From Sea to Sky

A sense of place

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Musicians and bands have all kinds of influences that draw from all manner of different things. But if they can be said to have one thing in common, it would be that they tend to sound like where they come from. Media and lore might have had a hand in turning Seattle into the epicenter of 1990s grunge, but there’s no denying that style of music was organic to the Pacific Northwest. A similar mythos surrounds California’s Laurel Canyon, where the likes of Joni Mitchell, the Byrds, the Eagles, and Crosby, Stills and Nash all wrote some of their most iconic music in its bungalows and on its porches, so much so that the “Laurel Canyon Sound” is emulated by bands even today.

Even when it comes to making music, wherever you go, there you are.

For Donavon Frankenreiter, music was not his first love. Instead, like so many other California natives, he was born to surf. He went pro when he was 15 years old, and surfing continues to be central to his existence. When he began playing music a couple of years after becoming a pro surfer, it wasn’t because of deep-seated and as-yet-unrealized artistic ambition. It was a way to pass the time. Strumming a guitar on the beach was a better means than most for dealing with the downtime that comes part and parcel with life as a surfer, and strumming led to singing, which led to songwriting, until Frankenreiter found himself joining a geographically linked musical tradition of his own: surfer/songwriters.

When I consider surf music, I tend to think of the distinct and propulsive guitar sounds of Dick Dale or the energetic harmonies of the Beach Boys. However, there exists a whole other subset of surf music of a more laid back variety, the kind that sounds more like warm sunshine and gentle waves washing over you than it does a beach blanket boogie. Practitioners of this type of surf sound include Jack Johnson, G. Love and Special Sauce, and, of course, Frankenreiter. Indeed, Johnson and G. Love aren’t simply Frankenreiter’s musical contemporaries, but they’re also his collaborators. Frankenreiter scored his biggest hit with 2004’s “Free,” a song Johnson is featured on, and he’s got a side project with G. Love called Jamtown.

To Frankenreiter, surfing and music are two sides of the same coin. In the same way that he can only do so much to predict how the surf will be on any given day or how many waves he’ll catch, his songwriting process is to go where the music takes him. Much like how surfing is an activity that makes him happy and feeds his soul, his music is known for its positive messaging and downright sunshiny vibe. And he’s been known to plan a tour stop or two around his favorite surf spots, meaning he’s never far from those days of strumming his guitar on the beach between surfing sessions.

In terms of geographically desirable musical movements, being a surfer/songwriter seems pretty dreamy

But as those of us who live in a place with the ocean on one side and the Cascades on the other can attest, there’s something to be said for the mountains as well.

Yonder Mountain String Band would likely be quick to agree, seeing as how they hail from a tiny town in Colorado that’s more than 8,000 feet above sea level and surrounded by mountains. I’m trying to wrap my mind around how anyone does anything other than move as little as possible and gasp for oxygen at 8,000 feet, but Yonder Mountain has long since cracked that code, and not only do they play music, but they pay fast-paced, lively bluegrass and they are not afraid to go wherever the urge to jam might take them.

While the band ultimately owes their level of success to their music, they’ve been innovative in the in the means they’ve employed to make certain their music is heard. Early on, they adopted a welcoming stance toward anyone who wanted to record their live performances—and their live shows are where they truly shine—essentially creating an army of people who were empowered and encouraged to spread the band’s gospel far and wide. It was a strategy that paid dividends, and the band’s reach now extends far beyond the mountain-town environs that spawned it and its distinctive sound.

Should you so choose, you can stroll the proverbial beaches with Frankenreiter on Thurs., March 8 and explore the mountainous regions with Yonder Mountain String Band on Tues., March 13, a sea-to-sky journey you only need to travel as far as the Wild Buffalo to undertake. Geography never sounded so good.

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