by Ardis Hedrick
Wheatfield is back! In the mid-1970s, the band was the top unsigned
band in the Pacific Northwest; it has reunited and is currently playing
small venues and private parties.
Wheatfield formed in October 1971, born out of a folk duo composed
of Will Hobbs and Peter Wolfe, who first met in Eugene, Ore., at the
Odyssey Coffee House. The duo soon added a bass player, lead guitarist
and finally a drummer. As each new member joined the group, more musical
styles and influences were added, contributing to the band’s
signature sound and penchant for musical variety and eclecticism. They
cover folk, bluegrass, country, country rock, rock and roll and even
classical and jazz. Then, as now, a prerequisite for all new members
is that they sing and most members play multiple instruments.
Wheatfield’s range and reputation spread as the band grew, ultimately
playing venues from British Columbia to Montana, Idaho, Washington
and Oregon. Their services were in demand at clubs, colleges, concerts
and festivals. They opened for an even wider range of artists, including
Norton Buffalo, Maria Muldaur, Doc Watson, John Fahey, Bo Diddley and
even the Ramones. The band eventually found much regional success,
releasing a self-titled album in 1980 and a 45 released in 1972, but
ultimately disbanded in 1982. Involvement in the lives of their growing
families and the hardship of the road contributed to the group's demise.
After a reunion concert in 2002, to benefit drummer Kenny Sawyer who
has successfully battled cancer but amassed staggering medical bills,
they decided to make it official and regroup.
The current line-up is nearly identical to the band’s
original make-up. Hobbs and Wolfe are still the keystones of this great
basis, and are joined by Paul Douglas on fiddle, harp, guitar and piano;
Kerry Canfield, keyboards, guitar, lap steel guitar, accordion and
trumpet; and Kenny Sawyer on drums. All members contribute lead vocals
and vocal harmonies. Will Hobbs plays guitar (electric and acoustic),
mandolin, flute, harmonica, saxophone and the occasional cowbell;
Peter Wolfe plays bass and both acoustic and electric guitars, banjo
Their infectious brand of country rock is once again timely; Duff’s
Garage was the perfect venue to showcase the band’s rebirth at
a recent Saturday night gig. The venue features all types of American
music, from rockabilly and country-western to blues, surf and ‘60s
garage music. Tucked into an industrial corner of inner southeast,
Duff’s walls are decorated with old license plates and hubcaps,
vintage automobile and motorcycle memorabilia, funky faded metal beer
and automotive shop signs and neon. Fast cars and cold beer--it doesn’t
get more American than that!
Wheatfield can and does cover all those styles in a night of fun and
raucous musical entertainment. In fact, when asked to define the genre
of the band’s music, founding member Will Hobbs called it “Americana.”
Now, as during the band's prior 11-year history of playing together,
the play list contains a strong dose of Wheatfield originals. Some
of the older tunes have been rearranged dramatically, but the mix still
consists of about 30-40 percent original material, in Hobbs’ estimation.
When they do play cover tunes, they prefer to choose the more obscure
numbers and always seem to make the song their own when they deliver
it to their audience. Hobbs says they hope to record again--no, they
have "a strong need to record," and probably have half an
album's worth of tunes ready to lay down.
Hobbs kicked off the evening at Duff's with a solo turn on stage. The
band started off their first set with Poncho and Lefty, a number penned
by Townes VanZandt. Wheatfield has always put its own stamp on the
tune, which features Paul Douglas on violin and Hobbs’ distinctive
vocals and acoustic guitar. The band consistently displays great vocal
harmonies, this song as a fine example.
Black Mountain Rag, an instrumental bluegrass rave-up number, showcases
two acoustic guitars played by Hobbs and Wolfe and a banjo sound courtesy
of Kerry Canfield’s Yamaha keyboard. Wild Milly the Mountain
Girl got a couple up to dance and sing along to all the words. It was
not long before this writer realized that she, too, could remember
the lyrics to many of the band’s most-played numbers and was
eagerly singing along as well. This brings up a good point about Wheatfield’s
repertoire; the band has a familiar sound to it and it’s hard
to know if the familiarity comes from knowing the material, or just
that the songs have a timeless quality to them.
The ballad Caroline filled the floor with couples eager to dance to
a slow tune and this tune showcases all the best the band has to offer.
Written by one of the band’s original members, John Powell, it
features four vocalists in sweet harmony.
The next tune, Margarita, also penned by John Powell, features a Latin
beat that really rocks out. This one shows how much fun the band has
onstage and how enjoyable it is to listen to them play. All members
contribute vocals on this number. Canfield’s keys add a horn
effect ala Tijuana Brass to punctuate the catchy south-of-the-border
feel of the song.
The next two numbers featured Kerry Canfield’s keyboard
and vocal expertise, first on a song with a decided Ragtime flair,
then on the
outrageous instrumental Nutrocker Suite. This tune has long been a
featured number in the band’s show. Canfield arranged it himself
and it is always a high point.
