Review: The 16th Ogden Music Festival

The nonprofit organization, Ogden Friends of Acoustic Music (OFOAM), knows how to create a first-class music festival. Don’t let the “acoustic” moniker fool you. The festival held at Fort Buenaventura on May 31-June 2, 2024 included more than string bands and bluegrass (though they did bring in world-class bluegrass acts). Featuring a staggering 27 musical acts over three days, OFOAM balanced the lineup with other genres of the American roots canon like soul, blues, R&B, Afro-Mexican rhythms, folk, mariachi, funk, and disco. It was a stellar all-star lineup. 

I’ll try to highlight the best of the fest, though picking the finest performances from a lineup of 27 amazing acts is no easy task.

Ogden Music Festival Highlights

The OFOAM team. They put on a well-organized festival with laser precision. The vibe is chill and the crowd is big enough to draw incredible artists, but small enough to enjoy them. It’s my favorite festival.

Salt Lake City-based Pixie & The Partygrass Boys kicked off a barn-burner night of music. Their spirited nine-song set got the party started. Their opening number, “All Good Things” foretold the coming weekend. They followed it with “Home,” a signature tune with all the qualities of a top 40 hit. With “Appreciate Where You Come From,” they got the crowd singing “Go-Go Vagina,” not what you’d expect to hear anywhere in Utah. I particularly liked their cover of “We Like to Party” by the obscure Dutch Europop band Vengaboys. They replaced the drum machine/synth techno beat with Amanda Grapes’ driving fiddle. 

Say She She, the disco-delic trio from Brooklyn, backed by members of Orgone, turned the open-air space into a Studio 54 dance party. Of course, it’s not 1977, so no lines of cocaine were being snorted in the bathroom stalls (to my knowledge). Somehow snorting coke in a Porta John doesn’t have the same glamorous appeal. Their hypnotic yet trippy tri-vocal harmonies on “C’est Si Bon” and “Prism” felt like a siren call to dance and forget your troubles.

What happens when you mix a Broadway-caliber voice with a guitar slinger?  Celisse. Friday night’s headliner was a true wildcard. Her soulful voice led her to Broadway, but her electric guitar skills turned her into a go-to touring guitarist for Brandi Carlile, Alicia Keys, and Joni Mitchell. She has yet to release her debut album. Nevertheless, she sells tickets on reputation alone. 

Accompanied by a drummer and bass player, Celisse rolled our socks down with a mesmerizing mix of covers and originals. Her golden gospel voice and face-melting guitar prowess commanded the stage as she riffed a little of the Beatles “Get Back” before belting out Aretha’s “Chain of Fools.” She paired her booming vocals with expressive guitar licks on unreleased originals like “Mystery To Me” and “Lost.” My wife noted a blissful expression on my face for the duration of her set. 

Hayes Carll and his band gave us a solid 13-song set and plenty of whimsy to go along with his clever rootsy country-folk tunes. He started us off with “You Get It All” from his 2021 album by the same name. He played a few signature tunes like “Drunken Poet’s Dream” and the sprawling “KMAG YOYO,” military speak for “Kiss my ass goodbye; you’re on your own. Fans got a bonus 11-song solo acoustic set on Sunday when Carll thrilled the crowd with deep cuts from his massive catalog. He started set two with “Beaumont” and played the just released “Nobody Dies From Weed,” he recorded with The Band of Heathens. Carll will return with The Band of Heathens at The Commonwealth Room on September 15, 2024, for those who missed the double-set in Ogden. That’ll be an epic evening!

Sarah Jarosz. The multi-instrumentalist and multi-Grammy-winning Americana artist just released her seventh full-length album Polaroid Lovers. The record shifts the musical winds of Laurel Canyon toward Nashville to create a pop-adjacent masterpiece: diverse love stories told with a breezy country-pop sound. She played a hefty portion of her new material starting with “Jealous Moon,” a great country rock song that compliments her string band style. Her cover of Massive Attack’s “Tear Drop” sent me shivers. Jarosz can mold a song from any genre into her wheelhouse. She grabbed her banjo and reminded us of her musical roots with “Annabelle Lee.” “Build Me Up From Bones” was a highlight among many. She ended her 16-song set with “Runaway Train,” another new uptempo gem that spices up her Americana songbook.

Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway. Tuttle and her band of world-class musicians are the undisputed leaders of modern bluegrass. Her last two albums won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album and filled her catalog with a rich selection of tunes. She started her 14-song set with “El Dorado,” a gold rush song played to perfection with Tuttle on guitar and lead vocal, Shelby Means on bass, Kyle Tuttle (no relation) on banjo, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes on fiddle and Dominick Leslie on mandolin. Means started their version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” with an ominous bass line and Keith-Hynes delivered a chilling psychedelic wail from her fiddle. It’s bluegrass on mushrooms!  The crew played a top-flight extended jam, taking their instruments to new heights on “Where Did All the Wild Things Go?” and “Dooley’s Farm. In a musical tribute to Hazel Dickens, a bluegrass pioneer from the 1930s, Jarosz joined Tuttle on stage to play one of her songs. Seeing two titans of modern roots music pay homage to one of their musical heroes warmed my soul. In another throwback moment, Tuttle and Golden Highway played a magical bluegrass rendition of The Rolling Stones’s 1967 trippy hit “She’s A Rainbow.” Maybe LSD and Moonshine don’t mix, but acid rock and bluegrass make a fine cocktail. The Grateful Dead figured it out and Tuttle is taking it in an exciting new direction. She ended a mind-blowing performance with “Crooked Tree” and “San Joaquin.” Tuttle and Golden Highway are the hottest tickets in roots music.  

