Finally arriving in its twice-pandemic-delayed inaugural year, Park City Song Summit sought to “redefine the live music experience.” Boasting intimate club performances by night juxtaposed with raw, personal panel discussions and illuminating long-form interviews by day, the summit did its best to bathe and bask in the “power and myth of song.”
An ambitious affair that delivered on its promise and potential, PCSS’s programming offered a diverse, well-rounded assembly of artists, pioneers, promoters, and creators, presenting the “summit” as something adjacent to the traditional summer music “festival,” with a decided focus on mental health and addiction/recovery.
The gathering took place from September 7th–10th, featuring a sensational smorgasbord of songwriters and eclectic artisans including—but not limited to—Jason Isbell, Father John Misty, Rising Appalachia, Warren Hayes, Daniel Donato, Anders Osborne, Celisse, Aida Victoria, Katie Pruitt, Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel, Daryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels, and Andrew Bird, among others. The performers blessed up a smattering of clubs and venues along Park City’s Main Street and various tents and small rooms at the Lodges at Deer Valley.
It seemed like the entire town was abuzz and ablaze with creative energy, from dawn until deep into the night. Part of the allure was the positively majestic environs of Park City, UT. The area exudes a certain frontier-era aesthetic and mystique, unveiling itself as a picturesque, nineteenth-century mining town, whilst doubling as a chic, contemporary alpine destination. Park City was the ideal setting for such a multifaceted gathering that sought to connect people, rather than entertain them.
The summit’s long-awaited debut featured a sprawling menu of options in addition to the music itself. Conversational panels offered spirited dialogues on matters of social justice and equity within the music industry as well as the trials and tribulations of the creative journey. A silent auction supporting nonprofit organizations like Backline showcased the Summit’s mission: to place a spotlight on underrepresented matters and issues within the music culture—specifically focused on addiction/recovery and mental health awareness.
The chill vibe that permeated throughout the four days of festivities fostered an environment ripe for communing and connecting, making for rewarding exchanges between artist and audience like you seldom see at larger-scale festivals or conferences.
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The embryonic roots of PCSS can be traced back to event founder Ben Anderson’s 2019 Park City Songwriter Festival. Along the way, Anderson’s longtime pal Anders Osborne had an idea to create an event that focused on the power of song and the themes that inspired songwriters, and that addressed the issues of trauma, healing, addiction recovery, and mental health. The two men had each found themselves “on the road to Charlie Parker” some years ago, and both credit their respective recovery journeys as their paths to personal and professional redemption.
After the first pandemic cancellation in September 2020, Anderson linked up with Newport Festivals Foundation Executive Director Jay Sweet, a kindred soul with equally sizable ambitions. Together, they combined their visions into what would become Park City Song Summit, an event that differed from the norm yet still felt squarely familiar. Anderson says their dream convergence is comparable to Austin’s venerable South by Southwest or a TED conference, something of a musical equivalent to the Sundance Film Festival.
A planned 2021 rollout was unfortunately canceled in the wake of renewed concerns about COVID-19. Many of the artists slated for last year chose to sign back on for 2022. Looking back after the fact, it is crystal clear why they remained so loyal to the mission in the face of adversity beyond their control.
In the run up to PCSS, Anderson shared a bit of his vision for what was possible beyond the live performances and what he hoped to uncover by creating spaces for personal stories and sharing.
“If we can create this immersive hangout for song lovers here in the beautiful mountains of PC, there’s a real chance we have to go on this deep exploration, this journey together, and utilize the platform of music to really discuss some important and critical issues that are highly relevant in these times.”
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There were not enough hours in the day to experience all that was on offer at Park City Song Summit 2022, but your humble narrator did his best to sample as much of the goods as humanly possible across four nights and three days in the silver mine style of Park City.
Kicking off the event with a gala Wednesday evening, the pioneer behind PCSS was emotional. Referencing various postponements and hiccups during the pandemic, among other challenges that pushed the Song Summit back, Anderson exclaimed, “It’s been like the seven plagues—frogs and fires, riots, floods, earthquakes—everything the planet has been through the past two years. But we never gave up. And through vision, hard work, and resilience, we’re here tonight. So thank you all for your support.”
