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…

Friday, July 17

Crunchy Western Boys :: NWSS 2009
Temps hit the mid-90s, and when we ventured from Camp Turtle to get ice it was almost pure liquid before we got back, the cold water leaking on our arms providing blessed relief. But 4:45 p.m. crept up, and it was time for the band competition with four very strong contenders: Montana Slim, Bucky Walters, the Irish edge of Ockham’s Razor and the warmly infectious, everyman songwriting well of New Hampshire’s Crunchy Western Boys. CWB would emerge the winners, and were very humbled and even graciously surprised. These cats are refreshingly unassuming talents, and I was looking forward to a second helping on Sunday morning. I’ve also got to give some love to Bucky Walters with their hard-stomping stage presence, running on speakeasy fumes, and the most finely cultivated ‘stache of the weekend award going to banjo player Joey Goforth. Tight, fast picking, harmonica wailing (courtesy of Kat Fountain) and old timey vocal styles (fiddle player Kaleb Duncan‘s rapid fire delivery on “Come up to the cabin and smoke a big ole doobie with me gal” being a personal highlight), they served it straight up vintage.

“Back by popular demand,” the program read about Greensky Bluegrass and even our lovable and spirited MC Pastor Tim exclaimed, “This band is the shit!” Genuine bluegrass souls with rock & roll hearts, they’ve put in serious elbow grease and get better with every show. This set was smoking in a way that made you want to grab your family photos and bolt from the house. A lot of their tunes feel like future classics, such as “200 Miles from Montana” or “Old Barns,” and Paul Hoffman (mando) and Dave Bruzza (guitar) both possess appropriately old soul voices. Maybe some of these toddling, aspiring pickers in the crowd will play their songs someday. The band’s deviations and sly pop culture pieces are executed seamlessly. A riotous “Broke Mountain Breakdown,” (with a little “Smoke on the Water” tease courtesy of Bruzza) was a nasty beast that snapped at your ankles – with Michael Arlen Bont (banjo) racing on smooth blacktop, Hoffman bringing out the mando’s silver tongue and Anders Beck viciously shredding dobro (Metal-bro! Raise those horns!) – that wandered in a blotter sheet swirl before raging full force into a timely “Beat It” with Mike Devol driving deep bass spikes through the core of the depth charge, as each musician passed off the lead with fury. At this point I was pogoing like crazy, taking in the beaming grins and the wild screaming.

Bad Livers :: NWSS 2009
Sinfully under-appreciated in their time, the rare set by the legendary Bad Livers demonstrated what a fine job Yonder has done educating us Kinfolk. Groundbreakers who loved Americana music to pieces, they took to their mission and ran with it on fearlessly freaky ground. Only recently reuniting for occasional gigs, this show was highly anticipated, and banjo player Danny Barnes, bassist Mark Rubin and guitarist Bob Grant took the stage to a rapt, ravenous audience. When he’s got a banjo in his hands, Barnes is wired into the great wide unknown, and with Rubin’s unabashedly badass bass kicking and Grant’s fingers bolting across that guitar this whole set just oozed with their righteous weirdness, stuffed with dynamite, maniac cackles, chain rattles and pulverized corn liquor bottles. After a gas pedal “Ghost Train,” Rubin’s tuba came out for “National Blues” and then an even stickier, ickier “Turpentine Willy.” With the tuba blasting, you gotta hunker down close to the ground and twist out those jitters. “Honey I’ve Found a Brand New Way” > “It’s All the Same” took us from serious speed to lift us upwards towards fading sunlight, while “Country Blues” and “Horses in the Mines” exhaled chilling vapor, the ghosts in the songs beating their bones.

Jeff Austin, who came on stage to join the Livers for a good portion of their set, stood wide-eyed with enthusiasm, leaning in and watching intensely as the other three tossed around leads. “Crow Black Chicken” broke down into delicious anarchy, and “Deathtrip” swam through some serious murk, emerging with Rubin visibly amused. Spying two little girls in the front row singing every word, Rubin laughed, “I don’t think you were even born when we recorded that record. But that was very cute. Nothing like little girls singing along to ‘Death Trip.'” Gotta give the parents some props for that!

