want it so I’ll take it easy/I want it so I’ll take it easy.” The newest single Goodnight Girl just dropped this week.
Emery says the lockdown was a time of honest introspection, which helped clarify the music-making process outside of the stress of everything that had been clipping along at fast pace in a touring band’s life. Returning to shows, Emery says the experience is hitting differently but in a more satisfying way musically. One of his favorite shows occurred last spring in Logan at an end-of-the-school-year event at Utah State University.
Pixie and the Partygrass Boys (Aug. 29, 6:30 p.m., Festival Stage)
A certified Intermountain West darling of acoustic music with their genre-busting music that keeps the integrity of bluegrass intact while infusing it with previously unlikely stylistic pairings of influences, Pixie and the Partygrass Boys is all about having a good time.
The band’s story of how the five musicians came together starts hilariously with chickens and whiskey. In a Zoom interview with all five members for The Utah Review, lead vocalist and ukulele musician Katia ‘Pixie’ Racine, recalls how the band started coming together. Ben Weiss (mandolin and vocals) and Andrew Nelson (guitar and vocals) already were playing together and she had known Weiss through their middle school days. “Ben told Andrew that he knew a singer who drinks whiskey, and we started rehearsing at my house in SLC,” Racine explains. “I had started raising chickens and the baby chicks would freely roam the house while we were rehearsing. Someone always brought the whiskey and meanwhile the chicks scampered about on our instruments.”
The idea of ‘chickens, whiskey and fun’ has seeped into the band’s catalog, proving that an inside joke can be leveraged into song material which surely will delight the Utah Arts Festival audience as much as it has in any venue wherever the band performs.
But, while all of the band members enjoy the unrestrained possibilities of keeping it light and funny, they truly stand on their superb technique in which each musician has cut their teeth on extensive training in all styles of music. Fiddler Amanda Grapes, who comes from Kentucky, started with classical training at the age of two. Weiss was a jazz musician initially. Hence, the band builds on the foundation of Appalachian bluegrass with jazz, Broadway, pop and even a bit of punk.
The pandemic lockdown also gave each band member a chance to hone their musicianship independently. Weiss says, “We didn’t see each other for months and when we started rehearsals again, we understood how everyone had been working hard during that time.” Weiss and Nelson were writing lots of new songs. Bass player Zach Downes kept in touch with Racine. Grapes also did not take the hiatus for granted. “When we came back and started playing the music we had done before the pandemic hit, it was like everything was on fire in a good way,” Racine says. Audiences were hungry for live music and that energy translated easily to the band on stage. “Amanda [Grapes] was still playing fast” she adds. Downes says he was surprised at the intensity of the audience’s reaction. “After spending more than a year just watching Netflix on the couch, audiences were really ready to hear live music again,” he adds. Racine says a CD release party and performance at Salt Lake City’s Urban Lounge was one of their biggest nights early in the return to doing shows “It was crazy in the best way, with crowds screaming as if this was Beatlemania,” she adds. For Weiss, the return had special meaning. A skiing accident put him in intensive care. “Performing again was the furthest thing from death,” he explains, adding that he now feels more alive on stage than he ever has.
Acoustic music has had a strong presence in recent years at the Utah Arts Festival, thanks to the Intermountain Acoustic Music Association (IAMA). And, it is bands such as Pixie and the Partygrass Boys that have helped to cultivate audiences of younger demographics for enjoying acoustic music. The band has performed at Gracie’s bar in downtown Salt Lake City to packed crowds as well as Mountain West’s Garten Cider House and Bar. Weiss adds with a touch of humor, “There is definitely a tickle in the acoustic music scene” Some would assume that bluegrass shows are usually family oriented but at a show at The Depot in downtown SLC, three people were dancing as if they were in a mosh pit while two fist fights occurred. Weiss says a show at The Garage in North Salt Lake had an “awesome” punk rock energy.
Festival goers will hear some of the band’s newest songs along with the solid hits that surely are on anyone’s Spotify list for the band. Oh, and, of course, the Chickens, Whiskey and Fun anthem.