It’s impossible to put this eclectic 6-piece band from Portland, Oregon into a genre slot – their music is that diverse. From the first time I heard them, I was delighted by their originality and creativity, and immediately check marked this band as one to see at this year’s Ottawa Folkfest.
Black Prairie began as a side project by bassist, Nate Query and dobro/banjo/guitarist, Chris Funk of indie folk rock band, The Decemberists, who also hail from Portland, Oregon. They were later joined by pianist/accordionist, Jenny Conlee, also from The Decemberists, who had a keen interest in song collaboration and expanding her artistic freedom. Other local artists would step into this ring of what was becoming a spawning band – violinist/vocalist, Annalisa Tornfelt (Bearfoot and the Woolwines), and guitarist Jon Neufeld (Dolorean, and Jackstraw). Each brought to the table influences of bluegrass, country, folk rock, classic rock, jazz, traditional Romanian, and gypsy music.
In April of 2010, they released their first Black Prairie album, Feast Of The Hunter’s Moon, which was made up mainly of instrumental pieces. I was enthralled by their very dramatic track, “Ostinato Del Caminito”, which began with a hurried tempo of classic Spanish-style staccato, laced in minor chords, and layered instrumentation. Breaks into flowing melancholy, half-time melodies and slow, meandering bridges gave this song a very unique texture.
I could immediately envision a piece of music like this in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Another entitled, “A Prairie Musette”, is a gorgeously flowing wistful tune in three-quarter time that will whisk you away to an outdoor café on the cobble stoned streets of Paris. I was also impressed with another track, “Red Rocking Chair”, a traditional Americana piece they spun into a dark and haunting bit of creepiness, one of the only tracks on the album which showcases Tornfelt’s sweet, Norah Jones-style vocals.
In September of 2012, they released their next studio album, A Tear In The Eye Is A Wound In The Heart, which introduced more vocals, and the addition of percussionist/drummer, John Moen, also from The Decemberists. One of my favourites on this album is, “How Do You Ruin Me”, having a lusty creole-style feel to it, yet with a contemporary edge, and Neufeld’s nice lower vocal harmonies.
In April of this year, Black Prairie put out their latest effort, Fortune, which took a mere two weeks to write, and another two weeks to record. The reason for this is attributed to the increased surge of fresh ideas that were quickly and easily collaborated among the members. This album takes a turn into the addition of more classic rock influence, very Zeppelinesque, with a more fearless release in their songwriting. This is evident especially in the heavier tracks, “The White Tundra”, and “Fortune”. Their debut single, “Let It Out”, was made into a video, shot in a working taxidermist shop, giving this energetic alt-rock infused piece a playfully twisted feel:
In short, Black Prairie is a band that is not afraid to experiment with different genres of music. This is clearly conveyed in their recordings, especially those of late, which show a progression in diversity and originality. Put this one on your roster of must-see shows at Folkfest this weekend!
Black Prairie plays the Valley Stage at Ottawa Folk Festival on Friday, September 12 at 9:30 pm. For scheduling and ticket information, click here.