And so the grass settles! The 14th annual four day Northwest String Summit (NWSS), held at beautiful Horning’s Hideout within the storied and whimsical trees of North Plains, Oregon, is officially in the bag. Festivals can be hit or miss for music fans following a favorite artist (sometimes even becoming the main living quarters for those that live the tours), but when it comes to the NWSS, it’s always a huge inspiring hit! After fourteen years of music, family, kinfolk reunions, string’unions, peacocks and who knows what else (it’s always up to us patrons), the NWSS keeps solidly stringing along as one of the best legalized bluegrass hideaways in the country. Always highlighted by festival hosts Yonder Mountain String Band (YMSB) performing three days of yonder-grass, this year the festival also featured two additional legends, Del McCoury and David Grisman, performing together as Del & Dawg. Add to that a full crop of additional artists, four stages including one on top of the Further Bus, a little Ninkasi beer, a band competition, a joyful kids zone, and a giant whale rocking to a beat box and you’d think I’m crazy, but no. I’m just talking about another amazing year at the Northwest String Summit!
The main stage area is where the bulk of the grassing happens! The natural-wood stage is crafted from local Horning’s Hideout trees, and back dropped by a scenic lake. The stage rests in a natural amphitheater of naturally-depressed ground surrounded by high-seated hills. Dancing, kinship, smiles, costumes, high fives, safety meetings, beer, treats, hula hoop sessions and whatever else one can imagine all encapsulate the area. The music kicked off at 4pm on Thursday (just in time for 4:20) with Dead Winter Carpenters, followed by Portland’s Fruition, Elephant Revival, and main stage closers Greensky Bluegrass! Friday’s music, with a few more campers on site, started at 2pm with the annual band competition featuring hungry grassers vying for one of next year’s main stage slots. Rising Appalachia, Keller & the McCourey’s, The Infamous Stringdusters and Nahko and Medicine for the People all preceded headlining hosts YMSB three-hour-plus set. With veteran YMSB members Adam Aijala, Ben Kaufmann, and Dave Johnson previously declaring Jake Jolliff and Allie Kral full-time members, fans seemed a lil’ more eager to dance this one out in full. Something tells me it’s probably the Yonder-grass though! A few stand out hits from Friday included Nahko and Medicine for the People’s first NWSS appearance bringing the first taste of plugged in, funkified electricity! Jake Jolliff shreds! True YMSB fans can argue over lineup changes all they want, but one thing that isn’t up for discussion is that Jake Jolliff is a well-schooled musician. Even though Jolliff is an Oregon native schooled as a picker by his father, it also appears that if he had a electric Flying V strapped on instead of his mandolin, he would probably know what to do with it and that’s exciting to me! Allie Kral is a fantastic addition as well.
Sleeping in on Saturday morning after late nights walking the festival grounds, shopping the many merchandise vendors, and simply enjoying this vast event, campers arise at High Noon, summoned by the alarm clock of Emcee Pastor Tim’s grandfathered voice! Last year’s band competition winners Left Coast Country led the main stage “wake-and-string” (or is it bake) set! Town Mountain, Nicki Bluhm and the Grambler’s, and Keller’s Grateful Grass (which basically consists of Keller and the Stringdusters stringing Grateful Dead gems), compiled the afternoon string party before giving way to the darkness of evening. Saturday night is always prime time, but over the last few years, the festival has branched out, seeking legends and late night, out-of-the-bong explosions of mystified funk bands that can stay awake and carry a crowd! Adhering to this theme, this year was no different with the legendary Del McCoury Band and YMSB carrying the early evening! It’s always hard to keep up with which artists join each other on the stages, but Del joined many, including Saturday night’s YMSB festival support set! Also joining YMSB on their Day 2 set was a crowd surfing, electric glowing whale rocking to a beat box! You just never know what will show up at a NWSS, or who. The Greyboy Allstars, lead by Karl Denson, were given the task of carrying the late night fire, this time summoned by funk. I had never heard The Greyboy Allstars before, but sitting at the fogged-up Urb van thinking my night was over, the bass carried me cameraless back to “the bowl” for the late night funk session. What a night!
