It’s a pretty simple formula, the bluegrass festival. Take a beautiful and peaceful location, fill it with brilliant musicians and enthusiastic music-lovers and let everybody do what comes naturally for a few days. Most of the time the weather cooperates, and it’s good for the participants to have something silly to yell for no real reason other than to bind everybody together.

This time it was called the Northwest String Summit, and the location was as beautiful and as peaceful as they come – Horning’s Hideout outside of Portland, Oregon. The musicians were first-rate including Hot Rize, the pioneers of progressive bluegrass, and Yonder Mountain String Band, the young men poised to carry the torch. The music-lovers were a perfectly friendly mix of the young and the young at heart, and the silly expression being yelled from every corner of the campground was an impression of the wild peacocks’ call, “Eeeaahh! Eeeaahh!”

Friday, the heaviest rain in months fell on Portland, but that didn’t keep hundreds of festival guests from coming out to play. Covered from head to toe in mud, sloshing through a murky puddle fifty yards across and six inches deep they danced while the wind raked through the musicians’ hair and the lights bounced off the rain. Right out of the gate, the Yonder Boys were hot, delivering two unforgettable sets of music including a guest appearance by "Dr. Banjo" himself, Pete Wernick.

The rain let up after Yonder’s show, but the temperature remained cold as the party migrated from the amphitheater to the second stage for Hanuman's latenight set. It was an incredibly memorable evening, and the weekend was just beginning.

Saturday everybody awoke to a grotesquely soggy campsite, but the only rain to fall the rest of the weekend was a light sprinkling late Saturday night. Most of the day remained partly cloudy, shielding everybody from the almost-Summer sun. The first music of the day began at the Workshop/Latenight stage with Portland bluegrass favorites Jackstraw providing an acoustic breakfast set to help everybody ease into the day. Hanuman's percussionist Jarrod Kaplan and Buell Neidlinger’s Buellgrass also hosted workshop sets Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, David Grisman had flight difficulties and didn’t arrive in time to play his solo mandolin set, but his set with his Quintet Saturday night proved to be enough to appease those who came most excited to see him perform.

Portland-based Sam Hill began the music on the main stage Saturday night with a set featuring perfect harmonies. Next, a rare treat took place – the reunion of Hot Rize, the original progressive bluegrass band. Original band members Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick and Nick Forster joined Brian Sutton, who was playing in place of the legendary, late Charles Sawtelle, in crafting a beautiful set. A fair percentage of the festival guests weren’t even born when Hot Rize first began performing together, but it was obvious from the way the musicians were interacting with each other that what was happening was something special. Dressed in sharp, traditional suits of days not so-long past, Hot Rize delivered a fantastic set celebrating their history and the pleasure of being together again.

The David Grisman Quintet hit the stage just as the afternoon sun began to fade and treated fans to a smooth set of their "Dawg Music," setting the stage perfectly for Yonder’s remarkable performance. Joe Craven and Tim O’Brien lent their fiddle skills during the first set, and Pete Wernick and Noam Pikelny sat in with their banjos during the second set of this brilliant performance which included a beautiful rendition of Jerry Garcia’s "They Love Each Other."

The latenight set Saturday night was a genuine hoe-down featuring several acoustic numbers from Yonder and a funky duet with Yonder’s Jeff Austin and Jarrod Kaplan from Hanuman. Later, Taarka's Dave Tiller and Jeff jammed with their mandolins while Enion Pelta, also from Taarka, blew the crowd away with her blazing violin.

Sunday, the Workshop stage played host to sets by Pete Wernick and Tim O’Brien before Yonder took their turn in this casual setting. Highlights included an instrument switch, during which Jeff had the misfortune to end up with the bass. Again refusing to give away the last laugh, he did a fantastic job humorously carrying the tune with a vocal improvisation when the rest of the band dared to spring a solo on him. During the intimate and informal set, Jeff admitted he had phoned home earlier in the day nervous about the fact that the evening’s bill included so many brilliant mandolin players and Ben Kaufmann pointed out his proud parents sitting in the audience.

It really felt as if everything came together on Sunday, symbolized richly by the hardening of the earth in front of the main stage, which for two days prior was a thick puddle of mud. Festival guests, brought closer together by Friday’s torrential downpour and two days of playing together, welcomed the opportunity to shake it up one last time, and the weather couldn’t have cooperated better, sprinkling the campgrounds with intermittent sunshine all day.

Danny Barnes Trio played the first set on the main stage before Tim O’Brien & The Crossing took the reins. Psychograss, featuring Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, David Grier, Todd Phillips and Tony Trischka, played next and did a perfect job of warming up the crowd before Yonder took the stage for the closing set of the weekend.

When the announcement first came out several months ago, it was obvious the weekend would not be complete until Yonder invited some of their primary musical influences onto the stage with them for a pick. Sure enough, before the night was through the stage had been graced by Tim O’Brien, Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, Tony Trischka and Noam Pikelny, in a number of different combinations. Everybody was beaming as Tim, Mike and Darol joined the young gentlemen in whose development they played such an influential part. The Yonder Boys were beaming as well, thrilled to have the opportunity to show their mentors a taste of the world they’ve worked so hard to create. "Dim Lights Thick Smoke," the last tune of the weekend, was played acoustically at the lip of the stage while the members of the audience huddled together to get as close to the music as possible. It was a magical evening from whichever direction it was being viewed.

Portland-based Segue Productions produced the event flawlessly and promised another installment next summer which drew an uproarious response from the crowd. The first annual Northwest String Summit will be a difficult event to top, but if there’s any group capable of meeting that challenge, it’s Yonder Mountain String Band and their legion of fans and friends.

Adam Kaye
JamBase | Northwest
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[Published on: 7/16/02]

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