Festival Heartstrings

All Directions Lead to Northwest String Summit 2016

 All Photography by Barry Sloan
Written by Samantha Holle

It’s five o’clock on what would normally be a warmish summer day in Oregon. I say warmish because the sun is struggling to shine through the canopy of trees that envelope Horning’s Hideout, a private park nestled in the woods of North Plains. It’s cold because we’re hidden from the sun, but the atmosphere is warm and welcoming because we’re also hidden from much more than that.  

Through the winding woods leading to Horning’s Hideout, one can feel really distant from the hustle and bustle of Portland — in fact, it’s hard to imagine that we’re even near civilization. “Hideout” is the perfect name for this cove in the woods; it’s a place to which we can escape. People have moved in and aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Tapestries drape from tree to tree around some tents, others have grills and chairs set up at their tents’ entrances. There’s not only room for camping; there’s room for dancing, for meeting people and to meet your new favorite band.

Everyone smiles at one another and wishes one another a good night, a good festival, a good show. There are good beers, there are good vendors, there are good opportunities to hear good music — all around, there are genuinely good vibes.

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Fruition, Northwest String Summit 2016

It’s the first day of the Northwest String Summit, and unlike me, most of these people are here for the long haul. I, unfortunately, am only here for a day, but that won’t be the end of the music. We are traveling through Oregon and Washington for eleven days to experience the Pacific Northwest and all of the beauty it has to offer. Tomorrow, we move on to the Gorge for two nights of Phish. We’re both excited about this music leg of the trip, especially since we’ll get such a wide variety of musical styles and festival atmospheres in just a few days. But are the styles of Phish and some of the bands that played at this year’s NWSS really all that different? Not really. Do their fanbases have more in common than just a love of tie-dye and wearing sensible (if any) shoes? Absolutely.

“Quit your job and sell your car to that fool you live with,” sings John Craigie, who is playing with his band atop the brightly, trippily-painted Further bus. The bus, a 1990 reproduction of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters’ ride during the 1960s, is watched over by Zane Kesey, son of the author. Kesey also runs a stand beside the bus that sells blotter prints and Day-Glo-splattered trenchcoats, and he dances and chats with the audience watching Craigie. The bus is straight up the hill from the Main Stage, a spacious opening in the trees that provides plenty of lawn space for concert-goers to relax, dance, and hula-hoop.

Northwest String Summit 2016

Northwest String Summit 2016

Looking around, it’s easy to see that everyone listening to Craigie would drop everything and hit the road with him like he’s suggesting in his song. The audience is completely captivated with the harmonies and the quick-pickin’ of the string players. The song ends but the energy doesn’t stop; the crowd cheers and begs for more. Before diving into his next song, Craigie tells the story of how he played the Main Stage of NWSS last year and was invited back this year — the cheers swell; they are happy to have him back. Amidst the applause, the band dives into a bluegrassy cover of Blind Melon’s “No Rain.”

It’s getting closer to the end of his set and Craigie wants to play just one more song. He’s going to try to get it in before he’s told to stop, and he just makes it before Fruition begins at exactly 6:30 on the Main Stage. Fruition kicks off a high energy show with their smooth, sometimes jazzy “Above the Line,” complete with mandolin player Mimi Naja’s string-plucking battles with the other string players in the band. The crowd bounces along, adding harmonies and air drums.JohnCraigie_1nwss

Festivals like Northwest String Summit are not only a wonderful place to take in the beautiful tunes. There’s time to shop, time to eat, and time to drink. Ninkasi Brewing Company beer was the only beer sold at NWSS; aside from their selection of pale ales and IPAs, they even sold reusable Klean Kanteen cups for future trips to the libation station. Being green is a big deal at NWSS. There are numerous places for both recycling and garbage. It’s definitely not a messy venue.

The Leave No Trace campsite challenge, a competition to find the greenest and most earth-friendly campsite, furthers the idea that Horning’s Hideout remain not only a beautiful campsite for the fans this weekend but for future visitors, too.