NWSS 2009
When the Livers left the stage early, Pastor Tim wandered out, confused as to their truncated set time, only to be accosted by three musicians in wrestling masks. The mad trio launched into “Bluegrass Suicide” > “Saludamas a Tejas” before exiting the stage again, to wild cheering. It made me incredibly happy to see them with the receptive, enthusiastic crowd they deserve. Rubin’s hilariously sardonic stage banter peppered the set, but his joy and appreciation couldn’t be contained, and he was in absolute amazement at the scene unfolding before his eyes. Looking up at the painters above the sound booth at one point, he said, “That’s the coolest damn thing I’ve ever seen!” He mused how at Livers shows in the past they would purposely change the tempo when they spied dancers. Contrast it to String Summit, where the crowd hung on every turn for dear life, fingernails clutching at the rearview mirror. Before their second encore of “Dallas, TX,” Rubin said, “Hey man, seriously… thanks. That’s all there is to say.” And for the record, he rolls on Shabbos.

With barely enough time to sit down and eat dinner (the quality more than makes up for quantity in the vendor department at String Summit, so supper becomes a heart wrenching decision), I preciously made my way towards the bowl. As the opening notes of “Midwest Gospel Radio” swelled, I navigated through the audience, eyes transfixed on the stage, and almost ran into a little kid in a cape. You got to look out for those kids at Summit. Their presence makes us all be a little more respectful and caring, and their excitement can’t help but rub off on you. I watched him bound away, scooped up by his mother, who put him on her shoulders. He pushed out his arms in a Superman pose, his little cape flapping while they bounced away, as Austin stepped up to the mic and said, “Welcome back… welcome home… I can’t tell you the overwhelming joy that comes over you at Horning’s.” Relishing that emotion, he sang, “This is just the way it feels when you come home.” The embrace drew us close and then – bam! – sent us somersaulting with “New Horizons,” limbs flying, feet pounding dirt, the rug pulled out in a free fall, a rubber band drawn back to the penultimate breaking point and then snapped free, flying breakneck across the room.

Barnes & Johnston – YMSB – Friday :: NWSS 2009
As is the String Summit ethos, Yonder were soon joined by musical buddies. Before “Kentucky Mandolin,” Barnes took the stage, with that head down, tongue sticking out grin that means you’re in for some serious business as he brandishes his weapon of choice. Taking his place on stage next to Dave Johnston (banjo), his presence is always a reason for big excitement. Bryn Davies and Rubin came out, to do the old bass switch-off, with Davies rocking the show with her funk before Rubin laid waste to the whole operation. All three then played Ben Kaufmann‘s bass at once, laughing hysterically. Here, I was drawn to the eye of the storm, to catch wide-eyed rail riders’ grins during the “oh-here-we-go” moments, trying not to step on anyone’s toes while dancing and taking in the on stage antics up close. Before the break in “Ramblin’ in the Rambler,” I noticed hard-working front-of-house man Kevin Gregory was gathering not only shots but also party hats and noisemakers. It was guitarist Adam Aijala‘s birthday, and the calm center of gravity cracked up grinning while the crowd sang to him. “Rambler” was sandwiched with “Pockets,” a newer Aijala tune that is rapidly becoming one of my favorites with its sidewalk shuffle groove, and featured an added bonus of Austin making crafty use of his noisemaker.

The heat of the day catching up with me, I watched the second set cozied up in the beer garden. Looking at the vista below, I spotted two glowing gnomes bouncing above the crowd, as Ted Atwell worked his light show magic. This bearded duo (or was it a trio?) would catch my eye all weekend, one of those random, yet functionally distinguishable (“Just look for the gnomes!”) pieces of festival flair that can’t help but make you laugh. The second Yonder set traveled tightly, and as the atmospheric wash out of “Sidewalk Stars” gave way to those opening notes of “Dawn’s Early Light,” I felt it in my toes. A tale of murder and revenge that could be taken straight from a grainy John Ford film, it started in body counts and mire, hurtling through Aijala’s zen, picked up by Barnes’ gutbucket banjo, which gave way to harmonic splinters. In the bright, stoney sunshine of “Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown,” the Livers’ influence was felt strongly in the outro, with Austin and Aijala both bouncing off weird walls. The “Sharecropper’s Son” encore sent us off into the night with an extra shot of springy adrenaline, ready to take on the adventures and misadventures that waited in the darkness of the pines.

