The focus on this year’s String Summit would obviously be on Jeff Austin. He was a crucial part of the festival’s history and his recent passing cast shadows over the event. However with 4 stages and music going 17 hours a day, there was room for many highlights. Presented in chronological order only, here are the 10 moments at the Strummit that blew me away.
Yonder Mountain String Band – Elevation Set Friday Night
While bands playing their old albums have long since been a
standard thing, Yonder has had an unofficial policy of not playing Jeff Austin
songs since he left the band. The first large gathering of Yonder’s fanbase
would be the perfect time to end that. Also factor in that their first album Elevation was 20 years old, and this was
a great setting to reflect on their history.
Ben Kauffman was in storyteller mode in this night. He alternated between self-deprecation (“[Elevation is] a pretty good record. I personally can’t stand the way that I sound on it because you can tell that I’m from Massachusetts. No one should ever pronounce the word ‘half’ like that.” “[‘40 Miles From Denver’ was] basically the first song that I ever wrote. And everybody tells me that’s it’s their favorite. Twenty-one years latter I can’t beat ’40 Miles from Denver.’”) and expressing remorse over Jeff’s passing.
Two moments really stood out during this tribute. After the “we’ll meet you in the valley after one more Jagermeister shot” line in “If There’s Still Ramblin’ in the Rambler,” shots were indeed brought on stage. While the band mocked about how they were too old to drink Jager anymore, and said, “We drink this. Let’s hurt our livers one more time for Jeff Austin; let’s do it!” there was a surprising poignancy. Somehow there was a reflection of aging and loss mixed in with the repetition of an old ritual.
Towards the end of the set, Kaufmann admitted that what
everyone hoped for was what they wanted too, “For me, I always thought there’d
be a little more time. And at some point there’d be this great Yonder reunification
of some kind. If not professionally and touring around or whatever, just
personally. And all of a sudden, damnit, you realize you don’t have that kind
One of the things you learn as you age is that even if when relationships get weird and end in bad places, when you give yourself to one, it still becomes part of you. Few things are more frustrating than the death of someone with whom things got so bad that you were required to part ways. Just knowing how to react to it can become complicated. It’s never something I’d wish on anyone, let alone people who have to publicly react to thousands of observers, many who have their own competing beliefs about how things should have gone down. Yonder gave us a brief window into that, and that itself was a touching moment making the festival worth attending.
Shook Twins – Late night set, Friday night
In most of the past few years, the Shook Twins have had a late night set at the String Summit. Each night they have used it to stretch out from their usual territory, via guests or – as in the case of last year – doing a one time remix of some of their songs to hear how they’d sound with different arrangements. While their technique has changed, one thing has been true in the two late sets that I’ve been lucky enough to see: both times there have been multiple young girls, somewhere in the 8 to 10 year old range if I had to estimate, looking at the stage in awe.
Here’s the thing about Shook Twins. In a world filled with
trolling and the raising of animosity in every forum in every way possible, the
Shookies are a force of sheer positivity. While they understand that where we
are isn’t necessarily the best headspace, their entire raison d’etre seems to
be to tell us that this isn’t all that’s out there. Everyone else took disgust
and frustration from 2016 and its election; the Shookies came back and wrote
“What Have We Done” for Bernie Sanders, with the motto, “We can all do better.
We can all do a little bit better.”
They live in a world with good people who are trying to do the right thing. Even when characters in their songs do bad things, they can be shamed. “Shake” has them ask, “What are you going to say when they ask you why you chose to live this way in your short, short time here on Earth?”
Both of those songs were played in the late night set. Beyond that, it was incredibly fun. They invited guests on stage, and made a point of letting them all know that they were cherished. It was silly and playful while still managing to be intelligent, two hours of good people playing good music and a crowd completely receptive to that. That’s why the girls in the crowd were allowed to stay up way past any sane concept of a bedtime. There’s something amazing about seeing women just take an attitude of “This is who we are. We’re not going to change. We’re just going to take what we are and push it as far as we can and see what happens,” and have things work out. Invite Jay Cobb Anderson on stage on the spur of the minute because you just like playing with him? Of course he’ll fit in perfectly and take a great solo.
When they’re on and letting things happen, Shook Twins are a massively life affirming act, the complete antidote to everything else in the world. I don’t know if Laurie and Katelyn Shook have detailed policies about taxes or if Niko Slice has mastered the art of diplomacy, but in that moment, it felt like there could be far worse fates than just putting Shook Twins in charge of things and seeing just how far good intentions from smart people can take us.
