Review: Northwest String Summit

My second NWSS experience began on Friday, July 22. I was welcomed to Horning’s by forests of towering trees that emitted a radiant green glow into the cloudless blue sky. A sensation of music and kinship radiated from the land and I immediately felt at home. Before long I was reunited with familiar faces from the Kinfolk community (devout YMSB followers), many of whom I can always count on seeing at YMSB events no matter where.

First on the agenda was a band competition between a robust lineup of acoustic Pacific Northwest flavors. Following suit was the Cascadia Project featuring resident NWSS pickers Darol Anger (fiddle) and Scott Law (acoustic guitar and vocals). The two were joined by bassist Samson Grisman, son of the legendary David Grisman. Mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist was scheduled to join the pack but was not present.

The trio’s lush, fiddle-centric sound combined traditional Americana with a spice of bluegrass-folk, creating instrumental serenity. Three songs in, Anger welcomed YMSB guitarist Adam Aijala to stage, followed by acoustic guitarist Bill Nershi, co-frontman of the Emmitt-Nershi Band. The Cascadia Project’s tranquil musings were the first of many super jams to form throughout the weekend.

The Strummit continued with Keller & the Keels featuring festival favorites Keller Williams & husband-wife duo Larry and Jenny Keel. Keller and Larry were no strangers to the NWSS stage, however 2011 marked the first time they teamed up for the occasion. Keller & The Keels was perhaps the most fun I have ever had at a show. Together, the three picked and conquered a sleuth of high-energy bluegrass tuned covers. Included were both Keller and Larry originals, upbeat standards and rock renditions. Highlights included: Goofballs by Keller and a medley of Tom Petty’s Mary Jane’s Last Dance into Breakdown.

No Strummit set was complete without the help from some friends. In this case Dave Johnston (banjo) and Jeff Austin (mandolin) of YMSB joined the ranks, along with Anger and Danny Barnes (banjo). The crew ferociously picked their way into Chicken Train by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Keller conducted the insanity with a frenzy of clucking and bawking, pumping the audience with each enthusiastic “bawgawk.” Keller ultimately clucked himself into Low Rider by War, substituting the horn lines with more clucking. Eventually the musicians re-boarded the Chicken Train and rode into Death Trip by Barnes. The silliness of the sequence was by far my top NWSS highlight, but then again it was only Friday and there were still two days, plus three hours of YMSB that night to come.

At 10:00pm emcee Pastor Tim Christensen approached the mic and said: “There is a reason that this is a family Kinfolk event. There is a reason we’ve been coming here for 10 years and absolutely loving every moment of it. This is the 10th anniversary of the NWSS. These guys are the reason of the season, show your love please…YMSB!” And just like that the band ruthlessly jumped into Ten met by a cloud of dust from audience dancing. Without breaking a string the band transitioned into the wistfully buoyant Ragdoll, at which point I had a “holy shit” moment. Ragdoll was co-penned and debuted at last year’s Strummit by Austin and Barnes, during Barnes’ set. When I first heard Ragdoll it stopped me in my tracks and ingrained itself in me. To hear it again fleshed out by a full ensemble was a sweet and surreal moment, despite Barnes’ absence during the song.

At the end of the tune Austin introduced the band including one surprise: after years of guest appearances with the Denver quartet, Darol Anger was declared the official fifth member of YMSB. Austin noted that Anger’s music was a major influence for the band, to have him as a permanent member must be blissful.

For the rest of the evening YMSB twisted and turned through sizzling red hot jamgrass laced with traditional jug and mountain spices. They plucked with such ferocity that the resonance began to sound synthesized. By the second set YMSB’s sound adapted a ladies’ night theme between My Gal, Pretty Daughter” by Barnes and Talking Heads’ Girlfriend is Better. Halfway through Girlfriend the boys crossed the acoustic threshold into electric by means of an effects board tweaked by Austin. Together the band sparked electricity during a Robot jam only to reprise Girlfriend with funky composure. Their spirited music commanded one’s senses to dance and shake without a care in the world, for for the next two days all that mattered was bluegrass and boogieing.

Day two was the longest day of music promising the Travelin’ McCourys and Railroad Earth. I began day two to the mid-day newgrass country jams of the Emmitt-Nershi Band. Both Drew Emmitt (Leftover Salmon) and Bill Nershi (String Cheese Incident) were joined by Andy Thorn on banjo and John Grubb on upright bass. Emmitt’s mandolin prowess combined with Nershi’s acoustic guitar dexterity made for one exciting way to spend the afternoon. Representing the dobro (a rarity at this year’s Strummit) Anders Beck of Greensky Bluegrass joined the quartet on stage, followed by Bonnie Paine of Elephant Revival on washboard. The two collectively added extra flair to the band’s jamgrass tones. I was surprised none of the boys from Great American Taxi contributed to the set, considering they were scheduled for later that evening.

Following the Emmitt-Nershi Band, the NWSS struck a traditional chord with The Travelin’ McCourys. The pack was an offshoot of the Del McCoury Band featuring McCoury’s sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Robbie (banjo), Jason Carter (fiddle), Alan Bartram (bass) and Cody Kilby (acoustic guitar). Minus the suits the band kept the traditions of bluegrass alive by playing an array of standards and McCoury originals. The pack congregated around two mics trading picking momentum and breakdowns. A majority of the big-name Strummit players joined the McCourys at one point or another to have a crack at infiltrating the traditional tunes with progressive riffs and faster than light picking.

