Deep in the North Plains backwoods of Horning’s Hideout a straw hat hovers, a hippie is groovin’, and pickers shine! Festivals come and go but music is forever, and for 15 years, the NW String Summit has set the standard for the festival and bluegrass scene. Anchored by three nights of performances from festival hosts Yonder Mountain String Band who featured a special Saturday night electrified rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Animals“ album, the NW String Summit also saw two nights of Greensky Bluegrass, with other sets by Leftover Salmon, The Infamous Stringdusters, Railroad Earth, Fruition, a funkin’ energetic performance from Portland’s MarchFourth! genre-breaking band, plus a four band competition and more, all driven by this year’s five stages.
After 15 years of the NW String Summit held at the same lush Horning’s Hideout wonderland, load in and out happens like a well-oiled machine. Although every year seems to bring a new restroom, shower, camp area or stage, the amazing Summit Team and volunteers deserve a huge high five. With NW String Summit mainstay Greensky Bluegrass headlining the main stage the very first night, most arrive on Thursday, but Friday morning holds a steady flow as well. Greensky Bluegrass, hailing from Kalamazoo, Michigan, played almost 3 hours worth of grass including a Traveling Wilbury cover. After surviving Day One, waking Friday to a perfect grey Oregon morning sky surrounded by grassers and campers alike, the annual band competition kicked off the main stage afternoon music. “Olly Olly Oxen Free! 5 minutes for the band competition—let’s pack the bowl!” called host Pastor Tim, alarming the newly arrived and waking fans. This year featured four bands with winning dreams—The Sweet Lillies, The Hollerbodies, The Riverside, and Minnesota’s Ginstrings ultimately winning the trophy! With a full evening schedule featuring main stage sets from Railroad Earth and Yonder Mountain String Band, followed by late night sets from Leftover Salmon (Kinfolk Stage) and Polyrythmics (Cascadia Stage), it was definitely a late night. As Leftover Salmon’s Vince Herman is something of a friend, and with the Polyrythmics being from the Pacific Northwest, it was tough, but necessary to catch both. Sometimes you have to tear the joint in half and that is exactly what I did. Leftover Salmon packed the Kinfolk Stage with grassers even standing outside the tent to hear the now 20-year-old-plus band’s midnight run. After catching the funkin’ last bit of Polyrythmics, I decided to close it down, not even making it to funkin’ 4:20am.
With two days down, waking up on Saturday is a different animal than Friday morning. Horning’s Hideout does have on site showers, instructed yoga sessions, and plenty of vendors providing cooked food. But this is a camping music festival so all I needed was a little coffee, a camp stove biscuit and grass. With a big day ahead and Colorado’s Gipsy Moon first up on my schedule, it was time to make it down to Cascadia by 11:00am. After a blistering set enhanced by the recent addition of a new percussionist, it’s clear Gipsy Moon is a band to watch out for in the future. If you’ve been on the grounds since Thursday, by Saturday afternoon the dream becomes your own personal golf cart, especially when you have a pickin’ favorite by the name of Danny Barnes playing the Kinfolk Stage clear across the hilly campus. A quick bite and it was on to the main stage for the MarchFourth! marching band, Steep Canyon Rangers (featuring the “Angus Young of Fiddle”), Leftover Salmon, and another outrageous set from Greensky Bluegrass. Then came the highlight of the weekend, Yonder Mountain String Band playing a late night, electric version of Pink Floyd’s classic album, “Animals!” Yonder Mountain String Band has played countless sets at Hornings Hideout, even plugged up electric sets, but to add a piece of Classic Rock History this time had the crowd naturally beyond excited. With the original “Animals” album clocking in at a little over 40 minutes, the band’s opening bluegrass set played out as the appetizing course for the packed amphitheater of music-hungry homo sapiens. A quick break for the band, then sparks ignited, and “Animals” became a reality! The additions of drummer Jay Elliot and Asher Fulero on keyboards enhanced the entire flow of the live performance, conjuring the mind-expanding essence of the album’s psychedelic nature. About two joints into the set with volumes on loud, big-pink-dancing-pigs joined the mosh, turning the packed amphitheater bowl into a musical circus. We’ve seen Yonder Mountain String Band play many covers over the years as well, like Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” or the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street” to high regard, but seeing this year’s Saturday night “Animals” set ranks with the very best of em’. Who in the world would play after an epic performance like that? Keller Williams at Kinfolk, that’s who! Keller, along with the Shook Twins and the Lil Smokies, had scattered late night sets all starting after 1:30am for the late nighters, and believe me there are many! At this point I’m full of grass and I still don’t have a personal golf cart, so a late night hike back to home base to crash was my menu.
Waking up Sunday is always a mixed bag! On one hand, it’s time to go home, but the bag was starting to feel like you’ve just about run out of grass! The NW String Summit has always embraced the family spirit, even offering a kids area and the annual kids parade, but making new friends to join the family is always one of the rewards! “It’s what the String summit is all about—friends and making music!” said Ben Kaufmann of Yonder Mountain String Band, addressing the enthusiastic crowd during their Friday night set! My camping van packed, I still had a little coffee and one set left for my NW String Summit to feel complete. I still had to make my way to Cascadia for the band competition winner announcement at 9:30am! With 65 bands entering and four getting the String Summit node, this year’s winner was Ginstrings! Driving all the way from Minnesota, Ginstrings actually ended up being one of my favorite bands, earning a much-deserved victory. The Ginstrings will automatically be invited back next year, so congrats guys! One last trek back to the van and it was festival out for me. Full of memories, this year’s 15th annual NW String Summit proved as special as ever. See you next year!