Hangtown Music Festival 10.26 - 10.29.17

El Dorado County Fairgrounds
Placerville, CA

Words by Mitch Melheim
Photos by Will Howard

Hangtown is a unique music festival, to say the least. It begins with the odd location, both spooky (Placerville was dubbed “Hangtown” due to its frequent hangings during the gold rush) and convenient (Ever walk to Denny’s after a late night set?) After that, and perhaps more importantly, come the odd people. Delightfully bizarre and interactive, the crowd exhibits a frightening playfulness that could only be found around Halloween.

While one group of folks runs around demanding that you participate in their impromptu game of Twister, another plays “party police” and does their best to stop your fun. This was just one night, of course, and it ended in both groups participating in a pizza party where everyone danced to a portable boombox in front of the pizza cart and cheered on those who made and purchased the pizzas. The final crucial ingredient in this wonderfully weird weekend is a host band as consistently captivating as Railroad Earth, whose Saturday night set left those at my campsite, literally, speechless.

Thursday, October 26:

While Hangtown’s music schedule is abbreviated down to just three bands on Thursday, don’t mistake it for a pre-party. Host band Railroad Earth has headlined the night every year since the festival expanded to four days in 2013, even performing a silent movie score on that inaugural Thursday night.

Northern California’s rootsy rock & roll band, Achilles Wheel, opened up the festival around seven o’clock in Hangin’ Hall, the festival’s late night venue. The main stage area wasn’t opened up until Friday morning so all of Thursday’s music took place inside Hangin’ Hall, which is cool because the late nights are by ticket-only so it gave people the opportunity to check out the impressively decorated venue.

Railroad followed with one long set that brought everybody into the venue, whether they had set up camp yet or not. This, of course, made for an interesting post-show experience, but that’s another story. Emmylou Harris’ “Luxury Liner” appeared out of the rare Russ Barenberg tune “Magic Foot,” the first real surprise of the night and the early highlight until “Mourning Flies” came midway through the set.

Bassist Andrew Altman’s “12 Wolves” followed the hauntingly beautiful “Mourning Flies” with a much more aggressive jam that began with some sound issues as Altman’s microphone was turned off for the first couple of verses. It was a bit of a bummer since we rarely get to hear him sing lead, but they more than made up for it with the intense jamming that most have learned to expect from this song.

The always beautiful “Birds of America” made an appearance toward the end of the set, just before their rockin’ ode to wartime, “Warhead Boogie,” whose psychedelic outro will more often than not lead into something interesting, this time a set-closing “Moonshiner” which hadn’t been played since last year’s New Year’s run in Portland.

Fruition followed with a late night set from midnight until two that seemed like a “greatest hits” set at first, until I realized the next day after their second set that they just have that many recognizable songs at this point in their young career. Older favorites like “The Wanter” and “Spliff” spanned just as much of the setlist as newer songs like “There She Was” and “Death Comes Knockin’,” which was just recently covered at Red Rocks by Greensky Bluegrass and a few members of Fruition

Railroad Earth’s uber-multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling joined the band on saxophone for a cover of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame” and Fruition’s nod to their rainy hometown, “Portland Bound.” I inexplicably neglected to mention this while touching on the Railroad set, but I can’t stress enough what a treat it was to see Andy back with the band after being out due to illness the last couple times I saw them this year. I can’t overstate how much this man’s talent and versatility means to the band.

The Fruits did as they have done all tour since Tom Petty passed, encoring with a different cover of his each night, opting for the 1994 hit, “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” with Jay Cobb Anderson pulling the necessary double duty on guitar and harmonica.

Friday, October 27:

Shook Twins opened up the main stage, the El Dorado Stage, I guess it is technically called. Inside the stage area they’ve got some spooky Halloween-themed decorations and at the opposite end of the field, around the corner, is the Gallows Stage where music is held in between sets at the El Dorado Stage. Just outside of that is a row of food vendors, which featured everything from pizza-stuffed dumplings to chocolate and fruit-topped pizza. Go figure.

The first Gallows Stage set I caught was Reno’s Mojo Green and damn, they’re funky! I didn’t know I wanted funk with my afternoon dumpling but they decided it for me. More funk followed with Monophonics, a soulful and funky band that is certainly enjoyable, but eventually I grew a bit funked-out and walked back to camp to gear up for Fruition’s upcoming set.

Conveniently enough, it was only a thirty second walk to the campsite due to Hangtown’s “camp wherever the hell you want” policy, which I am all for. There is the occasional “No Camping!” sign, but other than that, it’s a free-for-all, in the spirit of the wild west in which the city was built upon.

Fruition epicly strolled onto the stage backed by a live rendition of the Chariots of Fire theme song, while running in slow motion with PBRs in their hands and cigarettes hanging from mouths, a diet that has never seemed to fail the band.

Another onslaught of hits filled this set and, as I mentioned, helped me realized how deep their catalog is. Also, how much it’s progressing. New-ish song “Fire” has become my favorite song of theirs to hear live due to its dark and psychedelic nature, a direction in which the band has consistently headed recently. I’m a fan. The Petty cover, if you were wondering, was “American Girl.”

Next, I wandered down to the Gallows Stage to catch supergroup, The Contribution, for the first time. Led by Tim Carbone’s rock & roll fiddle, these guys put on one of the more impressive sets of the festival. Definitely my sleeper pick.

Chris Robinson Brotherhood took over El Dorado Stage and kicked off a very “Dead” themed night, which began with CRB and DSO (Dark Star Orchestra) and extended to the costume theme of the night, “Nothing Shaking on Hangtown Street,” where attendees were encouraged to dress up as their favorite Grateful Dead song.

CRB’s set went from pedestrian to excellent almost as soon as the sun went down. Guitarist Neal Casal took over around “Vibration & Light” and keyboardist Adam McDougall’s eerie sound fit the festival’s nighttime Halloween vibe perfectly.

After another “tweener” set from The Contribution, the night’s headliner, Dark Star Orchestra, took the stage for two sets. Known for choosing a Grateful Dead concert and playing it all the way through, DSO performed the October 29, 1977 show from Dekalb, IL for the California crowd.

A ripping “Let It Grow” closed out the first set and was the obvious highlight to me. The second set got pretty far out, especially during the “Estimated Prophet” > “Eyes Of The World” > “Space” > “St. Stephen” > “Drums” segment, which extended all the way through the rest of the set until “Sugar Magnolia” wrapped it up before a Friday night encore of “One More Saturday Night.”

Hangin’ Hall’s late night this time around was a funky pairing in MarchFourth Marching Band and Turkuaz. Both bands are as much of a visual spectacle as they are a dance party. MarchFourth has to be the most unique “marching band” I’ve ever seen and never fail to trick me into enjoying the show more than I thought I would.

Turkuaz, well, they’re the ideal late night band and they proved that once again, pumping the room full of energy that I figured was gone by three in the morning at this late October fest. While I was initially skeptical, the festival’s ragers eventually assured me that no shenanigans were lost as they quickly snapped into mid-summer form by Friday night (i.e. impromptu, involuntary Twister games and rowdy pizza parties where nobody ate.)

Saturday, October 28:

Todd Snider, one of music’s most talented and unique storytellers, kicked off Saturday’s El Dorado Stage schedule and was a perfect early afternoon start to what became the most wild night of the festival.

Down at the Gallow, Railroad fiddle wizard Tim Carbone hosted a workshop with the talented Joe Craven, who actually (and hilariously) hosted the festival as MC. The workshop focused on, well, I guess that part was up to your discretion. A lot of it had to do with playing the fiddle, some of it focused on playing percussion, but the main theme of the workshop seemed to be spontaneity and performing in the moment.

A young child must’ve taken that to heart and pulled out his violin while in the crowd, which prompted both Carbone and Craven to ask if he could come on stage. The result was cute and inspiring in the fact that it really went nowhere, but that was the point of the whole workshop. Brilliant? In a way.

Multi-genre Americana Soul act, The Dustbowl Revival, performed next and are always enjoyable with their progressive take on traditional music. Another Turkuaz set followed and was actually more of a dance party than the first. It’s not often enough that I get to see them perform a day set and it almost seems as if they fit that late afternoon slot just as well as the late night ones.

Two sets of Greensky Bluegrass were next, fresh off of two shows earlier in the weekend three thousand miles away at Hulaween. Dressed as hippies, I guess? I’m not sure. Dobro player Anders Beck looked like Wavy Gravy and mandolinist Paul Hoffman’s costume fell somewhere in between the guy from Duck Dynasty and Fast Eddie. Maybe they were various members of Dead lot. Who knows?

Greensky’s first set focused mainly on newer material, with all but the last two songs coming from their last two albums. Never shy to trying out new tricks, they sandwiched “In Control” into the middle of “Leap Year.” Both great songs but this particular transition was a bit sloppy and maybe unnecessary. It was soon forgotten after the fan favorite “All Four” segued into the weekend appropriate “Bring Out Your Dead” to close the first set.

Set two brought upon a few surprises and overall, left me more satisfied than the first, which was no slouch in its own right. Taking off at “Tarpology,” a favorite of mine, and segueing into Pink Floyd’s “One Slip,” which brings us our metaphorical slip down the rabbit hole as it was nothing but psychadelic darkness from that point on.

They took the slip seriously, following the jam with “I’d Probably Kill You,” guitarist Dave Bruzza’s evil throwdown, “Kerosene,” and the aptly-named, “Demons.” More wordplay came within the setlist as the band then closed the set with “Burn Them” > “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone,” with the latter of which going down as the highlight of the set.

After a quick stop back at camp, we returned to the El Dorado Stage for the premier set of the festival, Saturday night Railroad. This is where things got weird. Uncomfortable, if you will. But in the most pleasant way.

Opening with the unexpected debut of Ernesto Lecuona’s 1928 Cuban composition “MalagueƱa,” and following up with “Drag Him Down,” it was clear that this was going to be a dark set, a Railroad specialty.

Dressed as spooky as the music in which they played, the show held a decided theme throughout its entirety and never let up. Beginning with “Adding My Voice,” the set took off into a realm of it’s own, leaving its imprint on me more so than any other show I’ve seen all year.

John Skehan busted out his Irish bouzouki for a segue into the intense instrumental “1759,” during which I first realized I was witnessing something special. “1759” then segued seamlessly into the most spaced out, and at one point even funky, version of “Goat” I’ve ever seen. Correct me if you can think of better examples, but this set possessed a level of exploration within the band’s music that I personally had not witnessed before the night.

Their creepy ode to the history of Placerville, “Hangtown Ball,” followed and eventually segued into “El Cumbanchero,” a delightfully sporadic Puerto Rican instrumental composed by Rafael Hernandez Marin that busted straight into the dark and aggressive “Walk Beside Me,” finally slowing back down with “Captain Nowhere.”

The calm didn’t last long, eventually taking off again with a wildly psychedelic “Spring-Heeled Jack” that appeared out of the jam following “Captain Nowhere.” The improv took this set over to the point where they weren’t even able to encore at their own festival, due to a curfew restriction they had mistakenly passed. Nobody was too upset about it since most of us just needed to sit down and regather ourselves after that performance.

When I got back to camp, that’s just what everyone was doing. We all communicated to each other with just our eyes at first, unable to find words but assured that we were all on the same page with what we had just experienced.

After an hour or two of recovery, we decided we were ready to head down to Hangin’ Hall for Leftover Salmon’s late night set. Another band who fits perfectly as either a late night or afternoon act, Salmon also got both slots at Hangtown. Their late night was a bit more of a zydeco and blues-themed set and featured several songs with Tim Carbone, who by this point had all but solidified himself as MVP of the festival.

Sunday, October 29:

More MarchFourth started off my day on Sunday and like usual, lured me way deeper into the show than I expected to be. Surprises such as their thunderously funky cover of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” to close this set are why this band is always worth checking out if you get the chance, especially at a festival.

Rising California jam act Brothers Gow played the Gallows Stage next and won over a plethora of new fans, even prompting MC Joe Craven to call it “the best use of thirty five minutes at the Gallow Stage all weekend.” Things were apparently a bit more complicated than it seemed, and Brothers Gow shedded half of their members just a week after the festival, choosing to continue on as a power trio.

Lukas Nelson & the Promise of Real followed and that man can shred. They were definitely the loudest band at the festival but their impressive chops allowed them to fit in just fine and led into a Salmon set that made for a fun, amped up afternoon, most of which featuring Nelson.

Nelson joined Salmon after two huge jams in “Breakin’ Thru” and “Aquatic Hitchhiker,” the latter of which spanned nearly twenty minutes and included all of the band members leaving the stage except for bass (Greg Garrison), keys (Erik Deutsch), and drums (Alwyn Robinson), with Andy Thorn eventually joining in on banjo followed by a group of woman bringing out a birthday cake with candles for him to blow out as Vince Herman reappeared and wished Thorn a happy birthday.

“Down By The River” was the first song to feature Nelson and boy, it was a scorcher. Hearing Thorn and Nelson play off of each other was a unique experience and a memory I won’t soon forget. Nelson stayed up for “Higher Ground” and “Alabama,” solidifying the Sunday afternoon Salmon set as one of the best sets of the weekend.

Railroad’s final set of the weekend came next and very quickly let you know they were taking things in a different direction than the night prior with an early set “Happy Song.” This dichotomy in their sound and songwriting is the main reason that I love the band so much. Not many bands can shake you to your bones one night and have you dancing around with a huge smile on your face the next.

The emotional “Grandfather Mountain” made an appearance out of “Farewell To Isinglass” and after an uplifting “Colorado” came my personal favorite segment of the set, “Where Songs Begin” > “Fisherman’s Blues.” “Head” eventually closed the set before a beautiful cover of Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” bid us farewell and closed the book on another wonderful weekend of shows from the festival’s host band.

For those who still had the energy to dance, there were two bands who sure as hell knew how to make you do that in Hangin’ Hall as Polyrhythmics and Scott Pemberton Band’s late night closed out the festival. I, unfortunately, was not one of those people and had to begin preparing for the long haul back to Portland. Once packed up and ready to roll, we made the obligatory California stop at In-N-Out, about a mile from the fairgrounds. That, unlike this pleasant mindwarp of a music festival, was quite average.

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