Canfield switched from keyboards to a lap steel guitar for the surf
tune Sleepwalk, another audience dance favorite. Douglas moved to the
keyboard from guitar for the next tune, demonstrating the awesome versatility
of all band members. Portland Town brought back memories of the old
days, of the crowd packed in shoulder to shoulder at Sack’s Front
Avenue to enjoy the fresh, original sound the band offered. This was
in sharp contrast to the disco garbage that was almost unavoidable
at that time.
Next up was a groovy version of the rock ‘n’ roll classic,
Little Sister, done in a uniquely Wheatfield style. Then came one of
the band’s most solid and popular numbers, You Can Depend
of Me. So sweet! A personal favorite, it was a joy to hear the band in
their element once again. This song has so many layers to it that it
never fails to impress. All five members add their voices on this tune,
but Wolfe’s vocals are especially effective on this number. It’s
punctuated with a rollicking ragtime keyboard and a killer, unforgettable
melody. It definitely has that "hook" that songwriters and
The song was co-written by Hobbs and Douglas, with an assist from Norton
Buffalo. Buffalo produced the CD back in 1980, and it received modest
airplay. Asked when or how the band first met up with the infamous
harmonica wizard, Hobbs could not recall. That’s the sign of
a long-standing friendship and association that transcends those little
That tune leads off the 12-song CD that is now available for just $10
at the band’s gigs and the soon-to-be-online website. www.WheatfieldOregon.com should be up and running by the time this story goes to press. The
site is designed and ready to go, it just needs a host to be fully
operational. You can also e-mail the band at Wheatfield01@hotmail.com.
The disc is currently in heavy rotation on this writer’s CD player,
and probably will be for sometime.
An a cappella version of Chain Gang opened the second set, again spotlighting
the wonderful vocal harmonies. The band played two 15-song sets this
night, remaining true to something that Will Hobbs noted as far back
as a March 1977 interview, appearing in the second issue of this magazine
(then known as Positively Rock ‘N Roll). When asked about the
reason for the band’s popularity, Hobbs states that they keep
the music coming, not leaving much time between songs.
A kick-butt version of the old standard Silver Threads
and Golden Needles followed, another crowd favorite. A mini-Beatles tribute covered One
After 909 and the phenomenal In My Life, complete with Canfield’s
keyboards reproducing the authentic sound. Researching the instrument
used to produce the harpsichord-like sound on the original, it turns
out to be an electric piano, played at half speed, then replayed at
double speed. Unbelievable that Canfield is able to reproduce the sound
The song Gandy Dancer, another personal and crowd favorite, was written
by a friend of Douglas’ in Eugene, Ore. It led into the Del Shannon
hit Runaway, the rollicking Southbound Passenger Train and another
original, Gotta Get Away, all examples of the band’s choice to
include goodtime music on their play list. It’s hard not to sing
and clap along when the band members are all up front picking and grinning.
They encored with the Beach Boys classic Barbara Ann and, to prove
they really can play anything, the Rice Crispies jingle, Snap,
Crackle & Pop.
Versatile, yes indeed, and proving it to the very end.
Not much has really changed with the band’s music since that
1977 article, except as Hobbs noted in a phone interview subsequent
to the gig, they are all better musicians now. That, and maybe the
haircuts. Photos of the band from that era show most members with a
pretty good crop of hair, as was the style then, with Hobbs wearing
his nearly down to his navel! The band members still love connecting
with their audience and are extremely pleased with the audience response,
as much now as ever. They were clearly having a great time on stage,
and the audience could not have been more attentive and engaged.
The band dynamics allow all members to play to their strengths since
they have known each other for so long, and are good friends. Songwriting
and arrangements are usually done as a collaborative effort. Democratic
is the word Hobbs used to describe both processes. Douglas generally
handles bookings, Canfield covers advertising and posters, while
Wolfe also assists in bookings and plays in another band, The Buckles.
is clearly the band's spokesman and often takes over the mike duties
in regards to announcements and band introductions.
Wheatfield is back together now because they enjoy it, not for the
money. They hope to book a couple of gigs a month, ranging from
weddings and private parties to gigs like the Duff's show and possibly
for larger acts. They intend to continue to capitalize on their
wealth of original material and their prior reputation. The band
for bookings and currently seeks a full-time drummer to take Sawyer's
place. They will play the Rose Festival on June 11.
Hobbs told a great story about being asked to play recently for
a couple's 25th wedding anniversary, at a time that coincided
with the band's
same milestone. The wife booked them without the husband's knowledge
and the surprise brought tears to the man's eyes. Wheatfield
asked for no monetary compensation for this booking. All they asked
that they be allowed to invite their own friends and family to
party at the Melody Ballroom. This gig was clearly one of the
catalysts that brought Wheatfield back to the performance arena.
those Wheatfield fans are, thank you and happy anniversary; and
goes to the band itself. Your fans will be glad to hear of your