Beltane Music Festival 5.5 - 5.7.17

Neal Creek Resort
Scio, OR

Written by Mitch Melheim
Photos by Coleman Schwartz Media

What began as a small backyard potluck with friends and family wrapping a maypole has since blossomed into a full-fledged music festival featuring nationally touring acts called Beltane. Following the initial potluck, festival organizers Clare and Aric Naber decided to add music to the event, and shortly thereafter came fire dancers and the inevitable graduation from their backyard. The move to a new location on the Columbia River Gorge brought upon larger acts such as Fruition and the Shook Twins and lasted just five years before another upgrade was needed, this time to the gorgeous Neal Creek Resort in Scio, Oregon.

While many things have changed, it’s equally surprising how much remains the same. The wholesome family feel that the Naber’s first curated twelve years ago remains intact, as does the maypole celebration. Many of the same bands still make up the festival’s line up, including the Shook Twins and host band World’s Finest, who officially partnered with organizers last year after headlining the festival since 2012. A newer batch of mainstays have arrived over the past few years from the dance grooves of Yak Attack and Asher Fulero’s many projects to the folk stylings of Brad Parsons and Pete Kartsounes, all of whom are Portland musicians; just as the line up has always has been.

Friday, May 5:

Narrow and winding roads brought us through the trees and eventually into a soggy Neal Creek Resort. The rain had been coming down for most of the day, but in true Portland fashion, nobody’s spirits were dampened as “Welcome home,” and “Happy Beltane!” rang through the air while folks shuttled their camping supplies down the hill and past the lake toward the campgrounds.

The camping areas are small enough that there isn’t a bad place on the grounds, but big enough that you’ll have no problem camping with your crew at this festival of 300 people. We came in hours after gates opened and were able to settle in with our group in a flat, shaded spot along the creek. Once camp was set up, we headed toward the stages for the first time to catch the weekend’s opening set at the smaller dome stage.

Young singer-songwriter duo Taylor Kingman and Kory Quinn kicked off the music and showed the impressive display of songwriting and stage presence that locals have come to expect from these two front men. Brad Parsons Band followed in the pavilion and featured an exciting sit-in from Kingman on electric guitar during a rather quirky cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Mr. Charlie.” More psychedelic americana shred ensued until the set came to an end and we wandered back down the hill toward the dome stage again.

World’s Finest drummer Mike Apodaca joined the Good Time Travelers for their set which proved to be more laid-back than usual, a dynamic change from some of the more wild sets I’ve seen from this talented duo. Their ability to present themselves as both bluegrass pickers and folk singers is admirable and probably why Kartsounes has garnered such respect amongst his peers.

Rising sister-act the Shook Twins held the first headlining spot of the night and showed their versatility, touching on everything from their own folk songs to the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place” and a tripped-out “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” Taylor Kingman was invited to the stage again for a few high-energy songs that may have cemented him as the night’s MVP.

Perk was next at the dome stage and also featured Apodaca on drums as well as an additional percussionist that only added to what has become one of the funkiest bands in Portland. They employ a hard and driving, yet groovy style of funk that is refreshing in a genre I personally believe has become over-saturated as of late. Boo Wilson’s aggressive bass lines lead the charge, but it’s Devon James’s impressive playing on guitar that has me so excited about this band.

Burgeoning livetronica act Yak Attack filled the night’s second headlining slot with a marathon late night set in the pavilion that lasted over an hour past its scheduled 2 AM finish. With no cell phone service and an earful of Yak, most were unaware while the rest were unconcerned. This inability to use your phone has proven to be one of the highlights of the festival for me each year that I’ve gone.

Creative setlist interplay became the theme of the night as the trio loosened up the set after a quick sit-in from Shafty’s Alex Weinberg on guitar opened the show. The thirteen-song midsection of the set lasted around two hours and crocheted multiple songs within themselves a la the Disco Biscuits, which of course fit perfectly with lighting designer Brett McConnell’s extravagant laser setup. The games they were playing with their music are beyond explanation. At one point near the end, they had basically merged two songs into one (“Song For Phillip” and “Pump & Dump”) and reprised their jazzy “Swing Thiwi” with a jam loosely based off of the song structure that featured drummer Nick Werth abandoning his set for a more electronic sound on his xylosynth.