Trout Steak Revival, Kitchen Dwellers, and Handmade Moments – throughout the weekend
If the Northwest String Summit has a potential problem in its future, it’s a good one to have in some ways. There was an incredible crop of bands that went from new and obscure to being staples of the scene. Fruition, Shook Twins, The Lil Smokies all rose from this scene at the same time as Greensky Bluegrass and Elephant Revival made names for themselves in other forums. For a few years there, it was like being a fan of a football team where every single player that they drafted was about to become a hall of famer.
The problem with that is that you can’t keep up that streak
forever. As bands grow, they want to be able to make enough money to actually
afford to continue to be touring musicians. For a festival to keep thriving,
you need newer bands to keep coming in at the same time. While none of these
bands are completely new to the scene – Handmade Moments toured with Yonder
earlier this year and both Kitchen Dwellers and Trout Steak have played the
festival before – this felt like a year where they all took a big jump.
Even though they were newcomers to the String Summit, you couldn’t avoid Handmade Moments this year. Whether it was Joel Ludford playing sousaphone with Shook Twins in the aforementioned late night followed by him leading a one man parade out of the second stage and out to the campground beyond, sousaphoning away or Anna Moss providing vocals for pretty much any band that needed them, including some of the centerpiece sets of the festival, they immediately fit right into the spirit of the event. Sure it seems weird to have a band that regularly has absolutely no strings performing be a fit for a string summit, but it’s about the vibe of Horning’s Hideout, and that they seem to have.
Trout Steak Revival also received some choice sit in slots. Bevin Foley was a frequent guest, including forming a two woman fiddle section with Allie Kral during Yonder Saturday night; the two of them spent the song laughing over jokes that only female violinists would ever be able to appreciate. It’s not just Bevin. The band as a whole managed to make a huge jump. In 2015 they played one of the worst time slots available at a festival: second stage on Sunday morning at 9:15 AM. No, seriously, they actually had a 9:15 AM slot, playing to insomniacs and extreme morning people. 2019 gave them a mainstage slot and an early afternoon performance for their second stage set.
While Kitchen Dwellers were mainly there to play tweener sets while the mainstage switched acts, the crowd for them is also expanding. Despite their conflict with Trampled by Turtles, a crowd started gathering during their sound check. By the time their set started, it was filled with fans who were singing along to the originals.
While Kitchen Dwellers were an extreme example, in general the second stage was more crowded this year than it had been in the past. Sometimes walking up the steep hill to get from the main bowl to the other act, can feel like a daunting task. Right now the attendees seem excited about the concept of finding the next series of bands they will love. Trout Steak Revival and Kitchen Dwellers are string centric, Handmade Moments are more varied with their instrumentation. All three though are writing interesting, melodic songs – Trout Steak focuses on harmonies and great hooks, Kitchen Dwellers have complex songs with many parts, and Handmade Moments go for weirder tunes as befitting a band that sells a t-shirt that simply says “Stop the Wars” and a sticker that depicts adult behavior; they’re playing their own game – which in a different era would be the rock and pop songs that get radio play. In 2019 finding that sound means attending specialty festivals.
The Dead South – mainstage, Saturday afternoon
Speaking of bands that operate under the umbrella of
bluegrass but don’t have any interest in a traditional sound, The Dead South
had a fascinating midday set on Saturday. Before the festival started, when
fans were asking what band they should make an effort to see, The Dead South
were a frequent answer.
In terms of image, they looked like they were going to be the most traditional band of the day. They came out in dress shirts and suspenders. They didn’t have drums or keyboards or weird pedals to create their sound. However, they seemed borderline incapable of writing a normal song. Songs would suddenly shift on a dime. At one point there were two random screams in the middle of an unrelated song. They promised a 15 minute song – at which point a few people looked at me and demanded a timing; it was only 9, which still was reasonably impressive for the genre – which both showed that they understand the normal boundaries of what the bluegrass world is about, and try to explore as they can while still staying strongly in the world. Breaking the rules, while respecting them. In that way, they managed to be one of the most traditional bands playing the festival even as they ventured out in their own path.
String Band – mainstage, Saturday night
The Saturday night Yonder show at String Summit is one of their defining sets of their year. There is always a visual spectacle provided by Tyler Fuqua Creations. In recent years, they’ve been doing an album cover on electric instruments: two years of Pink Floyd followed by a more divisive cover of Steve Miller’s Greatest Hits. This year they moved away from the album idea and just decided to invite their friends on stage and play songs that they love; it was a mix tape set.
