Northwest String Summit 7.13 - 7.16.17

Horning's Hideout
North Plains, OR

Words by Mitch Melheim
Photos by Coleman Schwartz Media

While sixteen years of hosting a festival in the same location is quite the feat, it becomes less of a surprise after just one weekend spent pickin’ and grinnin’ at Horning’s Hideout. The dust, the “bowl,” “bubbles”… All things which make little sense to most people, but illustrate a weekend in bluegrass paradise for others. A paradise that is sure to include plenty of Yonder Mountain String Band, some Saturday late night funk, and multiple nights of Greensky Bluegrass; a recipe for success no matter the location.

Thursday July 13, 2017:

The Lil’ Smokies were the first band to grace the main stage this year, otherwise referred to as the “bowl” due to it being, well, a bowl. A bowl lined with trees and a flat dirt pit that is ripe for kicking up some dust. The Smokies impressed yet again. I’ve really enjoyed the added energy in their sound since last year’s addition of Jake Simpson on fiddle. His chemistry with dobro player Andy Dunnigan could fool you into thinking he’s a founding member. The band all backed out at one point and let the two of them play off of each other in what was my personal highlight of the set.

A couple of Portland bands followed in the bowl, Shook Twins and Fruition. Both much more amplified than your average band at the festival. The Shook Twins dove a bit deeper into their catalogue due to having two sets at the festival which was an enjoyable surprise after seeing so many of their festival sets already this year and yearning for something different. Fruition played a good but somewhat reserved set, presumably holding onto the heavy hitters for their Friday late night set.

After another Lil’ Smokies set, this time at the top of the bowl in front of the Furthur Bus, it was time for the first Greensky Bluegrass set of the night. String Summit favorites for years now, Greensky has headlined Thursday night of the festival with a two-set show for the past several years.

Bassist Mike Devol’s wife had just given birth to their child so filling in for Devol was original Railroad Earth bassist Johnny Grubb, a welcomed surprise for many attending who had no idea until the show began. An early first set “Train Junkie” set things off into a decided and appreciated jammy start before it was halted by an “exploding bass” as it was referred to during “Living Over.”

Yonder Mountain fiddle wizard Allie Kral sat in on the second set opening “All Four” and “I’d Probably Kill You,” the former of which was as impressive as you’d surely speculate. Heavy hitters “Leap Year” and “Kerosene” filled out the rest of the set until Jay Cobb Anderson and Tyler Thompson of Fruition joined the band on electric guitar and drums for “Wings For Wheels,” “Miss September,” and “Demons.” The band then invited a plethora of backup singers onto the stage for an encore of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”

Afterwards, the attention shifted to the Cascadia Stage and Kinfolk Revival Tent for some late night action. All female supergroup Sideboob played the tent and to be honest, I think this horse has been beaten one too many times. It was a fun bus set in 2015 and they were even brought back by popular demand last year for their own late night. But the third time around proved to be a bit redundant and I think it’s safe to say I may have to choose another set if there’s a fourth.

The remainder of my night was split up between the sonic dichotomy of Split Lip Rayfield’s aggressive brand of “thrashgrass” and the dynamic beauty of Elephant Revival. I chose to split time evenly between the two, opting to begin with Split Lip down at the Cascadia Stage before finishing up at the tent with Elephant Revival.

It was my first time seeing Split Lip and they were even quicker than advertised. Unbelievable, to be quite frank. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen somebody pick as fast as mandolinist Wayne Gottstine. Halfway through their set I was worn out and it seemed like a good opportunity to catch my breath and the last half of Elephant Revival’s set in the tent.

Both of the Shook Twins and Mimi Naja of Fruition were sitting in when I got to the tent. It was probably my favorite sit in of the night and provided the female firepower I had hoped for with Sideboob earlier in the night. An intense and peaking “Hearts & Tongues” led by Bridget Law’s fiddle closed the set with Bonnie Paine coming back out to begin the encore alone with an acapella poem before the rest of the band joined her on Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”

Friday, July 14, 2017:

Friday morning got off to a quick start with Portland’s Brad Parsons kicking things off at the Cascadia Stage at 10 AM. Kitchen Dwellers followed and played an entertaining set per usual. This set focused more on newer material from their most recent album Ghost In A Bottle, leaving plenty of old-school favorites to pick from for their bus sets on Saturday.

