Northwest String Summit | 07.18 - 07.20

Words by: Sarah Hagerman | Images by: Bill Ball

Northwest String Summit :: 07.18.08 – 07.20.08 :: Horning's Hideout :: North Plains, OR

Northwest String Summit 2008
Nestled in the towering pines, this nexus of shaking strings and squawking peacocks kicks the door off the hinges in anything-goes moments of musical majesty and near madness. Blink and you might miss something in the mass pick-a-rama (not to mention the late night campground sessions and impromptu acoustic jams that seem to occupy every hidden corner). "We really wanted to have all of our dearest friends here this year," Jeff Austin said on Friday night from the stage at Horning's Hideout. Now in its seventh year, there is a tangible feeling of kinship at Yonder Mountain String Band's Northwest String Summit that extends beyond the stage, and this writer found herself lost and found in its joyous yee-haw.

Friday, July 18

I had that clean-slate, pre-festival excitement, the teasing electrical current of anticipation at the bottom of my stomach, as we pulled into Horning's just in time to set up and catch the band competition. A String Summit tradition, the winner gets to play a slot during the weekend and then return to Horning's the following year. There's a well of acoustic talent that flows underground in this country, and I welcome any chance to dip toes in that pool. Judged by the Yonder boys, plus a member of their management, they had a difficult task - I am not sure whom I would have picked as the winner. Urban Monroes had that high lonesome sound down to a science with a silken-throated lead singer, while Moon Mountain Ramblers' rich country-tinged twang got toes tapping, especially with a rollicking "Stuck In the Middle With You" cover. I was perhaps personally most impressed by the grassfire energy and abandon of Loose Digits, but it was the sultry earthiness and songwriting chops of Jessica Kilroy and the Herl Brothers that won in the end. As the sunlight skipped across the lake and families spread picnic blankets, a sense of serenity was sinking into my bones.

Keller Williams & the WMDs :: NWSS 2008
That was quickly broken by Strings for Industry. Made up of Darol Anger (fiddle), Scott Law (guitar, mando, vocals), Tye North (bass, vocals) and Carlton Jackson (drums), their kinetic soul by way of rural crossroads sounded like James Brown doing whiskey shots with Levon Helm. Anger alternatively flitted and stomped across the front of the stage with his fiddle. Nate Biehl (mando) from the Herl Brothers would point out to me later in the weekend that Anger plays with his whole body, and it's true – watching him draws you into a dance. Jackson was raucous behind the kit, shouting out to the crowd to get-on-up. Pounding feet quickly softened up that earth in front of the stage in response. Law and North stoked the flame, with Law burning deep jazzy grooves and resounding echoes on his guitar. Seriously rocking.

A few folks were muttering about the presence of Keller Williams. I may have said I'm on the fence about him when asked, but after this weekend I am openly admitting every time I see him live he thoroughly breaks down my resistance. Just try and avoid catching at least a bit of that essential sunshine when he's onstage. Many focus on the cover songs, and its hip to ironically appreciate popular music, but Williams understands why those pieces of culture work – they hit those guilty pleasure nerves, the same ones that make you secretly belt out radio songs when you are alone in your car. From "Basketcase" (Green Day) with Dave Johnston to "You May Be Right" (Billy Joel) with Ben Kaufmann, they were apt choices. Kaufmann confessed his love of Joel before, and you love you some Joel, too, don't deny it.

Austin & Aijala - YMSB :: NWSS 2008
But Williams can also slip into classic acoustic tones, playing moving renditions of Neil Young's "Comes A Time" with Adam Aijala and the Dead's "Candyman" with Austin. At heart, he's an astutely versatile guitarist, able to slip and slide in and out of genres with an easy wink. But that ease belies his thoughtfully fashioned musical puzzle, as he drags his fingers in the source material and throws pieces on the frame with his one man band toolkit. There's a steadiness to his atmospheric sonic clarity when he hits a level and runs with it that's easy to ride on, as evidenced by the hypnotically dancing audience I witnessed spreading below me from the beer garden. He got me moving and nicely stretched out for Yonder, and as night enveloped us, I wasn't the only one working those calves and hip muscles.

