Northwest String Summit 2018: Magic at Horning’s
Northwest String Summit 2018
The 17th annual Northwest String Summit took place in mid-July of 2018, on the magical grounds of Horning’s Hideout, ‘somewhere out by North Plains,’ just west of Portland, Oregon.
I’d been to Horning’s a few times before, but long before Festy GoNuts was even a mere sparkle in our pet Unicorn’s eye. 2012 was my last visit to Northwest String Summit. To say that my times at Strummit were incredibly inspiring would be an understatement. To say that String Summit may actually be the reason Festy GoNuts exists today would not be too far off the mark. To say that my return to this magical realm was the most anticipated event of the year, well that’s pinning the tail right on the peacock.
I knew that things would have changed over the years, and I anxiously awaited what was to come…
My memory of Strummits past harkens to long road trips from Colorado to Oregon, stopping to collect ourselves in Portland, waiting in line the morning of the festival before making a relaxed rush into the trees to find our homes for the weekend, then settling into festy mode.
The 17th String Summit was not too different from the 11th in this regard. Sure, we stayed a bit outside Portland the night before to get a head start on the drive in. We had friends planning to arrive at the gates as early as 7 AM to ensure a good camping spot, which seemed a bit earlier than we had ever ventured in the past. The increased popularity of festivals in general, especially ones with lineups as stellar as Northwest String Summit’s, would most likely bring a larger crowd than 6 years ago, so we planned our arrival around 10 AM.
We pulled into the entrance of Horning’s Hideout as traffic began to back up and filed into well-organized waiting lines, led by smiling and friendly volunteer staff throughout.
Excitement easily mounts when this many people converge for the start of an epic festival, and this morning was no exception. The freak-flags began to fly. Our pet Unicorn, Neil, was greeted with a shout from a neighboring car, “Hey, was that Unicorn at Bender Jamboree?!”
Indeed, he was.
Shortly thereafter, Neil was given a wristband for service animals to ‘make him official,’ and we knew we were back among our people!
New friends were made, old reunited, and the morning effortlessly carried us through the gates and into the festival grounds.
We joined the masses in hiking up a hill into the woods a short distance to find our weekend home. We opted for a flat-ish space not too far from the car, near some friends, and close-but-not-too-close to port-a-pots. A few hours of set-up later and we were ready to boogie!
So far, String Summit was right on point to how I’d remembered it.
Northwest String Summit: Horning’s Hideout
We had a few hours before the music kicked off, so we went exploring.
Horning’s Hideout is unlike any other place. The majority of camping takes place in the woods where flat ground is at a premium and creativity is key. A previous Strummit experience led us to embrace the hill we lived upon, and we created “Camp Plummet.” The hilly and rocky terrain is not just a challenge for your tent – it does a number on your feet as well. String Summit is definitely a festival for comfortable shoes. We were well prepared, however, and good thing as we easily completed several marathons and an Ironman or two when all was said and done.
The main stage is a good 15-minute trek from the vast majority of campsites so planning is important at Northwest String Summit. The String Summit main stage is one of the best you will find. It sits on the bottom of a natural bowl, complete with plenty of shade trees for sitting and hammocking and a large, flat area for dancing, hooping and twirling. The stage backs up to the large Horning’s lake and is always beautifully decorated with peacock banners and fresh flowers.
Just as I remembered, the main stage crowd was easily navigated even at its fullest, and space could be found to “get down” during every set. The first for the weekend was led by Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, and their lively jams perfectly brought the festival into full gear.
A “Tweener” stage sits just atop the bowl, with artists ready to kick things off the moment Pastor Tim gives the go-ahead from the main stage. Many incredible 30-minute sets rocked the Tweener stage this year.
Past Strumiteers may remember the Further Bus playing host to these sets. While the iconic bus was not in attendance this year (rumor had it that the bus was at The Gorge with Phish), the Tweener stage was a great alternative and allowed for much more intimate sets than the raised bus stage ever did. A large illuminated white peacock served as the backdrop for the stage, and at night the peacock’s lights danced along to the stage’s music.
A huge change since my last visit to Horning’s is the addition of the Kinfolk Revival Stage. Past the row of vendors atop the hill that looks upon the main stage, the Kinfolk Revival Tent has been around for a few years but had been revamped for 2018. Now an open-air stage with large shade sails hanging overhead, the Kinfolk Stage played an important role in the weekend’s musical offerings.
Nestled in the woods, about halfway between the far reaches of camping and the main stage area is the Cascadia Village. The Cascadia Stage stands in my memory as the site of some of the best late-night festival sets I have ever experienced. Surrounded by the woods, the switchback paths leading down to the intimate stage serve as many-tiered viewing platforms with room for everyone to dance. Since my last visit, the stage has expanded into the Cascadia Village, with food and drink and the “Troubadour Lounge” – a smaller stage area with couches for some extremely cozy musical moments!
