Northwest String Summit
North Plains, Oregon
July 18-20, 2008
It seems that each summer, the number of monstrously large music festivals increases while intimate family and community-oriented festivals become fewer and far between. Northwest String Summit (NWSS), held at Horning’s Hideout since 2002, is one such gem. Each year, thousands of returning and new music devotees make the pilgrimage to the heavenly site, located about an hour outside of Portland, Oregon. Though numerous dazzling peacocks who call Horning’s home add a certain inimitability to the place, it’s the music, welcoming people and positive spirit of the land, that continues to lure so many to the forested oasis.
Yonder Mountain String Band (YMSB) has called NWSS home since it’s inception and played each night of the mind-blowing Summit, from July 18-20, 2008. On Friday night, after playing a blissful “Left Me in a Hole,” YMSB bassist, Ben Kaufmann said, “So even though the summer is only half way started, for us it seems like we’ve had a full summer already…And in all the things that we’ve seen, including Bonnaroo, Rothbury—those massive undertakings, it just makes you appreciate a place like this all the bit more.” To heighten the magical atmosphere, YMSB brought fiddle virtuoso Darol Anger and renowned banjoist, guitarist and vocalist Danny Barnes in on every set during the weekend.
Though individual bluegrass and Americana bands were on the bill, most morphed into hybrids with multiple guest players that brought a new flavor and flair to their sound. The Emmitt Nershi Band (Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon and Billy Nershi formerly of String Cheese Incident (SCI)) mixed things up forming a band on the spot with Greensky Bluegrass’ dobro player Al Bates, Danny Barnes (banjo), Darol Anger of Strings for Industry (fiddle), Jeff Sipe of Leftover Salmon (drums), Keith Mosley (former SCI bassist,) and Strings for Industry and Honkytonk Homeslice guitarist Scott Law. As the sun was fading on their historic Saturday performance, streams of light gleamed through the tree branches as the ensemble played a funkdafied version of SCI’s “Jellyfish.” Looking out at the faces in the crowd, it was clear that the song had captured the hearts of those still longing to hear the SCI.
Considering the lineup, bluegrass lovers could not have been happier than they were at Strummit. In fact, numerous people commented that this year’s festival was the best they had ever experienced. Why? After the band contest, which Jessica Kilroy and the Herl Brothers won on Friday, Strings For Industry (Darol Anger, Tye North, and Scott Law) was followed by Keller Williams and YMSB performances. During Williams’ Friday night performance, each member of YMSB individually joined him onstage, expanding the one-man show that is Keller’s music.
Last year’s NWSS band contest winner Head for the Hills shone during their high-energy afternoon performance. At one point during their set, the four-piece ensemble used their bows to create a tune reminiscent of “Never Never Land” by Metallica. Though the group appeals to traditional bluegrass fans, they’re also making their mark as a uniquely progressive acoustic bluegrass band, with an ability to incorporate a number of music styles into original compositions.
In the spirit of NWSS tradition, music ended early each night—finishing by 1 a.m. at the latest—giving folks a chance to rest their dancin’ feet. Shortly after the closing band left the stage and the charismatic emcee Pastor Tim bid fans adieu, an outbreak of lively bluegrass could be heard from campsites across Horning’s.
A spirit of camaraderie permeates the bluegrass scene, and this is especially present amongst the musicians at NWSS. Throughout the festival, rare combinations of bands and band members played together and the constant sounds of string instruments and vocal harmonies was a feast for the ears.
For those whose souls are nourished at a Yonder Mountain String Band concert, NWSS cannot be rivaled. Case in point: the Saturday night show. Yonder started out with “Casualty,” and followed up with “Another Day” with the extra force of Danny Barnes on banjo and vocals and Darol Anger’s fiddle. They welcomed Keller Williams onstage for “New Horizons” into “Winds on Fire,” and a funky cluster-pluck demonstrating the players’ masterful finger dexterity melted back into “New Horizons.” And Jeff Austin, YMSB’s mandolin player and vocalist, exclaimed, “I’m in love with the world right now.”
A few songs later, past and present members of Leftover Salmon (Drew Emmitt, Tye North, Vince Herman, and Jeff Sipe) joined Yonder in playing “Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown.” After a fiery “Raleigh & Spencer,” the unthinkable happened during “Fixin’ to Die.”
YMSB dashed offstage leaving only Leftover Salmon, plus Danny Barnes for good measure, up onstage. Herman even managed to incorporate the startling sound of a peacock’s cry into “Fixin’ to Die.” In disbelief at what had happened, the crowd bashed about kicking up some serious dust clouds during “Carnival Time," "Rueben’s Train," and "Euphoria.” Taking the stage again for the second set, Jeff Austin made the crowd howl when he said, “An impromptu Salmon is delicious!”
During the second set, Bryn Davies who had performed earlier in the day with Sharon Gilchrist, came out and proceeded to have a bass off with Ben Kaufman during “Death Trip.” Davies and Kaufman handed off the bass to one another, walking behind the speaker to do the exchange, finishing the song with both plucking Kaufman’s bass at the same time.
Keller Williams with Keith Moseley, Gibb Droll, and Jeff Sipe played the last show that Saturday night and continued with their ever-evolving sound. The funny thing about this pairing is they all have very different styles but play mostly Keller tunes. During “Bob Rules,” Droll’s guitar accompaniment drifted back and forth between a Jimmy Hendrix/Pink Floyd/Jazz-esq sound. At the end of the evening the emcee, Pastor Tim, wearing a hat adorned with dozens of peacock feathers, said, “It’s all about the love,” to the crowd, and everyone agreed, it was one of those days you felt the most alive.
Continuing the momentum of the night before, Jessica Kilroy and the Herl Brothers were first to play Sunday morning. The Montana-based Americana trio dressed in all black, played gospel tunes softly to their waking crowd. Jessica’s crisp sweet voice gained depth as they played. Speaking about her first NWSS she said, “I can’t believe all the friendly people I’ve met. It’s refreshing to see the amount of encouragement amongst artists here.”
During Hickster’s performance, which featured the beloved songwriter and musician Benny Galloway, Pastor Tim had tears in his eyes after the song “Sugartown.” Referencing the impactful music he couldn’t help saying “This is what I live for.” The journey continued as nearly every single musician who performed during NWSS gathered around the stage to hear Bill Frisell and Danny Barnes play some classic jazz inspired tunes together.
Though a “Superjam” was listed, nothing could compare to the previous night. YMSB closed the festival during twilight as a bald eagle swooped in to observe its parting homeland guests. Closing with “Down the River Road,” smiling faces stood in disbelief that the music was indeed over. From the breathtaking wildlife to the unique camaraderie and solidarity of the musicians, the 2008 NWSS was an unforgettable experience, that will remain in the hearts and minds of all who attended. As Jessica Kilroy said of the festival, “It just feels like home.”