NWSS | 07.16 - 07.19 | OR

Words by: Sarah Hagerman | Images by: Bill Ball

Northwest String Summit :: 07.16.09 – 07.19.09 :: Horning's Hideout :: North Plains, OR

NWSS 2009
As German poet Christian Morgenstern said, "Home isn't where our house is, but wherever we are understood." The search for that elusive place runs heavily through bluegrass music. If that music is the language we all understand, then Yonder Mountain String Band's Northwest String Summit, now in its eighth year, offers conversation aplenty. But this weekend is about so much more than the musical moments taking place on stage; it's about the family that gathers to its hearth and like any family, everyone plays certain roles.

A lot of work goes into this beautiful beast, and we are lucky to revel in the labor of folks busting ass simply because they believe in it. Like any family, we have people we know will be there for us, to pick us off the ground when we need lifting, steal us to the dance floor, or simply listen to us chatter away our mental load. And like any family, the joys and sorrows are shared ones. This weekend was dedicated to Sandy Alexander, whose passing hung heavy in many hearts. A much-loved man who truly embodied the Kinfolk soul, his tapes were instrumental in spreading word of the band in their early days. A great spirit moves us in times where it's needed most, and suffice it to say that a tremendous one was present at this Summit.

Now, I sit and sift through my notebook. I have a truckload of moments and snapshots captured in messy scrawl (maybe someday I will perfect the fine art of taking notes while dancing). Many are too much for words. Welcome to the clusterpluck. Welcome to the family reunion. Welcome to the way we tear it up on the weekend. Most of all, welcome home.

Thursday, July 16

From the moment I set my tattered Birkenstocks down on that dusty Horning's Hideout ground, the excitement jitterbugged my bones. As a local peacock strutted in front of the car, twisting its head with perplexion, I saw the festival's pieces coming together, volunteers meeting and running down the schedule and crews running equipment in on golf carts. Wandering to the amphitheater area, with the bowl virtually empty, the tech crews hoisted dazzling eye-catching banners on both sides of the stage, courtesy of Kelly Thomas and Rob Bruce, bearing a tumbling cascade of sequined peacock tail feathers. Watching the sound check, familiar faces bound down the hill for happy embraces. The Yonder boys warmed up one by and one, and then threw down on a few songs together, including John Hartford's "Steam Powered Aereoplain" and the fist-pumping new tune "Complicated," turning up the juice, and welcoming us to the Summit. I felt like a live-wire sparking for the weekend ahead.

Montana Slim :: NWSS 2009
This year, for the first time, those who camped early were treated to music. Pete Kartsounes, joined by Benny Galloway for most of his set, played on a small stage set up at the bottom of the beer garden (referred to affectionately by some as "the beer jail"). I dig this spot, with its sweet vantage over the bowl coupled with tasty Rogue drafts served by a friendly staff. As I eased into my first Triple Jump Pale Ale of the weekend, I watched little festivarians stumbling in the dirt, their parents darting close behind, as a few hula-hoopers began warming up their hip muscles. Kartsounes is a songwriter whose work I'm still getting to know, but man, he was all over this fest, playing tweener sets, picking in the campgrounds every night (even stopping by our camp for a few tunes later the same evening) and jumping on stage at every opportunity. He plays a mean guitar, too, busting out Tim O'Brien's "Hold On," his own, appropriately titled for this moment "Take Me Home" and The Dead's "Eyes of the World," nicely employing looping effects to intertwine guitar lines. Galloway rattled his taped-up bass, his weathered growl cutting a contrast through Kartsounes' emotive soul, and when he took over the lead for some tunes, including the haunting "My Sally," you could taste his grit. Their encore of "And We Bid You Goodnight" was drawn out over beat boxing and harmonic vocal layers by Kartsounes, and as the intimate crowd in the beer garden clapped and sang along, Galloway began waving his hands in the air, swaying in time with his hat pushed to the side. Give it up for the original gangsta!

On my way back to camp, I caught some of Montana Slim raging at the bottom of the hill that led to Camp Turtle. A band competition entry, they held down this spot every night of the festival and threw a hell of a party. Serious props for keeping us moving across that gravel, and making those late night trips to the Honey Buckets less painful. Tenacious troubadours from San Francisco with snappy rhythms that inspired some delightfully dirty dancing, they won over several new fans before the weekend was over. Their ripping take on ""I Know You Rider" left me ready to recharge, looking forward to a leisurely day before Friday night's madness.

Continue reading for Friday's coverage of the NWSS 2009...

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