There’s nothing like a little Sunday afternoon mariachi music to get the festival vibes flowing. Utah’s own Mariachi Aguilas de la Esperanza, 20 children from Esperanza School, started us off with Mariachi, Banda, Norteno, and Sierreno music.

Reminiscent of an unplugged version of the Doobie Brothers meets the Workingman’s Dead, The Mountain Grass Unit, a jamgrass band from the Appalachian foothills of Birmingham, Alabama took the stage. They began with “Jerico” from their 2022 debut album Places I’ve Been and mixed in originals like “Shay’s Rebellion” and “South Woodbridge” alongside The Grateful Dead’s “Bird Song” and “I Know You Rider.” With just an upright bass, mandolin, and an acoustic guitar, they created a heavy jam. The trio mentioned a possible return to Utah later this summer, so keep an eye out for a potential appearance at Kilby Court. 

East LA’s Las Cafeteras coaxed the sun-soaked late afternoon festivarians out of their low back chairs and onto their feet to dance. The crowd-pleasing troupe started with their socially-conscious 2020 release, “Long Time Coming,” and soon found their way into the crowd to form a conga line. Las Cafeteras thrilled the crowd with their version of “La Bamba,” an ancient Afro-Mexican folk song originally performed in the musical style son jarocho. The band kept the Veracruz traditional free-style, but added in hip-hop to create “La Bamba Rebelde.” I loved the way Las Cafeteras reworked an ancient, yet familiar song into something so fresh and meaningful. The band’s high-octane performance became a late-festival highlight!

The task of opening and closing this year’s highly successful Ogden Music Festival fell on veteran players of the Salt Lake City music scene. Pixie and the Partygrass Boys rocked the opening and Josie O and the Big Six closed out the three-day festival and left us wanting more! Josie O and the Big Six are a supergroup of premier Salt Lake City artists or as lead vocalist Melissa Chilinski put it: “a band of many bands, but also a band.” These musical archeologists breathe new life into long-forgotten old-tyme honky tonk music with passion and precision. For you musical nerds, the band gets their name “Josie O” from an old fiddle tune. 

They covered Hank Williams’ “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” and Hank Williams Jr’s “Tennessee Stud.” Trading his drum kit for vocals, Daniel Young made a 1930s gospel tune, Turn Your Radio On,” relevant to a 2024 audience. Josie O and the Big Six put an exclamation point on the 16th annual Ogden Music Festival. The crowd demanded an encore! 

A shout out to the “Tweeners” who kept the music flowing while main stage performers set up between acts. The competition for a coveted tweener spot was fierce (63 applicants for 11 slots). Depending on the setup between main stage acts, OFOAM allotted tweeners a limited amount of time to showcase their talent. Heber’s Alicia Stockman followed Say She She’s amazing set and before Celisse—no pressure there. Rising to the challenge, she delivered a powerful four-tune acoustic set, including new material she will be releasing in late June. Salt Lake City’s Andrew Wiscombe provided a great bridge between Hayes Carll and Sarah Jarosz with smart, well-crafted folk songs like “Working Man’s Mile,” and from his latest album, “Cosmic Holiday,” he premiered “Alone With You” and “Lovely Lola Jean.” SLC’s Emily Hicks and Zaza Historia VanDyke also shined.

Staying true to its mission, OFOAM puts musical instruments in kids’ hands and fosters the next generation of great artists. To their credit, they peppered the bill with young up-and-coming artists like 15-year-old Tennessean Wyatt Ellis who first took up a musical instrument during the pandemic and is now a multi-instrumentalist and composer with a hit record climbing in the bluegrass charts. Moab’s The Prairie Dogs featured three fiddle-playing kids performing traditional bluegrass songs like “Nine Pound Hammer.” Maybe we just saw the next Molly Tuttle or AJ Lee? The students of the Esperanza School, Mariachi Aguilas de la Esperanza, exuded promise and talent that might take them in multiple musical directions. 

The festival is extremely well-organized and chill. It’s kid-friendly too with plenty of activities to expose children to the musical arts. They also provided workshops where masterful musicians share their wisdom about songwriting, performance, and other secrets of the music industry to newbies and fellow travelers. Where else can you get a free and intimate tutorial from Sarah Jarosz or Hayes Carll? They also held a “Jam Camp” where patrons could grab their favorite instrument and jam with headliners like Twisted Pine or Slocan Ramblers.

OFOAM will be back next year for its 17th festival on May 30, 2025. I’ve already saved the date!

  • What: 16th Ogden Music Festival
  • Where: Fort Buenaventura 
  • When: May 31–June 2, 2024
  • Info: ofoam.org

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See our review of the 2023 Ogden Music Festival.

Featured image: Artist Celisse performs at the 2024 Ogden Music Festival. Photo by Sam Crump (@samcrumpphoto), courtesy OFOAM.

John Nelson
John Nelsonhttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
John Nelson covers the local music scene for Salt Lake magazine. He is a 20-year veteran of Uncle Sam’s Flying Circus with a lifelong addiction to American roots music, live music venues, craft beer and baseball.

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