Bearfoot’s bluegrass sound sweet as ‘Molasses’

“I was a Bearfoot virgin.”

That’s what 26-year-old anthropology major Rebecca Jenkins said after hearing Bearfoot for the first time. Jenkins was among the many spectators who sat – and stood – in the Wendy Williamson Auditorium on March 28 to get a glimpse of the Alaska-based quintet: Angela Oudean (fiddle), Annalisa Tornfelt (fiddle), Kate Hamre (bass acoustic), Jason Norris (mandolin) and Mike Mickelson (guitar).

“I’m just on a bluegrass kick lately,” Jenkins said. “They are so passionate about their music, and they’re so energetic and they love what they’re doing. They were just great.”

After three recorded albums and a win at the 2001 Telluride Band Contest, an honor shared with country music sensation Dixie Chicks, Bearfoot has wowed audiences across the country. They have climbed the ladder of success since their start in Alaska in 1999 and increased their fan base every year in the lower 48 states, said Zac Clark, UAA’s Concert Board coordinator.

“Not only is the band very talented, they started here locally,” Clark said. “They remember where they came from and take the time to come back to play in Alaska and show their support for their fans.”

Bearfoot initially focused on a bluegrass sound but is now incorporating Americana influences into their music. With plenty of hometown support, the band returned to UAA for the second time, having performed a sold-out show in September of 2006, to give Anchorage residents a taste of their new sound.

Dressed in semiformal attire in black, white and red tones, each band member skillfully showcased two talents – their voices and their instruments – in a rare ability that makes this band a unique double threat. Just when the audience grasps an idea of who is the lead singer and who has a musical advantage over the others, Bearfoot turns the tables, giving every member of the group a chance in the spotlight.

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The audience gave enthusiastic feedback to every song played, responding with shouts, praise and occasional mid-song applause mid-song after some zealous instrumentals, like Norris’s impeccable mandolin solo in “Molasses,” one of the band’s more popular songs. And the band reciprocated the audience’s fervor.

“I really appreciate it how they interact with the audience,” said Kate Hallford, who attended the March 28 show. “They have far exceeded my expectations.”

Between songs Bearfoot kept the audience laughing with jovial remarks and humorous quirks, telling short stories and talking to people in the crowd. Norris, obviously the comedian of the group, lightened the atmosphere during a more serious number when he walked out into the audience and began playing the mandolin on someone’s lap. Fortunately, this added element of entertainment did not take away from the beauty of the songs’ lyrics, written by Tornfelt herself.

While the slower ballads focus on the words and vocals, the upbeat songs center on the band’s instrumental skills. Although the instruments essentially isolated the band in the center of the stage, the group still managed to dance in their places while playing. Contagious foot-tapping overcame the entire audience as the fiddles and mandolin went to town during the climax of several numbers, proving that big sounds can come from little instruments.

Best of all, the slower and more upbeat numbers alike represent true American music, with lyrics, instruments and a musical style that illustrate the simplicity and beauty in life and paint a general picture of the countryside – an idea that many Alaskans can appreciate. And Bearfoot manages to also tie into their lyrics two important constituents in the lives of country folk: dancing and alcohol.

The band closed with their favorite number, “It Won’t Be Long,” with Tornfelt, perhaps one of the most talented singers to ever grace the UAA community, singing lead vocals. The song earned the group a standing ovation, after which Bearfoot performed two encore numbers – one a cappella song and one instrumental, in which guest musician Greg Booth played the dobro for the second time that night.

With five distinct voices and musical talents, along with a very diverse repertoire, Bearfoot’s shows have elements that just about anyone can relate to and enjoy – even the Bearfoot virgin.