Nestled in a huge barn on a majestic horse farm way on the edge of town, the celebratory opening evening revealed a pair of thrilling acoustic performances. Singer-songwriter Aida Victoria and her collaborator/fiance Mason Hickman were transcendent—ghostly, haunting Southern gothic shoegaze blues from the sticks of South Carolina interspersed with personal tales of triumph, trial, and tribulation.
This riveting set was chased by another magnificent one, by way of Muscle Shoals, AL, prodigal son Jason Isbell. He stunned the gala with raw, emotional stories, gripping balladeering, and humorous tales between. A set-closing take on his reimagined “Cover Me Up” had numerous onlookers fighting back tears, this writer among them.
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On Thursday afternoon, the Park City Song Summit began in earnest. The daytime program consisted of several “labs,” or roundtable chats, panels, and discussions between artists, sometimes facilitated by a journalist. Isbell, Margo Price, and Warren Haynes joined moderator Jay Sweet to explore the music and legacy of a folk legend, the late John Prine. Each artist regaled a capacity crowd with personal tales of Prine, their earliest and most treasured recollections of his songs or presence. Price doubled back for another lab with journalist Marissa R. Moss, beginning with an emotional purge about her brutally-honest memoir Maybe We’ll Make It before taking a few questions from the audience.
Jay Sweet welcomed the iconic Mavis Staples to a lab called “I’ll Take You There”. With Sweet gently leading the way, Staples took the crowd back to the early days with her dad as part of the legendary Staples Singers. Not all the recollections were fond ones, though, as the singer reflected on the racism of her youth, the Chitlin’ Circuit, and other darker days deep in the annals of her mind. Staples kept the audience laughing too as she ruminated on playing Harlem’s Apollo Theater at twelve years old, did hilarious impersonations of both Prince and Bob Dylan, and recalled some memories of Sly Stone.
Celisse is most certainly a firebrand on the guitar, but she had quite a bit to say about her craft, journey, and worldview in a pair of wide-ranging dialogues with fellow songstress Aida Victoria and writer Marissa R. Moss, respectively. Topics included playing piano and violin in her youth, the journey to self discovery, and Black death at the hands of police. She reflected on the historic Joni Jams collaboration with Joni Mitchell at this summer’s Newport Folk Fest, the bedrock of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and singing with Trey Anastasio’s brief-yet-powerful ensemble Ghosts of the Forest. Celisse also shared some personal vulnerability, knowledge of self, the genesis of her anthem “Freedom”, and what it means to break the door down.
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All-world journalist/hardcore music fan Anthony Mason was all over town throughout the weekend. The erstwhile culture reporter led a deep dive with the great Warren Haynes before saddling up with Peter Shapiro and Jay Sweet for an insightful, hilarious, and revealing roundtable that centered on landmark events in both men’s illustrious careers. Doing the rounds behind his new book with Dean Budnick The Music Never Stops, Shapiro was particularly candid on his 50th birthday weekend, reflecting on 2015’s Fare Thee Well experience, the famed rainbow situation, halcyon days at Wetlands Preserve in NYC, and teasing the possibility of GD60 in just a few summers.
Journalist Joe Pug, host of the celebrated American Songwriter podcast, offered salient topics du jour for several artists to chew on in front of captive crowds. For his live podcast tapings, Pug was adept at pulling out rooted themes, passions, and profound influences from the likes of global soul sisters Rising Appalachia, folk artists Tre Burt and John Craigie, and soulful rock upstart Devin Gilfillian.
After the sun went down, Park City came alive with performances at venues large and small that dotted the downtown scene. Songwriter House hosted the quieter side of things, while The Cabin went late and went loud in a basement bunker dive bar. Somewhere in the middle was the larger, more acoustically sound O.P. Rockwell at the top of the hill.
Thursday night at O.P. Rockwell, the schedule was packed solid all night so that’s where this writer set up and stayed for the most part. The evening began with an acoustic set from Jeremy Ivey that saw him welcome his wife Margo Price to the stage for choice duets. Shortly thereafter, Celisse showed up and showed out with a positively blistering display of rock n’ roll bombast and guitar wizardry. With her dazzling dress, bedazzled amp cabinets, and gazillion-dollar grin, the sky’s the limit for this force of nature.
