by Ann M. Colford
Take one sleepy mountain town nestled beside a gorgeous glacial lake, add two weeks of foot-stompin' toe-tappin' ear-pleasin' music, and you've got the makings for a sure bet in summer entertainment. That was the plan 20 years ago, when organizers of the Festival at Sandpoint first got things started. And that's still the plan for this 20th anniversary season of music under a brand new tent by the shores of Lake Pend Oreille. Oh, a few things have changed over the years, says Festival Director Dyno Wahl, but the basic mix of tune-filled evenings by the water stays the same.
"The format has changed over time," she says. "We have two four-day periods of music over two weeks now, and that seems just about right." The Festival has a year-round educational outreach component as well, she explains, and the program helps cultivate audiences both now and for the future. "We go into each fifth-grade classroom in Bonner and Boundary counties and talk with the kids about music. We give out free tickets for them and their families to come to the Grand Finale program during the Festival."
When the Festival began, the program focused on bringing symphonic music to this lakeside town of 5,000, but in recent years the musical offerings have become more diverse. The best word to describe this year's lineup is eclectic, with a little bit of everything from pop to blues to neo-swing. And classical fans take heart: the Spokane Symphony will be on hand to close out the festival in fine style.
While Sandpoint is a relatively small venue for many of the artists who come in, the Festival team works to ensure a satisfying experience for everyone.
"What we're marketing now is the intimate experience," Wahl says. "You can leave your binoculars at home. It feels like [the performers] are just hanging out and playing in your backyard. It's very casual and relaxed, but classy at the same time. What's pleasing to the artists is that we have top-notch sound and lighting," she continues. "The whole technical aspect of the Festival is high quality."
Not only that, but artists enjoy the scenery and ambiance of Sandpoint as much as any other visitors, she says. "A lot of artists will schedule extra days and go golfing or swimming. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band already has tee times for this year."
The music revs into gear with the opening performance of western swing legends Asleep at the Wheel on Thursday, August 1. The self-proclaimed "dance band" has earned nine Grammy Awards since their beginnings in 1970. Along the way, they've kept alive the sound of Big Band western swing, with tributes to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys as well as plenty of their own originals. Bandleader and guitarist Ray Benson grew up in Philadelphia, surrounded by the sounds of jazz and big band greats like Count Basie, but his appreciation of folk, blues and other roots music led him to combine his interests into the unique sounds of country swing. The band tours relentlessly and has an ever-changing lineup, but Benson and the musical roots remain constant. (Tickets are $23; the concert starts at 7:30 pm.)
The swing theme continues with a jazz and ska flavor on Friday, August 2, when the Cherry Poppin' Daddies come to town. This eight-piece band from Eugene, Ore., scored a hit with Zoot Suit Riot a few years ago, which marked their place in the reemerging field of swing. This brand of swing -- a little bit neo, a little bit retro -- has been popular with Sandpoint audiences before, Wahl says.
"People loved the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy show last year. The Cherry Poppin' Daddies are less retro, with more ska and rock influences."
The band's leader, Steve Perry, and the rest of the Daddies create a hybrid sound that pays homage to influences from Louis Prima to the Mighty Bosstones. (Tickets are $25; the concert starts at 7:30 pm.)
The third day of the Festival, August 3, is billed as Super Saturday, with two full-length performances beginning at 6 pm. Mumbo Gumbo, with lead vocalist Chris Webster, takes the stage first. The Sacramento-based Webster has appeared in Sandpoint before, with Rosalie Sorrels and the Divas of Folk, with Judy Collins at the Festival in 1999, and in concert at the Panida Theater. This time, she's bringing along her seven-piece band for a blend of New Orleans Rhumba, Zydeco and Cajun sounds spiced with Latin and Caribbean rhythms. Once they've got the Gulf Coast thing bubbling, blues sensation Keb' Mo' (aka Kevin Moore) takes over at 8 pm with his earthy but uplifting contemporary acoustic blues. His 1994 self-titled CD won him the prestigious W.C. Handy Blues Award, and he's been on a roll ever since. Steeped in the Mississippi blues tradition, his melodic, heartfelt songs have crossover appeal with fans of folk, roots and other acoustic traditions. (Tickets are $35; gates open at 4:30 pm and the music begins at 6:00 pm.)
