“Wow,” mouthed Steep Canyon Rangers fiddler Nicky Sanders to his Yonder Mountain String Band counterpart Allie Kral, huge smiles filling both their faces. The pair had just finished an epic 20-minute jam of a set closer that included a beyond-belief solo from Sanders using only three strings (a casualty from a previous wicked solo) in addition to a jazzy, Danny Barnes-inspired banjo break that had Yonder five-stringer Dave Johnston yelping with incredulity at the audacity of it all.
Wows, smiles, epic beyond-belief jams, yelps, incredulity, audacity….all of these words define the fifteenth edition of Northwest Strings Summit, held at Horning’s Hideout in North Plains, Oregon about fifteen miles west of Portland this July. It might be a trek for some of us Southeasterners, but trust me, put this one on your festival must-go list; it is definitely one of the majors.
For one thing, it’s infused with Portland weirdness, and with advance apologies to Asheville, NC and Austin, TX, Portland wins the weirdness battle hands down. From “The Happiest Man on Earth” dancer to the guy in the homemade pink duck tape tuxedo and top hat, NWSS exuded a refreshing, inclusive vibe as vivid as the live peacocks roaming the grounds of Horning’s Hideout.
The main stage is set in an natural amphitheater; a quick pivot from the rail showcases the entire wraparound hillside as it becomes one giant patchwork quilt of blankets rimmed by a cordon of ENO hammocks at the top. The Furthur bus overlooked the scene leading to Vendor Alley and the Kinfolk Revival Tent Stage, and its roof served as the ‘between sets’ stage. Down the canyon and towards the campground are the Cascadia and Troubadour stages, snuggled into the flora and fauna like they’re ready for a gnome convention, complete with their own craft beer station.
For camping, imagine the woods and trails of an East Coast festival like The Festy Experience transplanted into a Middle Earth-like rainforest lushness. Every tree and rock was covered in bright green lichens, massive ferns were splaying into every open space – all this set underneath a canopy of giant Douglas firs and hemlocks.
The lineup was as lush as the surroundings. Yonder Mountain String Band and Greensky Bluegrass times three, the Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon, Lil’ Smokies, Cabinet, Brothers Comatose times two, Railroad Earth, Keller Williams, Fruition, plus summer camp grin-inducing collaborations lasting deep into the night.
Most memorable moments:
Billy Strings after a rip-roaring left hand dance: “That was so fast you couldn’t even tap your foot to it!”
Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon turning his guitar into a dobro for a faux dual with Anders Beck of Greensky Bluegrass, after which Anders told the crowd: “If you like all this, blame this guy and Leftover Salmon, because they started it all!”
A plethora of North Carolina sweetness injections, including the Steeps jumping off the stage onto the woofers to close out “Monumental Fools,” (an ode to Asheville) and Andy Thorn of Leftover Salmon touting his UNC-CH roots.
A “Fallen Heros” set organized by RRE’s Tim Carbone that featured Vince Herman and the Shook Twins covering David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and Dave Bruzza’s soulful rendition of Merle Haggard’s “Momma Tried.”
Chris Pandolfi and Andy Falco of the Infamous Stringdusters facing off in a 10-minute jam of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” after a Jeremy Garrett rendition of “Big River” that had even the Douglas firs surrounding the bowl leaning in like willows weeping for more.
Witnessing the crowd’s reaction to The Lil’ Smokies. The Montana natives’ Furthur bus performance drew by far the biggest attendance of the weekend, and their Sunday night Revival Tent session pulsed energy matched only by Greensky and the ‘Dusters in full throat.
Dave Bruzza and Larry Keel atop the Furthur bus stage, peeling off multiple layers of Salt Creek while dubbing their performance the “How to Grow a Mustache Symposium.”
You know it’s been a great festival when your steps on Sunday are a little bit heavy laden – not because you’ve partied too much, slept too little, or let your happy feet have their way too often – but rather because there’s something melancholy about leaving just-met friends and the inherent appeal of festival life. Strummit is that kind of festival.