All of these stages were jam-packed with music throughout the entire festival. Navigating between the Kinfolk and Cascadia stages was a trek that could consume a good portion of time which could be better used “getting down”. In an attempt to address this, Northwest String Summit added the “Struttle” taxi service. Golf carts offered rides anywhere on the festival grounds for $4. The Struttle was definitely popular with many folks when lugging their gear from the car during setup, but throughout the weekend the price didn’t really make it a feasible choice for the many, many trips between the stages and campground. However, some did take advantage of the rides, and it was a nice option if there were a few closely scheduled sets that couldn’t be missed, or if the feet just wouldn’t do that trek one more time!
Northwest String Summit: It’s all in the Jamily. (of Kinfolk Camper Hobo LOSers!)
I t takes more than music and a campground to make a festival.
One thing that has definitely not changed since 2012 is the fact that the people attending Northwest String Summit are among the best in the business! Absolute professional festy-goers return year after year, perfecting their camps and further dialing in their game every time. Sprinkled among these pros are plenty of newbies, who are welcomed with open arms and who leave a part of the Strummit Family forever.
My first String Summit I attended as a volunteer. I immediately became part of a larger whole, a family that has for 17 years become part of the fabric of Horning’s. The volunteers of Northwest String Summit play such an important part – not just in their efforts but in their attitudes. Smiling, dancing and having as much fun during their shifts as they do after, the festival would not be nearly as successful without this amazing group.
String Summit is the type of festival experience where lifelong friends are made more often than they are not! Everyone lets their inhibitions fly, and the outpouring of love amongst strangers and friends alike is overwhelming. The result is that when you are at String Summit, wherever you may be, you are with family.
And Strummit is a family affair, to be sure. Kids are a huge part of this music festival. The kid’s village hosts a ton of activities for the entire family, as well as plenty of “Not For Kids Only” music that Mom and Dad can actually enjoy too!
This overwhelming feeling of community creates a sense of security that is above and beyond what you’ll find at other music festivals. Things that are lost are quickly found – including children! When Pastor Tim, the venerable festival MC, announces a child that has wandered off, he barely finishes the kid’s description before he is found!
As everyone’s inner child shines, kids and adults alike get down in the bowl, share hooping tips, have water-fights, enjoy the music and experience the time of their lives!
The Music of Northwest String Summit
L onging to return to Horning’s Hideout after a 6-year hiatus, the decision to pull the trigger this year became a no-brainer once the lineup was released. As always, the lineup was topped by 3 nights of Yonder Mountain String Band, joined this year by 3 nights of Greensky Bluegrass. Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon and Fruition also topped the bill, making this a veritable who’s who of jamgrass.
If there is one place to easily track the changes Northwest String Summit has seen over the years, it is through the names on the bill. Names have come and gone – some have been altered, some have grown, and some have stuck close to their roots.
Take The Infamous Stringdusters, for example. If you’ve been living under a log, you may not have heard, but the ‘Dusters are now Grammy winners! And they performed like it! The Infamous Stringdusters played absolute heater sets from opening to closing notes. And so many notes in between! They treated fans that may have had to make a choice between Phish Gorge and Horning’s to covers of Possum and Stash, and lit the main stage on fire before closing it down for the festival on Saturday evening.
In 2012, Greensky Bluegrass had started to make waves and climb the roster at String Summit. A young buck named Andrew Lincoln had just begun his stint as lighting director for Greensky. 6 years later and Lincoln’s name is seen atop the festival credits as the Main Stage Lighting Designer. His work painted masterpieces on the tapestry of trees throughout the entire festival.
This is the kind of artist growth that we see at String Summit, as younger and newer acts are given a chance to someday lead the whole party.
Nowhere is this more evident than with Fruition.
My first String Summit, Fruition didn’t even make the bill. That didn’t stop them from playing their asses off and first gaining our attention with a pickin’ parade they led down to the lake. The next year, we caught every minute of Fruition’s set as they played the Cascadia stage until the sun came up. Literally. We were hooked.
As things come full circle at Northwest String Summit and the universe is as it should be, 2018 found Fruition with a Main Stage set and an incredibly memorable festival closing Kinfolk Stage set! If you want even more evidence of musical growth at Horning’s, look no further than the campground. Once the only place Fruition could find an audience, now they can be heard playing on stereos throughout, and being covered by young pickers looking for their chance to one day get on a String Summit stage!
We can’t discuss musical changes at Northwest String Summit without addressing the peacock-colored elephant in the room that is Yonder Mountain String Band. Fans of the band can and will argue ’til the sun comes up (literally) about Yonder with and without Jeff Austin. I’m not getting involved in that. They are a different band, for sure; but of course, they would be.
As Yonder continues to evolve, however, it is not uncommon to expect the unexpected. That was the case on Saturday night when the band was joined by drummer, Jay Elliott and keyboardist, Asher Fulero. The instantly recognizable opening beat of Steve Miller Band’s “Swingtown” kicked things off. When that led directly into “Take the Money and Run,” many fans instantly recognized that we were about to get something special. As Yonder Mountain String Band led an entire set of Steve Miller Band hits, everyone got up to ‘Dance, Dance, Dance!’
