In the west coast for a little more than a decade, there have been certain musical performers who have dramatically influenced the local music scene. At this year’s String Summit deep in the lush green forest of Horning’s Hideout, many of those musical icons came together to jam and celebrate in style….With Yonder Mountain String Band, members of the String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon, and Keller Williams all in tow, this year’s lineup on paper was a powerhouse, and represented the last decade’s soundtrack to the jam scene. Yet the actuality of the event blew away any preconceptions of the potential energy of this lineup, due to the kinetic power that resonated in a single word…epic.
By no means was this lineup limited to these four acts, in fact it was laden with talent. The collective lack of ego helped blur lines from one band to the next creating a homogenous stew of strummed notes. These jams were so freely mixed that keeping it all in order required some mastery over computing an excel spreadsheet. What makes this festival special is that these jams were not solely limited to the stage, as one could wander through the campgrounds and find a musician that was just playing on stage in front of thousands, jamming on a camping chair in front of a few lucky folks.
For the last seven years the String Summit has been Yonder Mountain String Band’s personal oasis in the gorgeous peacock filled forest of Oregon’s Horning’s Hideout. In the years past they brought along talented acts that served to somewhat compliment their style, but those Strummits were clearly Yonder-centric. This year Yonder stacked the deck with some major talent who are musical peers on the national landscape, that included; Keller Williams and the W.M.D.’S, Emmit Nershi Band, songwriter extraordinaire Danny Barnes (who acted as the musical M.C. for the weekend), guitar guru Bill Frisell, Great American Taxi, which featured Leftover Salmon front man Vince Herman, up and coming jamgrass stars Greensky Bluegrass, the “Portland house band” Strings for Industry, and the ever talented duo of Bryn Davies and Sharon Gilchrist.
Friday kicked things off with the annual band competition, which pitted some major up and coming talent. I never quite grasped the judging procedure, but Jessica Kilroy (with her hauntingly beautiful voice) and the Herl Brothers came out on top, and reaped the rewards of victory by securing a second slot on Sunday morning, and as well as at next year’s Strummit.
The competition was followed by the unofficial Portland house band Strings for Industry that featured the electrifying guitarist Scott Law, Darol Anger (the unofficial 5th member of Y.M.S.B.), and the rock solid rhythm section of Tye North and Carlton Jackson. Their set rocked hard, and showed that the String Summit was not strictly limited to bluegrass, as they even dropped some James Brown funk on us all.
Keller William’s solo performance was on next, but he wasn’t solo for long. One by one he brought each member of Yonder up for a variety of duets that focused on some interesting covers. Ben Kaufman was invited for a run through Billy Joel’s "You May be Right," Jeff Austin for the Grateful Dead’s "Candyman, " Adam Alaja with Neil Young’s "Comes a Time," and Green Day’s "Basketcase" with Dave Johnston.
Yonder headlined the evening, and conjured up a giant dance induced dust storm for two sets. Yonder featured Darol Anger on fiddle all weekend, and Danny Barnes on Banjo for a majority of the Yonder tunes. To end the first night they brought the energy to a rousing peak with a powerful run of "Cookoo’s Nest>On the Run>Crow Black Chicken>On the Run." They finished the evening off with the fan favorite "Holdin’. "
Saturday morning seemed to come all too soon, with the early sets of Pete Kartsounes band and last year’s band competition winner Head for the Hills. Thanks to Peacock radio and the cool morning temperature we were able to sleep in and not miss a note as we recovered from the previous night’s dancing and frolicking.
Bryn Davies and Sharon Gilchrest followed these acts with a beautiful set of breezy and floaty tunes that highlighted their musicianship and harmonic skills. Greensky Bluegrass then followed, and these guys can really jam. They brought the energy level up for the afternoon, and toward the end of their set a giant dragon puppet made its way into the venue, and added some eye candy to the ambiance. Over the weekend Greensky definitely paid and played their dues, as they could be found entertaining the masses on stage or in multiple campsites and barbeques alike.