Continue reading for Saturday’s coverage of the NWSS 2009…

Saturday, July 18

NWSS 2009
Saturday began with Jessica Kilroy, joined by Head for the Hills, both past band competition winners, plus fiddle player Jack Ausick. Kilroy wowed everyone last year and has since become part of the Yonder extended musical family. With a laid back, witty stage presence, she exudes effortless magnetism. Her voice is both earthbound and ethereal, and her songs paint a tangible sense of place, grounded in Montana vistas and notched with asphalt scars. Galloway joined her on stage for a new song they co-wrote called “Ain’t No Coming Back,” with eerie vocals clawing one with fevered intensity. The brimstone pickers of Head for the Hills provided the perfect frame, full of vivid brushstrokes and burning rail ties, and Ausick’s and Joe Lessard‘s winding fiddles kicked off a day that would become a veritable celebration of the instrument. The skies were blue, and the musical kinship just kept on growing.

Modern musical gypsies Taarka play the kind of music to soundtrack bus window views, when you’ve absconded, eager to leave the past behind and look to unwritten pages. Ryan Drickey (octave fiddle), Enion Pelta-Tiller (fiddle) and Daniel Plane‘s (cello) strings combined cast a potent spell, and their music’s globalized sound evokes bustling, colorful metropolises and mysterious marketplaces as easily as open spaces. The gorgeous cover of Iris DeMent’s “50 Miles of Elbow Room” stretched over the horizon, and when they played the John Hartford tune “In Tall Buildings,” a sighing comment on the workaday path many take when they grow up, it was a reminder not to lose that spark that the kids who charmed us this weekend possess. Watching youngsters run back and forth as the dust sifted between my toes, I let the song’s lessons sink in.

P. Whipped :: NWSS 2009
P. Whipped definitely win the best footwear of the weekend award, between Davies’ cat woman boots and Sharon Gilchrist‘s snakeskin platforms. Any chance to see the vivacious duo of Davies and Gilchrist throw down is a welcome one. Playing songs to melt your heart and kick your ass, they accompanied Megan McCormick, a Nashville-based singer-songwriter with a DIY vibe that I could certainly dig. McCormick has some serious blues snaking in her soul, wringing the notes out of her electric guitar, then traveling into spaciousness where the melody would just dissolve. Then Darol Anger made his first on stage appearance of the weekend to thunderous applause. It was “bluegrass time” and the foursome threw us face down in the dust. That’s some strong stuff.

This was my first time seeing Infamous Stringdusters live, and lord almighty, was I impressed. A rich full sound that’s classic, caffeinated and tight, all six Dusters are forces of nature on their own (I even noticed Greensky’s dynamic dobroman Beck videotaping Andy Hall), but combined they push it up to a category 5. It’s certainly a refreshing gale and a well-oiled machine that isn’t afraid to get a little gritty and a little greasy. Their version of Barnes’ “Get It While You Can” featured some clutching vocals on the surface and some clammy funk tickling the underbelly. The Dusters were overflowing with joy, falling under Horning’s bewitchment as they playfully ribbed each other. At one point, a lizard crawled up on one of the mic stands, just chilling while they played, a sweet little moment. “I don’t know how you people do it,” bassist Travis Book said, his perma-grin now etched in my memory, “I’ve been here three hours and I already smell terrible.” In response, someone yelled, “Welcome home!” Yup, I have a feeling these cats are going to be part of the family from now on. After the Dusters’ set, Pastor Tim led us in the traditional “beer, water” chant, advising us on how to proceed with the festivities (drink a beer, then drink some water before you drink another beer). Listen to that advice. Trust me.

Väsen :: NWSS 2009
One of two bands from Sweden in attendance this year, Väsen‘s appearance was certainly special. Mike Marshall and Anger, who released an album with the group in 2007, set the stage. Like Barnes, they both have a finely tuned cosmic tap, making everything look so damn easy. Marshall’s mando skittered across psychic walls while Anger’s fiddle split the cracks open. As they moved, I just stood there, watching with my head tilted like a thunderstruck peacock. Then Väsen joined them. The trio of Olav Johansson (nyckelharpa), Mikeal Marin (viola) and Roger Tallroth (guitar) were about to give us a crash course in the nyckelharpa (aka the key harp), the polska (a Swedish dance) and why you should never piss off a composer with a pen knife. And you got to be in awe of a setlist with music that stretches back to the 14th century – living ancient roots. As they journeyed through their set, I found myself settling in on the hill to watch. The sound painted a landscape in my head of frozen mountains, rushing rivers, purple light. As one musician would come to the front to take over, it wasn’t soloing so much as a new piece of the picture coming into focus. Dense and otherworldly, the reverberations and afterimages hung in my imagination long after it was over. Going back to that killer composer, before performing a polska called “Penknife Killer” they introduced it by talking about how the man who wrote it spent ten years in prison for murdering his butcher with a penknife. As it built and built, the fiddles screamed, carving another notch in a cold, stone wall.