Due to a soundboard mishap, the first few songs ended up
being the soundcheck. As the set progressed though, it started to get really
interesting. After performing a He’s Gone (for Jeff obviously), they brought
Brad Parsons on stage to play Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta.” As the artwork
came into play – some weird theme about giant glowing flowers with women in bee
costumes dancing on them, but it’s also outer space, perhaps because Science
Fiction is known to have a lot of B movies? This year the theme was a tad
foreshadowed by a request for us to dance as bees or flowers (or astronauts)
but everyone forgot. I guess the post didn’t have enough buzz to it. – Allie
Kral played the most euphoric fiddle solo. It may be people in costume dancing
on LED lit flowers as a post-grunge song from the late 90s played, but that
doesn’t mean that it won’t be one of those moments that stick with me forever.
Horning’s Saturday nights are known for that.
While the “Flagpole Sitta” was the peak, there are two other songs that need to be mentioned. Following that, Handmade Moments came out and helped Yonder play a 15 minute version of Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Outside of the “Echoes” from the Meddle set a few years ago, this is the weirdest I’ve ever seen Yonder get. If someone wants Northwest String Summit explained in a minute, the video clip I have of Yonder Mountain String Band playing a surreal jam as giant flowers spin around might be the perfect summary. Yeah, technically a “string summit,” but…
The cool down after this had the three singers of Fruition take verses of Dobie Gray’s 1969 hit “Drift Away.” Fruition like to bring some songs that are thought of as cheesy to the String Summit, going as far as to perform “Afternoon Delight” with the Shook Twins in 2014. Like that version, this just worked, reminding people that there’s a reason these songs became hits.
Before moving on, there’s one more thing about “Fencepole Sitta” that helps to explain the Strummit experience. One of the best aspects about Horning’s Hideout is that it somehow is in a cell phone dead zone. No matter what provider you use, your phone stops working when you get to the box office near the top of the hill. It’s a mile long, steep walk to get to a place where you can post photos to Instagram.
Without phones, if you want to know something, you have to ask people. In this case, I wanted to know what the title of “Fencepole Sitta” was for my notes. I asked maybe two dozen people on Saturday night and Sunday morning. The most common result – other than arguing if it was by Green Day or a one hit wonder that kind of reminded people of Green Day – was to just sing the chorus. I finally got the correct answer from a woman named Ripley (and she did indeed say that the answer was so random, that just this once I could make a believe it or not joke), but before that I was wondering if the name of the song was to sing the chorus. If I were a musician, that would be my prank. If you want to write down the song title, you need to include the sheet music. Good luck with that Spotify!
Fruition – mainstage, late Saturday night
Normally the post artwork Yonder set is of a funk band, kind
of a palate cleanser. This year that role was to be from Galactic, but some
airplane mishaps forced them to swap set times with Fruition who were doing the
late night. While it was fun to see this guest laden set on the big stage (well or to see it at all; the second stage
is intimate but it can be hard to get a good spot when a popular band plays a
late night) including Daniel Rodriguez singing his Elephant Revival song “The
Garden,” Brad Parsons doing the honor on his tune “Montana,” and Allie Kral
coming out for “Fire,” a song that is always better with her sitting in, the
change had one issue. That stage has a much stricter curfew. Unfortunately the
“Sinnerman” which was supposed to be the mid “Fire” song had to be jettisoned
due to time, a serious loss as Mimi does an amazing job singing this. Moreover,
they didn’t have time for their final song, “Meet Me on the Mountain.”
Instead of just blowing that one off though, they tried something different. The curfew was only for the sound and the light. There’s no rule saying that they couldn’t walk off the stage, go to the front of the photo pit, and play without any amplification.
I’ve seen bands play this game before – Phish used to love doing this in early 90s in small theatres – but never in an outdoor open space. With easily 1000 people there, it would have been so easy for the sound to evaporate or be drowned out by talkers, especially considering this was happening at 1:30 on Saturday night/Sunday morning, the prime time for people to be maximizing their fun. Instead what happened was a crowd that was insanely respectful, completely quiet during Allie’s mid song solo. What it morphed into was a sing-along of the chorus, led by Jay, but gladly continued by the rest of us. Especially as this is a song that touches upon topics of death, this was an incredibly touching performance, one that still brings chills whenever I listen to the recording. The reason we go to festivals instead of just watching live streams is in the hope to catch a moment like this. Fruition threw the potential out there and the rest of us proved worthy of it.
Jeff Austin Service –
Cascadia stage, Sunday morning.
There’s probably no better time to honor a fallen musician at a festival than early Sunday morning. The service featured speeches by the String Summit’s MC Pastor Tim Christensen (in this case, yes he is an actual pastor), Kristin Trippe – mother of Lilli Trippe, a young girl who got terminal cancer way too young but had Yonder (and Jeff Austin in particular) do everything they could to try to send healing energy her way – and Yonder’s Dave Johnston.
