North West Music Festival Gives Indie Artists a Platform After Long Pandemic Break : NPR

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One of the North West’s biggest indie rock festivals is back this weekend after pandemic delays. Treefort Music Fest in Boise, Idaho attracts big stars but also small-town artists looking for a break.



DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

One of the North West’s biggest indie rock festivals is back this weekend after a few years of pandemic delays and schedule changes. Treefort Music Fest in Boise, Idaho had its share of big-name headliners. But as NPR’s Kirk Siegler reports, it’s also a platform for small-town artists who have had far less exposure during the pandemic.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: It’s an eight-hour drive to Treefort from Christian Wallowing Bull’s home near the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming — enough time for him to reflect on all he’s been through to get here.

CHRISTIAN WALLOWING BULL: Like, I was a young kid on a reservation and I never imagined that I would do something like this, that I could play a festival like this.

SIEGLER: Wallowing Bull is a member of the Northern Arapahoe tribe. He is 28 years old, with a shaved head and a tattoo of a leaf spreading over his left eye. And having grown up on a reservation, he says he could have easily become a statistic. He struggled with addiction, had run-ins with the law. But he fought back, changed his life. These are themes that often recur in his music.

(MUSIC SOUND EXTRACTION)

WALLOWING BULL: (singing) I was a young man and I was alone in a land of wolves.

In the mainstream media, there’s not a lot of coverage of a young aboriginal growing up and, you know, overcoming some challenges and succeeding, I would say, in modern society.

SIEGLER: It’s also difficult to get known if you’re an artist from a rural area. Wallowing Bull’s big breakthrough came when he won the Wyoming Singer-Songwriter Contest last year, so playing Treefort in a town is a bit surreal.

(MUSIC SOUND EXTRACTION)

WALLOWING BULL: (Singing) I held my head up.

Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

WALLOWING BULL: I’ve never been to a music festival in my entire life – just missed opportunities and maybe just struggled. So being able to play at a festival, let alone attend, is huge for me.

SIEGLER: The pandemic has been especially difficult for musicians in small towns without large fanbases who couldn’t easily host virtual shows. And now that everything is opening up again, it’s even harder to get gigs in the smaller venues where they usually play because every band is back on tour trying to catch up on the last two years. Sean Lynch owns a club in Billings, Mont.

SEAN LYNCH: I think most of them now get support slots if that’s available. But it’s a fight for small groups. Beginner groups have – we call them baby groups. They’re really – they’re really having a hard time getting into the markets right now.

SIEGLER: That’s why Treefort might seem decisive if you’re an up-and-coming artist trying to get noticed by a big-city promoter. Lynch leads two Billings bands that play here, including indie pop quartet Joyce from the Future.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOYCE FROM THE FUTURE SONG, “THE SOUND OF BEING ALIVE”)

SIEGLER: They’re led by 22-year-old Lyric Horton.

LYRIC HORTON: More than anything, people are always a little surprised when they find out we’re from Montana. I think that’s helpful in a lot of ways, because it makes people pay a little more attention than if we were to say, yeah, we’re from, you know, New York or LA or something. I think that’s cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “THE SOUND OF BEING ALIVE”)

FUTURE JOYCE: (singing) Tonight, I’m dancing until I feel good. Let the beat take me somewhere I haven’t been in a while.

SIEGLER: His band barely played a dozen gigs. It is also his very first festival.

FUTURE JOYCE: There’s a few people on Freefort’s lineup that I’ve listened to for years, you know? So even being on the same, you know, lineup as them, it’s crazy.

SIEGLER: Crazy, she says, but hopefully a launch pad for the future. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise.

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