Northwest String Summit 7.14 - 7.17.16
North Plains, OR
Words By Mitch Melheim
Photos By Coleman Schwartz
While most contemplated and beat themselves up about it, my decision was easy. Two nights of Phish at the Gorge or four nights with most of my favorite bands at Horning’s Hideout? The trees were calling and it sounded grassy to me. String Summit was my decision and there was no alternative.
I, like everyone else, spent a large chunk of my early summer asking others which they chose. The Phish fans would be at Phish, that was a given. Which of the usual faces at Horning’s would be absent this year? That was the real question. One by one the Strummit crew grew until it became evident that the festival’s loyal fan base didn’t put any more thought into the decision than I did. That didn’t necessarily surprise me, but the fact that with such an attractive alternative I managed to ride into the festival with two String Summit virgins.
Thursday July 14, 2016:
Creeping down the narrow winding road with nothing in sight but the trees immediately surrounding you is one of my favorite parts about coming to Horning’s. Very shortly after you enter the property you lose cell phone service, another favorite of mine.
Luckily, we had some buddies who were allowed into the festival the night before so we gave them our tents and arrived at Camp Turtle with our campsite set up and waiting for us. Thus eliminating the most stressful part of the festival, we were off to a good start. The next task would be establishing the newly purchased dab lounge. In a MVP-caliber move, my photographer Coleman bought an eight person tent for the sole purpose of providing ample and uninterrupted space for dabbing during the festival.
Brothers Comatose was a good start and have become a great draw as a daytime set at festivals. Fun and easy to dance to, I’m sure they will eventually get their time as a night act at these bigger festivals, but I like them just where they’re at right now. Afterwards, we ran back to camp to get our things a bit more settled for the weekend and grab something to eat.
We arrived back to the bowl while the Shook Twins were already playing. Always a little unpredictable, the Shookies used a bit more amplification than usual and set the pace for what was the most electric String Summit I’ve seen yet. Once their set was over, we turned around to walk up the hill for one of the Furthur Bus “tweener” sets that happen atop the bowl in between main stage acts. John Craigie and his tongue in cheek folk music were up there this time, preceding hometown heroes, Fruition.
After Craigie, I walked back down the bowl to find some friends to dance with during Fruition. Having just played the festival’s pre-party at Portland’s Aladdin Theater the night before and scheduled to close out the festival Sunday night, I expected the band to dive a little deeper in the catalog than normal. While that didn’t happen during this set, it left the door wide open for Sunday night and provided us with an efficient set of some of our favorite Fruition songs. Consisting mainly of songs off their most recent album, Labor of Love, the heavier more rock’n’roll sound was no surprise. The highlight of this set came with their cover of the Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling.”
Once prepared, our whole camp mobbed out together towards the bowl for Greensky Bluegrass. For many years in a row now, Greensky has played a full two set show to headline Thursday night at the festival while Yonder Mountain String Band does the same on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Once just a pre-party or “the little engine that could,” as festival MC Pastor Tim Christensen explains it, Thursday night has blossomed into one of the more action packed nights of the festival. They continued the trend again this year with Cabinet, Sideboob and the Infamous Stringdusters following Greensky.
Introduced by Pastor Tim as a “Righteous rock band,” Greensky took the stage and broke into “No Idea” to open an outstanding set. “Jaywalking” followed before a face-melting sandwich of “Reuben’s Train” inside of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care.” The set then slowed down with “In Control” before taking a complete 180 into the rapidly paced “A Letter to Seymour.”
The band then welcomed fellow Michigander, Josh Davis, onto the stage. Any big Greensky fan immediately noticed the implications of this sit in since they’re so used to hearing the band cover Davis’s tunes, but rarely ever get to hear them play together. The first song they played was Davis’s “Last Winter in the Copper Country,” a song I’ve been chasing to hear live for years. This version did not disappoint as both Davis and Greensky mandolinist, Paul Hoffman, shared vocals during a twelve minute version of the song before heading into another Davis cover, “Delta 88.” With Davis now off the stage, the band closed their first set with an eighteen minute “Don’t Lie,” chock-full of teases as usual.
