Bluegrass festivals and summertime go together like coffee and pie. There’s just something magical about setting up camp, cracking a cold one, and watching acoustically picked instruments in the sunshine or under the stars. One of the best places to soak up this experience is at Northwest String Summit in North Plains, OR. Held at the bucolic Horning’s Hideout, this year’s edition of NWSS takes place July 13-16.
The always intimate festival features a jam-packed bluegrass lineup that includes three nights of Yonder Mountain String Band (the festival hosts), Greensky Bluegrass, the Del McCoury Band, Elephant Revival, the Shook Twins, Split Lip Rayfield, Fruition and tons more. Of course, NWSS isn’t all bluegrass and folk music. Americana and rock acts like Blitzen Trapper, Dead Man Winter, Todd Snider and JJ Grey & Mofro will also be gracing the stages. To help you navigate the massive lineup, Neil Ferguson and Greg Homolka highlight 10 acts you don’t want to miss!
Who says NWSS has to be all bluegrass? Hailing from Portland, Blitzen Trapper are amongst the hometown heroes playing the fest. They also happen to be one of the hardest rocking acts on the lineup. There’s nothing wrong with taking a break from banjos and mandolins, even at a festival called String Summit, and Blitzen Trapper will provide that with their cosmic blend of indie rock and roll and psychedelic Americana that often carries a distinctly 70s vibe. They also recently wrapped their theatrical rock opera Wild and Restless at the Portland Armory, so you can bet they’ll be ready for a real concert audience. Plus who knows, maybe they’ll cover a Grateful Dead song to satiate all the hippies.
Once a little bluegrass outfit from Michigan, Greensky has risen to become the leaders of the jam-grass scene. What sets Greensky apart from many of their peers – at least in this writer’s opinion – is the way they so perfectly strike a balance between an engaging and energetic live show with songwriting and singing that is actually good. Too often we get bluegrass and jam bands that write songs devoid of substance, but Greensky has always succeeded in telling dark lyrical stories that bring to mind acts Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo and Bruce Springsteen. They also know how to have fun with covers, effortlessly taking on tunes by the likes of Phish, Prince and more.
Dead Man Winter
It’s best to think of this Minnesota outfit as the alt-country alter ego of Trampled By Turtles. Specifically, Dead Man Winter is the project of the TBT’s Dave Simonett, who will also be an artist at large. Compared to the melodic bluegrass and folk stylings of his main band, Dead Man Winter finds Simonett tapping into more of an electric vein. Recently Simonett dropped the first new Dead Man Winter album in years, Furnace, which takes things in a more melodic, poppy direction. You can bet that his set at NWSS will rock songs off that album and older material, as well as a few TBT tunes if we’re lucky.
Split Lip Rayfield
These Kansas pickers have just dropped their first new album in almost ten years. On My Way finds Split Lip Rayfield in fine form as they balance unbelievably fast playing, catchy melodies, and classic harmonies…with a touch of punk and metal of course. It’s been too damn long since Split Lip has been playing regularly, and this show should serve as a proper welcome back to the Pacific Northwest. They only play Thursday night unfortunately, so if you want to catch their set you better get there early.
These cats have come a long way in the relatively short time they’ve been together as a band. The Portland bluegrass outfit has been together for just over three years and already they have gained a loyal following with their tightly crafted bluegrass that embraces tradition alongside more progressive, jam-oriented styles. This makes sense since the four members of Cascade Crescendo grew up in a music festival environment where bluegrass acts are often booked alongside jam bands, funk, and Americana acts. These guys happily inject a little bit of all that stuff into their sound. They may not be a headliner at NWSS, but you don’t want to miss their set.
Danny Barnes/Test Apes
Danny Barnes is a String Summit stalwart; getting involved in workshops, bringing together bands, and lending his instantly recognizable banjo style to Yonder Mountain String Band’s headlining sets. His song, “Get It While You Can” is at the top of the list of songs that have been played the most at String Summit over the years. Barnes’ creativity bursts forth in many forms, and this year his project Test Apes, with Ministry percussionist Max Brody, will demonstrate yet another side of Barnes’ artistry. -Greg Homolka
Shook Twins Powers Activate! Get ready for a mesmerizing, harmonizing, multi-talented indie-folk powerhouse. Over the past few years, Shook Twins have been expanding their circle of influence, winning over fans and industry insiders with their honest songwriting and good-natured personalities. They perform with a combination of sweetness and sassiness, switching instruments and making sure all band members get their time in the spotlight. It’s easy to get caught up in this family affair. -Greg Homolka
Del McCoury Band
The Northwest String Summit would probably not be around if not for the likes of legends like Del McCoury. He played rhythm guitar and sang lead vocals for Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys back in 1963, before many of this year’s String Summit musicians were born. Seven years after earning a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts, you can still find McCoury gracing stages with his wide grin and colorful stories, playing acoustic guitar and singing while backed up by a band that includes his sons, Ronnie and Rob McCoury on mandolin and banjo. -Greg Homolka
Take two highly capable guitar slingers and throw them into the improvisation incubator that is Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads, and things might just get out of hand. Since meeting at the San Rafael establishment, Scott Law and Ross James have become musical besties, egging each other on as they explore improvisational psychedelic country rock n’ roll. Original tunes and cover songs are all approached with the same fervor and patient yet powerful musicianship. -Greg Homolka
Horseshoes & Hand Grenades
Horseshoes & Hand Grenades is the type of band that cuts to the heart of what String Summit represents. A handful of musicians working hard and having fun, pickin’ and a grinnin’ from their home in Wisconsin to the corners of America. Making music with string instruments, bringing joy to themselves and their audiences. They put all their energy into their performances and it’s clear by the smiles on their faces that they are doing this for all the right reasons. -Greg Homolka
Northwest String Summit takes place July 13 – 16, 2017 at Horning’s Hideout in North Plains, OR. Check out the full weekend schedule and purchase tickets HERE.