PREVIEW: Northwest String Summit 7.13 - 7.16.17
North Plains, OR
Words by Mitch Melheim
Photos by Coleman Schwartz Media
Northwest String Summit will make it’s return to Horning’s Hideout this July 13-16 for the sixteenth year in a row. Also in their sixteenth year “in the bowl” is perennial host band Yonder Mountain String Band, who will again play three nights, this time with a mysterious cover set on Saturday that fans suspect to be Pink Floyd’s “Meddle” based off of clues posted on the band’s Instagram page.
Thursday, once just a pre-party, has blossomed into one of the more action-packed days of the festival with two sets of Greensky Bluegrass, Fruition, Shook Twins, and Lil’ Smokies all gracing the main stage before a true “choose your own adventure” late night option presents itself. Split Lip Rayfield’s aggressive brand of string music runs alongside the beauty of Elephant Revival which may become a game-time decision for most, depending on how much gas is left in the tank.
Friday, like the rest of the weekend, begins with an 8:30 AM “coffee talk” for those who actually got some sleep, followed by yoga in the festival’s newly added movement area. The heavily-wooded Cascadia Stage, which also hosts late night acts each night, happens to be where most people’s mornings will begin as well. Both Brad Parsons and Kitchen Dwellers play sets there before noon and the stage’s schedule doesn’t necessarily let up from there.
After the band competition opens the main stage, mandolin virtuoso, Sierra Hull, takes over for a set that I’m sure will be as beautiful and captivating as the one I caught from her at 4 Peaks Music Festival a couple weeks ago. In true Northwest String Summit fashion, there are no breaks from that point on. California Honeydrops, more Elephant Revival, more Greensky Bluegrass, and two sets of Yonder round out the main stage schedule while acts such as The Last Revel and Left Coast Country play “tweener” sets on top of the Furthur Bus. But don’t think you can run off to bed that easily, folks. Both Fruition and Dead Phish Orchestra will be rocking their late night sets until 3 AM.
Sunday’s schedule is as close as this festival gets to mellowing down, but it once again starts off strong with a 10:00 AM Rumpke Mountain Boys set that knowing those guys, I’m sure will be treated more like a late-late-night set than a morning set. Talented local acts, The Good Time Travelers and Crow & the Canyon, follow on the Cascadia Stage while more fun workshops such as Pickin’ On Phish and Farm To Table Flatpickin’ take place in the tent.
The Travelin’ McCoury’s will be performing a special “gospel hour” set Sunday afternoon before Dave Simonett’s (Trampled By Turtles) project Dead Man Winter makes their String Summit debut. Todd Snider & Great American Taxi follow and bring us to the final, and often times best, Yonder set of the weekend. Funky Portland jammers, Asher Fulero Band, then take over the tent stage before the Shook Twins round out the weekend’s music.
Interview with Northwest String Summit Promoter Skye McDonald:
Mitch Melheim: When did you get involved with Northwest String Summit?
Skye McDonald: Before the first String Summit, when it was Dexter Lake Music Festival near Eugene. At that time it was promoted by another promoter who eventually turned it over to my business partner and myself in 2003.
SM: Yonder was the headliner. It was Yonder Mountain String Band, Keller Williams, The Slip... Umphrey’s McGee was there. It was a cool location with the lake in the background. We had a ski boat there for the hospitality.
MM: How did that relationship with Yonder come about?
SM: I started working with their management company at the time called Partners in Music in Boulder, Colorado and my business partner (Greg Friedman) at the time was Yonder’s business manager so we teamed up to help curate the first String Summit.
MM: Does the band have any role in the curation of the festival?
SM: They’re the hosts. I think curation has been thrown around a lot, but misused in the sense that they aren’t selecting the talent or the activities, but they do hold the stage and maintain the kinfolk vibe. Long story short, they are the perennial hosts.
MM: Can you explain the evolution of Thursday a little bit? I know, at first, it didn’t exist. Then it became a pre-party of sorts and now it’s just as action packed as any other night of the festival.
SM: I couldn’t have said it better myself. I can tell you from my perspective. It started out for the first five years just being three days with arrival gates opening at 10 AM on Friday, but at that time we were lucky to hit maybe 2,000 or 2,500 people tops. So then what we saw, was that it would’ve been easier to let people in Thursday night and have more time for programming and other things on Friday. So Thursday started out just inside of a beer garden because of OLCC regulations and we would just have smaller bands play in the garden. That eventually turned into a walk-around permit as we established ourselves and the OLCC trusted us more so that we could move eventually the music to the main stage. That took us from small groups, duos, and singer-songwriter sets to full bands, which then turned into Greensky Bluegrass, and then “three-band Thursday,” all the way to where we are at now.
MM: How has the fest grown over the years?