That unmistakable voice. Those timeless tunes. That eternally unruffled hair. It must be Del McCoury and The Travelin’ McCourys. Flanked by his sons Ronnie (mando) and Rob (banjo), with Jason Carter (fiddle) and Alan Bartram (bass), their suited and shined presence cut quite a contrast to those of us baptized in dust (no matter how many baby wipe showers I took, by the time I walked from the campsite to the stage, it was pretty much a lost cause). It was noted a couple times that weekend that Ronnie is starting to sound more and more like his dad, and seeing the two of them lean in close to the mic for “Count Me Out” was like Del in stereo. While I love it dirty and messy, you just can’t argue with absolute timelessness. Rolling out classic after classic, spiked with cuts from their recent album, Moneyland, like the hilarious “Forty Acres and a Fool” (author Joe New was even in the audience), this set was bluegrass perfection, pure and simple. Bartram lifted our souls with a wonderful “Road is Rocky,” and “Cold Rain and Snow” was sublime, while “Beauty of My Dreams” reminded me that even though Yonder ignited that bluegrass spark for me it was Phish that first laid some kindling down. Del dropped the setlist at times and began taking requests, graciously playing “Wheel Hoss” and “Orange Blossom Special” for the eager audience. He’s got a great spirit, genially laughing about forgetting the words to songs and friskily flirting with the fillies (“I’ll take that request… because you’re real pretty”). “Bean Blossom has a lot of chiggers,” he noted at one point. “I’d rather be here than Bean Blossom,” eliciting laughter from the delighted crowd.

Del McCoury & The Travelin’ McCourys :: NWSS 2009
Jumping off the platform Del laid down, YMSB, joined by Anger, kept things grassy, with a ripping new Johnston instrumental and a bust-out of Galloway’s “Blue Collar Blues,” a working class reflection about waiting on that quitting time whistle. As Del, now dressed casually in neatly pressed jeans and a crisp white shirt, strolled out, Austin rightly said, “He’s an American treasure.” No matter where Yonder find themselves in their boundless explorations they always deeply appreciate their roots. Del’s pipes wailed strong as they rained “High on a Mountain” and “Prisoner’s Song” down upon us, and then Barnes cooly snuck on stage, ready to shake up some cerebrums. During a creepy-as-hell “Funtime,” he cackled, stirring some evil banjo elixir with Johnston.

Then, Väsen came on stage, joined by Carter (fiddle, Travelin’ McCourys), Pelta-Tiller (fiddle, Taarka), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle, Infamous Stringdusters) and Mike Marshall. Consuming the whole amphitheatre in a hydra-headed bow attack, the strings sighed, cried, serenaded. Austin then led us gently through “Years with Rose” as the fiddles brewed, measuring out their meanness, until blowing up the bank with “Raleigh and Spencer.” Austin was the mad conductor of the crazy train, incorporating the players into the lyrics as he barreled down the track (“They laid Danny Barnes in his grave!” only to have Barnes jump out with zombie attack vigor!). Player upon player, it was passed back and forth, going down the line at frightening speed. Threatening to veer off the rails, it tottered, tilted, gravity pulled it towards the edge, and then, from the depths, Austin screamed, “FIDDLES! UNLEASH HELL!!!” And, oh my lord, did they ever, ramming it upright, running that engine hotter and hotter, sparks shooting from the wheels, pushing the iron horse to the brink before riding her down into the set break station. Safe for a few moments, I found myself lounging in the grass and listening to sound engineer Ben Hines play Todd Snider’s “America’s Favorite Pastime” through the speakers.

