Some festivals are on the cutting edge of popular culture. They might only happen once but for that moment they represent what the world is about. If a cultural zeitgeist is what you’re looking for in an event, you must be appalled at the very existence of the Northwest String Summit.
In an era of charging stations to facilitate Instagram posting of selfies, Hornings Hideout exists in an Internet dead zone. Allegedly there’s wifi you can purchase but few if any do. Phones are just for cameras and most people just leave them in their cars. The 21st century might be a time of Apple/Google Pay and credit card backed RFID wristbands to pay for merchandise but many food vendors are cash only. They’re only now starting to think about having add ons, but even that is more practical—tents already setup for those who don’t want to fly with camping gear—than an attempt to create an 21st century audience caste system, in which some events have multiple levels of VIP each of which excludes the peons who were so poor that they could only afford a lower level.
Not only can you not purchase VIP at the String Summit, but what that gets you is not some dedicated viewing space at the front of the stage but a small area behind where you can’t see or hear that well. Sure the festival has embraced LED light for artistic purposes and now has multiple stages, but otherwise it says, “This is who I am. You might hate me and that’s fine, but this is what I’m going to do!” If that’s not enough to terrify the irony lovers you have the music itself.
Bluegrass is one of the older American musical art forms but it now more or less exists seemingly as a punchline. Sure, there’s some respect, albeit a grudging one, from those who are post-instruments for the legends of the field, but the Strummit largely traffics in bands that quickly glance at the platonic ideal of the genre but then add a drummer or a keyboard or effects or covers of 1970s hits or insist on having extended jams that hit a spacey segment before launching into a peak. Bluegrass and jamming: describe this festival and you probably could power the houses of 10,000 hipsters from the energy behind their collective eye rolling.
As much as the String Summit feels like a product of a different era, or – to be more precise – an era that never happened on our cynical version of Earth but really took over a more fun and sincere one in the 90s, there is one way in which it does feel like a 21st century phenomenon. In an era of intersectionality taking over the political world, Sideboob is the perfect band.
With Fruition’s Mimi Naja, the Shook Twins, Allie Kral from Yonder, Elephant Revival’s Bridget and Bonnie, Portland’s petite female answer to John Popper: Kat Fountain, and now Alexis Mahler on bass, there was no shortage of talent on stage. What was more impressive than the talent was what they chose to do with it: well-played grass influenced covers of 90s R&B songs.
If you could rank genres that I’m knowledgeable about and listen to frequently, 90s pop music would rank up there with gangsta rap and punkabilly. Despite that, Sideboob is always the very top of my must see list at the String Summit every time they play. Why? Because they sell it.
There were a lot of tributes at this festival. Between Yonder Mountain String Band performing all of Meddle, the Picking on Phish performance by Dead Phish Orchestra, and the sets honoring Chuck Berry and the Allmans, there was no shortage of musicians I like covering others that I listen to regularly. That’s a fairly easy concept to excite me. With Sideboob, it’s an insight into a different world. When these songs were on the charts, I was busy following the Grateful Dead and Phish around the country.
Attending a cover set when you don’t know the material can be weird, but in this case everyone else picked up the slack. These songs were in complete joyous singalong territory with everyone knowing the words of all of the songs. When I say “everybody,” mind you, what I mean mainly is the female population of the audience. Unlike a normal jamband concert, this crowd was female dominant.
The feedback loop between the crowd and the band and the reversal of the usual gender dynamics gave a unique energy. First time attendee Annette Smith was particularly floored, remarking, “It’s not just amazing to see so many talented women on the stage, it’s amazing to see that 80% of the first twenty rows are women!”
Yes, I didn’t know the words, I didn’t know the dances, I had to google all of the song titles when I posted videos to Instagram. It didn’t matter. Between dancing with mammarian beach balls that later got thrown into to the crowd, having dancers on stage, a brief tap dance solo, and just well-played performances all around, they took this idea and ran with it as hard they possibly could. As the finale of Four Non Blondes “What’s Going On,” reached its peak, Mimi jumped onto the dancers platform stuck out her tongue and took a guitar solo. Just by itself, it was a moment of celebration, but then the gods came down and infused her solo with a passion and energy that is rarely achieved. It was one of those sublime moments that we all chase, something that keeps us coming back to see music.
