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Folky fivesome makes music you'll never forget

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The Winnipeg Folk Festival is all about discovery. Every Tuesday from now until the festival, we are digging into the lineup and profiling the artists we think should be on your radar.


This week: Elephant Revival


There's something almost spiritual about the elemental folk tunes that the members of Colorado folk/bluegrass outfit Elephant Revival create together. From their dulcet harmonies to their loose, in-the-moment soundscapes, theirs is the sound of a deep musical connection, foraged despite the geographical distances between them. Their chemistry is palpable.

It was chemistry that brought Sage Cook (banjo, guitar, mandolin, tenor banjo, bass and fiddle), Bridget Law (fiddle, octave fiddle), Bonnie Paine (washboard, djembe, musical saw, stompbox), Daniel Rodriguez (guitar, banjo, bass) and Dango Rose (double-bass, mandolin, banjo) together from far-flung places across America in the first place.

Paine, originally from Oklahoma, first met Rodriguez in Connecticut back in 2002 at a bar where he was doing sound. Armed with a djembe and guitar, they ended up making music on the rooftop until the sun came up (how appropriately folk fest of them).

"It was a great connection," Paine recalls over the phone from the Denver International Airport, where she's just landed. (There was a brief moment of panic when she thought her washboard was lost. Thankfully she found it.) "I knew I wanted it to be something."

The following year, Paine met Law, Cook and Rose at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas. Over the next few years, the fivesome would assemble and make music whenever schedules allowed. Their connection was undeniable; they all felt the pull.

In 2006, Cook sent out a text to the group that sealed their fate as a band.

"It said 'Elephant Revival Concept?' with a list of dates and shows," Paine recalls. At the time, Cook was a busker at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, where a pair of elephants who had been together for 16 years had just been separated and bound for different zoos. They both died on the same day.

"They're tribal creatures and they mean very much to each other," she says. "Sage saw that as a sign we should come together. That's when he sent the text.'"

The band has three full-length albums under its belt -- 2008's Elephant Revival, 2010's Break in the Clouds and last year's acclaimed These Changing Skies. Produced by Ryan Hadlock (the Walkmen, Brandi Carlile and the Lumineers), These Changing Skies comes closest to bottling the lightning of Elephant Revival's live show.

"That's our goal every time," Paine says. "It's hard to do. We're talking about making a live album next, to really capture that energy of us improvising and playing together."

Paine says the band had 22 songs it was considering for the album; all five members are songwriters and all contribute compositions to the group.

Paine's writing process is very much rooted in nature; ask her about musical influences and she's more likely to list, say, the breeze in the trees or raindrops hitting pavement before a specific musical genre.

"I go for a walk, preferably in nature where I can hear natural white noise -- like water," she says. "And I listen for melodies." The words come next, and she translates her found melodies on cello or guitar to bring them to her bandmates.

"The band is skilled at picking up what you're going for, even if you just have the bones," she says.

It's a shorthand that has been developed over the years. "We're definitely more cohesive," she says. "It's more intuitive, too. Listening to our old recordings and where we are now, it's a drastic difference."

It'll be a little while before there's another Elephant Revival album. The festival circuit will keep the band busy for the summer, and Paine has just wrapped a solo album that will be out, she hopes, sometime in the winter.

"It's exciting," she says. "And scary. I was in no hurry to do it, but a friend of mine said, 'You have all these songs that aren't getting played -- let's just document them.' So that's what this is. A document."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 24, 2014 C3

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