NWSS 2009
Set two: time to boogie. A new Kaufmann tune, “Complicated,” shows his affection for the poppier side of things, but with a ripping Aijala solo in the middle, this baby runs on rock and/or roll. It was cool seeing people ease into it, taking it in, gathering the beat and then bringing arms up to dance. From the brand new to a fiddle tune so old it has no author, Marshall, Anger, Barnes and Carter strolled back on stage, later joined by Rubin, for “Elzic’s Farewell.” “We are blessed to know these people,” Austin mused, as the gang fled with “Elzic,” winding through each musician’s weapon, tempestuous as the gale passed through. Shafts of light began to break, moving into “No Expectations.” The reflections of impermanence that sweep through the song always hit my ears hard during a time in my life when I need a shift badly. Nothing lasts, we are all water, crashing on the shore – first we’re here and then we’re gone. Leading into it, I stood transfixed on the hill, watching the glowing jellyfish and dragonflies dancing across my field of vision as I took in the music, and I knew this was a moment I would hold onto. Crystalline, the musicians similarly held the notes, breathing out before breaking into the journey.

Earlier in the evening, Austin said someone told him that the space station, with the shuttle docked to it, would be flying over at 10:57 p.m. The time was approaching, and as the music surged, the crowd lost in their dances, their own stories, Austin shouted to Atwell to kill the lights. We all stared up into the sky as Atwell brought the lights down, the last remaining notes of “No Expectations” filtering into the night, leaving us all in darkness. “Can you see it?!? Can you feel it?!?!” Austin cried. All that was visible was a clear star field framed by the jagged tops of pines, and below, amongst the lustrous festival flair, thousands of hands pointing to the same corner of the sky. I ran from behind the sound booth where I was standing to fix my own gaze skyward. Then, I caught it, like a fast moving plane, as Austin yelled, “This is brought to you by NASA!”

I saw Strings for Industry last year on Friday afternoon and they threw quite a party, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what they would unleash late night. After a day of bluegrass goodness, this was the electric trip we needed. Anger’s collective draws on a variety of musical pieces, from soul to psychedelic, all heavily steeped in a booty-shaking groove. Ten-minute opener “Burnitarus” dealt out the insanity, especially with Scott Law‘s bouncing guitar lines and Anger’s distorted, slicing fiddle reminding me a little bit of moe., with its lethal combination of poppy side swipes, darkly metallic jams, and eerie noise breakdowns. As drummer Carlton Jackson got the crowd revved to some high RPMs during “Soul Power,” everyone’s arms were moving, and under the lights it looked like some great flesh anemone squiggling on the seabed. Guest vocalist Beth Quist came out for the final song and the unmistakable introductory guitar notes of “Layla” hit, Anger’s wailing fiddle tearing apart the lead, and we were burning rubber. For some reason, I have never been a huge fan of the song (unless I’m watching Goodfellas), but this cover had me rethinking my position as the crowd whistled zealously. Keyboardist Asher Fulero‘s piano lead, combined with Anger and Law’s playing, coalesced into a stadium-worthy cup-raiser to propel us into party liquor and picking circle time.

Continue reading for Sunday’s coverage of the NWSS 2009…

Sunday, July 19

Hickster & Friends NWSS 2009
Sunday began with my second helping of Crunchy Western Boys, and it was a great chance to soak up their sunshine again. Morris Manning (guitar, dobro), Jim McHugh (mando, guitar), Jacob Stern (fiddle) and Dave Walker (bass) have meaty instrumental chops and breezy, sly pens. As folks rubbed the sleep out of their eyes, they set the stage for the last day of festival with winking grins and a twist of Irish coffee. With tunes like “Bathtub Gin” (no, not the Phish song, this one is straight from the backwoods) and “Natural Blonde,” they have a touch of the bawdy barfly in them, coupled with their amiable, folksy charms, that draws you in with a crooked index finger. Readers, take note.

