St. Louis Roots Act the Mighty Pines Launches Pines Fest This Weekend

The band's inaugural namesake festival will take place this Saturday at the Big Top

click to enlarge The members of the Mighty Pines hope that the fest will become a yearly tradition. - VIA THE BAND
VIA THE BAND
The members of the Mighty Pines hope that the fest will become a yearly tradition.

The Mighty Pines’ Neil Salsich is in a jubilant mood ahead of his band’s first-ever namesake music festival. It’s Sunday morning at a Compton Heights coffee shop, just a few hours after a late-night private gig, but the singer/guitarist is wide-eyed and animated when discussing Pines Fest, an inaugural multi-band showcase at the Big Top in Grand Center.

“We’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” says Salsich. “We are planning something really special.”

Pines Fest is a culmination of sorts for the Mighty Pines, the St. Louis quartet that has spent the last six years rising to the top of the local music scene, becoming a popular live draw regionally and making a splash with the Colorado progressive bluegrass scene. In fact, the previous evening, the Pines were augmented by fiddler Allie Kral, who recently announced her departure from Yonder Mountain String Band and who fits neatly into the Pines’ fusion of jam-bitious bluegrass-infused roots rock.

When asked how he describes the Mighty Pines’ wide-ranging musical identity, Salsich prefers to keep it simple: “We play rock and roll.” Still, Salsich, mandolinist/banjoist Gerard Erker, bassist John Hussung and drummer Mike Murano are the kind of deft instrumentalists and genre archivists who create an eclectic sprawl, as heard on the Pines’ four studio albums and, especially, their exuberant live shows.

“We have so many roots influences,” says Salsich. “We love so much of the old music, and we’re such an organic unit musically, it’s easy for us to hear vintage songs or bands, and I feel like we can touch that. It’s easy to translate that type of music into the real thing that we do.”

For Salsich’s part, he was raised on rock in the Shaw neighborhood by his Elvis-loving father — “He used to take me to shows at Mississippi Nights,” Salsich says — until his bluegrassy side was first sparked at age 13 by newgrass trio Nickel Creek.

“It was completely brand new,” Salsich explains. “It was the way some kids heard Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin. Nickel Creek blew my mind. I was taking mandolin lessons within a couple of weeks.”

Salsich eventually switched to guitar and formed a musical kinship with Hussung, his classmate at SLU High, after which the pair headed to Truman State where they met Erker (a De Smet grad) and formed a cover band, making the rounds in the Kirksville frat-party scene. Back in St. Louis after college in 2016, the trio added Murano, who Salsich notes had previously never heard a bluegrass song in his life, and the Mighty Pines were officially born.

Within months, the band had gelled and had chops enough to qualify for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Contest, a competition previously won by biggies like the Dixie Chicks and Greensky Bluegrass. “I thought we were going to win the thing,” Salsich says. The Pines came up just short, but of Telluride Bluegrass, the renowned annual string summit in Colorado, Salsich says, “I believe that one day we’ll be on that stage.”

Many in the Colorado bluegrass scene agreed. The Telluride appearance kicked open several doors, landing the band a manager, an agent, and a deal with a booking agency, all of which went fallow when COVID hit. And while the Pines got creative to stay active during the lockdown — they played a mobile concert on the back of a flatbed trailer, for instance — they found themselves once again as grass-roots free agents after the pandemic.

As the band fields fresh offers from the music industry, one thing Salsich dismisses is the idea of the Mighty Pines relocating.

“We’re all pretty rooted in St. Louis,” he says. “I don’t think, as a band, we’re going to move away. I don’t know why we would. We have a great network here. We’re proud to be here. We love St. Louis.”

Now busy writing songs for the follow-up to 2020’s Late Last Night, the band is expanding further into new, jazzier directions while still hanging on to the propulsive jam-adjacent bluegrass at the heart of its sound. Of the new material, Salsich says he can’t wait to play the songs live at Pines Fest.

“We are incredibly proud of our last record, and we like the studio. But we are such a live band. And the songs continue to grow on stage,” he says. “On our best nights, I think we’re one of the best bands in the world.”

That reputation for barnburning concerts led the band to create Pines Fest, which Salsich views as the beginning of a signature annual event for the band.

“At this stage in our band’s career, we really wanted to build and curate our own festival,” he says. “We’ve seen a lot of bands that we admire do something similar, and we want to establish our own version of a festival that we headline and we pick all the bands.”

For Pine Fest’s debut incarnation, those bands include folkicana duo the River Kittens, jazz-rock pianist Dave Grelle’s Playadors, marching party-starters the Red and Black Brass Band, and soul singer Brian Owens, who will make an appearance with each of the lineup’s four acts. Salsich promises plenty of additional cross-pollination among the bands, including the first-ever Mighty Pines set to feature a full brass section.

“We didn’t want it to be in a venue with four walls and a ceiling,” Salsich says of the choice to stage Pines Fest at the Big Top with its open, fluid space. “It has to feel like a festival.”

Salsich also says that the Pines have big long-term plans for the event.

“We want to make this an annual thing and build it into a St. Louis tradition with regional and national bands,” he explains. “I think we will be talking ten years from now about Pines Fest, and it will be a huge St. Louis festival. And I hope a lot of people will be able to say they were there for the very first year.”

Pines Fest is Saturday, October 22 at 4 p.m. at the Lot at the Big Top. Tickets are available at jamopresents.com.
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