Elephant Revival, a folk quintet from Nederland, Colorado, is back in town, almost. This time they’ll be packing the house at Park City Live. The Utah scene has an infatuation with Elephant Revival. As it turns out, Elephant Revival has a special devotion to Utah, also; they last played in Salt Lake just a few months ago at the State Room for New Year’s Eve and the night prior. This was their second New Year’s playing in Salt Lake.
“The crowd here is really sweet and enthusiastic, we always want to make sure we’re here at least once or twice a year,” says vocalist/percussionist Bonnie Paine. The band also includes Bridget Law (fiddle, octave fiddle); Dango Rose (double bass, mandolin, banjo), Daniel Rodriquez (guitar, banjo, double bass) and Sage Cook (banjo, guitar, mandolin, bass, fiddle); Cook is currently taking a break. Charlie Rose (banjo, pedal steel, guitar, horns, cello and upright bass) is collaborating with the group these days.
I had the chance to sit down and chat with Paine on their last visit. With her genuine smile and her bag of fresh laundry she was unabashedly toting, I immediately felt in the presence of a humble, gentle soul. After hearing their story, getting deep into the tectonic plate-lubricating details of fracking and climbing our way out if it again, I got the impression their band’s mission and individual inclinations are much more than to just play incredible music. They’re something expansive and egoless about their chemistry as a band, on and offstage. They’re the kind of band that makes you want to be a better person.
Elephant Revival has been playing gigs in Utah since they formed in 2006. In particular, they love Mystic Hot Springs in Monroe. “That’s a big drawing point, honestly. When we first became a band, that was one of our first destinations,” says Paine. Mystic Hot Springs has become a popular spot for all kinds of traveling musicians to stop, take a soak and play gigs during their journeys from coast to coast. “Mystic Mike” Ginsburg, the owner, who used to design graphics and video animation for the Grateful Dead, has created quite the hippie hot spring haven with its own venue and lodging in RV’s, restored pioneer cabins and newly decked-out old tour buses.
Elephant Revival is often described as gypsy, folk, Celtic, Americana, and even jam-grass. Each band member contributes songs, adding versatility. Their December 30, 2014 show at the State Room took the audience on a journey from foot-stomping jubilation to delicate, haunting folkie moments and back again to celebratory, fiddlin’ glee. The visual element of their aerialist on the lyra and the silk hammock added breath-taking moments.
It’s often their purely instrumental songs that evoke the most vivid images. When Dango Rose showed the band his song “The Pasture” (from their 2013 album These Changing Skies), he didn’t reveal the song’s name, but the band got it. “We were all having these images of running through this pasture with horses and being in big open space,'” says Paine.
These Changing Skies gets its name from lyrics in the song “Remembering a Beginning,” and those lyrics were inspired by the idea that “everything is communicating,” from David Abram’s 2010 book The Spell of the Sensuous.
Abrams, according to Paine, says that when language was created, we replaced intuition with intellect. “That’s when we withdrew from being able to respect the things we’re made out of, the animals, and everything that we’re inextricably in relationship with. Everything has its own language.” She presses on the table. “This table is communicating by resisting my touch. And the sky —what is its form of communicating, what has it experienced, what changes has it seen?”
Stewardship is at the forefront of their lyrics and motivations. “We are in this together. If we could really get it, we’d have a more gentle relationship with the planet,” says Paine.
Elephant Revival members don’t just sing about making the world a better place, they act on it, too. They do as much as they can individually, eating organically and eliminating waste. They sell reusable bamboo plate ware, canteens and silverware at their shows to festival-goers; for whom trash is a major issue. They’ve traveled in a bus that runs on vegetable oil and played at multiple anti-fracking shows.
Paine grew up on a farm at the end of the Trail of Tears, Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and fracking is making a big impact on her home. In the past couple of years since the fracking industry has developed, earthquakes have spiked out of control in a state where, a decade ago, buying earthquake insurance was laughable. Now, according to National Geographic, Oklahoma has more earthquakes than California.
Paine recounts a story: She got into a conversation with some guys on an airplane who worked in the fracking industry. After much small talk and their altitude had reached more profound heights, she sweetly asked if they thought the recent increase in seismic activity was due to fracking in the area. “Their response was, ‘Absolutely, it’s already proven that’s the case. They just can’t prove it that it’s to a degree that it needs to stop.”
“But it shook the ground,” she told them. “My whole family depends on well water. Isn’t that enough of a threat?” Drinking water wells near fracking sites have been found to be at high risk for methane contamination.
One replied, “Unfortunately in our society things have to get catastrophic in order to come to a head.” As if poisoned wells and earthquakes are not a catastrophe.
Whether or not Bonnie changed the way those fracking executives saw their impact that day, the story is a good reminder that all we have are those small, honest encounters to help remind us that “we’re all in this together.” If, for some people, science isn’t enough of a reason to care for the Earth, maybe art is. Music and art can help us hurdle the perplexing challenges with grace and joy.
With the help of Elephant Revival, we can channel our frustration and disappointment into compassionate conversations and consciousness. Dancing and smiling might also be an involuntary side effect. You’ve been warned.
Sophie Silverstone is a CATALYST Magazine staffer.
Elephant Revival. Park City Live, March 19. $20. http://www.ParkCityLive.net