There’s good food, too. Bunk Sandwiches, a popular sandwich shop local to Portland, has a truck; there’s a Hawaiian stand serving up pork and sticky rice; the smell of chicken kebabs blows out of the Middle-Eastern/Mediterranean stand; the New York pizza slice is the size of your head. It’s almost like picking a favorite child. It all just looks so good, you can’t not want a little of everything.

Greensky Bluegrass takes the stage at exactly 8PM to begin their two-part, two-hour long set, and while their lighting and sound are incredible, they are a modest group: the five artists are in a line across the stage and hardly even bob along to the beat. They are focused on one another’s sound to ensure that they are all together in their fast plucks and melodies. They are devoted to giving a great show, and they are succeeding. A man dances in front me in a tank top and ripped jeans that are being held up with black suspenders. He doesn’t hold back at all — it is as if he is dancing for everyone. A woman comes down from above me to watch him, calling him “a beautiful fucking unicorn,” and joins him in a dancing fury. People with small children wheel by in homemade gypsy-esque carriages decked out in tapestries, lights, and headphones for the smallest fans. There is a woman hula-hooping who, unlike this writer, can make it look effortless. I tell her she’s wonderful, and she insists that I am the wonderful one. When I tell her I meant her hula-hooping, she clarifies that she just thinks I’m wonderful all around.

When GSBG ended at 11, the Jon Stickley Trio wasted no time getting started atop the Further bus. They played a very short set — only thirty minutes — but when they were finished my husband and I turned to one another and simply said “Whoa.” They played so fast, we were not only amazed that they were able to keep up with one another so smoothly, but that their joy of playing was infecting the crowd gathered below.

Greensky Bluegrass, Northwest String Summit 2016

Greensky Bluegrass, Northwest String Summit 2016

We caught pieces of Cabinet and the Infamous Stringdusters who played on the Cascadia Stage and Kinfolk Revival tent. The two stages were the farthest from one another and also the most dramatically different: the Kinfolk Revival tent was literally just a tent at the end of the row of vendors, capable of covering a large group and allowing those latecomers stuck outside to still hear perfectly well and the Cascadia Stage was tucked at the bottom of a winding path and lit with twinkling orb light strings. We wanted to catch a little of both, but there was also a ten to fifteen minute walk between the two. It was getting late, too, and we wanted to make sure we had enough energy for Sideboob, who were playing a 1 AM set back on the Cascadia Stage. We made it there just as they were supposed to go on (I mean, this had been a day of all acts starting right on time), but they didn’t hit the stage until 1:20. Out walked a supergroup made up of Mimi Naja (vocalist and mandolin player of Fruition), Allie Kral (fiddle player of Yonder Mountain String Band as of 2015), The Shook Twins (who played the first and third nights of the festival) and special appearances by Kellen Asebroek and Tyler Thompson of Fruition, Greg Burns, Brad Parsons of the eponymous Brad Parsons and Buds, and Paul Hoffman of Greensky Bluegrass.

So how does a festival like NWSS compare to Phish? Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with the fans. The next day at the Gorge, we befriended our neighbors, strolled Shakedown Street (Phish phans’ own vendor and shopping row in the parking lot), made a beer deal with a stranger (the Centennial IPA was $5 a can or $12 for three, so we settled on three with our new friend), pet some dogs, and talked to excited parents and their equally-as-excited children. We napped, we admired the cleanliness of the porto-potties (Honey Buckets out west, the cutest name for a toilet I’ve ever heard) and we worked with our neighbors to create shade with the rainflies of our tents. And during the show? We traveled about the venue, listening to the tunes from the natural terraces carved into the gorge, from the floor in front of the stage, from the vendors. Everywhere we went, people were happy to dance with you, move over for you, share their great view with you. Like at NWSS, they wished you a good show, a good run, a good set. Good vibes abounded here as well.

It has nothing to do with the atmosphere of the experience. At Phish we camped out right next to our car in the midst of a shadeless plain as opposed to deep in the woods at the Hideout. And while we were very exposed to the sun during the day, we were exposed to one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen: a full, open panoramic view of the beginnings of the Cascades and the winding Columbia River.

