Shangri-la: shorter, but still sweet

Posted Aug. 05, 2008, at 12 a.m.

Two out of three ain’ t bad.

The Shangri-La Music and Arts Festival, held last weekend at the Blue Hill Fairgrounds, had one of its three days cut short due to the torrential downpours experienced in the area Sunday afternoon. Lightning and 5 inches of rain meant that organizer Joel Raymond had to pull the plug on most of Sunday’ s festivities, for the safety of the audience and artists.

Steve Earle and Alison Moorer, Southern Culture on the Skids and the Barra MacNeils all had their sets canceled — but all three promised to reschedule dates in the area as soon as possible. Those with full weekend passes, or with passes for just Sunday’ s show, will have their tickets honored.

Despite that disappointment, Friday and Saturday’ s performances went off without a hitch. Friday night’ s one-two-three punch of Bill Evans and Soulgrass, Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience and the Avett Brothers left festival-goers all danced out. A riotous set from the indie-folk band the Avett Brothers especially highlighted the evening, drawing comparisons from audience members to The Clash or U2, for its raw, authentic energy.

Saturday kicked off with sets from French Canadian band Captain Storm, Deer Isle garage band Pattycake 600, and songwriters Tim Krekel, Susan Werner and Luke Rathbone. Though Rathbone is a talented songwriter, his solo acoustic performance dragged the energy levels of the audience down to a crawl.

A midafternoon set from the Asylum Street Spankers brought it right back up, though, with the band’ s hilarious, off-the-cuff, Squirrel Nut Zippers-esque take on old-timey music charming the crowd. The Spankers trotted out songs like “Mujahadeen Mama” and “You Only Love Me For My Lunchbox,” from the band’ s children’ s album “Mommy Says No.”

The lineup for Shangri-La was nothing if not diverse, and Juana Molina’ s set after the Spankers proved that. A mesmerizing, multi-faceted performer, the Argentinean Molina stood before an array of keyboard, pedals and drum machines, building each song over her crisply strummed acoustic guitar and coolly expressive vocals. Critics label her music as “folktronica,” and while that’ s a clumsy term, it’ s also appropriate, with the way she melds organic musical elements with technology.

Winterpills followed, with the regional favorites playing solid, smart, harmonically dense indie rock. In yet another example of how eclectic the music was, the Infamous Stringdusters, a rockin’ bluegrass band, came on next, and brought the crowd to its feet. An encore set took the band down into the audience, with all six members dueling it out on banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle and upright bass.

Erin McKeown took the stage at 8 p.m., just as the sun began to set over Blue Hill Mountain. McKeown’ s combination of sensitive songwriting, engagingly goofy stage presence and killer guitar chops makes it easy for her to win over a crowd, and as such her performance was one of the highlights of the weekend. Saturday ended with Josh Ritter, who’ s strengths as a lyricist almost outweigh his considerable talents as a guitarist and vocalist.

The threat of rain meant attendance wasn’ t quite as high as organizers had hoped, but for a first-time festival, and despite the washout Sunday afternoon, Shangri-La overall was a success — if only for the stellar lineup of music.

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