I used to think that Sideboob should tour but now I know that I’m wrong. The band embraces the ethos of the Strummit more than any other. They’re going to do this unpopular looking thing. They’re going to completely buy into it. By doing so, they will create an event that becomes unmissable. Sometimes, just sometimes, an idea, passion, and sheer force of will can take disparate elements and create something transcendental.
Five Other Highlights in no Particular Order
1) There was a conflict Friday that pained me. Fruition’s Jay Cobb Anderson was playing a tiny stage in the woods while the tribute to Chuck Berry was happening in the tent. I decided to split the event and go see Jay first. During his set, he played a song about a car that his father and him used to work on. He followed that with the banter of, “That song is from a genre I love: songs that you think are about girls but really are about cars.” After his set wound down, I ran to the tent. Two songs later Anderson came out for his tribute. What song did he play? “Maybellene” Nothing like setting up a punchline that only a few people would get.
2) There are some bands where I see their set and I have a lot to write about. My mind is filled with lyrical analyses and comments about their style. And then there’s Elephant Revival. I loved their afternoon set, but my stunning insight was just, “Wow, these guys are so good.” I apologize for the lack of insight but sometimes haunting beauty doesn’t leave a trace.
3) I’m a morning person. I’m the guy who shows up at that 10 AM festival set more than the one who stays to the end of the late night. Having not seen them since December, I wasn’t going to blow off any of Fruition but I was flagging around 2:30 AM. Then they closed their set with “The Wanter” and “Boil Over” and I was suddenly running laps around the back of the tent. Factor in the “Misty Night” encore with tons of guests that turned a cappella track into one with a jam that could have easily segued into “Lovelight” and it turns out that Fruition can raise the dead… or at least the sleepy.
4) The hardest part about the String Summit is finding your camping spot. It’s always a game of balancing stage proximity and quietness while looking for flat ground. We found what appeared to be a good one and started to set up, only to see a sign for the camp next to us saying, “Babies only.” Oh crap! Are we camped next to a lot of young kids?
Fortunately, it turned out that that was just the name of their camp. In fact, not only were they quiet during obvious sleeping hours, but they provided entertainment. There was some surreal talent show to confuse us and – in the case at least one act before we knew that it was a talent show and not the initial formings of a cult – make us a tad concerned as to why they were chanting, “Cows with guns.” Part of the joy of the String Summit is that it’s an interesting, creative crowd. Yes the talent is on the stage, but the attendees bring their own intrigue.
5) Meddle is my favorite Pink Floyd album. I have to admit that I was a tad worried about Yonder Mountain taking up electric instruments to perform it. There were so many ways that it could fall flat. My worries didn’t last too long.
“One of These Days” started out rather intense. There was nothing even vaguely bluegrass about it. It didn’t quite hit the peaks of the studio version – mainly because I’m very attached to those guitar licks at the end. Allie’s violin runs were rather impressive and work so well but my mind wanted those exact riffs damnit! – but it was really good. That would be the worst performance of the set.
“A Pillow of Winds” managed to pull off the platonic ideal of a cover. It stayed true to the power of the original but it did so in the style of the coverers. Jolliff takes over this version about two minutes in with the fiery mandolin runs that no one knew that this song was missing. His playing intertwines with guest keyboardist Asher Fulero to create an amazing hybrid early Floyd bluegrass combination. It might not be the song people think of when they think of this album, but it was a highlight of the weekend.
Regardless of surprising moments, any cover of Meddle is going to be judged by the “Echoes.” Fortunately Yonder was not found wanting in the slightest. Clocking in at a half hour, it seamlessly moves back and forth between deep space and dark, fast moments. There are so many chances to stumble here, but Yonder soared.
If “One of These Days” is giving Kral her chance to shine and “A Pillow of Winds” was about Jolliff, “Echoes” gave Ben Kauffman a platform to prove that, while the acoustic bass might be his normal weapon of choice, he knows how to wield an electric to create the vistas that a song like this needs.
When you throw a four-day festival with dozens of bands, there’s always the chance that the highlight will be some set on a 3rd stage on Friday. Despite all of the amazing music – I didn’t even mention the very strong Greensky Bluegrass shows – Yonder Mountain String Band made the centerpiece song of the centerpiece set the highlight of the weekend, if not one of the all time highlights of any Northwest String Summit.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He now tweets and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page
His book This Has All Been Wonderful is available on Amazon, the Kindle Store, and “his Create Space store.”: https://www.createspace.com/4667209