Doe Bay Fest: Everything Elevated

Last weekend’s Doe Bay Fest surpassed lethally high expectations. Following three summers of consistent upgrades, year four—“the Year of the Full Moon”—was a quiet, cozy triumph, all glorious vistas and elated moments. Musically, production-wise, vibe-wise, everything was elevated and more was on offer, and the 900 in attendance soaked it up with a palpable sense of gratitude and joy.

I’ve said it before: Music takes a backseat to scenery at Doe Bay. Which is a good thing. A place as scenic as Orcas Island provokes constant, conscientious reverence (augmented by dramatic weather—fog! Sun! Shooting stars!) which in turn leads to conscientious and reverent performances and audiences. In other words, awesome begets awesome—a fact rendered plain by a festival focused on ambiance and disdainful of distractions.

The best example of that amplifying exchange came Friday night with Champagne Champagne. Relocating their sizzling house-party hip-hop to a moonlit outdoor stage surrounded by forest and hundreds of music lovers who’d seen nothing but strummy-folky-rocky stuff for eight straight hours brought out something previously unseen in the Seattle crew. They augmented their set with live musicians, but that wasn’t what set it apart. It was Thomas Grey’s giddy, genuine exhortations (paraphrase: “Y’all motherfuckers is awesome!”), it was the explosive energy and aplomb, it was a crowd surprised and encouraged by its own enthusiasm. It was what Doe Bay is: A unique moment out of time collectively realized and unabashedly celebrated.

(Thanks to Champagne Champagne for igniting the “Doe Bay Doe Bay!” shout-out heard from performers and fans a zillion times over the weekend.)

Speaking of moments out of time: Frank Fairfield arrived onstage Saturday morning like a Dustbowl-era apparition. The LA musician sat alone with the gravity of a fallen meteor, playing hundred-year-old “pop songs.” Dressed in what looked like a hand-sewn wool suit, hair pomaded and mustache trimmed, he swapped between banjo, acoustic guitar and a violin he played in the crook of his arm rather than under his chin. He rarely spoke or sang, but when he did his words were riveting. He introduced the song “My Old Cottage By the Sea” with a multi-tiered history lesson. “These are nostalgic songs that speak of longing for a simpler time,” he said in his pinched, studied warble. But their nostalgia wasn’t what the crowd felt in watching this living anachronism, it was built into the original song, written, he said, in the late 1800s by northern Yankees to capitalize on American sentimentalism for pre-Civil War-era good old days. Nostalgia for nostalgia—a poignant sentiment among a crowd of throwback-minded musicians, many of whom took in Fairfield’s set intently. Watching any artist as dedicated to his craft as Fairfield is heartening beyond words. He gave the best musical performance of the weekend.

Other highlights: A 100’ Slip-n-Slide, a new Busking Stage open to all comers, and the top-shelf tequila bar called Two Bar provided by free by fest-goers Scott and Jenny on the beach at Otter Cove. Any time the couple was at their yurt, they were sharing tequila, purely by their own generosity.

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Other other highlights: The revamped Maldives, now a few gigs into their “Two-drummer Summer,” showed courageous resolve in their new material and played old songs with revived vigor. All country-rock swagger and danger, they owned their role as Doe Bay’s house band despite having lost several players since last year. Jason Dodson and Jesse Bonn are one of those rare songwriter/guitarist pairings that’s forever energized and forever energizing; Dodson remains one of Seattle’s best songwriters.

The Head and the Heart played the main stage with the unguarded, familial sincerity that launched them into the national spotlight. The progress in the industry they’ve made since last Doe Bay—their de facto coming out party—is astounding. Their last Northwest appearance, a month ago at Block Party, was disappointing. That they returned to their roots—physical and musical—so naturally and delivered the kind of performance that originally endeared them to the Doe Bay crowd is a result of true talent. Not to mention personality—the bandmembers were at Doe Bay for almost a week, constant fixtures on the volley ball court, Frisbee field, and impromptu jam.

Damien Jurado wandered the grounds like a tempest, brooding and jacketed in the sunshine. He apologized for the gorgeous weather during his Friday morning set at the tiny, hilltop Otter Cove stage. Watching “Ghost of David” there, the crowd lazing on blankets and drinking cold wine, was strange. But watching Jurado play “Cloudy Shoes” at midnight Saturday under the canopy of an old apple tree, drenched in flickering tiki torchlight, was one of the surreal moments that make Doe Bay so special.

Sera Cahoone played a Saturday morning set at the Otter Cove stage with a band of Seattle’s finest country musicians. With lap steel and group vocals, her set-closing rendition of Helen Reddy’s “Delta Dawn” was a country-gospel singalong that began the day in a nigh-holy fashion.

Ravenna Woods continues to do weird things with acoustic instruments. Their left-field folk is meant for twilit outdoor stages and sounded smart and spooky at the back of the main stage field at dusk.

Kelli Schaefer was the musician’s musician, adding gravitas and solemnity to an otherwise upbeat lineup. The guts she poured into her performance—almost too visceral to watch—added up to the most memorable, cathartic finale of the weekend.

Pickwick singer Galen Disston is the best voice in Seattle right now. His band played a set of rustic, vibrant blue-eyed soul. Probably wasn’t the best idea to call up “everyone who’s ever wanted to be on stage” to close their set, but such dangerous errors in judgment are what awesome/stage-wrecking moments are made of.

Except for the last 10 minutes of Mash Hall, I didn’t catch a single late-night set due to the two late-night venues’ tiny capacity. I should be bummed to have missed some good music, but in my book socializing under the stars with a bottle of moonshine beats sweating inside a tiny yoga studio.

Which leads to the only relevant criticism of Doe Bay: It isn’t entirely for the fans. It’s as much for the musicians and the media. It’s summer camp for the bands, who rightfully find tradition and hospitality there they won’t get elsewhere. But it’s disappointing that so many sessions went on in secret backwoods settings for the benefit of so few. You were more than lucky to be one of the dozen or so to see Jurado or John Vanderslice play in the woods by candlelight; you were invited. The Head and the Heart played three new songs to 100 people gathered on the beach at Otter Cove, but the show felt more for the cameras than the crowd. The invisible barrier was out of place at Doe Bay, a festival born in collectivism and community.

Growing pains. And really, it’s a weekend constructed of self-made moments, so group activities were yours to join or not. At any given time, chances are whatever you were doing was the best possible thing to do done in the best possible place.

Special thanks to Sarah Jurado for the beautiful photos.