15th Annual Northwest String Summit Brings Big Names and Rising Bluegrass Talent To Horning’s Hideout (FESTIVAL REVIEW/PHOTOS)

Last Thursday morning, cars began flowing into the idyllic Horning’s Hideout in North Plains, Oregon, filled with people anticipating four days of music from well-established touring acts, as well as young bands eager to earn their merit at this picker’s paradise.

Yonder Mountain String Band has been hosting this event for an impressive 15 years, its roots firmly planted in the hills and forests of the festival grounds. The event has grown slowly and steadily over the years, and the opening day has evolved from being a mellow start to get settled and maybe see one set of music, to a day of full-on festival immersion. The main stage hosted 4 sets of music, including Brothers Comatose, Shook Twins, Fruition, and two sets from Greensky Bluegrass. The iconic Furthur bus was parked in its spot at the top of the amphitheater, and was alive with “tweener” sets between the main stage acts. The Greensky performance set the bar pretty high for the rest of the weekend, as anticipation transformed into general excitement.

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Thursday even featured four late night sets that ruined the hopes of many fans who thought they would cuddle up for some good rest on night one. Down in the gully at the Cascadia Stage, Sideboob closed out the night and reminded people that String Summit offers more than bluegrass and its immediate relatives. A side project that started at last year’s Summit, Sideboob features the Shook Twins, Allie Kral of Yonder, Mimi Naja of Fruition, and Kat Fountain, who has recently been touring with John Craigie, playing bass and harmonica. The group performs 90’s era dance/pop standards, and the audience couldn’t help but sing along as they danced late into the night.

On a “normal” weekend, Horning’s Hideout operates as a fishing and camping retreat where you can play a round of Frisbee golf, ride on a paddle boat, do some fishing, host a party or wedding, or otherwise enjoy the outdoors. For String Summit, it is transformed into a music lover’s paradise with multiple stages, wooded camping, ample food vendors, sculptures, and chill spaces. Fishing and swimming is not allowed, but you can still ride the paddle boats in the lake that shimmers behind the main stage. The out-of-the-way setting means a true retreat from the confines of city life, with no cell phone reception to interrupt the flow of musical bliss. There are peacocks roaming the property, and osprey, along with the occasional bald eagle, fly over the stage as they hunt for fish in the pond.

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Cool weather over the weekend helped fans stay hydrated and energized. Early risers could start their day with yoga and music at the Cascadia Stage. A short hike from the main stage and vending area, the Cascadia Stage served as a sort of sanctuary where you could grab a bite to eat, get a cup of coffee, and enjoy music from up-and-coming artists. There was a new troubadour stage that gave singer/songwriters a place to express in a more laid-back environment. It was easy for people to get sucked in and enjoy an extended stay at this pleasant enclave in the trees. On Friday, Annalisa Tornfelt & Tornfelt Sisters soothed souls with their sweet harmonies in the morning before the tempo steadily increased with the likes of Horseshoes & Hand Grenades and Wood & Wire.

The Kinfolk Revival Tent, near the main vending area, served as another intimate setting, where unique collaborations took place throughout the weekend. Movies were shown early in the day, including a new production about String Summit itself, Return of The Peacock, before bands took over for the rest of the day.

The Revival Tent not only featured late night shows and full bands playing, there were also workshops and one-off band collaborations. For example, on Friday Danny Barnes hosted “Banjer Camp” where banjo players took turns playing songs. Not just any banjo players, but Dave Johnston from Yonder Mountain, Andy Thorn from Leftover Salmon, Mike Bont from Greensky Bluegrass, and Chris Pandolfi from The Infamous Stringdusters – quite a lineup for anyone who enjoys or has intentions to play the banjo. And that was just one of many workshops throughout the weekend.

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Numerous one-off collaborations took place in the Revival Tent, including a tribute to “Fallen Heroes,” hosted by Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth. A variety of special guests rotated in and out to play songs by musical heroes that have recently passed, including Merle Haggard and David Bowie. This was followed by “Grateful Twang,” which, with Vince Hermann of Leftover Salmon at the helm, celebrated the country roots of the Grateful Dead, with Arthur Lee Land and Scott Law proving more than capable of handling the electric guitar parts.

The lineup for this year’s String Summit was off the charts. Big touring acts such as Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, Keller Williams, Leftover Salmon, Steep Canyon Rangers, and The Infamous Stringdusters were bolstered with longtime collaborators and solo artists like Larry Keel, Pete Kartsounes, Scott Law and Jon Stickley. Then there was a group of bands that are quickly becoming headlining acts in their own right: Fruition, the Shook Twins, Cabinet, Della Mae, and Ben Sollee. Right on their heels are more great artists like Billy Strings, World’s Finest, The Lowest Pair, Wood & Wire – the list goes on and on.

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With so much talent running around in the woods, festival attendees were almost certain to always find themselves in the right place at the right time. If someone missed a set by a favorite artist on the main stage, it was likely because they were getting their mind blown by an artist they’d never seen before at one of the smaller stages. Maybe you missed Larry Keel’s acoustic supergroup The Even Keel Band, but only because you were witnessing Yak Attack destroy some Jimi Hendrix at the Cascadia Stage with Fruition’s Jay Cobb Anderson sitting in on guitar. If you left Keller Williams with More Than A Little’s late night set early, it was probably only to witness the Shook Twins offer up a set that affirmed their popular rise over the past couple of years. Or maybe you missed Grateful Gospel’s awesome “Eyes of The World” cover because you couldn’t tear your ears and eyes away from Billy String’s kinetic superpowers in the Revival Tent. You could have thrown darts at this year’s schedule to determine which bands you’d see, and you’d have had the time of your life.

And let’s not forget String Summit’s gracious hosts. At some point over the weekend, Yonder Mountain String Band performed their 50th show at the venue. That’s a lot of music ringing through the trees. A “Black Sheep” here, a “Traffic Jam” there, and even Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” that felt oh so right on a Sunday afternoon.

It would be shameful, however, not to mention Saturday night’s electric set in which the band covered Pink Floyd’s Animals in its entirety. With the addition of Jay Elliot on drums and Asher Fulero on keyboards, Yonder Mountain performed an album considered sacred in many circles, and proved that they have the musical knowledge and the instrumental prowess to not just cover Animals, but to do it with such power and precision and emotional integrity that even the most skeptical were surely brought to their knees. For that, and everything else they have done to make String Summit a success, hats off to Dave Johnston, Ben Kaufmann, Adam Aijala, Allie Kral, and Jacob Jacob Jolliff, as well as all the crew and support staff that made the weekend come together.

And hats off to String Summit M.C. Pastor Tim. On Sunday, Ben Kauffman said that Pastor Tim is the only person who can do what he does. Indeed, he has such a genuine love for the music, as well as the people who play it and the fans who listen, that he exudes the very aura of String Summit. His band introductions are personable and unique to each band, and it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to fill his shoes, or offer up a better t-shirt selection.

On Sunday, as many attendees gathered up their things to make their way out of the Hideout and back to civilization, the rest gathered up the last of their energy to make one more trek to the top of the hill to cheer on the Lil’ Smokies and Fruition as they closed out the festival. Dances and hugs were shared, and a lot of “See ya next year” shouts were called, when the Kinfolk come back home to Horning’s once again.

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