How curious that the biggest musical attraction of Oktoberfest’s second day would get underway around 1:30 on Saturday afternoon. Following a highly electric noon-time wake up call from local power trio fave Slo-Fi, Gary Louris and Mark Olson re-teamed for a cordial, comfortable set of Everly Brothers-esque harmonies that celebrated, subtracted from and, at times, built upon their storied ‘90s music with The Jayhawks.
Nearly a third of the 90 minute performance focused on new material from Ready for the Flood. Although the duo cut the album over 18 months ago, it won’t be released until early 2009. The Flood fare was lighter and looser in design than the more country-savvy fare The Jayhawks favored. But there was still a quietly dour cast to Turn Your Pretty Name Around and a lovely, wistful air about Saturday Morning on Sunday Street (talk about a tune with an appropriate sense of time and place) that nicely suited the duo’s still-infectious harmonies. Of course, when vintage Jayhawks tunes both familiar (Waiting for the Sun, Blue) and overlooked (See Him on the Street, the sublime Clouds) surfaced, the duo’s inherent chemistry – a clear union of complimenting singers, songs and harmonies – simply glowed.
For my money, this was the highlight of the festival, But then again, Oktoberfest was free, so what does that tell you?
Evening sets by Peter Rowan, Justin Townes Earle and Tim Easton revealed their own modest delights.
Sound problems plagued much of Rowan’s performance, though nothing detracted from the brilliant, show-opening Dust Bowl Children. Rowan also took honors for tackling the festival’s riskiest material by performing a new political rant called Chopping Down the Trees for Jesus on the church grounds of Christ the King Cathedral. Few, if any, feathers seemed to be ruffled, though. After all, we’re talking here about a church event with beer sales and bingo tents. Rowan also dealt with a busted guitar string during Land of the Navajo, but still used his handicapped instrument to sail into the otherworldly chant that long ago distinguished the piece.
Earle stuck to heavily traditional fare that mixed music from his Yuma and The Good Life recordings with vintage songs first popularized by Charlie Poole and Flatt & Scruggs. But of the cover material, the Lightning Hopkins blues staple My Starter Won’t Start This Morning, a tune Earle credited the late local bluesman Joey Broughman for teaching him, was a highlight. With accompanist Cory Younts on harmonica, My Starter was a rootsy detour from a country repertoire steeped in the vocal and songwriting inspirations of Hank Williams.
“I always wanted to go on between Hank Williams and the Beatles,” Easton said at the onset of his 40 minute set, alluding to Earle’s obvious influence and a Fab Four cover band called 8 Days a Week that would later close Oktoberfest. Though he opened with the decade-old Just Like Home, Easton focused heavily on new, narrative heavy tunes like the boogie fortified Burgundy Red and an engaging work of personal and political reclamation called The Weight of Changing Everything. As with all of Easton’s frequent visits here, the performance was earnest, entertaining and thoroughly involving.