It’s impossible to list all the other happenings, themes, and artists of the festival—there are just too many! But Sunday brings out one of the best NWSS traditions—pink! This year, Mark Burnell would have his head shaved for the the 5th annual String Summit St. Baldrick Foundation head shaving tradition that raises money for childhood cancer research, and pink is the symbol worn by those who come together in support. Pastor Tim’s call started at 11:30 with the announcement and what turned into another stage jam for Friday’s band competition. This year the winner was Portland’s John Craigie who’s obvious songwriting talent, easy charm, and comedic saturation quickly won the crowd and the festival. Followed by Scott Law, Larry Keel and friends, the California Honeydrops and this year’s legendary Del & Dawg, the scene was set for a huge close to an amazing festival. For instance, it’s not every festival that you get Dave Grisman (Grisman & Garcia), and previously mentioned Del McCoury alone, summoning almost 100 years’ worth of bluegrass between them. Dave Grisman has played with Jerry Garcia, enough said! Closing out the half vacant festival, YMSB, also coming off their freshly released 6th studio album “Black Sheep,” picked until Sunday dusk. “Stoned As Rock N Roll” and lead by YMSB, the NWSS has everything grassers and rockers could ever smoke! Who has the first 2016 NWSS main stage guesses (besides YMSB of course)? My guess is below!
The Cascadia stage, located closer to the lively late night camping city tucked into the trees, has deep planted roots. Serving as a stepping stone to the main stage for some, it also serves as a place for artists to bond and jam, and for festival goers to find kinship and explore new musical journeys. Cascadia started 4 or 5 years ago (I’m guessing) by a pack of grassers with the need for a late night controlled sound, but in an open space. These days, Cascadia has cultivated its own kindred personality, now boasting essentials such as coffee, donuts, beer, pizza and beer. The deep pocket and landscape layering around Cascadia lends itself to acoustics that sound almost second to none, like puffs of bubbles encapsulating notes that drift upwards, popping with sound. Thursday nights action saw two late night jams, Rising Appalachia and Rumpke Mountain Boys. Friday morning started early with Red Yarn kid-friendly show, followed up by Eight Dollar Mountain, Polecat, Jacob Jolliff and Alex Hargreaves, and World’s Finest closing the stage by 3:00 for a day. Polecat, traveling from Bellingham, Washington, took advantage of the close, natural setting, delighting folks with an electric guitar brand of jam, and I’ll be watching for the band as potential future main stage entertainers! Shafty was the lone night time music, playing a late night Phish set that packed Cascadia with lyric-singing-grass-disguised Phish fans, and, for perhaps the first time in my 13-year summit history, making me feel like I was at a jam festival. By the way, who were those Phish heads, why did they know every lyric, and how did they have so much energy? This was actually one of my favorite sets during the entire festival, so thanks Shafty!
Starting off at an early 8:30 on Saturday morning, trying to beat the hot Oregon heat wave, were Pete Kartsounes Soulo, The Good Time Travelers, Crow and the Canyon, and Henhouse Prowlers, making for another busy session until the afternoon attention diverted towards the main stage again, shutting down Cascadia for the day. With Mrs. Urb and the kid joining the fray of families, the festival changed for me a tad and I actually never even made it over to Cascadia the entire morning or night. For many who never make the hilly trek to the main stage area, Cascadia is their main stage, so hanging with campsite friends, sleeping, or strolling the Horning’s Hideout land while waiting for the late after hour sets is the norm. Saturday saw Town Mountain starting at midnight, with the Shook Twins closing out sometime during the wee hours to a packed area, I’m sure. Early enough to catch the peacock howls, final day Sunday saw music starting at 8am with Alice DiMicele, Trout Steak Revival, with Frank Fairfield and Student Loan closing the Cascadia area by 1:30pm. Cascadia is special—even whilst taking a 2am picture of a pizza sign that gets you cussed out by a random drunk grasser, you still wanna hang, go back, and feel that Cascadia-made vibe.