Warren Haynes was tasked with taking the stage after said empress scorched the O.P. He did well to dial things down a dab or two, unveiling a sublime, emotive acoustic performance rife with pointed storytelling and fond recollections. Thursday at The Cabin, meanwhile, Jimbo Mathus, Katie Pruitt, Daryl “DMC” McDaniel, and John Doe offered four distinct versions of the American songwriter stretched across multiple generations and genres.
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Friday night’s musical exploits began with the effervescent Bonny Light Horseman, an indie-folk supergroup of sorts. A trio consisting of Anais Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson (The Shins, Fruit Bats), and Josh Kaufman (The National, Hiss Golden Messenger), Bonny Light Horseman did more than set the table for the bold font performers to come; they stunned the O.P. Rockwell with an ethereal brand of songcraft that blended influence, inspiration, and a healthy respect for those who paved the way for them to shine so brightly.
On the heels of that fantastic set, the siren sisters of Rising Appalachia took the stage with their trusty band behind them. The women had already discussed their path and process at length earlier in the weekend, so the situation was prime for a potent dose of their unicorn potion of global soul. Leah Song and Chloe Smith delivered numbers acapella and dueted on banjo and fiddle. Their protest songs and traditional anthems came alive in the night, ably assisted by multi-instrumentalists David Brown and Duncan Wickel, as well as all-world percussion wizard Biko Casini.
All five members of Rising Appalachia dove deep into the Song Summit experience. They sat in the audience to soak in their peers’ panels and shared some of their own secrets too. Culminating on stage, they sang loud and jammed hard, exploring the depths of their evolving songbook for a magic hour. Highlights included “Novels of Acquaintance”, “Love Her in the Morning”, “Catalyst”, and a rousing “Cumberland Gap” to bring it on home.
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Father John Misty was up next on Friday night at O.P. Rockwell, taking the stage accompanied by a pianist. After a few songs that somewhat flew over my head, my curiosity was piqued by the Devin Gilfillian gig that was poppin’ off down the block at The Cabin. So off I went, and I’m sure glad I listened to my gut. Earlier in the day, I had heard Devin discuss his musical journey with Joe Pug and was intrigued by his story and how it might sound set to music.
Gilfillian was a soulful, rock n’ roll revelation, commanding the stage with a certain sheepish energy that betrayed both confidence and vulnerability. Backed by an elastic trio of bass, drums, and keys, he channeled the ghosts of Prince and Digital Underground‘s Shock G with a funky swagger. Musically he splits the difference between Lenny Kravitz and Raphael Saadiq. Fresh off a jaunt across Europe, this crew’s wheels were greased and every last lucky soul at The Cabin around midnight was the better for it.
In addition to some dope original music, Gilfillian dipped into Marvin Gaye’s timeless “What’s Going On”, jumped into the crowd for an acapella screamalong to Bill Withers’s equally timeless “Lean On Me”. For the encore, he set about uncorking something of a hybrid take on Led Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song”, possibly the most intoxicating moment of the weekend in more ways than one. Devin Gilfillian—remember the name.
There were live panels hosted by David Manheim of Dopey Podcast, a popular indie program that focuses on “drugs, addiction, and dumb sh*t.” Dave helped panelists traverse some emotional topography with grace, empathy, and a healthy dose of self-effacing humor. Manheim interviewed NOLA troubadour Anders Osborne and Parkite wunderkind Wyatt Pike of American Idol on topics that ranged from addiction to spirituality. Manheim also spoke with Keith Garde (former manager of Aerosmith) and trauma filmmaker Michelle Esrick in a discussion titled “What Would Love Do?”.
Andrew Bird hosted a pair of live tapings for his popular YouTube program Live from the Great Room, first with Saturday Night Live veteran Fred Armisen, and then in an otherworldly session with Aida Victoria and Jimbo Mathus. The latter was a truly unique coalescing of creators, as the artists relished their love for Southern musical traditions, explored each other’s sojourns and songbooks, and combined to deliver an enthralling performance that left jaws agape.