Kristen talked about how Jeff directly affected Lilli, ““After a dedication to Lilli on NYE, I reached out to Jeff and told him that the energy from those songs and from the crowd was transcending the medicine. Then the band started doing something magical. Every night, Yonder would stop the show and ask the crowd to send love to Lilli. To take some of that magical musical energy and put it in a bubble. And then they sent that bubble to us. This metaphorical, but palpable energy kept us going and more importantly, kept Lilli going. In my heart, I know it kept her alive.” Dave told a story about how he could never quite figure out how to sing the high notes associated without a struggle and he had never harmonized with anyone before, but when he met Jeff Austin, Austin started playing “I Know You Rider,” and for the first time, he managed to sing in harmony.
Referring back to the “Meet Me on the Mountain” the night before, we then were led in a singing of the first verse of “Amazing Grace.” The power of harmonizing was used for all of us as a group together. Once again we were reminded that music isn’t just about being entertained. It can serve a communal purpose. It can help us celebrate and grieve.
Brad Parson’s Gospel Set – Cascadia Stage, Sunday morning
Following the memorial service would be difficult, but at
least a gospel set would be thematically appropriate. After a brief… well
almost brief… sermon by Brad Parson’s father and former pastor Rick, the band went
through a series of gospel songs and repurposed rock numbers. Perhaps the peak
was the “My Sweet Lord,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” combination. One song
is about praise  the second about accepting that life will end at some
point, and that’s something we’re all going to have to deal with. That formed a
moving coda to the earlier Amazing Grace and made this an incredibly powerful
A Sunday Gospel set seems to serve multiple purposes. For a few people it’s a way to apologize for their excesses of the night before, for others it’s a return to traditions they were raised in and some of the first music that they ever loved. For this Jewish reporter, it served as a window into what gospel services are like for those who celebrate that way. The music was powerful, reminding that at its core Christianity can center around forgiveness and kindness, knowing that when everything is bleak that there is a power that will make things better. Regardless of personal beliefs, that’s a strong message, especially in an event where we’re all in mourning to some degree.
The Infamous Stringdusters – mainstage, Sunday afternoon
If there’s one thing that the Northwest String Summit is known for, it’s collaborative work. What makes this festival so special is the sit ins and one time performances that will never happen again. One of those happened on Sunday, as Lindsey Lou came out with the Stringdusters and belted “Respect.”
What makes these moments so great is that the energy can
infect the rest of the set. The “Another One Like You” > “Run to Heaven” and
“Keep It Coming” were very high energy affairs and covers of both Phish
(“Free”) and the Grateful Dead (“Tennessee Jed,” plus another tease of the
“Terrapin Station” that they had played at their earlier set), kept everyone
excited. The Stringdusters are becoming a mainstay at Northwest String Summit
and their sets this year showed that there is no threat whatsoever of that
tradition being stopped anytime soon.
Sideboob – mainstage,
I can write an entire think piece about Sideboob. What’s so fascinating to me about this band is that they really do show how inclusion can matter. The bluegrass scene has always been traditionally drawn artists from one gender. Even the early Jamgrass bands – String Cheese Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon – were all male. Part of the result of that is the songs that they chose to play.
Yes, they expanded the canon beyond the same old bluegrass songs that everyone played, but they went to the classic rock well. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a male who grew up in the 70s. I love the classic rock influence. But as much as I love hearing Greensky Bluegrass break into a Pink Floyd song, that songbook was starting to feel just as much of a cliché as Del McCoury playing a Bill Monroe song.
The third generation of Jamgrass has been much more coed. It’s almost rare to see a band without at least one female member. What that means is that a festival like Northwest String Summit, one that seems to make a concerted effort to not be an all male event, can have a band like Sideboob happen that has 25 different women on stage, and not all of the women who played the event were able to perform during this set.
The result of having people from a different musical background on the stage is that they have different influences. At best, artists like TLC and Madonna are largely considered guilty pleasures, something to listen to and at least pretend you don’t like as much as you do. Sideboob treat that catalog much differently. Songs like “Waterfalls” and “Like a Prayer” aren’t performed as a joke or an indulgence. Instead they’re presented as great tunes. If, like me, you didn’t know them, you’re missing out. Their annual set is both a celebration of what first made these women want to perform music and an invitation to everyone who sneered at or ignored this catalog.
