Moving to a new place has meant exploring new music festivals. Our first Northwest String Summit music festival three years ago was a confusion of senses – fun but bewildering, beautiful but strenuous, a continuous quandary about how to make the camping and music work best.
After 20 years of going to the bi-annual Strawberry Music Festival near Yosemite, we called it home, surrounded by familiar faces and a well-known music jam scene. Even now, when I think about my “happy place” it’s at Strawberry. Our third String Summit finally felt familiar and congenial. Happily, it’s only 26 miles from home!
Knowing how to festivate is a useful skill, and although we’ve been to several different festivals at least once, each one has a new set of challenges (and thrills). If I was going to keep coming to Strummit, I better learn how to make it easier. There were useful ideas on their facebook page, and along with some friends, we strategized ways to increase the fun factor. First, the land grab. Two of us jumped out of the cars on the way in, snagging a campsite closer to the music. Our terraced hillside gave us a little bubble of space, a small but comfortable home base. Next, hauling our gear in from the far away parking totally wiped me out the last 2 times, and I barely survived to enjoy my first day. This time bringing a wagon made me only half wiped out, so I’ll keep brainstorming. The steep hills and stony paths make Strummit a rather rigorous festival and I was feeling it! The average age is well below my own and I’m guessing the challenging terrain is one reason why.
Dust was a big issue this year. Summers seem to be getting hotter, and this year we had a couple tolerable days before the real heat set in. Looking down from a spot on the bowl’s steep hillside was evidence of why my lungs were wheezy and my snot black.
But at a good music festival, you quickly forget the inconveniences and challenges, and get focused on the amazing music, the friendly crowd, the colorful clothes and wild people, the impressive art and backdrops, the magical forest, the great food (mmm, still thinking about that hot chocolate chip cookie), meeting interesting new friends, and being present with whatever’s going on in front of you.
I always love watching kids, and every one of them was immersed in whatever they were doing from dancing to examining rocks, to chasing balls and balloons through the crowd, to gazing thoughtfully at all the beautiful, crazy people around them. One hot afternoon between bands I was cooling off in the shade and looked down toward the bowl where the dancers usually crowd in – and the only sturdy souls out in the hot dust were a few kids digging in the dirt, carrying handfuls to and fro, completely submerged in the task at hand. And the Frisbee throwers of course, all ages.
Strummit has a big focus on artists and art installations. Our son came pre-festival to set up some light displays, so it was fun to see his touches. This man at the canvas was our campground neighbor, one of the several friendly folks surrounding us. We went from talking about music and life and festivals in the camping area to discovering suddenly that he had some amazing talent. A festival of surprises.
The campground scene was typical of music festivals, and you get to know your neighbors and their habits. You stumble out of your tent door into someone’s face, and conversation is easy. People have funny conversations right outside your tent and don’t know you’re in there listening. Fortunately everyone is friendly and kind, borrowing and offering, stopping to chat or help out. You know it’s only a few days, so the close quarters are tolerable, entertaining, and as long as you have earplugs, and the coffee and tequila don’t run out you’re ok.
This time we had neighbors up throughout the night, talking (or shouting) and singing. Chariot races are a tradition, as the all-nighters hop onto wheeled ice chests or wagons and careen down the surrounding steep paths, alarmingly close to disaster. The guitar player nearby wailing out “Black Throated Wind” at 5:30am was a favorite. Another neighbor let us know how eating lemon peels and avocado pits were his secret to looking like he was 25 though in fact he was 35, and how he was studying to be a nutritionist. Sweet guy though, making sure we got connected to his musician friends.
Our late morning music, just me and Alan, brought applause and appreciation. Several people told us it was their favorite way to wake up, so even though we didn’t find fellow jammers, it was a chance for us to play for others.
The music was wonderful. I was happily surprised when my favorite of the small acoustic bands, Mandolin Orange, played Silver Dagger, one I’ve been singing recently. Their back and forth rendition of Boots of Spanish Leather left me in tears. I was especially swoony because Andrew, wearing sunglasses, appeared to be looking right at me for most of the performance. Don’t argue, he was!
Jamgrass is the musical theme at Strummit, and several bands take their bluegrass instrumental collection and expand ever outwards into wild inventive acoustic or electric jams, originals and covers. The solid interweaving of phrases and riffs, intense listening to each other, building on each others’ ideas was particularly impressive. Leftover Salmon did a spectacular Neil Young set. I left early during Yonder Mountain’s Steve Miller set, not my era, not my style, but otherwise there were lots of high points, like Greensky Bluegrass covering Black Muddy River and Paint My Masterpiece. I discover new groups every year.
I especially love how the younger generation of fans are so enthusiastic, and how new bands continue to stretch the genres out, making the music a living thing. This year the fun-meter was on high, and I’m committed to doing it again.