The highlight of the set for this writer was “Left Handed Kisses”, originally a Bird duet with Fiona Apple, who Victoria said was her biggest inspiration and muse. Aida did Fiona—and the rest of us stunned onlookers—mighty proud, maybe nobody more than Andrew Bird himself. Neither he nor Victoria could hide their joy at the conclusion of this complicated, confounding number. A tremendous pairing—let’s hope this happens once again.
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The aura, legacy, and songbook of the Grateful Dead loomed large throughout the summit weekend. A symbolic North Star of sorts, the Dead culture, lifestyle, songcraft, Americana, loyalty, self-destructive habits, and stories of redemption are a cornucopia that has collected a myriad of characters over the course of a half century, some of whom had found their way to Park City and were in a mood to share. In addition to the aforementioned Haynes and Shapiro, Sweet went deep with the three members of Bonny Light Horseman, who probed into the stories in the songs of the late GD lyricist/poet Robert Hunter and included an unbelievable tale of Hunter’s handwritten correspondence with the late, legendary Pete Seeger.
All-world yarn spinner and Grateful Dead photographer extraordinaire Jay Blakesberg hosted his fantastic Between the Dark and the Light workshop. Equal parts enlightening, illuminating, and poignant, this lab was a historical and hysterical romp through the annals of the greatest American rock band, by way of the uniquely tuned, oft-lysergic lens of the Deadhead lifer. Few have lived such a real-life Almost Famous adventure as the affable Blakesberg, who spared few details as he retraced his own golden road to unlimited devotion one iconic slide after the next.
Saturday evening’s musical options were also appropriately Dead-adjacent, beginning with Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel. The beloved frontman left the loops at home, toting along a glistening ensemble that really brought some heart-filling Garcia Band vibes to the bosom of Park City. “Sisters and Brothers” and “Midnight Moonlight” had the people singing, drifting, and dreaming. A transcendent rendition of “I’ll Be With Thee” stopped the entire room in its tracks, for this was honest-to-God worship music. A set-closing “Ripple” was a perfect place to land this ship.
Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country followed, and it was clear this young man is on to something too. Many knew of “Big River” by way of Bob Weir, but Donato brought the tune back to its Johnny Cash roots. In addition to some promising original numbers, Donato clearly lives inside his influences with reverence and respect. The Cosmic Country contingent played a psychedelic yet Southern-style reimagining of Phish’s rollicking “Back on the Train”, possibly the set’s highest peak.
New Orleans singer/songwriter Anders Osborne is a close friend to PCSS visionary Ben Anderson. The two have bonded through music and recovery for a number of years, and that connection is at the root of the Summit, both tangibly and in spirit. So there was no better collaboration to cap off the inagurual Park City Song Summit than Anders Osborne and Friends with Ben Anderson manning the bass guitar. To enhance the authenticity of the experience, New Orleans painter John Bukaty was set up on the wing, doing his trademark thing as the songs filled the air.
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Anders brought in some Crescent City heavy hitters in Ivan Neville (keys/vocals) and saxophonist Brad Walker, as well as Mike Dillon (percussion). The veteran krewe chose to throw down funky party grooves for the duration of the summit-closing set. “Stoned, Drunk & Naked” gave way to “Fiyo on the Bayou”. Later came Allen Toussaint‘s canonical “Yes We Can”. The squad welcomed back Daniel Donato for a soaring run through the Grateful Dead’s “Fire On the Mountain”, complete with some verses from Anderson himself. Another appropriate call, a euphoric “Will it Go Round in Circles” was the swan song for the inaugural Park City Song Summit 2022, and will likely become tradition.
We can only hope to be fortunate enough to come ’round the mountain bend once again this time next year. The inaugural event was pretty sweet, reconnecting with familiar artists, with a healthy dose of dynamic discoveries and new beginnings. The focus on self-care, mental health, and knowledge of self cannot be overstated—I left the enveloping environs of Park City completely activated. To Ben Anderson, Jay Sweet, and the fine folks of Park City Song Summit: Thank you for a real good time.