Review: Northwest String Summit 2010

The Summit kicked off Friday July 16 with a brief battle of the bands competition, followed by Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings. The Republic of Strings offered a cross generations approach to string and acoustic music. Lead by Anger on fiddle, the Republic was unified by Mike Block (cello, vocals), Scott Law (guitar, vocals) and Lauren Rioux (fiddle, viola, vocals). The quartet took a softer, celestial approach zoning in on traditional and classical folk string music. They were the perfect band to accompany the sunset on the first night of the Summit.

Block eventually mixed up the classical flow with his original composition entitled Like Mike. The piece was said to be inspired by Chicago basketball legend Michael Jordan, and his infamous Nike campaign from the ’90s. Anger perfectly encapsulated the piece as funny, weird, unusual and compositionally dark. One romantic high point of the set was the band’s rendition of the traditional Appalachian piece Piney Woods into Grigsby’s Hornpipe. The tunes featured lush layers of strings including Rioux on the five-string viola.

Following Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings came the wily boys of Great American Taxi. In accordance to the festival’s theme the electrified Americana ensemble went bare bones acoustic. The band’s change of face introduced several musical innovations including the banjotron and the banjass. Rigged up by drummer Chris Sheldon the banjotron took cymbals and a washboard, and fused them onto a banjo body. From there Sheldon kept the beat by whisking the banjo’s face with drum brushes, tapping the cymbals, scrapping the washboard neck and rattling shakers. The banjass was a fretless banjo-bass sported by bassist Brian Adams.

From the start the band jumped right into American roots with the twang-felt Standing All Alone. From there lead man Vince Herman encouraged all to “take off your socks and stay while!” only to dive headfirst into a series of boogies, stomps, Cajun and country ditties. The group’s set relied heavily upon material from the band’s latest release, Reckless Habits, which included a mix of heartfelt bluegrass jams, served with a side of swamp funk and honky tonk.  Great American Taxi ended their set on a high note with the wise western swing Get No Better.

YMSB closed off Friday evening with a full set of progressive newgrass jams and good times. They were joined onstage by their pals, and adopted band mates, Anger and Danny Barnes (banjo), both of whom appeared on all subsequent Yonder sets. Within three hours YMSB covered so much ground that it is hard to recollect every high point from the entire performance. What I will say is that there were a fair amount of older favorites including the traditional My Gal, which closed off the first set.

Ben Kaufmann (bass) set the rambunctious soul of My Gal loose with a series of explosive solos, including a mandolin throw down from Jeff Austin, who paved the way for Anger to free-form fiddle. Dave Johnston then took a moment to tinker on the banjo, only to pass the spotlight onto Adam Aijala on acoustic guitar. Before moving forward Kaufmann took a moment to applaud his kinfolk for their enduring solos. Following suit was a robust bluegrass breakdown matched with a showdown of vigorous picking.

YMSB returned for a second set that grew increasingly progressive as the show rolled on. The set began with Snow on the Pines and gradually built into an intense jam session that grew louder, longer and more intense with each pluck of a string. The musicians were so wrapped up in the music that their sounds began to transition to the equivalence of acoustic trance. They began to snap out of the trance and perk up again for the set closer Peace of Mind, only to get hypnotized by Anger’s fiddle.

Saturday night was charged with a change of pace for the String Summit. On the bill were two bands expected to electrify the acoustic themed festival. Up first was the highly anticipated Rhythm Devils, followed by a set from YMSB, topped off with a finale of moe.

Setting the evening’s tone were the legendary Rhythm Devils, featuring the premier drumming duo Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. Originating as the heartbeat for the Grateful Dead the Rhythm Devils set out to demonstrate the infinite possibilities of rhythm, expanding the peripheries of beats to a global, extraterrestrial level.

