After getting arrested at 14, Lief Sorbye learned that making a living at music wasn’t going to be easy.
Sorbye and a friend had gotten busted in Copenhagen while sleeping under bushes in front of a graveyard. And when police called their parents to ship them back to their homes in Norway, the vagabond teens didn’t get much support.
“Our dads got together and decided that, hey, if we got ourselves to Copenhagen to play on the streets, we could easily get ourselves back,” Sorbye said. “Which wasn’t that easy. Because after you get busted and you don’t have a permit to play on the street, and that’s the only source of income and your ticket to get back, you’re pretty stuck.”
But for Sorbye, whose Celtic rock band Tempest headlines this year’s Stone Soup Music Faire, the incident didn’t prompt him to quit music. In fact, he started busking even more, playing the streets in southern Europe and then the United States in the late 1970s.
While he grew up listening to Bob Dylan and later covered more rocking tunes like “All Right Now” and “American Woman,” his exposure to a Scottish folk band called The Incredible String Band turned him on to folk, which is what he played while busking the U.S.
“At the time, it was still safe to hitchhike — I thought so, anyway,” he said. “That was an interesting way to see the United States.”
For a while, he played in the New York subways. But when he tired of that, he took a bus to California. His time in Southern California ended when a job guarding pink Christmas trees on Hollywood Boulevard became dangerous.
After hearing shooting nearby, he phoned the boss.
“She said, ‘Lock the door to the hut. And on the bench you’re sitting on, underneath, there’s a case with a chainsaw. So plug it in, and if anyone attacks you, use the chainsaw.’ ”
The next day he took the bus to the Bay Area and quit the notion of ever having a nonmusic job.
After a stint with folk band Golden Bough, he formed Tempest in 1988. While the lineup of Tempest has changed through the years, Sorbye and drummer Adolfo Lazo have remained since the beginning. Meanwhile, Sorbye’s double-neck electric mandolin has become a trademark of the band.
Many past members, he said, have left to start families.
“It’s very hard to make it in arts and entertainment if you do it as a side project,” he said. “If you want to succeed at it, you have to give it everything.”
Signed to Magna Carta Records, the band tours frequently, their Celtic rock inspiring some interesting dance moves.
“The northern part of California—Humboldt County — they love freaky hippie dancing up there,” he said.
Others prefer a more Celtic-style dance.
“I think the music moves people in different ways,” he said. “And because it’s very high-spirited and full of energy, that’s what we get back from the audience. There’s a real exchange there.”