It has nothing to do with the music, either. While Phish may be best known to the uninitiated as a jam band, they are capable of quite a lot more. Aside from their own winding, sometimes psychedelic jams like “Harry Hood” or “You Enjoy Myself,” they can also lay down a funky rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” a bluegrass original like “The Old Home Place,” and even an occasional reverse-sucking Electrolux vacuum solo courtesy of drummer Jon Fishman. There are echoes of a variety of types of music, many of which we heard and rocked out to at NWSS. 

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So what is it that sets NWSS apart from a show like Phish? The fanbase is similar in construction, the atmosphere is equally as positive and friendly, they choose venues that will make you stop and stare, and the music is a unifier and a connector. It all comes down to the way the venue handles the audience and the climate that rolls in with each productions’ winds. Phish, being a big-name band, has the luxury that some artists that play at NWSS don’t (or, at least, don’t yet): they can play large venues to accommodate the troves of fans. But with a large venue comes a large price to pay for good customer service. LiveNation is currently managing the Gorge, but I’m not sure “managing” is really the word I want to use. There was traffic on a bridge on the way to the venue that had us (and many other Phish phans who use Waze) to be stuck in an hour and a half of traffic while we merged into one lane. There was no sign prior to the traffic jam. There was no notification on the road. While the construction was clearly not planned by LiveNation, there are many ways they could’ve given their customers a heads-up about the situation. Considering that an email address must be provided upon purchasing tickets, the heads-up could’ve come in the form of an email to concertgoers. Tweet it. Post it to Facebook. In an age of social media and smartphones, this kind of inaction is infuriating. But it didn’t end there. Once we got away from the construction, the traffic continued. It was 7:45 and we were still in traffic. Phish hadn’t gone on yet, but we weren’t getting any closer to being there. We sat in another hour and a half of traffic just to get into the parking lot. While we were frustrated about this wait, we also assumed that LiveNation was doing a thorough job of checking cars and making sure that items that are banned from the camping grounds were not snuck in. Imagine the surprise we felt when we finally got in (almost a third of the way through the band’s set, who had finally taken the stage after a half hour delay) and discovered that not a single car was being checked. They were just taking an extremely long time to line people up!

NWSS was smoothly run and very well-organized, unlike LiveNation’s production of Phish at the Gorge. NWSS is worked by volunteers, who, according to NWSS’ website, “receive free entry into the festival, a festival volunteer shirt and deep gratitude and an opportunity to be part of an enthusiastic and fun-filled team” (http://stringsummit.com/volunteers/). And they were! People were happy to direct you to campsites, vendors or stages. They asked who you were excited to see. Sparkles, the guy who helped us park, seemed disappointed that we had to leave the next morning. The people working at Phish were not enthusiastic. They didn’t seem to be having fun. The two (yes, only two) college-aged boys organizing the parking situation did so as slowly as possible while the concert was going on. When we arrived at NWSS, we received our press passes quickly and at least seven people guided us to the general parking area. Even with the thorough car search that we experienced on our way into NWSS, we were still parked and ready for the festival in a shorter time span than the two kids parking us at Phish could have achieved. LiveNation had the foresight to put out blue recycling cans next to each black garbage can; however, we watched their employees empty the garbage into the recycling bin while they cleaned up. The effort to remain green was merely a facade at the Gorge. And the beer? Let’s just say I was happy to spend what I did on three Ninkasi beers at NWSS instead of spending the same for fewer Bud Lights. 

NWSS has everything a festival should have. It is in a beautiful location. There are a wide variety of musicians and acts that can appeal to the most virginal festival goer. There are local food and artist vendors selling their wares, it is clean and well-maintained and encourages clean camping, and it is well-run. If I find myself in the Pacific Northwest again in the summer, I know where I’ll be.

NORTHWEST STRING SUMMIT 2016 (by Barry Sloan)

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