Between the two weekends has always been my favorite time to hit the fair. The crowds are down some, the rust and kinks have been greased out of the myriad operations that keep the gigantic enterprise humming along, and most folks seem especially glad to steal some fun out of weekday as autumn’s school and work obligations hover in the near future.
This year, fair organizers have upped the attraction by booking the best acts on the free stages for Wednesday and Thursday. I’m especially partial to catching up with Paul Cebar, having thoroughly enjoyed his contributions to the apty-named Semi-Twang and his later ensemble, The Milwaukeeans, way back when. Now he has a quintet, Paul Cebar and the Tomorrow Sound, that continues to blend his love of roots, grooves and boogie music, a confab of New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago and rural southern soul. Here is a pair of performances from the Cabooze in November (the second one, beginning about 4:45, is even better than the first). Here they are at the Louisiana Music Factory. And here they are giving the organist room to groove.
If Cebar’s rollicking dance music isn’t your thing, sample the New Orleans jazz, funk and rock of Trombone Shorty, a galvanizing performer who banishes suspicion that he’s nothing but ham and hokum the moment he digs in his heels and blows the house down with his big slide instrument. I was pleasantly ambushed by Shorty’s show while camped on the grass waiting for bigger and better acts at the Iowa City Jazz Festival over the 4th of July. Here is a 30-second ad for Shorty and his music. And here is Shorty featuring his band, Orleans Avenue, instead of himself, during a snippet of the group’s performance at last year’s State Fair.
Earlier on both days are a pair of acts with an even higher national profile. Storyhill, the Bozeman folk duo on the Red House label, melds simpatico harmonies with inventive arrangements and plainspoken but solid songwriting. Check out the harmonies on this performance at the Storyhill Fest in Montana three years ago. This year, the fest will take place in Deerwood (near Brainerd) over Labor Day Weekend. Check here for more info.
The Gibson Brothers likewise are renowned for their charming harmonies. The sibling bluegrass duo from upstate New York occasionally has a father-son backing, as happened here on a rendition of Kieran Kane’s “The Mountain Song.” And here is a solid version of “Ring the Bell,” the title track from the Gibson Brothers’ superb new disc on the Compass label, followed by a cover of “Jerico.”
For some reason, this ace bluegrass outfit, which has recorded for both Sugar Hill and Compass, is playing midday, at noon and 1 p.m. on Thursday and 11, 12 and 1 p.m. on Wednesday. If that weren’t incredible enough, the duo will face some pretty stiff competition from the Roe Family Singers, a group whose hillbilly tunes include washboard and saw. For my money — which will thankfully remain in my pocket in this case — both of these morning acts are better than the grandstand headliners, O.A.R. on Wednesday and Casting Crows on Thursday. Better music and more buying power for your corn dog and ferris-wheel needs.
For specific times and places on these free stage performances go to this state fair link.