"We're going to play a bunch of old stuff and get warmed up," Austin declared early in YMSB's opening set, which started off with can't-argue-with-'em classics such as "At the End of the Day," "Rambler's Anthem" and "Loved You Enough," reflecting the tight, classic bluegrass sound that marks the band's early work. They execute it with such zeal that you can't help but dance with reckless inhibition (there's a reason everyone cheers at the mention of "We're going to play some bluegrass" from that stage). Anger joined them throughout the weekend, his fiddle stirring and simmering throughout.

Johnston, Barnes, Aijala, Austin :: NWSS 2008
When Danny Barnes strolled onto the stage for "Kentucky Mandolin," the atmosphere turned evil-grass. With his banjo brewing, he began his weekend long quiet revolution. Yonder understands darkness as well as light, and with Barnes' alchemy added to the mix the result was explosive. "KY Mando" was a deliciously dangerous journey through shadowy jazz and strange spaces, barreling straight on towards midnight with its foot tied to the gas pedal. But just as quickly, YMSB can turn the vehicle around, throw it down a gear and carry you back towards salvation, as they did with a soul-feeding "Keep on Going" segue.

There was palpable excitement on stage at Barnes' presence, and the setlist choices reflected that mutual appreciation. The second set featured a blistering version of the Bad Livers' "Going Where They Do Not Know My Name," as well as Barnes and Austin switching up the vocals on a down-n-dirty "Crow Black Chicken." It's a traditional each have come to own in their respective ways, as both have that uncanny knack to drill into their Jungian shadow onstage, excavating whatever weird borderline inclinations come from its recesses.

The campsites contain journeys of their own. There couldn't have been a more appropriate sentiment than the encore choice of "Holding" as we journeyed forth towards new adventures and mishaps. "After playing Bonnaroo and Rothbury, you appreciate this place even more," Kaufmann mused earlier in the evening, looking out over the pines reaching towards the full moon. Already Horning's was proving to be a gracious neighborhood.

Saturday, July 19

Head for the Hills :: NWSS 2008
Saturday at Horning's started off chilly and grey, as I awoke to peacock calls and the smell of greasy campsite breakfasts cooking. After some refueling it was on to the Pete Kartsounes Band, who played an amiable set of wandering tales. Kartsounes (of Wayword Sons) sings with conviction and set the day up right with the chorus, "Festival, festival, good to know there's the rest to go." It's worth noting, at the end of the month Kartsounes will hike from Denver to Durango to raise money for kids with cancer. Find out more here.

The sun gradually peaked through during Head for the Hills, the winners of last year's band competition. This young four-piece took the stage running with a fierce set that went down like a shot of espresso. There was considerable tension in their tightly wound instrumentals, including some hard licks on an electric mandolin. They let the yarn unwind now and again with some slow breathers, including a cover of Merle Haggard's "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," a song that always makes me want to seek out the storied folks who hang nervously around exit signs.

Bryn Davies and Sharon Gilchrist had given us a taste on Friday with some brief tweener sets and were absolutely note-perfect on Saturday afternoon. Davies' bass recalled smoky coffeehouses as much as dusty fields, and Gilcrest's soaring mandolin could make her lips both grin and quiver with equal measure. Both have played in Uncle Earl, and that old time vibe shone from "Tell Me Baby Why You Been Gone So Long" to "Blues Stay Away from Me."

Vince Herman :: NWSS 2008
Throwing the nuts and bolts of bluegrass out on the stage, Greensky Bluegrass hit timeless targets with deadly accuracy while simultaneously veering off the tired and true highway. Skilled original songwriters as well as scorching pickers (I'm always happy to hear dobro flashes and sighs), I lost myself dancing to their tunes so well I forgot to take notes. All I have to show for this set is some crumpled, dusty pages with undecipherable scratching that I attempted to put down while getting down, although I can clearly read, "This is killer!" in the huge, weird letters that are my dancing font.

