Among the headliners being featured at this year’s Utah Arts Festival are Salt Lake City’s Will Baxter Band and native Idahoan Jeff Crosby who will be performing with The Refugees.
Will Baxter Band (Aug. 27, 8:15 p.m., Festival Stage)
When Will Baxter moved from Fort Collins, Colorado to Salt Lake City, it did not take him long to discover just how rich and deep the bench of well trained musicians with long, diverse performing portfolios is locally. In an interview with The Utah Review, Baxter recalls how he met Adam Fifield, the band’s bassist and keyboardist. “I met Adam who was playing a blues jam at Burt’s Tiki Lounge [which closed in 2014] more than a dozen years ago,” he says. “I felt like a man who approaches a beautiful woman to say how much he adores her. I wanted to genuflect to this musician whose sound I love.”
Baxter quickly realized just how rich the local music community was. Fifield was part of The Velvetones, an exceptional blues band led by Tony Holiday, one of Utah’s most accomplished bluesmen who moved to Memphis several years ago. Baxter decided to take a few music lessons with Fifield. “We both had daughters of the same age so I would bring donuts to each lesson just so I could absorb his knowledge and insights,” he explains.
Recruiting Wachira Waigwa-Stone was a bit more of a challenge. Waigwa-Stone’s demand as a drummer took him to virtually every imaginable music scene in the city. He also was a composer who worked with numerous choreographers in the city. A recent project, for example, was the score he composed for SONDERimmersive’s Through Yonder Window immersive dance theater piece, which interpreted the Shakespearean Romeo and Juliet story. Baxter was first drawn to Waigwa-Stone’s musicianship with Big Blue Ox, a band that the drummer helped found more than a dozen years with fellow University of Utah musicians and is known for its maximal funk energy sound. But, Waigwa-Stone was so ubiquitous on the local scene that it might have seemed unlikely that he could commit to yet another local music project.
Baxter’s passionate vision was enough to convince the third core member to join. As each member shared a strong vision of musicality focusing on old school soul and R&B, the band became the “holy trinity,” as Baxter had envisioned it. “Having Wachira [Waigwa-Stone] and Fifield is a real blessing,” he says. “It reminds me of how you want to be the least talented member of the group because you’re always inspired to keep getting better as a musician.” Waigwa-Stone brings a potent dose of experience with Afro funk music while Fifield incorporates the foundations of classic country from the Hank Williams era. “Our music always is getting better because we keeping adding spices to the pot,” Baxter says, “and we continue to bring in influences from more genres.”
For its upcoming headline performance at the Utah Arts Festival, the band is bringing in reinforcements for glorious, expansive sound. During the pandemic hiatus, Baxter met vocalist Mary Tebbs and the duo penned a wealth of new songs. Tebbs and Baxter performed some of them at Salt Lake City’s Center for Spiritual Living. One of the songs they co-wrote is the comical Impression with plenty of tongue-own-cheek lyrics. The lyrics include gems such as “a mansplaining breeder,” and “you’ve got one song but you don’t have anymore.”
There also will be a horns section featuring Mason Petersen on sax and trumpet players Dave Terran and Gus Bogdanow. Terran comes from trumpet royalty, as Baxter describes it. Terran’s father (Tony) was one of Los Angeles’ most sought after trumpeter for studio and sessions gigs. The band’s festival performance comes amidst a series of sold-out summer appearances, including a concert at the Deer Valley amphitheater just two days before the Salt Lake City appearance. On Monday, Aug. 23, the band opens for ZZ Top at Red Butte Garden. Indeed, an impressive week for a Utah band with a stellar reputation for its soul and R&B musicianship.
Jeff Crosby and The Refugees (Aug. 29, 7:45 p.m., Festival Stage)
In the two years before the pandemic brought live music performances to a screeching halt, Jeff Crosby had been on.a tear: 230 and 250 shows, respectively, in each year. This included stops in other countries including the United Kingdom, Iceland, Mexico, Colombia and Nicaragua. But, there were big changes in store for the singer whose life had taken him from his northern Idaho boyhood days to Los Angeles and more recently, Nashville. In an interview with The Utah Review, Crosby talked about his decision to move to Boise mid-pandemic. “Well, we Idahoans know that when the world is ending, we run to the hills,” he says with a joking tone.
It was a bittersweet moment in the early spring of 2020. His album Northstar was set to drop April 24. “The tour was booked and we put more money than we ever had into promoting it. There definitely were depressing moments in the beginning of the lockdown,” he says.
After being accustomed to living on the road, Crosby says it was “kind of nice to sit still for a minute and enjoy being home.” Besides fishing and hanging outdoors, he set to writing new songs, which came out recently in an EP companion to Northstar titled unAmerican. “It comes from reflecting on and being grateful for all of the experiences. It’s easy to take the experiences of traveling for granted but then everything looks different when it’s taken away.” At first, he says he didn’t know about needing the time to “sit and stare in the woods for a moment,” as he describes it. “But by the time I got to the second month, I realized how much I really needed this reset button.” One of the newest songs is Runnin’ Free with the lyric “Every time I close my eyes, I’m back in 83615 and runnin’ free.”
Returning to live performances has been gratifying. “The audience response has been mind blowing and you understand how much the experience of going out and seeing a band perform live is such an important part of American culture,” Crosby adds. “It is unbelievable how electric the crowds have been. I think part of it is that people recognize the looming uncertainties of the future and they want to make the most out of going to hear music live.”
Even before the pandemic hit, Crosby had been thinking about his hometown in the single Hold This Town Together, a song he co-wrote with Micky and The Motorcars and is featured on the Northstar album. “The song is about how characters are a big part of what everything means to you even if you have not seen them for a long time.” The chorus lyrics, for example, include, “I know everything’s changing/And I know nothing lasts forever/God bless the folks that try so hard to hold this town together.” The song hits with added poignancy, especially as Crosby knows that some of the town’s “old cats” died from the coronavirus.
Other recent songs Crosby has written point toward an optimistic message that essentially says, “we got this and we’ll get through this.” He adds, “we really need a bridge, not a wall, especially as everything has been so politically divisive. We don’t need to split the room in half.” He also has teamed up with Darci Carlson to record as the JCDC duo with a release available here.
Crosby is looking forward to returning to Utah. He lived briefly in Salt Lake City when he was in his early twenties and recalls going to the Utah Arts Festival. As for beating the city’s persistent summer heat, he says he will hang out with anybody who has a pool.