SM: Year one there were maybe 1,100 people total. Including artists. It was brutal. It rained, and it rained, and it rained. People huddled under the merch tent, all wet and muddy. We learned a valuable lesson not to print white t-shirts again. It’s since grown to the point where we’re at near capacity every year.
MM: What is capacity now?
SM: We can call sold capacity 4,500. If we can move cars to another parking lot off-site, we can fit more bodies. That’s paid. We’ve also got 1,000 children under the age of 10, 400 volunteers, 100 people on staff, 150 vendors, another 100-some artists, and then the guest list which is approximately 10% of all that. So we’re up to 6,500 people on site. 85% of that expected by Thursday.
MM: Where did the idea for the Saturday funk set come about?
MM: When you’re putting the lineup together, how much weight do you put into a band fitting into the “bluegrass” description?
SM: Well, it’s kind of based around the history of Yonder. Yonder’s influences, where they’ve come from, and where do they go. I didn’t mean to quote "Cotton Eye Joe" there. All the guys in Yonder, all the guys in Greensky, many of the guys in Salmon, so on and so forth all come from more of a rock & roll background. They were turned onto string music through other means. I grew up in North Carolina and while I heard bluegrass at events, I didn’t get into it until I was a full-fledge deadhead and found it through the “Jerry doorway.” Having that entry point into the scene is common. There are so many new bands, as you’re probably well aware, who have the same sort of foundation where their entry points are the Yonders, or the Salmons, or even Greensky or the Punch Brothers today. That’s their entry point into the music. Then from that point they go backwards to the Monroes, and the Country Gentlemen, and the Stanley Brothers. What we try to do is straddle that in the same capacity and bring in what we believe to be up-and-coming string music while highlighting the influences of those people. Having some traditional, as well as some not so traditional. It’s the progressive nature of music in general. Homogenization if you will. The blending of all genres.
One of our struggles year after year is finding that balance between maintaining our core bands and inviting those bands we love who come back every other year or so, finding the new music coming in and where to fill it in, and then finding that up-and-coming music that we want to present to our attendees from the Midwest or the Southeast that don’t have the ability to tour and sell tickets in the Northwest which leads to them then getting the offers to play the small rooms around here or maybe finding a local band to link up with for a tour.
MM: The band competition has always been one of my favorite parts of the festival. I’m curious, who judges it?
MM: Do you have a favorite participant from the band competition over the years? Somebody that really blew you away and let you know that they were a force to be reckoned with.
SM: Wow. Um, I love the Lil’ Smokies, man. They’re a force to be reckoned with. I love Pert Near Sandstone. They took our model and started their own thing which has been successful. Ginstrings are pretty solid too. I enjoyed seeing them last year.
MM: I’m always surprised by how many local and regional acts play such a huge part in this festival. Has that been a conscious decision to keep it that way or is it just a testament to the strength of the string band scene in the Pacific Northwest?
SM: I believe it’s a symbiotic relationship. We have to highlight that scene. This whole region’s string band scene. It’s such an organic area of the country where people have a great quality of life and it shows in the music. That’s part of the reason why we developed the Cascadia Stage, to showcase a lot of regional talent that we may not have space for on the main stage, as well as some of the national acts who also fit into that description.
MM: Should we expect more Tyler Fuqua Creations this year?
SM: Yeah, for sure. He’s putting together another Saturday night spectacle. I’m not sure everything he’s got in store for this year, but there’s going to be a lot of cool installations on site throughout the weekend from him as well
MM: The lineup has become a brotherhood of musicians that see each other year after year. Not just at String Summit, but at other festivals like Delfest and Blue Ox as well. Has that been done on purpose or does that just have to do with how small and tight-nit the progressive bluegrass scene is right now?
SM: I’ve got to admit, this is our sixteenth year of doing the String Summit, and we’ve kind of created a formula that has kept us all afloat. We’d like to take a little bit of credit in that there is a brotherhood of these artists that have been straddling the genre, never fully immersed in the bluegrass scene. On the fringe, if you will. So they stick together. But they also have an incredible following. Grassroots scenes, marketing, touring, etc. And it’s way more pronounced than most of the traditional acts. So it’s deliberate on many levels that they’re paired together, but it’s a proven formula that we’ve been working with. Many of these other events that have popped up since we’ve been around have seemed to notice that as well and continued the trend.
MM: Alright Skye. That’s all I’ve got for you. Do you have anything else you’d like to mention?
SM: Thanks Mitch. Yeah, I do actually. We’re adding a movement based addition this year. Yoga, meditation, and breathing will be another arm of the event, if you will. It’s not another stage, but there will probably be artists playing music during some of the sessions. It’s a time to take care of yourself and nurture yourself so that you can sustain the entire event.
And secondly, because it is such a family friendly event. We’ve brought in a new children’s village curator and they’re bringing in a whole other stage for the kids area where other acts will be playing such as members of World’s Finest and Banana Slug String Band. It will be a festival within the festival.