Jon Stickley Trio played the Further Bus set afterwards so I ran up there for my first Stickley experience and they earned themselves a new fan during their short Twenty minutes. They’re extremely talented musicians that put on an intense live show, self-described as “Bluegrass/Gypsy Jazz/Hip-Hop.”
The main stage was done for the night and it was now time to choose between our late night options. The first choice was Wood & Wire in the Kinfolk Revival Tent or Cabinet at the Cascadia stage. We chose Cabinet and made our way towards the Cascadia stage which is hidden deep in the woods and sits above a creek that runs alongside the crowd. I can’t figure out if this stage is prettier in the daytime when you can see everything or at night when all of the installations are lit up. Either way, the stage is beautiful enough to make up for the lack of space and occasional cramping that occurs.
Sideboob followed Cabinet, but were scheduled to play later so we walked to the Kinfolk Revival Tent for the Infamous Stringdusters. The Kinfolk Revival Tent is a tent located just down Shakedown Street from the Furthur Bus that holds the main late night show for each night. The Stringdusters have become one of the most consistent bands in the scene and this late night was no exception. Extra funky and even more jammy, this show was everything I’ve come to love about the Stringdusters. Nicki Bluhm sat in for a couple of the songs, but the highlight for me was “End of the Line” > “High Country Funk.”
Pulling myself away from the Stringdusters late night was one of the harder decision I’ve had to make at a festival, but after last year’s Sideboob set on the Furthur Bus, I had to make sure and see some of their late night set at Cascadia. They played one of the more fun sets of the weekend last year, but bringing the one-off act back for another set proved to be disappointing as it lacked energy and seemed forced at times.
Friday July 15, 2016:
I woke up rested thanks to the dab lounge and was able to catch a little bit of Horseshoes & Hand Grenades’ early set at the Cascadia Stage. These guys will give you more than your fair share of harmonica, but do it in a fun and unique way, like as the lead melody for their cover of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place.”
As you could imagine with a character like Vince Herman in the band the interview was quite entertaining, but I was ready to get back to seeing some music. I was able to catch a good chunk of the Infamous Stringdusters’ second set of the weekend and was satisfied as always with what I heard. A mix of Stringduster staples, some great covers, and more Nicki Bluhm collaborations made up the set while “Tragic Life” and a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” featuring Bluhm being the highlights.
Following the Stringdusters was Railroad Earth, a band whom I’ve always thought makes great music but have found myself bored occasionally when seeing them live. This was not one of those times. Picking right up with the energy that the Stringdusters got brewing the set prior, Railroad had me dancing from the get go. There seemed to be more extensive jamming than their usual festival sets, especially the “Birds of America” > “Like a Buddha” section that lasted for what felt like an eternity.
After Railroad we went back to the lounge to thoroughly prepare for the first Yonder sets of the weekend. Although there were some definite high points, I was admittedly disappointed with their sets last year and was starting to question their status as headliner, but right off the bat, they brought the energy that I felt was missing the year prior. From sandwiching “Landfall” inside of Bruce Springsteen’s “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” in the beginning to the fun cover of the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane” and the closing sandwich of “All Aboard” > “Jack A Roe” > “All Aboard” with the Stringdusters’ Andy Hall and Jeremy Garret and Railroad’s Tim Carbone and John Skehan, the energy was high and never dwindled.
They never really let up from there, playing “Idaho” and “Insult and an Elbow” before an eerie and spacey ten minute “Jolene” that took me to places Dolly Parton doesn’t usually take me. As I thanked my lucky stars for Allie Kral and her fiddle, the band welcomed some guests onto the stage; Andy Thorn of Leftover Salmon, Anders Beck from Greensky Bluegrass, and Jon Stickley. Reminiscent of last year with all of the Infamous Stringdusters on stage, they closed the set with a smoldering hot “Traffic Jam” that was even better than the previous year’s. A short but sweet encore of Townes Van Zant’s “White Freightliner Blues” wrapped up the show as I found a rejuvenation within my Yonder fanhood but wasn’t ready to make a final call on the matter until seeing their next two shows of the weekend.
After Yonder it was 1:00 AM and time to go get weird with Leftover Salmon in the Kinfolk Revival Tent. Seattle funk band Polyrhythmics had a set that overlapped with Salmon’s causing me to miss a band that I would normally always make it a point to go see. While not usually a problem at Strummit, schedule conflicts are part of music festivals so I chose to ignore it and have as much fun as possible at Leftover Salmon.