Almost immediately after Yak Attack’s final note, Halo Refuser took over the pavilion for a renegade DJ set. The downtempo electronic project of Asher Fulero (Emancipator Ensemble, Asher Fulero Band, etc.) was an ideal way to end the night, or at least I thought so until I left his set and saw there was yet another renegade set going on between the creek and the lake, this time the shamanic didgeridoo rock of The Urban Shaman. The fact that there were multiple music options at 4 AM, none of which were on the schedule, but both featured organizers up dancing with everybody, is what I love about this festival and kind of explains it in a nutshell.

Saturday, May 6:

Saturday morning began with some of us relaxing around the creek while others went to the yoga and drumming workshops. The maypole celebration followed in the afternoon just before Far Out West kicked the music off at the pavilion stage. The remainder of what was once the Student Loan String Band ditched their acoustic instruments and plugged in for this project which was surprisingly funky and expectedly jammy.

Bigfoot Mojo came next at the dome stage and featured the Good Time Travelers and Urban Shaman percussionist, Ben Lee, as guests alongside the usual duo. Their set was comprised of mostly covers and had a very loose, open jam-like feel that made for an enjoyable afternoon set.

Asher Fulero Band was next at the pavilion stage and brought upon the funky jams that we’ve come to expect from this collection of musicians. Bassist Brett McConnell shined bright on “Launchpad” while Fulero impressed during “Get It” and just about every other song in the set. The guitar duo of Darvey Santner and Nathan Day are kind of the wild card effect for this band with their ability to both play lead and occasionally pull you out of the deep pockets of groove created by the band’s potent rhythm section.

Talented jamgrass quartet, Band of Comerados, followed on the dome stage and were one of the most surprising sets of the weekend for me. I had only seen the band once before and while I enjoyed their previous set, I loved this one. Another talented guitar duo led the way, this time Kyle Donaldson and Devon James. Spacey effects and exploratory playing highlight the band’s emotive style of improvisational string music. I’m anxious to see where this band’s unique, feel-good approach to the string band experience can take them.

Host band World’s Finest took the pavilion stage for two huge sets that were packed with gracious thank you’s from the group and reflective comments on how much this festival has grown, yet stayed the same. Banjo player Dan Hurley mentioned that for the most part the lineup has remained the same, but that the venues continue to get bigger as these bands all grow together. A feeling of pride circled the air as the crowd cheered on their friends, many of whom were in the bands that he was talking about.

The first set featured a few jams, but focused more so on the feel-good reggae and ska portions of their catalog before announcing that the next song was for “when things get weird,” and launching into one of the deep and exploratory jams that they’re capable of. The second set leaned heavier on sonic exploration and touched more so on the dub, jam, and even trance aspects of their repertoire with songs like “Nut Brown” and “Chillicago.” The band then invited a handful of musicians out for the encore to lend vocals to a fun cover of Cake’s “Short Skirt / Long Jacket.”

Five-piece livetronica act Fresh Track followed at the dome stage and had no problems continuing the dance party that World’s Finest had started. Alex Weinberg leads the band on guitar with an almost Hunter Brown-like sound that lends itself to STS9 comparisons, but I personally find him a bit more interesting to listen to because of the added variation in his playing. McConnell also mans the bass for this band, allowing him to flourish a bit more than in his other projects (Shafty, Asher Fulero Band,) while keyboardist Dave Dernovsek takes the opposite approach and plays more reserved than his usual lead-heavy playing with Yak Attack.

Portland guitar hero Scott Pemberton closed out the festival with his Scott Pemberton Band and their dancey style of rock. Pemberton’s trademark guitar stool and strapless playing stump me if I’m being completely honest. He’s a hell of a guitarist, but sometimes it seems like too much of a gimmick for me to get behind. That being said, he’s definitely a crowd pleaser and tours with a talented band that is worth checking out.

Sunday, May 7:

Sundays at Beltane have been traditionally relaxed, as was the case again this year. It was slow-moving, just how you want a festival pack-up process to be. I woke up and ate a hearty, much-needed breakfast from the wonderful folks at the Steal Your Plate food cart. Brad Parsons was playing the pavilion around noon and was the only set of the day as people slowly made their way out.

One last hangout session on the creek was in order. After we had packed all of our cars up, we sat on the rocks as we reflected over a memorable weekend. Too many times I leave a festival feeling deteriorated, whether it be mental or physical. Something about Beltane is different. Beltane revitalizes me and puts an extra pep in my step and a smile on my face. I leave the festival feeling healed and hopeful, astonished at this scene that I’m so grateful to be apart of.

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