Rashad Eggleston’s “Rushadicus” workshop was my next move after the Dwellers and what a great choice that was. This guy was without a doubt the most exciting musician at the festival and that was even apparent at noon in a hot tent. I challenge anybody to find a more entertaining cellist. But seriously, please do if there is one.

Mandolin phenom Sierra Hull graced the main stage with some warm and pretty afternoon tunes. Not many mandolinists are confident enough in themselves to play without a band, but that’s essentially what Hull does as a duo with her bassist. Also, don’t be fooled when you see her play the octave mandolin. She’s not that small. It’s just a guitar-sized mandolin.

A California Honeydrops set in the bowl got everybody up and moving again after most chose to sit down and take in the beauty of Hull’s set. Another Elephant Revival set followed that and much like Fruition the night before, it was a more mellow set than their late night on Thursday.

More Greensky was next, this time a 90-minute slot warming up the bowl for two Yonder Mountain String Band sets. The “Worried About The Weather” > “Time” > “Breathe” > “Hit Parade of Love” opening segment proved to be the highlight of the Greensky set with solid versions of “Don’t Lie” and “Run Or Die” rounding out the rest of the set.

Yonder came out swinging for their first sets of the weekend. “Kentucky Mandolin” with Sierra Hull and “All The Time” with Darol Anger and Greensky’s Anders Beck suspiciously playing electric bass anchored the first set while a “Traffic Jam” sandwich with a tasty “New Dusty Miller” filling kicked off the second set, also featuring Darol Anger on fiddle. Things only heated up from there, eventually culminating in “Angel” > “Girlfriend Is Better” > “Angel” to close the set with, you guessed it, Darol Anger on fiddle, as well as the inimitable Rashad Eggleston on cello.

Another night came with another decision for Strummit attendees. This time it was Dead Phish Orchestra at the Cascadia Stage against Fruition in the tent. As an admitted jam fan first and foremost, Dead Phish was tempting, but I am also well aware of how crazy a Fruition late night at String Summit may get, so I made time for both.

I’ve heard many stories about the time Fruition played at the Cascadia Stage until the sun came up so I decided it was best to make them the second half of my late night venture. Dead Phish was a fun environment and being my first time seeing them, it was more than entertaining to bounce back between Dead and Phish songs. Once they broke into “Fuego” we decided it was probably a good time to head on over to the tent for Fruition.

While this one didn’t make it until sunset, they still played a solid set that was chock full of old school favorites like “Misty Night,” “The Wanter,” and “Boil Over.” There’s usually a “home team” type of environment with a certain band at some festivals, specific examples that come to mind are The Slip and ALO at High Sierra. What Fruition has at Northwest String Summit exceeds that. Packed crowds dancing and singing along to every word are a given at any of their Strummit sets, whether it be Thursday evening while people are still setting up camp or 3 AM Saturday morning, the fruity freaks come to play.

Saturday July 15, 2017:

It was a bright and early wake up call once again, this time for another Portland act and perhaps the city’s hottest up and coming string band, Cascade Crescendo. Last year’s band competition winners, Ginstrings, opened up the main stage afterwards and possess the type of jamgrass firepower that should keep them on lineups like these for many years to come. I would say the same thing for Cascade Crescendo as well.

Blitzen Trapper brought their diverse mix of indie folk rock to String Summit for the first time and were an interesting choice for the festival that proved to be the right one. Their sound is similar enough to fall in line with the rest of the lineup, but different enough to provide a refreshing change of pace from the usual.

Bluegrass legend Del McCoury followed in the bowl and provided the wholesome great time that is expected with all of his performances. I can’t ever get enough of Del’s stage banter and could probably listen to him talk about Grey’s Anatomy for a whole set and be satisfied. A sit in from Danny Barnes only added to the band’s firepower that already featured Del’s sons, Robbie and Ronnie McCoury.