If I’m being completely honest, I can’t remember a single song that was played during the Salmon late night, but that’s just how it should be when Leftover Salmon is playing til 3:00 AM. I do remember being thoroughly impressed, dancing to the point of exhaustion, and sit ins by Paul Hoffman, Sean McLean of World’s Finest, Vince’s son Silas, and Silas’ Gipsy Moon bandmate, Mackenzie Page.
Saturday July 16, 2016:
Although there were quite a bit of Leftover shenanigans the night before, I managed to get a little sleep and was up in time for Billy Strings. Now playing the main stage, this young guitar virtuoso did not disappoint as he and his band brought unmatched energy for a 1:00 PM set. Strings is an incredible picker as most know, but the guy has a hell of a voice as well. His original “Dust in a Baggie” was a highlight, so were his “Shakedown Street” and “Don’t Lie” teases.
Forcing myself away from Billy Strings was tough but I knew that I wouldn’t regret the decision once I got down to the Cascadia Stage for World’s Finest. Self-described as “Ska Americana Dub Grass” the band’s musical style is hard to pin down, hard enough that my best way of explaining them to people now is that they are like Portland’s version of the String Cheese Incident, but with ska in lieu of latin influence.
It was a fun daytime set with feel good songs like “Mighty Fine” starting it out before diving deep into jam territory with “Any Little Minute,” a song that had everybody around me dancing so hard I caught an elbow in what could only be described as a hippie moshpit.
I managed to catch a bit of MarchFourth Marching Band’s main stage set on the way back to camp and they sounded great and funky. I will make sure to catch more of their set the next time I’m around them because I always manage to just see them for a minute or randomly marching by me playing music which is the case with them at Oregon Country Fair.
Once back at camp, we found some friends duct taping a mannequin head to a shake weight. While that may sound weird, I’ve yet to mention that there was a butt plug attached to the opposite end of the shake weight. So yes, it is weird. Her name was Kristi and she danced with us all night long. (Disclaimer: She was a rage stick)
Steep Canyon Rangers were next on the main stage and to say I was impressed with them would be an understatement. It feels safe to say that these guys were some of the most talented musicians at the festival. Grammy award-winning progressive bluegrass with a few great pickers, some added percussion, and a fantastic fiddle player, Nicky Sanders, who sat in with Leftover Salmon following the Rangers’ set.
After Salmon, it was time for a quick trip back to camp to gather up the crew for another convoy towards Greensky’s final set of the weekend. Pastor Tim’s introduction led into the “Reverend” opener that was followed by a top notch version of fan favorite “Leap Year” whose clear MVP was Anders Beck’s dobro. “Wings for Wheels” and “Demons” came next followed by an always fun cover of John Hartford’s “Steam Powered Aereoplane.” The emotional singalong that has become the band’s most popular song, “Windshield,” preceded “The Four” before the band brought out Leftover Salmon’s Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt, and Andy Thorn.
“I’m not really placing blame on them but if you like us, it’s their fault. This entire thing that all of us do, it’s all Leftover Salmon’s fault.” Beck says before beginning the best segment of the set, a “Freeborn Man” > “Freebird” > “Freeborn Man” sandwich that started with Herman mocking Beck and laying his guitar flat like a dobro teasing the Woody Woodpecker theme and ended with my jaw on the ground.
Montana-bred progressive bluegrass quintet the Lil’ Smokies played the Further Bus set after Greensky. At this point, I had already made the commitment to not return to camp for the rest of the night since the schedule was packed with music I didn’t want to miss. The Smokies made me dance as usual, led by Andy Dunnigan’s dobro.
Next was the highly advertised set of Yonder’s all electric cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals album. The band brought in drummer, Jay Elliot, and keyboardist, Asher Fulero, to help electrify their sound, but played a normal first set of originals with the regular line up first.
“Winds of Wyoming” opened the set before heading into “Around You” and then right back into “Winds of Wyoming.” “Love Before You Can’t” and “Bound to Ride” followed and then the highlight of the first set, a bouncing twenty minute “Casualty” > “Sidewalk Stars” > “Casualty” sandwich.
