Eugene Weekly : Music : 5.31.07

Indie Bluegrass Folk
Misty River’s new album practices the art of narrative

Ten years after one fateful open mic at Galway’s Irish pub in Portland, Misty River celebrates its decade of tight harmonies and close strings with a new CD, an album of mixed covers and originals with influences as far-flung as Ireland and China and as close as the spirit of Jerry Garcia.

Misty River CD release and omenspace benefit. 8 pm Saturday, June 2. The Shedd. $18-$45.

The four women of Misty River became a group in one of those tales that doesn’t seem quite true, a tale that would make anyone reading a Charles de Lint or Jane Yolen urban fantasy novel roll her eyes and think, “Oh, right, urban life is so like this.” In this case, there’s no need for authorial embellishment. Guitar player Carol Harley and her daughter Laura Quigley, who plays bass, called Harley’s former student Dana Abel and asked if she would travel to Portland with them for open mic night. Abel, who plays accordion, agreed. But they needed a fourth voice, not to mention a fiddle player. Luckily, Galway’s Pub waitress Chris Kokesh proved more than equal to both tasks, so they performed three songs that night.

The bar manager fell for the sound of the women’s bluegrass-tinged folk and said he’d like to hire the band to play every Sunday night, be the house band. “But we’re not a band,” Abel remembers saying. “You are now,” he replied.

Since then, lots has happened: Abel had two kids, Harley was diagnosed with leukemia and is now in remission, Quigley joined an old-time band and the group’s tours have taken them across the world and led them to put out five albums. The members must love dramatic narrative arcs by now; the new album is called Stories. The track list combines Quigley’s love for old-time music with Abel, Harley and Kokesh’s original songs and the influence of Kokesh’s fiddling, which led the band to such tunes as the gorgeous traditional Irish melodies of “Star the County Down / Road to Lisdoonvarna / Connaughtman’s Rumbles.” But these tunes, instead of being the commonly understood showcase for each player’s speed, roll out so slowly that their minor tones and nostalgic yearning permeate the track.

The band was invited to China in 2004 for an international music festival, and so the album includes “Gan Lan Shu (The Olive Tree).” Why did they learn a popular song in Mandarin Chinese? “The organizers required that every band learn a Chinese song,” Abel says. The language gave the group some challenges until a group of men came over to help them with the Mandarin. “We thought they were official festival people,” Abel says, “but later we learned they were Toyota salesmen who just happened to be at the festival.” The song was so well known that whenever they began playing it, as they were required to do each day of the festival, the crowd would stand up and sing along.

Highlights of the CD, produced by Grammy-award winner Todd Phillips, include the first song, a cover of John Gorka’s brilliant “Branching Out” and a beautifully harmonized cover of the Dead’s “Black Muddy River,” not to mention a so-lachrymose-one-hopes-it’s-ironic “Barbara Ellen” (often known as “Barbara Allen,” but as Abel says, these traditional tunes came down orally and have many variations).

Misty River, Abel says, is a band in transition. It’s too much work for any of the members to take on, but is it time to get a manager and someone else to handle the planning? With constant touring this summer and fall, five CDs to their name and an open invitation to return to that Chinese music festival, not to mention the experience of using a producer for the first time, it probably is time. “But we’re still an indie band,” Abel says firmly. And it’s a band with many a tale to tell.