By Walter Tunis - kentucky.com
The last time Scott McCaughey visited Lexington, he stood before 10,000 people at Rupp Arena.
The jovial Seattle songsmith will be the first to admit that they weren't entirely there to see him. The feverish October 1995 turnout was for R.E.M., the Georgia alt-rock institution of which McCaughey (pronounced McCoy) has long been an auxiliary member. McCaughey played keyboards, sang a bit, added some rhythm guitar here and there, and generally grinned like a kid having the time of his life, all night long.
Next weekend, McCaughey finally returns to town. This time, though, the songs, the stage and the setting will be different.
Instead of R.E.M.'s hits, he will be armed with his own irreverent material. Instead of the mammoth Rupp stage, he will play in a tent. And in place of an arena-rock atmosphere, McCaughey will have a early evening placement on an Americana-heavy bill at this year's Christ the King Oktoberfest.
And here is the biggest switch of all. Instead of playing as part of a band, which he has done all his professional life -- from the alt-pop brigade The Young Fresh Fellows to his current Seattle collective The Minus 5 -- he will go it alone. Well, sort of. More on that in a minute.
"A solo acoustic set was pretty much what I was hired to do in Lexington," McCaughey said by phone last week. "And that's kind of shocking, even to me."
On his own but not alone
Not that McCaughey is unaccustomed to taking care of onstage business by himself. In January, he opened a series of similarly designed solo performances for Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. But then, Tweedy is just one of a host of high-profile pals with whom McCaughey rubs shoulders. The newest Minus 5 record, The Minus 5, boasts help from most of the current Wilco lineup (which also bolstered The Minus 5's 2003 summit Down With Wilco), along with Decemberists chieftain Colin Meloy, pop-folk stylist John Wesley Harding, Chicago chanteuse Kelly Hogan and onetime Mott the Hoople keyboardist Morgan Fisher.
So is it any wonder that when McCaughey undertakes a solo gig, he winds up feeling a little lonely onstage? After all, his collaborators aren't just bandmates, they're buddies.
"I'm fine with a band," McCaughey said. "But when I'm by myself, I get a little nervous. So what I did for a lot of the shows with Jeff was call up some friends in the cities we were playing and invited them to sit in.
"I'm lucky in that through all my years of touring, I've gotten to meet a lot of great players in a lot of places who are usually pretty nice when I give them a call and say, 'Come on down to the show. I'm scared.'"
And so it will go in Lexington. If McCaughey has his way, he will be playing Oktoberfest not as a solo attraction but with a friend in tow -- founding R.E.M guitarist and Minus 5 moonlighter Peter Buck. McCaughey and Buck will be in Athens, Ga., this week, finishing work on a new R.E.M. album tentatively slated for release next spring. Plans are for them to use their day off to drive up for Oktoberfest.
"I always give Peter the opportunity to back out of these kinds of shows if he wants," McCaughey said. "But he seems to be really up for this one."
Last year set the tone
Having a mini Minus 5-R.E.M. gathering in Lexington is just the latest step in an advanced reinvention of Oktoberfest. Until recently, the event operated with traditional ingredients: polka bands, beer tents, flea markets and all the usual trappings of a church fall fund-raiser.
Last year, things shifted. The music lineup, already fortified with prime local acts, sported Americana greats Jay Farrar, Jayhawks alumnus Mark Olson, Peter Rowan, Tim Easton, Paul Burch and more.
This year, along with return showings by Olson, Easton and Burch, Oktoberfest will feature Friday sets by longtime Lexington favorite and master Texas songsmith Alejandro Escovedo and indie pop-swing singer-songwriter Erin McKeown. Saturday culminates with McCaughey's performance and a festival-closing set by Grammy- winning Kentucky banjo giant J.D. Crowe.
Credit much of the musical wealth to Kevin Wilson, formerly Christ the King's director of religious education. An occasional journalist who has dabbled in concert production and promotion, Wilson used his love of Americana music, not to mention some contacts he had developed in the music industry, to shift the musical slant of Oktoberfest.
"We've been blessed with some hip priests who have seen the value of what we were doing," Wilson said. "I mean, Oktoberfest is a fund-raiser. So it just makes good sense to have good music that will not only draw a variety of people in, but keep them on the grounds all day.
"What was really cool last year was that all these artists were just mingling in the tents with everyone else. Peter Rowan, who is literally the link between Bill Monroe and the Grateful Dead, hung out drinking wine and eating German food. Mark Olson and Tim Easton, who are actually neighbors out in Joshua Tree (Calif.) sat around catching up while Jay Farrar's kids checked out the raffles and the games."
Still, Welch admitted, the community reaction before Oktoberfest's musical face lift was more than a little curious.
"The reaction was mostly, 'You're kidding. These artists are all playing at a church festival?' But the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I know for a fact a lot of people stepped foot on our property last year that wouldn't have otherwise."
No ordinary gig
The sense of surprise is still prevalent this year. Even McCaughey didn't initially know what to make of his Oktoberfest booking.
"When I saw the venue was Christ the King, I figured this wasn't an ordinary gig," he said. "But then I looked at the schedule of performances. Unfortunately, I'll miss Alejandro. But Tim Easton is a buddy of mine, so it will be great to see him. And the whole thing is free? I think this will be a blast."
Wilson concurs. "Scott's music is really quirky. You never really know what you're going to get. I like his style. I like the pop sensibilities of his songs. And he's got great friends."
The only down note to this year's Oktoberfest will be that Wilson moved to Louisville during the summer to work as director of youth and adult outreach at St. Francis of Assisi Church. But he senses and hopes that Oktoberfest will maintain its sense of community outreach.
"Christ the King has always been a center for spirituality, education and fellowship," he said. "And Oktoberfest is one giant public example of fellowship."