Sunday, August 4, is a day for the whole family to enjoy as Maestro Gary Sheldon and KPBX Music Director Verne Windham bring the Spokane Youth Symphony in for the annual Family Concert.
"We're really excited to have the Youth Symphony playing this year," Wahl says. "If kids see teens playing this music instead of adults, they're more likely to say, 'Hey, I can do that!' "
The program is designed to be both educational and entertaining and features Prokofiev's ever-popular Peter and the Wolf -- narrated by Windham -- and the Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens, with Sheldon at the piano. Members of the Sandpoint High School Band will be on hand with a "classical petting zoo," where kids can try out a variety of instruments for themselves. Each child who comes through the gate will receive a special musical goody bag, and the Mayor's Youth Service Project promises a carnival atmosphere complete with clowns, face painting and games. (Tickets are $5; activities begin at 4:30 pm.)
Multi-instrumentalist David Lindley and drummer Wally Ingram team up to kick off the second week of shows on Thursday, August 8. Lindley spent the 1970s working with Jackson Browne, and his inimitable slide-guitar solos can be heard on many of Browne's hits from that era. His work as a session musician led to appearances on a remarkable variety of recordings by artists from Linda Ronstadt to Warren Zevon. In 1981, he formed his own band, El Rayo-X, which explored American roots music and musical traditions from around the world. Ten years later, a recording safari to Madagascar earned him Grammy nominations and respect on the world music scene. Through all his travels, he has amassed an amazing collection of stringed instruments from all over the world, and he'll be bringing many of these along to the show. With Ingram, a long-time touring drummer in the rock world, the "Twango Bango" duo is born, complete with stellar licks, wacky humor and vintage polyester fashions. Ticket holders over age 21 may join a complimentary microbrew tasting before the concert. (Tickets are $23; the concert starts at 7:30 pm.)
It's a blast from the past on Friday, August 9, when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band takes the stage as part of their reunion tour welcoming back long-absent co-founder John McEuen. Purveyors of pop hits like Mr. Bojangles, along with a string of titles that topped the country charts through the '60s and '70s, NGDB has been honing its blend of country, rock and bluegrass since 1966. This year, they also celebrate the 30th anniversary of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volumes I & amp; II, a collection of collaborations with legends of old-time country music such as Mother Maybelle Carter and Roy Acuff. (Tickets are $25; the concerts starts at 7:30 pm.)
The time frame shifts to the 1980s on Saturday, August 10, with the arrival of Air Supply and their special guest Shari Short. Englishman Graham Russell and Australian Russell Hitchcock met in 1975, and their collaboration led to a string of Top 10 hits for the band through the 1980s, including All Out of Love, Two Less Lonely People in the World and Even the Nights Are Better. Short, the 17-year-old singer-songwriter from Bonners Ferry, met up with Russell last year and began opening for the band on their tour.
"That show is really selling well," Wahl remarks. "I think all of Boundary County will come down for that one." (Tickets are $25; the concert begins at 7:30 pm.)
The Grand Finale Concert on Sunday, August 11, will conclude the celebration in fine classical style as the Festival Principal Conductor Gary Sheldon leads the Spokane Symphony Orchestra and guest piano soloist Roberto Plano of Italy. The gates will open early so ticket holders (over age 21) can sample a variety of vintages offered by 32 participating wineries. After the orchestra opens with Dvorak's Carnival Overture, Plano, winner of the 2001 Cleveland International Piano Competition, plays the Piano Concerto in A minor by Edvard Grieg. The second half of the show will be devoted to works by Gershwin, including Plano's first performance of Rhapsody in Blue for an American audience. An encore of American favorites will accompany the Festival's traditional closing fireworks display and bring to an end yet another season of grand music by the lake.
For tickets, call 888-265-4554 or order online at www.festivalatsandpoint.com.