After an early service (hey, 11 a.m. is early for a festival!) with CBW, it was time to be received in the church of Burle. Hickster‘s lineup this year proved to be somewhat of a Superjam warm-up with Beck (dobro) Book (bass, Infamous Stringdusters) and Law (guitar) rounding out the band, and Kartsounes (guitar) and Hoffman (mando, Greensky) jumping in on a few tunes. Benny “Burle” Galloway’s work has found its way into many bands’ catalogues over the years but he himself is a perpetual spotlight shunner. He’s got a little Townes and Woody in him, as his songs saunter in straight from the oil fields, production lines and bar room floors, unwashed and dressed in simple clothes, rumbling with hunger but with no appetite for bullshit or pretension. But, there’s a tenderness in that leather and songs like “Me and You,” which he wrote for his daughter, and “Years with Rose” can’t help but nestle in your heart. He kept bringing good company to that table, too. Julie Stratton joined the band, an arresting storm with her gutsy guitar and raw, passionate vocals on “Revival.” I don’t know where she came from, but damn, I got to investigate more. “That’s my kind of religion,” Burle happily growled at the end.

Abalone Dots :: NWSS 2009
Joining in on backup with Kilroy and Bevin Foley (fiddle) on “Wind in the Willows” and “Three Men on a Hill,” Galloway was leading quite the revival of his own. Beck waved his hands, eliciting a “Hallelujah” as Galloway preached us a sermon, er, well a story about the Denver Post calling him. He chatted to the salesman for a while and then, growing tired of the sales pitch, lied and said he couldn’t read, asking, “Now can I get back to my beer?” Amen, Brother Burle. Closing the set with a lovely “Gentle on My Mind,” Burle’s battle-scarred voice in this well-loved tune made me misty.

The second band to represent Sweden this weekend was Abalone Dots. These heart-flutterers posses a divine timbre, with killer four-part harmonies, luscious instrumentation and a darkness that lurks beyond their northern lights, full of tales about shooting husbands and surviving elevator breakdowns. Whether running barefoot and folkie or adding some drums to the mix, their unique view on Americana is absorbing. Absolutely humbled and charmed at the scene unfolding in the dust before them, they mused how they never had “rock rings,” the Swedish term for hula-hoops, at their shows before (I have been calling them “rock rings” ever since). Warmly welcomed, they brought down the house with a “Man of Constant Sorrow” encore, closing a set that left a few heads reeling.

Superjam :: NWSS 2009
Trying to keep track of what’s happening on stage at every given moment during Superjam is an exercise in futility, for most. There were over 20 musicians on stage at one point, which was apparently a new Summit record. Hosted by Barnes and the McCoury brothers, the core trio held down the center as musicians jumped on and off, caught up in a revolving door spirit of collaboration. The set drew from a deep well of classic bluegrass cuts like “On My Way Back to the Old Home” and “Hit Parade of Love,” prompting audience sing-alongs with everyone caught up in the glorious clusterpluck frenzy. And of course, we got some great pick-offs, like Beck and Hall locked in a torrid dobro battle, each musician throwing their aces down. On an ending deal of “Rolling in My Sweet Babies Arms,” the McCourys took over the jam, as Barnes skittered around with glee. This was a chance to take in just how stacked the lineup was this year. At one point, as Kilroy and Gilchrist leaned in to sing a soaring “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” Barnes just stood at the side, grinning wildly at his handy work.

Before Yonder’s last show of the festival, Pastor Tim took a minute to thank Bob Horning and his family. They have taken great care with their home, and the patrons return the favor, keeping the grounds amazingly clean, with our MC even thanking the crowd at one point, saying the volunteer crews were impressed with how little they had to do. There is just an overall sense of consideration here, and when you receive it you want to give it back. It’s not lost on the musicians who play this festival, and although Sunday afternoon means the music is almost over, Yonder wasn’t through with us yet.

YMSB – Sunday :: NWSS 2009
They barreled out of the gate with turf punters “Bloody Mary Morning” and “Free to Run,” that search for freedom and turning your back and bolting for the nearest available exit, maybe knocking back a few to drown the gal or guy you left behind. The best most of us can do is take the dance floor, close our eyes and imagine ourselves asking the stewardess to make our Bloody Mary extra spicy, or perhaps we imagine watching hometown lights fade in our review mirror as night closes in. New Kaufmann tune “Easy Come Easy Gone” was (based on this first pass) about a gal who’s very much of that mercurial mind. The Superjam hosts came back to jump in the getaway car, passing around banjo solos between Barnes, Rob McCoury and Johnston on “Red Bird,” with a big ole pass off during “On the Run” to close out the set. This set was all about that chase, although we did stop for a toke with Grandma (“Granny Wontcha Smoke Some…”) and I thought about how tempting it would be to go back to Austin, TX, pick up my husband and just ride our little Mazda into the sunset.