Vince Herman’s Great American Taxi followed, and gave the crowd a taste of some pure Americana rock, with his straightforward gritty singing, songwriting and stage presence. Things really took off with the Emmit Nershi Band, which became a powerhouse of a clusterpluck. Bringing along an all star cast of Scott Law, Keith Mosley, Jeff Sipe, Anders Beck and Danny Barnes, this combo really stood out as one of the strongest random tandems of the weekend. Adding choice versions of a few String Cheese staples, such as "Jellyfish," "Black Clouds" and the apropos "Lonesome Fiddle Blues," sent the dust a-flyin’ and brought out some huge smiles in the crowd.
Yonder was not headlining this night, but their set sure contained some incredible moments, including a run through "New Horizons>Wind’s on Fire>New Horizons. " Keller Williams and Jeff Sipe jammed along during this musical medley and Keller sang the second verse of "New Horizons." They also played the fan favorite Two Hits, and threw a little taste of Phish with a quick verse of "Weekapaug Groove" for good measure. Jeff Austin also gave some prophetic foreshadowing for the historic Salmon party about to ensue, by declaring his love for tasty northwest salmon within the lyrics.
The most magical moment of the evening, and possibly the weekend, occurred a little later in the set, as Yonder invited the original members of Leftover Salmon to jam with them during a rousing "Raleigh and Spencer." One by one the YMSB left the stage to just the Salmon boys, who then performed an unannounced set of "Fixin to Die," "Carnival Time," "Reuben’s Train," "Euphoria" and "Up on a Hill." This was the first time in eight years that the original members of Leftover Salmon; Vince Herman, Drew Emmit, Tye North, Jeff Sipe played together on stage, and they dubbed themselves the Leftover Livers. Danny Barnes sat in place of the late Mark Vann, and rumor has it he played Mark’s banjo, but that is unsubstantiated. As multiple musicians noted on Sunday, Mark’s spirit was honored and was present during this incredibly special moment, and Mark Vann would have been proud.
Keller Williams and the W.M.D.’s headlined the evening, and kicked some serious musical butt. Their set featured some classic Keller tunes such as "Freaker by the Speaker," "Breathe," and a show closing "Best Feeling>Celebrate Your Youth" sandwich. The set also featured some choice covers, including a jamming "Dancing in the Streets."
Sunday morning arrived in a similar manner as Saturday, and again I must thank Peacock Radio for broadcasting the music from the stage to our campground. Otherwise I would have missed the beautiful set of music performed by Jessica Kilroy and the Herl Brothers as well as Benny Galloway’s Hickster set. After shaking the cobwebs loose I made it into the venue for the Bill Frisell and Danny Barnes set, and I was quite happy that I did. This was just plain old beautiful music emanating from these two maestros. It was jazz-grass at its finest, and it felt like I was getting an audio massage to my eardrums.
Every year the String Summit Super jam seems to be the most anticipated set of the weekend, and this year was no exception. Danny Barnes was the director of this musical chaos, and he made sure all the musicians had a chance to jam. Everyone and their mother played this set (I may mean that literally, I need to double-check that excel sheet to make sure) and the total musician count at the end was probably in the thirties. At one point I looked at the musicians in waiting and noticed Bill Nershi, Scott Law, and Adam Alaja on deck and thought if this is the band that is waiting for their turn to jam, then we are quite the lucky bunch of festival goers.
Yonder closed things out beautifully, as they tend to do on a Sunday at the Strummit. Even though we were collectively tired they didn’t hold back the energy though, as they opened with a quick paced "Fastball" into a little taste of the "Sherriff Saga" with a rousing "Looking Back over My Shoulder." The energy didn’t subside as the first set also contained the "Boatman" that always seems to stretch our dancing limits. The second set continued with a powerful run of music that featured a "Funtime>Ebenezer>Funtime" medley that was hot and jumpin’. This set also contained a monster "Traffic Jam" that almost brought the stage down, as everyone they could find with an instrument on hand joined them for one last larger-than-life jam. They encored with "Hill Country Girl," "Tear Down The Ole Grand Opry," and "Down The River Road" to conclude quite the amazing weekend in style.
This String Summit surpassed all expectations, and my only concern is how the brains behind the operation are going to match the epic nature of this festival next year. I guess I will just have to hold the faith, and make sure that I am there, because this clearly is not a festival to be missed for any reason.