By Matt Wickstrom
Tucked away in the cool mountains of North Plains, Oregon, Horning’s Hideout provided the perfect scenic escape for a weekend of bluegrass euphoria at the 15th annual Northwest String Summit, hosted by Nederland, Colorado’s Yonder Mountain String Band.
After sets from Greensky Bluegrass, Infamous Stringdusters, Fruition and others on Thursday night, Friday’s main stage action featured several promising up-and-coming bands in the early afternoon as part of the festival’s band competition. Bands featured included The Sweet Lillies, The Hollerbodies, and The Riverside, but it was Minneapolis, Minnesota’s Ginstrings that took home the top prize and earned a spot at next year’s String Summit.
Cabinet graced the main stage soon thereafter showing off their intoxicating blend of Pennsylvania newgrass. Led by cousins Patrick and J.P. Biondo on banjo and mandolin respectively, the group aced a performance of catchy original tune “Pine Billy” featuring Patrick on lead vocals. Later in their set the group welcomed Railroad Earth’s Andy Goessling to the stage for “A Smile” on the flute.
The Infamous Stringdusters returned Friday afternoon for another set of mind-altering bluegrass. “Devil of Disguise” and a cover of The Grateful Dead’s “Big River” opened the set. The group later welcomed Nicki Bluhm to the stage for “See How Far You’ve Come” and “Running to Heaven” off the Dusters’ latest record “Ladies & Gentlemen”. Bluhm remained on stage for covers of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and her own “A Little Too Late to Die Young”.
New Jersey newgrassers Railroad Earth followed on the main stage. Led by Todd Sheaffer and the fiery fiddle of Tim Carbone, the group led off their set with “New Lee Highway Blues”. The sextet later performed staple and fan favorite “Like a Buda” before ending their set with “12 Wolves”.
As the sun set on day two at String Summit, hosts Yonder Mountain String Band stormed the stage for the first of three nights and six sets they’re perform on the evening. They were welcomed to the stage by emcee Pastor Tim Christensen, who recognized the night marked Yonder’s 50th set at Horning’s Hideout, site of the String Summit. The group featured a heavy dose of cover tunes on the night, including The Eagles “Life in the Fastlane” and an over the top pairing of Del McCoury’s “All Aboard” into The Grateful Dead’s “Jack a Roe” and back into “All Aboard” to close out their first set. Another Dead tune “Shakedown Street” made an appearance in the second set, and fiddlist Allie Kral knocked her Dolly Parton impersonation out of the park on “Jolene”. Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” helped close out Yonder’s first of three nights as part of the band’s encore.
Saturday at String Summit began with an unusually early set from the Jon Stickley Trio beginning just after noon, a flip-flop from his routine late night sets. Nevertheless the Stickley Trio, led by Jon on guitar and accompanied by Lindsay Pruett on violin and Patrick Armitage on drums wowed a crowd that quickly flooded down the winding path to the Cascadia stage. The set was the one which this writer was most impressed by the entire weekend, capped off by a performance of Stickley original “Darth Radar”, a tune showcasing Stickley’s exceptional hard-driving guitar picking and Pruett’s versatile violin skills. The lack of vocals in the Stickley Trio’s compositions allow the instruments and the magicians wielding them to allow their stories to be told in an entirely new light.
As the Jon Stickley Trio’s set came to an end, an equally as impressive guitar wizard in Billy Strings began his first set of the weekend nearby on the main stage. Strings and company opened their set with a cover of the late Ralph Stanley’s “Little Maggie”. Strings versatility and eclectic musical influences shined bright later in the set during a performance of “Meet Me at the Creek” when Strings picked away mid-song, teasing both The Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street” along with Phish’s “Tweezer Reprise”.
Following Strings were the Steep Canyon Rangers and jamgrass pioneers Leftover Salmon. Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt and the Salmon boys didn’t waste any time, jumping into “Up on the Hill Where we do the Boogie” to open their set, which quickly got the crowd moving and shaking their hips to the beat. Later in the set Salmon welcomed up Steep Canyon fiddler Nicky Sanders and flatpicking guitar extraordinaire Larry Keel to the stage to jam.
Following a set from Salmon was Greensky Bluegrass ahead of the second night of Yonder Mountain String Band and their much discussed electric set honoring Pink Floyd’s legendary album “Animals”. However, the opening set began with Yonder’s normal arsenal for tunes off their most recent album “Black Sheep”, including “Around You” and “Love Before You Can’t” before slowly transitioning to electric. With the transformation complete Yonder welcomed guest drummer Jay Elliott and keyboardist Asher Fulero to perform “Animals”. The electric crossover for Yonder was a rousing success, wowing both Yonder fans new and old.
The 15th annual Northwest String Summit’s final day began with Kentuckian Ben Sollee bringing his one man cello show and witty banter to the main stage. The diversified and technically sound cellist often joked in between songs about his time growing up and learning classical tunes during his lessons but always wanting to play more rocking tunes. Sollee provides a mix of all styles on the cello that goes unmatched in the musical universe.
After Sollee an all star cast dubbed The Even Keel Band rocked the main stage. Led by the infamous Larry Keel, the band also featured Keel’s wife Jenny on upright bass, Steep Canyon Rangers’ Nicky Sanders and Mike Guggino; Danny Barnes, Scott Law, and Anders Beck of Greensky Bluegrass. With no shortage of personality and musical talent on stage the jams and jokes amongst were exceptional and aplenty.
Keller Williams long-awaited Grateful Gospel set featuring his funk band More Than a Little was up next, followed by the final show from Yonder for the weekend, which featured the debut of two new songs and an extended sit-in from Danny Barnes, including a jaw-dropping “On the Run” > “Black Sheep” > “On the Run” combo.
Before the festival could officially come to a close, Montana’s Lil Smokies and Fruition from nearby Portland performed Sunday night in the Kinfolk Revival tent, home to late night shows and workshops for the festival’s duration. The crowd began overflowing out of the tent shortly after the Smokies began playing, and only grew as the hometown contingent of fans awaited their idols Fruition. The group performed several songs off their critically-acclaimed April release “Labor of Love”, including “Santa Fe”, “Above the Line”, and the record’s aforementioned title track. The group welcomed out a plethora of special guests later in their set, including The Lil Smokies fiddler Jake Simpson and guitarist Matthew Rieger for “Wanter” and dobroist Andy Dunnigan for “I Don’t Mind”.
With another year of Northwest String Summit memories in the books, it’s no surprise why the festival continues to thrive. The community of fans and friends surrounding Yonder Mountain and the bluegrass music universe is unparallelled by anything else, and Horning’s Hideout and String Summit are direct evidence of that. In a time where many festivals are struggling to survive, the Northwest String Summit shows no signs of slowing down.
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