This Summit lineup stretched back to the roots of Yonder and the support they originally found within the Leftover and String Cheese Incident scenes in Colorado ten years ago. Beginning with Great American Taxi's set, Saturday evening reflected this history on the stage. GAT opened with one of my favorite Bad Livers songs, "Lumpy, Beanpole and Dirt," featuring Barnes on mandolin. Vince Herman and company proceeded to take us all to honky-tonk heaven, stopping off in spacey, cool limbo and hard-rocking "hell-yes" along the way. "This is the sound of summer," Herman said as he popped a beer next to the mic, letting a great fizz wash over the crowd. Several of us toasted in agreement.

Following GAT, Drew Emmitt and Billy Nershi decided to "make up a band on the spot," as they put it, featuring a grab bag of musicians from the weekend that included Anger, Barnes, Anders Beck (Greensky), Law, Keith Moseley (bass) and Jeff Sipe (drums). It really spoke to how much musical richness surrounded us this weekend. You could have easily walked backstage, pointed a finger in any direction and be graced with a fantastic lineup of individuals who all speak a common musical language. The set drew heavily on re-imagining the tried-and-true bluegrass fabric with "Lonesome Fiddle Blues" and "Two Dollar Bill," but Nershi resurrected the ghosts of Incidents past at Horning's with a roller coaster trippy "Jellyfish" and a reeling "Black Clouds," eliciting vigorous cheers.

Bill Nershi with YMSB :: NWSS 2008
Come Saturday night and a lot of folks didn't seem to know where their children were. Thankfully most of us were just lost in the spell. Pastor Tim even re-worked Madness' famous "One Step Beyond" intro before the band came onstage, getting us rowdy and ready to go "One Step Be-yonder." Once again joined by Anger and Barnes, Yonder's first set was gloriously untamed. I was admittedly ecstatic at the "Casualty" opener, which contains some of my favorite Kaufmann lyrics ("Good times don't seem to last/ And the bad ones fade as fast/ Either way it seems the time is flying"). Equal parts vicious and sprawling, "New Horizons," with some nasty, growly bass work by Kaufmann, was spiked with "Winds on Fire." For me, "Winds" evokes driving across an open expanse towards snow-capped peaks in the distance, contentedly alone, but this night it drew me in close. This is my favorite of Johnston's country slow burners and live it enveloped the crowd in waves of banjo rolls and distorted guitars.

During "Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown," the stage was gradually filled with guest after guest. As a brain-slicing mando and fiddle-laden "Raleigh and Spencer" rode on out, a gravelly voice that could only be Herman took over the mic on a riotous "Fixin' to Die," complete with some off kilter cackling. Yonder was no longer onstage and it was now only Herman, Sipe, Emmitt, North and Barnes – in other words, Leftover Salmon (or more accurately, Leftover Livers), who busted our ankles for the remainder of the first set, including a driving "Reuben's Train" that featured Herman giving props to Barnes and the Livers in the lyrics. The second set was slightly shortened due to Salmon, but was still sweet, as we got taken on a wicked "Deathtrip" (with Davies switching up the bass with Kaufmann, to the obvious amusement of both) and then an unruly "Ramblin' in the Rambler" sandwich featuring a Barnes original, "Caveman Times," a song to remind us that "it ain't much different than the caveman times/ where a man in a suit made you walk the line."

Keller and the WMDs' late night slot channeled the psychedelic guitar charge of the Dead into a dance party that electrified Williams staples such as "Breathe" and "Freeker," taking them out of the acoustic loops and into the electric stratosphere. Everyone's consensus the next day was, "How fun was that?!?" It was a criminally infectious, grin-plastered groove as the WMDs took us spiraling forward into the dark depths past midnight.

Sunday, July 20

Danny Barnes & Bill Frisell :: NWSS 2008
With everyone still talking about the Leftover Livers, Sunday started off with band competition winners Jessica Kilroy and the Herl Brothers. Her deeply expressive voice is flanked by a striking mando and fiddle duo, Nate Biehl and Jack Ausick, and she has an impressive repertoire of original material that mines some lovely veins. I will be sure to see what develops when she returns with this outfit to next year's String Summit.