On the surface the Rhythm Devils may have appeared as an unfitting selection for the String Summit’s proclaimed acoustic theme. However Pastor Tim, the festival M.C., described rhythm as the ultimate acoustic instrument, for it marks the beat of lives. “You know this is the music of our lives, and you are full of rhythm,” Pastor Tim joyfully spoke. “Everything about you is rhythm including your heartbeat beating, breathing in and out, everything we are doing in this place.” And with that whole hearted introduction the audience made way for the irresistible powers of the Rhythm Devils.

Supporting the beats of Kreutzmann and Hart were Andy Hess (bass), Keller Williams (vocals, guitar), Davy Knowles (guitars, vocals) and Sikiru Adepaju (talking drum). Without breaking character the band brought forth the country stomp of a Grateful Dead original Cumberland Blues. The sheer joy and excitement emanating from the audience was unbelievable. From the stage the audience was one massive beaming smile as bodies shimmied and bounced about.

For starters Williams appropriately took lead vocals while Knowles left everyone open mouthed and shocked with his incendiary guitar craft. For the first third of the performance the Rhythm Devils established a buoyant country-folk rock tempo creating a carefree, jubilant musical sensation. The band cranked out Dead favorite after Dead favorite leaving fans to scream and cheer with satisfaction.

As the set rolled on I kept waiting for the band to change pace and build into a heavy jam; I anticipated a drumming showcase initiated by Hart and Kreutzmann’s characteristic drums into space, flowing with tribal undertones. Instead the band joyfully trucked through further selections from the Grateful Dead catalogue, highlighting everything from acoustic rock to Americana blues jams.

The Rhythm Devils strayed from the Dead repertoire on few occasions to unleash a couple of original compositions. The first, Next Dimension, stepped away from the Dead content taking a more global approach to free-flowing poly-rhythmic grooves. The song featured a strong, fluid bass line from Hess and left room for Adepaju’s talking drum to speak up. The other Rhythm Devil original, Comes Dawn, did not come through until the end of the set. The tune offered an energetic bounce full of complex music layers, packaged together with ample chromatic solos from each musician.

My personal favorite moment came midway through the set when the band unleashed a gorgeous version of Bird Song. Knowles demonstrated a technique on guitar that was simply mind bending. With complete grace and soul Knowles took a pick to his guitar and vertically bowed the strings, creating moody, reverberating sounds that resembled a viola. Each drag sent shivers down my back and broadened my smile.

At age 23 Knowles was a phenomenon onstage; he demonstrated his artistry by seamlessly switching between electric guitar, acoustic guitar, mandolin and pedal steel.  He even stepped up to the microphone, taking lead vocals on heavy hitting blues numbers that traditionally boast a strong, rock solid blues personae. His vocals turned powerhouse during the set closer, Not Fade Away.

Not Fade Away incorporated all ranges of blues rock including extended guitar improvisations and hard hitting drum boogies. The song casted an electrifying spell on fans leading the audience to steal and repeat the refrain “Not Fade Away”  in a frenzy of clapping and stomping. Eventually the band stopped playing and with appreciative grins let the audience run wild with the chant. The set came to an official ending with an encore of Ripple, which floated spirits upstream in preparation of YMSB’s set.

The Grateful Dead’s spirit hardly left the air by the time YMSB took stage. Austin remained in awe, absolutely glowing at the fact that the Rhythm Devils joined the ranks of the String Summit. Carrying the torch further Hart and Kreutzmann joined YMSB onstage for a Dead reprise including New Speedway Boogie and Franklin’s Tower.

Austin was utterly star struck in the company of Hart and Kreutzmann. He declared on more than one occasion that he achieved one of his life goals of playing music with members of the Grateful Dead.

The energy for set two practically exploded during Ramblin’ in the Rambler which was charged with harmonies, banjos and the taunts of Jagermeister shots. The band cut the tune mid-song to invite their pals the Infamous Stringdusters to the stage. The amount of string instruments playing at once was uncanny, especially since everyone was able to stick together. This impromptu super group covered John Hartford’s Up On the Hill Where They do the Boogie. Each musician built the tune up to explosive proportions, only to breakdown into a series of vigorous instrument organized solos. Mandolins duked it out first, followed by guitars, fiddles, all the banjos and so on. YMSB brought their set to an end with a reprise of Rambler picking up exactly where they left off.