Returning to a stage that now featured full production for the Animals set, they of course opened with “Pigs on the Wing Part 1” with Kaufmann on vocals. The first thing I noticed was how much I liked Kaufmann’s voice covering this album. Sometimes I can be a bit off put by his vocals, but he nailed this album from start to finish. The long saga “Dogs” was next and featured multiple mind melting sections led mostly by Allie Kral’s fiddle with Fulero providing some some great contributions on the synthesizer.
At twenty six minutes long, this way by far the longest song of the weekend and while a long song on the album, Yonder reimagined “Dogs” and brought it to sections of improv that somehow improved upon an already epic composition. The mixture of Fulero’s synthesizer and Jacob Jolliff’s mandolin was a perfect match that I was not expecting. Jolliff’s mandolin took off near the midway point to become the star of the second half of the song as they put a bluegrass touch onto the album for the first time in the set.
As the euphoric ending of “Dogs” came to a close, the sound effects of pig noises arrived and a hypnotic synth melody hit. It was time for “Pigs (3 Different Ones).” The funkiest song on the album brought upon more percussion than the previous songs and included the use of some heavy vocal effects on Kaufmann’s vocals. Elliot’s cowbell could’ve been louder, but that’s more of a personal gripe because the cowbell refrain after the verse is probably my favorite part of any Pink Floyd song.
After another quick Smokies set on the bus, we walked to the Kinfolk Revival Tent for Keller Williams with More Than a Little. It was my first time seeing his funk band and they played a nice little set. Hard hitting funk that you actually feel the punch from, that’s what I look for and they had it.
While it was just after 3:00 AM, due to a Saturday night tradition at Horning’s called “bubbles” the night was still young. We all prepared ourselves for bubbles in various ways. I spent most of my time in the dab lounge while others were taking their nights in the opposite direction. Bound to end up at the same spot come sunrise anyway, we didn’t bother to try and keep people together.
What the hell is bubbles?
Bubbles is a Horning’s tradition where after a long Saturday night people go down by the lake, in whatever shape they may be in at sunrise, to make bubbles and bounce them across the lake. While this may not sound all that interesting to you, it’s more than likely a bit more interesting to those recovering from the Pink Floyd set prior.
After what was honestly probably close to two hours spent watching bubbles, we headed back to the lounge before all passing out shortly after. Most made it out of the lounge and into their tents, some did not.
Sunday July 17, 2016:
I woke to my alarm. Yes, I set an alarm at a music festival and yes, it was for 1:30 PM. I wasn’t going to miss Yak Attack’s set at the Cascadia Stage. Bringing a much different vibe than the rest of the festival, Yak Attack is a three-piece live electronic band that incorporates elements of jazz, breakbeat, hip-hop, dub, house, and funk into its diverse repertoire along with a hefty dose of improvisation.
“We’re going to act like it’s still night time,” bassist Rowan Cobb said as the band walked on stage. “This is the super late night set,” jokes Cobb as they open with “Club Hit,” an upbeat and uncontrollably dance-inducing song typically deployed later in their sets. They weren’t kidding, they were going to make this the super late night set that Cobb joked about.
Fruition’s Kellen Asebroek and Jay Cobb Anderson joined the band next for a cover of Bill Withers’ “Kissin’ My Love,” anchored by keyboardist Dave Dernovsek’s funky keys. Soulful as usual, Asebroek’s voice was a great addition to this song as was Anderson’s guitar. Both guests stayed up for the next song, a cover of Lonnie Liston Smith’s “Expansions.” Some great funk guitar from Anderson mixed with spacey atmospheric playing from Dernovsek started it off before both broke into solos and finally a bass solo from Cobb brought it back into the song as Asebroek sang the last verse.
With all guests now off stage, drummer Nick Werth shows us what he’s got for a second while transitioning into “Swing Thiwi.” Without a doubt the jazziest Yak Attack song, the swinging feel has you bouncing and snapping your fingers until transitioning to what sounds like you may be in some sort of alien speakeasy. Not just any alien speakeasy, a cool one where the aliens wear fedoras in the dark and smoke cigarettes with long tips on them while Yak Attack plays intergalactic jazz in the corner.