Benny "Burle" Galloway (The Wayword Sons) still mysteriously remains a well kept secret to many, and Hickster, his trio featuring Davies (bass) and Robin Davis (guitar), just furthered the fact he is one of the most underrated songwriters in acoustic music. Galloway channels the coarse marrow of experience and survival. I suspect if you encountered him in a bar and bought him a drink, lord would he have stories to tell. His lyrics offer whiskey soaked wit, and his wisdom imbibes choice covers such as the Robin Davis-penned "40% Solution." The chilling cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown" with Anders Beck's moaning dobro got me where it hurts AND heals. Perhaps because that was one of the first songs I remember dancing to in my living room as a child with my folk-lovin' parents, and during Hickster's set I was renewed with a sense of timelessness and the great arch of storytelling.

Next up was the mind-bending duo of, once again, Danny Barnes and Bill Frisell. The hypnotic, discordant build-up with Barnes' audio samples was swept away into iridescent guitar notes, waves hitting the shore and pulling back towards an expansive ocean. Someone would describe it to me later that day as sounding like "notes falling from the sky." They pulled together seemingly disparate audio molecules, channeling them through a free form microscopic lens. Thelonious Monk intermingled with classic Americana on "Will the Circle be Unbroken" and Mel Street's "Borrowed Angel" as they danced beyond boundaries, gravity long gone.

Clusterpluck Super Jam :: NWSS 2008
Barnes also hosted the Super Jam or "clusterpluck," as Pastor Tim called it. "We should have a camera taking shots every five minutes to keep track," he declared in his introduction. And its true – Frisell, Williams, Barnes, all the members of Yonder, Bryn, Gilchrist, Nershi – this list goes on in a manner that made it nearly impossible to keep track. You just had to throw up your hands and give in to the magnificent chaos. Folks stepped on and off, introducing and thanking each other in equal measure while playing traditionals like the rousing "This Train Is Bound for Glory" or just feeding off the unique talents each person brought to the table in extended improvisations.

Sunday festival closeouts are always bittersweet, and this one came with its highs and lows. I felt a bit sunk during the second Sunday night Yonder set when Barnes stepped off into the sunset after a wild Austin scat-driven "King Eb" and a reprise of the delightfully freaky "Funtime." He smiled and waved farewell to the crowd, leaving as unassumingly as he came. He left a long, tall mark on this weekend. But the ride quickly climbed back to an apex as "Traffic Jam" packed the stage with a host of musical friends, and Austin ran out into the audience, caught up in the spirit of the celebratory ruckus.

"I may not be learning anything/ but it's too late to stop me now."

Jeff Austin in the crowd :: NWSS 2008
When I find myself flung far afield, with thoughts of home a couple tomorrows away, those lines from YMSB's "Ten" sink in deep. The gorgeously pensive fiddle that gave way to Monroe's "Stoney Lonesome" led to Aijala and Barnes' fingers of fury during this marathon "Ten," and I found myself drawn into rumination.

Over the course of the weekend, I noticed that from the front to the back, there was a collective feeling that most folks were riding the same wave, feeding off the musicians' obvious excitement. And as the encore notes of John Hartford's "Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry" wafted over the crowd in moving harmony and the is-it-really-over weight fell down upon me, I could sense the belly-full satisfaction and calendar-marking anticipation for next year as we set off to enjoy our last night at Horning's.

I had chosen a card at random from Jennifer's crafty deck in the campsite that said, "Take something happy back." It is now stuck to my fridge. My clearest memory of Summit is indeed an image of joy and inspiration, or rather several individual images. It is the faces of the crowd from the side of the stage during that first Yonder set on Sunday, singing along to Aijala's heartbreaking "Amanda Rose," bouncing to "Boatman" and kicking up turf during "Ten." I finally stopped blowing the black Horning's dust out of my nostrils a few days ago, got over the cold that the temperature variations of Oregon and airplanes gave me and did my long-procrastinated upon post-festival laundry. But, these images will stay with me for a good long while. The card was certainly right.

Sarah would like to thank PT, BB, LB for trekking out to Oregon and putting up with her all weekend, and the folks up at Camp Turtle, especially Molly for the pancakes on Sunday morning, and of course, Matt.

Continue reading for more images from the Northwest String Summit...

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