Following a 14-hour day of music Buffalo, New York’s moe. brought Saturday night to a close. The performance marked the first time the jam-centric ensemble joined the ranks of the String Summit. Adding to the occasion the band was celebrating their 20th Anniversary; in honor of both occasions each member sported a black suit and was armed with an acoustic instrument.

Known for their loud, long extensive jams and Technicolor light shows, moe. enticed fans by starting off on an acoustic foot.

“As many of you folks know, moe. is typically a very electric band,” explained guitarist/vocalist Al Schnier. “But the guys of Yonder and the folks here asked us if we would do something special for you all and play some acoustic music for you tonight. And uh, we’ll do our best then we’ll get to some electric music.”

With that moe. started their set with a tame version of Time Again, complete with acoustic gusto and full moe. body. The acoustic portion of the set proved interesting and calm though it was off to a rocky start; the band experienced a variety of tuning issues due to the chilly evening temperatures that trumped the day’s heat. Tuning dilemmas aside moe. pushed forward becoming increasingly louder, less twangy and more progressive.

At the moment of transition Rob Derhak (bass, vocals) took lead on the softer ballad Faker. The band road Faker into Big World, and one by one Chuck Garvey (guitar, vocals), Derhak and Schnier traded their roadies acoustic guitars for electric ones. The transition resulted in a climatic jam full of electricity, followed by a slew of long-play tunes. As the music progressed the light show became ostentatious, projecting polka dots and spirals on the forest trees. Fans welcomed the dynamic charge by whirling to the instrumental breakdowns, flinging glow sticks in the air and kicking up dirt with impassioned dancing.

During the height of Zed Naught Z, Austin eased on stage unannounced, and joined the ranks of moe. fitted with his mandolin. Austin remained onstage for the subsequent Rise elevating the rock groove to a whole new level. The band closed Saturday night with the multi-dimensional Rebubula, full of rip-roaring guitars and an influx of dancing.

Sunday may have been a shortened day but it definitely stuck out in my mind thanks to one man, Danny Barnes. Pastor Tim, official String Summit M.C., introduced Barnes as the Sunday Reverend and the Mayor of the String Summit, which was saying a lot! Barnes took stage with one of his friends, Austin. Together the two presented a new song they penned Ragdoll. Ragdoll was one of those songs that can stop you in your tracks. Its endearing style and attitude cast a spell on me momentarily freezing my body and senses for it was just that good.

From there Barnes’ moved forward inviting his friends (aka YMSB) to the stage for each subsequent song. Eventually all the boys from YMSB as well as Anger were onstage backing Barnes as he called the shots. Those fortunate enough to catch the set witnessed the debut of Barnes’ custom made electric guitar/banjo hybrid. With the help of a pal Barnes was able to combine the minds and functions of an electric guitar with banjo pick ups. In the words of Austin, “The world will never be the same again.” With the help of his new toy Barnes was able to strike a hammerclaw and seamlessly transition from sweet and coy to badass with the flip of a switch.

The only minor letdown of Barnes’ set was that he performed his notable tune Caveman, a song that was previously performed Friday night in the company of YMSB. For the amount of songs Barnes has he could have mixed it up a bit; nonetheless the results were absolutely stunning.

The Ninth Annual NWSS came to an end with a final throw down from YMSB and company. The band gave the festival farewell there all throwing down every trick in the book. They covered folk ballads, threw down jug band ditties, honest bluegrass serenades and then some. The boys of YMSB pulled the weekend’s worth of music together by hosting an end of set all star jam featuring Barnes and Anger (naturally), members of Crooked Still, The Republic of Strings, and additional friends on harmonica and washboard.

Here’s a complete gallery of Allison’s NWSS photos including a number of stage setlists from the likes of Yonder and the Rhythm Devils…

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