“Jellied Fire” was next. Full of bass and synth, this was initially my favorite Yak song off their debut album Real World Conditions and would probably still be if “Marian’s House” and their collaborations with the amazing Aniana hadn’t since won me over. Anderson was brought back out for a cover of the Villains’ “When I Wake Up’ that featured extensive guitar and brought a much more rock sound to Yak Attack than I’m used to hearing. Without question, the highlight of this song was Dernovsek and Anderson trading licks near the end.
Next up was Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I had never heard them before, but if it’s Keller doing the Dead, I’ll be there. Heavy on organ and including a gospel choir, there was no question it was gospel but they incorporated many elements of jam and funk as well. The choir added a lot of depth and texture to the music and even with a heavier emphasis on the vocals, I found myself dancing the entire time and satisfied with what I’d seen.
With everybody moving a bit slower since it was Sunday, we decided to head back to camp afterwards and eat some food before the last Yonder set of the weekend. After a few minutes of much needed rest, we headed back to the bowl for Yonder.
“Northern Song” opened followed with the funky “New Dusty Miller.” A new Dave Johnston song “Alison” was next as Johnston explained that they’re working on a new album and after a jab from Allie, admitted that the name is spelled incorrectly. “Alison” is everything you would expect from a Johnston tune, equipped with both gravely vocals and banjo.
Jolliff got a section to himself preceding “Gloryland” that showed everybody why he’s regarded as one of the best mandolinists on earth right now. “Gloryland” was full of energy and segued into a long “You’re No Good” to keep us dancing. Longtime Yonder collaborator, Danny Barnes, was then called onto the stage for a cover of his oft-covered song “Get it While You Can.”
“It is impossible to overstate how much this man means to this music and this scene,” says Kaufmann in regards to Barnes.
“Get it While You Can” was a party as always. Hearing this song with Danny Barnes singing is such a treat after hearing it covered so much. Another Barnes tune “Going Where They Don’t Know My Name” followed. Starting with a classic Danny Barnes mindwarp on banjo, they kicked off this uptempo tune and never looked back as I about passed out from trying to dance fast enough to keep up with the music.
Kaufmann then invited Nicky Sanders up onto the stage to get some double fiddle action going for the near thirty minute sandwich of “On The Run” > “Black Sheep” > “On The Run”. In my opinion, Kaufmann’s best song and always a scorcher live, I was stoked to have Barnes and Sanders on stage to join the madness.
Another new song, this time guitarist Adam Aijala’s “Bad Taste,” was next followed by a “Dancing in the Moonlight” that included a slightly jammed out middle section. “Travelin’ Prayer” sung by Kral was as fast as you’ll ever hear a Billy Joel song and then they slowed down for a beautifully relevant cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What it’s Worth.”
Keller Williams and Larry Keel were invited on stage for an outstanding “Kentucky Mandolin” with a whole lot of scatting. Another long, fun jam sammy “All the Time” > “Pockets” > “All the Time” ended their last set of the weekend.
Before the band’s encore Kaufmann talked about how String Summit is his favorite weekend of the year before playing a self-described “super heady downtempo” cover of Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wildside” and finishing with Ralph Stanley’s “Sharecropper’s Son.”
I missed most of the Lil’ Smokies because I was eating food. You could blame the lounge, but it's moot at this point. Fruition closed out the festival in the Kinfolk Revival Tent and played another good set, although there were a few repeats from their main stage set Thursday which always rubs me the wrong way. Some great guest spots helped make this a fun show though, including the Smokies’ Dunnigan on “I Don’t Mind,” Brad Parsons and Pete Kartsounes on “From Time to Time,” and the encore of “There She Was” > “Superstition” with Applegate Lodge’s, Duke Davis, and World’s Finest’s, Sean McLean.
Tired from the weekend, we decided to forgo any further partying and head back to the lounge. As we walked back, the two String Summit virgins were talking about their first Strummit and how they planned on coming back any year that it was an option. Assuming that would be the case since before I brought them, it made me smile to know that the Horning’s magic still works.
To be honest, it may only be getting stronger. I fell in love with everything all over again during the 2016 Northwest String Summit, the best year yet.
Coleman's Photo Galley