Perhaps the quintessential song this year was “No Scrubs.” This is a song that gets pigeonholed in pop culture as being déclassé, such as in a recent episode of Veronica Mars where the titular character is drunk and screams at a DJ to play it. It would be so easy to play this off for humor value, as something that they liked as kids but they have so much better taste now. Instead it was the flip of the earlier Gospel Hour. Brad Parsons gave a window into being raised in church and seeing music through those eyes. These amazing women let us experience the feeling of turning on the radio, hearing an amazing pop song, and having a whole new world open to them. Sure both of these could be seen as really fun sets of music (and they both were indeed that) but in an era that’s becoming defined by meanness and people retreating to self-similar silos, there’s an importance to exposing ourselves to universes that we don’t immediately understand. If that can be done through a stunning 5 piece fiddle section and tight harmonies and women reproducing the dance moves that they loved when they’re young and a sheer joy and enthusiasm, this task becomes something to seek out.
Moment 1: Late Night Saturday, art area
If there’s one thing that defines Horning’s Hideout from a fan perspective, it’s that it tends to draw overeducated crowds. The lack of Internet means that you have to ask people for information instead of just googling on our phones, so that lets interesting conversations happen. Once I got into a long discussion with my wife about what the difference between a fruit and a berry was. I was guessing it had something to do with seeds, but the strawberry I was eating had seeds on the outside as opposed to a blueberry. As we were sitting there, I asked a random woman passing by. It turned out that she was a botanist and explained that I was more or less on the right path but that strawberries weren’t fruits. Rather they were fleshy receptacles. Another year, we were looking at the Fuqua creation for the festival and arguing if the gloating wooden animal being carried around was a dolphin or a whale. The person next to us jumped in with, “While I am not a marine mammalian, I am a zoologist. It has flukes. It’s a whale.”
This year, there was a little art area by the second stage. One of the featured exhibits was a room that had headphones. From the outside, it looked like people just making random noises for no apparent reason. Once you put the headphones on though, any sound echoed through them multiple times, making even the most banal clap or whistle sound rather intense.
OK, fun little game for hippies. I put on the headphones, hit a wall rhythmically, and enjoyed the effect. It was a cool palate cleanser between the “Meet Me on the Mountain,” and going to see Galactic, but nothing too memorable. Then one more person entered the room. With his beard and carrying a staff that had LEDs on the end to make it light up, he had the wizard look down pat. But then he transcended the sing/whistle/clap mentality of the room by dramatically reciting “Jabberwocky” from memory, acting out the “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!\The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!” and later using his staff to be the vorpal blade.
Many events have cool little trippy toys for people to entertain themselves after the music ends. It’s at the String Summit where we get a successful performance art piece.
Moment 2: A Brief Bit of Banter, Mainstage, Friday evening
Towards the tail end of Fruition’s first set, after Kellen Asebroek announced that Yonder was following them, Mimi Naja made an aside, “I think Tommy’s gonna take his first steps and walk out to mama Allie [Kral]. I’m calling it.”
Lots of festivals talk about having family vibes and many of them succeed. Del Fest and High Sierra have people coming back for years due as much to the feel of the festival as the music. However the String Summit has family in a much deeper way. When you invite a core of bands to the festival for years, when you encourage them to hang out and rehearse and perform fun side projects on second stages, there can reach a point where they become close. They know each other’s kids and where they are in development and want only good things for them. Moreover the crowd seeing Fruition – and Fruition are beloved at the String Summit and draw a huge crowd – also would largely know that Allie recently had a child.
New songs will be written, some bands will take years off, but unlike any other music event I’ve even been to, the Northwest String Summit really feels like a family reunion more than a concert. We’ve experienced growth and success and tragedy together. This really is less of an event where rock gods play music to us, and more a ritual return to a home where we see how we’ve all changed in the last year. When things get weird, returning to friends and family and familiar places can comfort in ways that few other things can.
 I’ll admit that I first found it a bit off to hear a song about Hare Krishna to be repurposed as a gospel song. However, this was a tribute to the Nina Simone version which eliminated the chant at the end. And even George Harrison recorded an early version – sometimes called the “Gospel Version – that doesn’t have the Krisha chants at the end. As they made a point to make this set be about respect for everyone no matter what your beliefs are, and did perform the Hare Krishna chant the previous year, this turned out to be a setlist call, not some sort of message.
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”:http://twitter.com/zzyzx and has a daily update on ” the Phish Stats Facebook page”:http://www.facebook.com/pages/PhishStats/117887901583978?ref=ts
His book This Has All Been Wonderful is available on Amazon, the Kindle Store, and “his Create Space store: https://www.createspace.com/4667209.