A bus set from Horseshoes & Hand Grenades brought us into southern rock star JJ Grey & Mofro’s String Summit debut which seemed to set the tone for the rest of the night which would stray away from bluegrass for the most part aside from Yonder’s first set and some exploratory bus sets from Rumpke Mountain Boys and Kitchen Dwellers, all of whom would probably be shunned by most traditional bluegrass purists anyway.

The first Yonder set began with a “Saint in the City” that lasted well over twenty minutes and included “Not Far Away” sandwiched in the middle. Keyboardist Asher Fulero and drummer Jay Elliot joined the band for the last two songs of the set as they went full electric. Fulero’s keys turned Dave Johnston’s “Fingerprint” into a funky jam that turned what can sometimes be a rather pedestrian tune into the possible highlight of the set.

The second Yonder set also featured Fulero and Elliot as the band covered Pink Floyd’s Meddle in it’s entirety. Beginning with the sound of swirling winds coming through the PA and the lights dimming down, it was apparent that this was going to be an intense set. Shortly thereafter, they broke into “One Of These Days” and that thought was solidified. The set had a real cinematic feel and had most of us sitting down, not because we were uninterested, but because we were overwhelmed. An expectedly wild “Echoes” closed the set and electric Yonder came back out for an encore of “Run Like Hell” which thankfully woke everybody out of their daze and got them up and dancing just in time for Tukuaz late night in the bowl.

Saturday late night funk has been a tradition for several years now and while I admittedly haven’t seen them all, it’s hard for me to imagine a funk band has ever rocked the bowl at Strummit any harder than Turkuaz did on this chilly night. Juno What?! and Allen Stone keyboardist Steve Swatkins joined the band for the entire show which I can confidently say was the most impressive set of the entire festival.

Yet another late night decision was to be made Saturday, this edition featuring Horseshoes & Hand Grenades at the Cascadia Stage or California Honeydrops in the tent. I once again split up my time between the two, eventually ending up at Horseshoes for the majority of the time because I just couldn’t peel myself away. Their set rivaled Split Lip for the best and most energetic late night at the festival.

The festivities don’t end there however. Saturday night at String Summit is home to a few rather outrageous traditions that keep most up well past the sunrise when “bubbles” occurs on the lake. Bubbles isn’t really something to be explained, just something you need to experience for yourself. Just know it’s where “the weird turn pro,” as Hunter S. Thompson once said.

Sunday July 16, 2017:

For the more responsible folks that got some sleep Saturday night, they woke up to a 10:00 AM Rumpke set billed as “Bubbles with Rumpke Mountain Boys.” If you know anything about Rumpke, you know they aren’t one of those who got sleep the night before. The Good Time Travelers followed on the Cascadia Stage and are highly recommended if you’re unfamiliar with them. The duo consists of Pete Kartsounes and Michael Kirkpatrick, both of whom are exceptional players and singers.

The Travelin’ McCoury’s Gospel Hour was a fun change of pace. It always surprises me how talented this band is, which is absurd when you put any ounce of thought into their name. The “Pickin’ On Phish” workshop followed and featured great renditions of songs such as “Possum” and “Back On The Train” performed by an all-star cast of musicians featuring Asher Fulero, Arthur Lee Land, and the Good Time Travelers.

One of the more interesting storytellers of our time, Todd Snider, followed later in the afternoon on the main stage and played a set drenched with his dry, but efficient sense of humor before host band Yonder Mountain String Band took the stage for their final set of the weekend.

More Danny Barnes sit ins came throughout much of the set, including a huge set-closing “Casualty” > “You’re No Good” > “Casualty” with triple, yes, triple banjo. Dave Johnston, Danny Barnes, and Greensky Bluegrass’s Michael Bont all wielded their five strings with Bont’s bandmate Dave Bruzza sitting in on guitar for good measure. All of this happening while Darol Anger sat in on fiddle for the entirety of the set made for the expectedly wild Sunday show we get from Yonder every year.

The rest of the festival consisted of a Portland takeover with another Cascade Crescendo set following Yonder, this time on the bus, then the funky jam band Asher Fulero Band in the tent, and finally Shook Twins to close out the festival. Aside from the Turkuaz set Saturday night, I don’t think I danced harder at any point in the festival than I did during Asher Fulero Band which is saying something come Sunday at the hilly Horning’s Hideout.

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