The “Strummit Spectacular” soon joined the fray, as Tyler Fuqua’s glowing puppetry threaded its way through the crowd, turning a ‘bluegrass’ show into a full on rave. There had always been an element of Saturday night light-up mayhem at Horning’s, but it clearly has evolved over the years. It’s as if when the String Cheese Incident abandoned Horning’s to form their own festival, they left a little bit of their glowing style behind!
Collaborations at Northwest String Summit
Northwest String Summit has always played host to plenty of onstage collaborations, sit-ins and impromptu jams.
6 years ago it seemed that at just about any time, during any band’s show, someone would be asked to join for a song or two. Sometimes for an entire set. Sometimes they weren’t even asked, but wandered on stage on their own. In the case of Larry Keel one year, sometimes they wouldn’t leave! (Please always stay, Larry!). Sometimes the stage couldn’t contain all of the magic and energy, and sometimes there were more fiddles getting down with Yonder than you could count!
This year there were collaborations aplenty, but they were more planned and scheduled.
A quick glance of the lineup may have some casual observers missing what were actually legendary sets by amazing groups of musicians.
Take, for example, Pickin’ on Dylan. Bluegrass Bob Dylan, right? Well, sure, but look closer and realize that the lineup includes Adam Aijala & Dave Johnston (YMSB), Benny Galloway, Shook Twins, Paul Hoffman (Greensky), Tim Carbone (Railroad Earth), Jay and Mimi (Fruition) and many more! Whew!
The Metropolitan JamGrass Alliance was another legendary collaboration, or as we called them, “Skinny Jeans with Tim Carbone”! Tim was joined by his fellow city-dwellers Andy Falco & Travis Book (Infamous Stringdusters), Jacob Jolliff (YMSB) and Anders Beck (Greensky Bluegrass).
Jon Stickley played an intimate set in the Troubadour Lounge with two of his former Broke Mountain Bluegrass members, Travis Book and Andy Thorn. Andy had to leave early for the Leftover Salmon set, but, as Stickley put it, it wasn’t the first time that Andy’s left them!
These special sets of collaborations were a true highlight of the festival. Sideboob grew out of one of these collaborations at String Summit and is now a force in and of themselves, with Sideboob shirts easily topping the list of most popular at the merch tent.
Possibly one of the highlights of the festival was a collaboration that needed no other name than Danny Barnes, Jeremy Garrett and Samson Grisman. This incredibly talented group seemed to have not needed any rehearsal, as they discussed which song to play on the spot and told each other the key, then proceeded to tear into it as if they had been performing as a trio for ages.
These many collaborations are such an important contributor to how special String Summit really is. A passing glance at the lineup reveals the pinnacle of talent in the jamgrass and bluegrass world. These folks are topping festival lineups around the world – and that is no lie, as Greensky Bluegrass left North Plains to head directly to Japan for a festival!
That may be good enough for some festivals, but when you take a closer look at the Northwest String Summit schedule, that is when this festy truly becomes special. And it is not just in the super-groups like Sideboob, or the one-off collaborations like LOS Funky Brass Breakdown, which paired Leftover Salmon with the High Country Horns for perhaps THE set of the weekend.
Dig a little deeper and you will see the future superstars of String Summit. Bands like The Deer wowed every person who was lucky enough to catch them. The Drunken Hearts took advantage of each second of time they had, including a 9:45 AM set that many in the nearby campground awoke to! First-timers Driftwood impressed everyone. Jon Stickley Trio absolutely crushed their Tweener sets and rocked the Cascadia stage into the early morning. Dead Horses made more than a few new fans. Old Salt Union, The Last Revel, Cascade Crescendo, Front Country, Yak Attack…the list goes on!
These are the true stars of Northwest String Summit.
A s I made my way back to the tent just ahead of the sunrise on Monday morning, my face stuck in a perma-grin that wouldn’t fade for days, I thought about the festival coming full circle.
A lot has changed in six years. Inspired by String Summit, I and my wife/partner Kelly now run Festy GoNuts – devoting no small part of our lives to music festivals. We have Horning’s partially to thank for that.
The last bit of music I heard at Horning’s this year was the campground pick I regretfully left behind to catch a bit of sleep before the approaching morning’s breakdown and loadout.
Jon Stickley was picking tunes with, among others, Jay Cobb Anderson of Fruition. Fruition, who started picking in the woods and is now listed among the headliners. Fruition, who closed out the entire festival with a huge set played to a packed house of adoring fans.
And there is Jay, back picking in the woods until the sun comes up.
Full circle, indeed!
Here’s an incredibly dark video of Jay Cobb Anderson, Jon Stickley and friends picking at String Summit. Enjoy the sounds and imagine the sights!!
We didn’t yet know what we were in for when Yonder kicked into “Swingtown”! Here’s the whole song…
The Deer, as always, gave us a beautiful performance. Here they are from the Cascadia Stage: