Sawtooth Valley Gathering 7.25 -7.28.19

Sawtooth Valley Pioneer Park
Stanley, ID

Words by Mitch Melheim
Photos by Ryan Fitzgerald (Jarred Media)

Once again, I packed my bags and excitedly made my way east toward Idaho’s stunning Sawtooth National Forest. After visiting the festival in 2017, I made it a point to allot a few extra days should I ever make it back, due the overwhelming beauty of the area. Majestic mountain peaks surround a seemingly endless supply of serene rivers and lakes, and the area seems virtually untouched, which is a far cry from those I’m used to around Portland.

We spent the first two nights of our trip in the Painted Hills and at Kirkham Hot Springs, with the latter being the most magical hot spring I’ve ever seen. After waking up in the morning and taking one more dip in the hot spring, we made the 50-minute journey to Stanley, Idaho for another edition of the Sawtooth Valley Gathering.

The festival quietly expanded from two days to four this year, much to the delight of the seemingly unexpecting ticket holders. There was little to no initial promotion of the two added days until most had already purchased their passes. This is admirable, but not entirely surprising if you’ve ever been to the festival and seen how much everybody involved cares about you and your experience as a festival goer. Whether that be the community, which welcomes us all with open arms and allows us to completely take over their town of 68 people, or the festival producers who you can regularly see roaming around, enjoying the music, and making sure everyone is having a great time.

Thursday, July 25:

The newly added day zero, Thursday’s “pre-party,” occurred down at the Mountain Village Resort, a bar-turned-dance hall that’s just a short walk down the hill from the festival grounds. Idaho native and outlaw country singer-songwriter, Andrew Shepherd, played the 10:00 PM set before another Idaho act, Jupiter Holiday, took the stage and laid down a heavy dose of jammy prog rock late into the night.

Friday, July 26:

One of my favorite things about the Sawtooth Valley Gathering is their always amazing lineup of artists-at-large that seem to pop up everywhere, all weekend long. This year was no different as the festival released what was essentially an entire lineup of artists-at-large for each of the festival’s two main days. Friday featured an impressive cast of musicians, including Silas Herman, Arthur Lee Land, Sean McLean, Sydney Nash, Alex Smith, Aniana, Cassandra Lewis, and more.

The first set to really catch my eye on Friday was Brad Parsons & Starbird. Somewhat of a supergroup that’s turned into a full-fledged touring band, Starbird is comprised of members of Tom Hamilton’s American Babies and Cabinet, while Brad Parsons has made a name for himself both out west and down south as one of the top up-and-coming songwriters in the scene. This project lets Brad & company really unleash and is 100% rock & roll. Prepare to have your face melted if you come across these guys anytime soon. While this set explored an alternate version of the band, with Portland musicians Lewi Longmire and Sydney Nash tagging in, nothing was lost as Parsons has played countless gigs with the two of them and their chemistry shone through on stage.

A couple of energetic, semi-grassy acts followed in Johnathan Warren & the Billy Goats and Pixie & the Partygrass Boys before one more Jupiter Holiday set steered the rest of the night in a decidedly electric direction. Gene Evaro Jr. played the sunset and led us into our first night-time set with returning Sawtooth favorites and Portland livetronica act, Yak Attack.

As usual, Yak was joined by their laser extraordinaire, Brett McConnell, a sure fire party starter as if the band’s intergalactic get down wasn’t enough. The set featured a nice spread of fan favorites and guests including “Club Hit”, “I’m Singin’ Everything” with Aniana on vocals, and the highlight of the set, “Pump & Dump” with Sean McLean on saxophone and Sydney Nash on flute. The flute sit-in is something the Yak Pak, as Yak fans are affectionately labeled, have been waiting for since the studio version of “Pump” was released in 2017.

Renowned California jam act, ALO closed out the main stage for the night with a star studded set that featured sit ins from Tim Carbone and Mike Robinson of Railroad Earth, Sean McLean, John Craigie, and Lewi Longmire. Highlights of the set included the near thirty minute segment of “The Gardener” > “Bloomin’,” a cover of Tom Petty’s “Last Dance With Mary Jane,” and a set closing run of “The Ticket” > “BBQ.”

Saturday, July 27:

We decided to start our day with a ten-minute walk down the hill to take a dip in the river and enjoy the hot springs. Yes, you read that correctly. There is a hot spring and swimmable river just about a half mile from the festival’s main stage. One of the many reasons why this has become perhaps the most enjoyable and relaxing festival I attend.

Saturday at Sawtooth featured a similarly impressive roster of at-large artists, this time including the Dead Winter Carpenters’ fiery fiddler Jenni Charles. The day’s line up also took a decidedly more bluegrass/folk approach, which was more than welcomed in the festival’s beautiful setting. There’s something about acoustic instruments and mountain views that are just a match made in heaven.

Bustling jamgrass act Cascade Crescendo, another Portland band, played one of the more well-received sets of the daytime. It has been a pleasure to watch this band grow into a legitimate force in the progressive bluegrass scene, with the band playing some of my favorite sets at both Sawtooth and Blue Ox this summer.

They also played a much-needed, energizing, and heartwarming Jeff Austin tribute set in Portland just a few days after his passing. Jeff, of course, was heavy on everybody’s minds at Sawtooth and there were several tributes throughout the weekend. He was originally slated to play the festival and the program featured a beautiful tribute to Jeff on the back page. His absence left many wondering how his slot may be filled and we eventually learned that Railroad Earth, being the class acts they are, would be playing a full two-set show instead of their initially announced festival set.

Jenny Jahlee and John Craigie carried us through an afternoon of folkier stylings that eventually led to Daniel Rodriguez, one of the more beautiful songwriters I can think of. Formerly of Elephant Revival, you may know Rodriguez from his tunes “Birds & Stars” and “Sing to the Mountain.”

Lake Tahoe bluegrass rockers, Dead Winter Carpenters, played the final side stage set of the weekend. This is a band who I never used to expect much out of and they blew me away every time. By now, I know what to expect with Dead Winter and, low and behold, they brought it once again. Jenni Charles is a mad scientist on the fiddle and Tim Carbone sitting in with them only helped anchor that theory. The two traded licks back and forth for what ended up being a 30+ minute guest slot and got the crowd primed up for the weekend’s headliner, Railroad Earth.

Railroad began playing just as the sun was beginning to set and proceeded to lay down 60 minutes of pure bliss for set one. The first song of the weekend to bring a tear to my eye was “The Forecast.” Always a beautiful song, this particular version had me turning in circles, staring at the breathtaking landscape and listening to perhaps my favorite band on earth in one of those moments where you realize how great life can be. These moments seem to come few and far between at times and it made me extremely grateful for this festival and the music I was experiencing.

More highlights from set one continued to arise, including an outstanding version of “Potter’s Field” > “Mourning Flies,” which fittingly featured hundreds of flies attacking the stage, one of which was even swallowed by the band’s primary songwriter and guitarist, Todd Sheaffer. New multi-instrumentalist Mike Robinson then led the band on a cover of Jeff Austin’s “Even Fade” and the set eventually ended with an exploratory “Grandfather Mountain.”

By set two, the sun was completely down and it was time to let loose. All in all, the set lasted over 90 minutes and included extended jams in “Adding My Voice” > “Seven Story Mountain,” “Where Songs Begin,” and the set ending segment of “Elko” > “Like A Buddha,” with ALO’s Dan Lebowitz sitting in on guitar for both and Jenni Charles on fiddle for “Buddha.” Lebowitz has guested with the band so often over the years that he feels like an extension of the band at this point and knows exactly where he fits into each and every song.

After Railroad, we walked down the hill and across the street to the Mountain Village Saloon for the late night set. This time around it was a Brad Parsons-led superjam that was a bit rowdier than I was at the time, as I chose to sit down at the bar and demolish their late night food menu.

Sunday, July 28:

The second and final of Sawtooth’s “bonus days” this year occurred at the saloon all day Sunday. The day started off with the “Sawtooth Family Jam” featuring many of the artists that were at the festival. A Todd Sheaffer solo set followed and, as usual, there was not a dry eye in the house. Sheaffer’s White Eagle solo sets have become legendary in Portland and I was beyond ecstatic to find out this set had been added to the weekend’s festivities.

Touching on many Railroad favorites as well as a few choice covers, Sheaffer eventually opened up his set to the crowd for some requests, but not until after he had debuted his newly written song from his other band, From Good Homes, titled “Tallahassee Trouble.” From Good Homes was Sheaffer’s initial songwriting outlet and many of their songs are still featured heavily in the Railroad repertoire.

Arthur Lee Land’s “Twang is Dead” set proved to be the most surprising set of the weekend as Lee Land worked his way through a bevy of uniquely interpreted Grateful Dead covers with a talented cast of musicians that included Silas Herman and Lewi Longmire. Portland’s Lost Ox then closed out the weekend with their especially progressive brand of outlaw funk. Led by Dylan DiSalvio’s soaring guitar solos and rapid-fire lyricism, Lost Ox is a band who is quickly gaining a following throughout the Pacific Northwest and should be on the radar of music fans far and wide.

Once the music was over, we decided to ditch out and take advantage of one last night in this beautiful area of the country. We headed back to Kirkham Hot Springs for the night because it was that amazing and we just had to experience it one more time. It’s also less than an hour away from the festival, so why not? After a quick soak, we set up camp and immediately passed out before waking up in the morning and hitting yet another hot spring. When in Idaho… ya know? Well now you do.


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