One of the new high points this year (besides Oregon’s newly legalized marijuana policy and now no pocket searches) was the addition of a fourth stage and tent for the festival’s gathering of hippified, kindred spirits. This addition gifted much-needed energy to the food and vending area! Kinfolk, YMSB’s code word of community and family, served as the perfect inspiration to brand it the Kinfolk Revival Tent. This also allowed more late night stage time for bands like Gipsy Moon, Elephant Revival, Greensky Bluegrass, and the Infamous Stringdusters, who all took advantage of the new space and had amazing, packed late night grass sessions! Besides providing much needed shade for eating wanderers, the Kinfolk Revival Tent hosted a few intimate collaborations such as Darol Anger’s early morning “Fiddle Convention in a Can,” Mandolins and Manbuns, and midday duo Adam Aijala (YMSB) and Larry Keel performing for an hour. Kinfolk Revival Tent also served as a workshop tent, hosting Song Crafting with Pete Burle and Friends, Art of the Lyric, Writers of the Round, “The Art of Rhythm Guitar in the Jam,” and a few more interesting demonstrations for the Kinfolk Revival Tent’s debut. I was there Thursday night, Friday night, and Saturday night for a hit, and with a circus tent-type setting, the artists fed off the crowd as much as the fans fed off their music. With the vendors getting a little late night boost from the increasingly visible scene in vendorland, you can expect this stage back for 2016, probably in even grander fashion.
The legendary Furthur Bus, complete with its bus top stage, takes the festival on a different trip. Amazingly still gleeful from its past, and symbolizing the spirit from the early 70s freedom trips, the Furthur Bus provides a somewhat vintage festival vibe, taking you all the way back to the Woodstock days. Zane Kesey, son of founding bus instigator Ken Kesey, is always smiling and ready to say high while continuing to carry the Furthur Bus to locations near and far. Strategically placed between the entrance and vending areas, over the hill (and far away) from the main stage, the Furthur Bus stage hosts late morning, daytime, evening, and even late night artists like World’s Finest, Rumpke Mountain Boys, and Eight Dollar Mountain. With the Furthur Bus stage sets providing direct relief during the main stage setup sessions each day of the festival, it would be a tall order to name every artist who played, but I did find The Hill Dogs this year. And that’s the flip side. Sometimes festivals with four stages attract so many artists that it’s impossible to catch them all. Which is how I missed The Kitchen Dwellers on Thursday (not on NWSS soil yet) and again on Friday when they played the Furthur stage and I went to Cascadia looking for them—dang it! Hopefully the Dwellers, the Furthur Bus, and many more artists will be back in 2016 to give us all another hit or two!
Festivals like the NWSS, that have carried on for fourteen years and are instilled with founding tradition that many look forward to every year, don’t just happen. It’s a continuous stream of love, labor, and genuine heart. It takes many volunteers to make these festivals flow and they all deserve a huge shout out, even the blue shirted rent-a-cop that I barked at (I did go back and apologize, and she accepted)! A big thanks to the crew obviously, many of who have been working together for years raising one of the best festivals around. Also a huge shout out to a few of the festival core for taking care of 420Radio, you know who you are. Cheers to all the artists, and a huge congratulations to YMSB and the new journey.
Next year will be the 15th NWSS! Who are some of the artists that you’d like to see take the main stage to that 15th year level of excellence that we’ll expect? It’s tough to predict. While the NWSS is pretty free spirited, it still aspires to a certain flavor of artist with festival appeal. And yet there is a whole other string world consisting of artists like Jayke Orvis, Austin Lucas, the Urban Pioneers, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, and many other tattoo-wearing, outlaw bluegrassers that we haven’t heard in the NWSS setting. Will we ever see some outlaws infiltrate the festival? Can’t we all just get a bong, or a banjo and jam? On that note, with no information, just hazarding a guess, I’ll go with Jeff Austin. I think Jeff (formerly of YMSB) will be back to Horning’s for the 15th NW String Summit in some capacity! Full picture gallery link is below or here! You can also find live NWSS performance links below. Support the artists, the grass and live music! See y’all next year and as always, don’t forget to say “high” when you see me out there!
14th NW String Summit Live Footage below!