Sandwiched in between the McCoury traditions and rocking swamp stomp of Great American Taxi was the first Kinfolk Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Each year members of the Kinfolk community vote one extraordinary member into the Kinfolk Hall of Fame. This years inductee was the late great Lilli Trippe, a child who had been battling a rare form of infant leukemia since she was eight months old. Lilli’s story and bravery through her battle with cancer greatly influenced the Yonder boys. They even wrote the song Lilli Has A Daydream for her. Unfortunately Lilli passed away in early July, six days before her fourth birthday, three weeks before the NWSS. YMSB ensured that Lilli was represented throughout the festival, granted friends and family “dance their asses off for her.”

Great American Taxi returned to the Strummit for the second year running, this time joined by alt-country bad ass and Strummit vet Todd Snider. There was no question that Snider and Taxi brought the rock to the scene. Snider’s honest, snarling blues paired with Taxi’s spontaneous swamp boogie spawned beautiful melodies of grass-outlaw stoner country rock. Sounds complicated, I know, but the band covered a lot of ground. Together they dipped into Snider’s pool of original ramblings and backed them with Taxi’s signature cocktail of southern struts and newgrass breakdowns. Taxi front man and master of festival ceremonies Vince Herman (mandolin) toned down his usual vitality giving Snider full reign of the stage. It was not until their final song that Herman unleashed his signature “FESTIVALLL” mantra onto the crowd.

Saturday night YMSB ran full force with an energetic rendition of After Midnight, and sped head on into Casualty. From the start the band plucked with increased fierceness from the previous night. They plucked their way onto a runaway train with a crazed Austin at the wheel. Set one charged forward with acoustic velocity wrapping guests Snider and Ronnie McCoury in the madness. Snider lent his vagabond attitude to East Nashville Easter, and stuck around for his easy-going grime Just Like Old Times. Towards the end of set one McCoury and Austin returned to their roots and combined the powers of their mandolins in a Kentucky Mandolin breakdown.

Kentucky Mandolin evolved into a showcase of all the present incendiary talent. Grisman wandered onstage barren of a bass appearing as if he were loitering. Then in the blink of an eye YMSB bassist Ben Kaufmann passed Grisman his upright. Grisman picked up without missing a beat, continuing the tradeoff throughout the jam. The two ended up in a bass-off, in which Grisman added fresh experimental grooves. Eventually Kaufmann joined Grisman on the bass and the two played the instrument as one, a truly incredible site. Set two powered into an electric jam intensified by flashing technicolor stage lights. Kaufmann congratulated Anger for keeping up, and admitted that the band had journeyed far beyond Anger’s signature styles. Naturally Anger fiddled around every curve ball sent his way.

Late in the evening hours after YMSB wrapped up their set, a friend and I roamed the campgrounds in search of picking circles. Then like a call from the wild, we heard Vince Herman’s voice project from the trees. Together we ran around the grounds, chasing Herman’s voice. His distinct holler led us down an illuminated trail that resembled Candy Land, towards the Cascadia Coffee stage. Sure enough at the bottom of the hollow Herman was jamming with members of Taxi, Elephant Revival and Portland locals Fruition. Musicians and insomniacs alike danced until the sky turned light and the clock neared 6:00AM.

The final day of the NWSS slyly ascended upon the masses. It was a woeful yet joyous day considering the music to come. On the afternoon bill was a special, one-time only performance featuring Barnes, Larry Keel, Emmitt and Anger, a collaboration only experienced at the NWSS. The humble quartet of vastly different playing styles joined together and developed the purest bluegrass to grace Horning’s Hideout. During the accelerated “Ground Speed” Barnes plucked so fast one would assume he had extra fingers. The audience was in such awe of the talent before them that many refrained from dancing and listened to the stringed beauty. Following the experience Emmitt remarked: “I really feel like my strings were just summitted.”

YMSB’s official closing set kicked off with the energetic If There’s Still Ramblin In the Rambler (Let Him Go), and wrapped up with a reprise of Ten from Friday night. By 7:30PM on Sunday, fans witnessed three days and nine hours of YMSB and craved more. The sun was just setting and it was too early to return to reality. Alas all good things must come to an end, that is until next year.

Here’s a look at all of Allison’s amazing photos from the weekend:

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4 Responses

  1. This year was our 3rd Strummit! Living in Portland, it is our “can’t miss” event of the summer! This year was amazing as always and we look forward to many more years of this wonderful festival! Oh, and I thought Yonder’s Friday show was THE HEAT!!!

  2. I appreciate the effort, but you probably need an editor who’s seen Yonder a bit more. First Summit was in 2002. Rag Doll wasn’t debuted at last year’s Summit, Yonder started playing it in February 2010 and Jeff played it with Barnes before that. Death Trip was played during the McCourys set, not during Keller and the Keels. Darol has been “declared” the “official 5th member” many, many times during the past decade. Etc…

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