“Keep On Going” drew me closer into the bowl for set two, carrying me on its reservoir of resilience, telling me, “Hold your head up high, and just keep moving.” We got plenty of tread as Rubin nefariously annihilated the rhythmic drive and Barnes and Johnston yucked it up with a “Dueling Banjos” tease. Moving into the spacious daydream of “Winds on Fire,” a moment of cooling respite for our feet, the bass groan seemed to reverberate under the topsoil of the bowl. But, that peace wouldn’t last long. Our daydreams turned to nightmares as we found ourselves in a hellacious “Follow Me Down to the Riverside.” We grabbed our butcher’s smocks, as things got bloody. Austin snarled and barked, throwing out tips for the sketchier uses of a pickaxe. Barnes was dialed into that psychosis with him, proffering pure banjer terror. Dangling over an empty grave with an indiscernible, stomach-clenching bottom, gradually the hand pulled us back and “KOG” placed us back on solid ground. “I had the weirdest dream,” Austin said. “I took a pickaxe to my lover. But now,” he said, lifting his face, shaking off his possession, “the sun is shining!”

YMSB w/ Barnes – Sunday :: NWSS 2009
After “Another Day,” Austin asked us to make the biggest noise we could for Sandy Alexander. Hands lifted to the skies, many cheering his memory, while others simply put their arms around each other, coming together in supportive clusters, as the band played a moving “Finally Saw the Light,” fitting for a man who brought a lot of light into many lives, particularly on a weekend celebrating the music he loved. As the family in the bowl danced to “Criminal,” then “If You’re Ever in Oklahoma,” brave smiles turned upwards towards the heavens as the family on stage began to grow. The McCourys and Jesse Cobb (mando, Infamous Stringdusters), began the great stage rush during “Oklahoma,” inspiring a wicked mando round robin. Every time you blinked an eye someone else was picking up a fiddle or a guitar or a tuba, or simply standing in the back to provide vocal support. During “Way Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie,” I counted 23 musicians on stage as Austin ran back and forth across a staggering vision of musical kinship, where even some of the musicians were dancing, caught up in the joyous anarchy. Austin bowed to everyone before they left the stage.

As Yonder returned for an encore of traditional “Darling Alalee,” a rare treat, and “Troubled Mind,” (with Austin commenting, “At least it’s a fast one so it will hurt!”), they expressed their gratitude to us for coming for another year, taking a well deserved bow.

On the plane ride home, I twirled my peacock feather in my seat as I stared out the window at Mount Hood shrinking in the distance. At one point, Kaufmann had discussed cultivating appreciation versus seeking out moments of delight. Spiritually speaking, it seemed a bit heavy while I was raging in the dust, but ruminating over it later it spoke to how I was feeling. We chase down moments of ecstatic sunshine, cathartic punches and jaw drops. As one card aptly said this year, “The upside of the land beyond, the music kicks,” and, man, did it kick this year. But overall, what I left with from Summit this time was a sense of deep appreciation, for not only the music but also the conversations by the lake, the laughs in the beer garden, the living room wake-up calls at Camp Turtle, the late night astro jack lessons, and the moments where we just shut up and danced. It’s what I’ll keep rooted in the solid soil of my heart as I count down the days until I can go back home.

YMSB & Friends – Sunday :: NWSS 2009
Thanks to Pastor Tim and Bill Ball for their diligent fact checking (hope I didn’t miss anybody). Thanks to everyone who tore it up with me this weekend (hell yeah!). Thanks to everyone that keeps this festival running. Thanks to Jonathan and Amy-la. And get well soon Kevin G.

Continue reading for more pics of NWSS 2009…

Sandy Alexander
Yonder Mountain String Band & Friends
Pete Kartsounes & Benny Galloway
Danny Barnes – Bad Livers
Bad Livers
Bad Livers with Jeff Austin
Pete Kartsounes
Band Competition
Greensky Bluegrass
Mike Marshall
Danny Barnes with YMSB
YMSB celebrating Adam Aijala’s Birthday
Strings for Industry
Jessica Kilroy & Benny Galloway
Ockham’s Razor
Bucky Walters
Infamous Stringdusters
Abalone Dots
Del McCoury & The Travelin’ McCourys
Benny “Burle” Galloway
YMSB & Friends

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