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Out on a Limb 

The best music fest to hit the Inland Northwest starts Friday

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“People always complain about how festivals like Bumbershoot and Sasquatch! and South by Southwest have gotten too big, and they’re corporate, and they’re overcrowded and all that stuff,” Larson Hicks says. “This is a chance to be part of something that’s not any of those things. It’s pure and,” he laughs, “it’s… beautiful.”

The “it” Hicks is referring to is his little baby of a music festival — Birds on a Wire. The idea came about last year when Hicks was inundated with requests by artists looking for dates to play after performing at Austin’s South By Southwest. Slowly the idea snowballed into a two-day, indie/folk/roots festival set in Pullman.

Hicks says that when people think of the Northwest music scene, they think of Seattle and Portland bands. This narrowcast view is exactly why a festival like Birds on a Wire is important, he says, because it gives the Inland Northwest a chance to further legitimize its contributions to the Northwest sound. Hicks envisions the festival as a way of tying Spokane, Pullman and Moscow even closer together into a regional artistic bond.

Whether that happens or not remains to be seen. But considering that Birds on a Wire is, as Hicks jokes, a literal “mom and pop festival” (it’s mostly run by him and his wife), it certainly rolls out a lineup that is worth attending.

FRIDAY, MARCH 26

ROCKY VOTOLATO When listening to Rocky Votolato’s music, there is a sense of the Northwest that sweeps over everything. His alt-folk sound can be calming, aggressive and exhilarating all within a few bars. It’s no surprise then that his influences aren’t that of your typical folkie.

When Rocky Votolato moved from Texas to Seattle during high school, he became entrenched in the Northwest punk scene.

“[The] underground indie/punk rock scene was where I started playing shows and writing songs and all that,” Votolato says. “So I feel that even though I have more of a folk sound now, originally I was influenced more by the underground punk and indie scenes in the Northwest.

“The Northwest is awesome because it’s such a great community of musicians and there’s always so much going on,” he continues. “It just seems like a really great place to be involved in music in general because there are so many bands all the time. There are a lot of people always starting new projects … There’s never a shortage of inspiration.”

Votolato’s latest effort, True Devotion, came out in late February and has already drawn warm critical praise. He’s pleased with how long-time fans embraced the album — one he says he personally feels a sense of detachment from. Though he’s currently touring to support the record, he has already begun working on songs for his next record.

“I’m trying to find something classic. Maybe something timeless. A little bit more of a classic, timeless songwriter approach,” he says. With a laugh, he adds, “That’s really what I’m shooting for, to varying degrees of success.” Votolato performs from 8-10 pm at Gladish Auditorium.

JOE PUG In the recent indie-folk surge (you know, the one this festival is based on), it’s easy to get lost in the sea of so-so artists. But in the midst of it, Joe Pug is a punch to the gut. He’s also been proactive about getting his music out there, sending a sampler to any fan who wants one. To date he’s sent out more than 15,000 — on his own dime. Pug performs from 9-11 pm at The Belltower.

LAURA GIBSON Laura Gibson’s gentle coo is about as warm and inviting as they come. It lulls the listener so much that it takes a while to pick up on how gloomy some of the songs actually are. NPR described her latest album, Beasts of Seasons, as “nothing short of a masterpiece.” See our review of her new record, Bridge Carols, with Ethan Rose, on page 49. Gibson performs from 7-8 pm at Gladish Auditorium with Ethan Rose and plays a solo set from 10-11 pm at Gladish Gym.

SATURDAY, MARCH 27

MIMICKING BIRDS If the name Mimicking Birds doesn’t ring the slightest of bells, that’s OK. You are not alone on that front. The band has only a tick over 4,000 “friends” on their MySpace music page. (By comparison, that is less than one-third of the friends that local pop-punkers Small Town Nation have on their MySpace.) Despite that, these Portlanders are one of this festival’s headliners and are poised for bigger things to come — thanks to a bit of luck and a certain fellow who probably does ring a bell: Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock.

Mimicking Birds was singer/songwriter Nate Lacy’s pet project, until a friend sent some of his songs to Brock’s record label Glacial Pace. Not long afterward, the label contacted him about being a part of the Glacial Pace family. For Lacy, being on the label is far more than he could have hoped for.

“I couldn’t imagine being in a better place. Artistically, I don’t know if I would’ve gone any other route or even have been sought out.”

However, being part of Glacial doesn’t come without the inevitable comparison to the label-head’s musical ventures. Brock has a history of clinging to music that’s in a very similar sonic realm to his own, and Mimicking Birds are no exception — Lacy and Brock’s vocals are almost interchangeable.

“People have been comparing our sound to Modest Mouse quite a bit or saying it sounds like early Modest Mouse, and I don’t see that as much,” Lacy says. “But as far as substance and kind of the darker, mortality and subconscious stuff, [I can see that].”

Mimicking Birds has a buzzy folk sound — one that, if anything, sounds more like Brock’s side project: Ugly Casanova.

While Mimicking Birds is likely to vastly expand its following, there are no plans of world domination on the horizon. Lacy is content to keep chirping his own tunes on his own terms. Mimicking Birds perform from 4-6 pm at the Belltower.

JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE For a performer who has yet reach three decades on this planet, Justin Townes Earle sure sounds worn. The son of legendary “Hardcore Troubadour” Steve Earle, Justin’s road to success has been rough at best. A drug addict from an early age, Justin managed to get kicked out of his dad’s band because of it. But with his demons now a thing of the past, Earle’s Nashville sound is gaining him critical and popular success. Earle performs from 10 pm-midnight at Gladish Auditorium.

FRONTIER RUCKUS When you think of bluegrass-rooted folk, do you think of Detroit? Probably not. But the city that produced Motown, Eminem and the White Stripes also churned out the rural sounds of Frontier Ruckus. Driven by frontman Matthew Milia, whose wavering timbre sounds a bit like a country-fried Colin Meloy, the band’s sound gives an effect of emotional honesty. Hey, no one ever said being an outlier was a bad thing. Frontier Ruckus performs from midnight-2 am at Gladish Gym.

MT. ST. HELEN’S VIETNAM BAND Amidst the stream of quiet folkies of Birds On a Wire, Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band sticks out like a kid banging on the pots and pans in a formal dining room. The band’s start-and-stop rhythms, shredding guitar work and frenetic energy make them one of the best up-and-coming indie acts around. The group is a change of pace that should not be missed. Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band performs from 4-6 pm at Gladish Gym.

See a full schedule here and read more previews of Birds on a Wire bands on our blog.

Birds on a Wire Festival in Pullman runs Friday, March 26, and Saturday, March 27, at the Gladish Community & Cultural Center, 115 NW State St., and the Belltower, 125 SE Spring St. Tickets: $25-$35. Visit Birdsonawirefest.com or purchase at Empyrean, Atomic Heart Music (in Pullman) and Storm Cellar (in Moscow).

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