The dusty road leads to an unseen location. Clouds of dirt and earthy grime pass through the air. As the dust settles and the road becomes steeper, Horning’s Hideout comes into view. “Happy Horning’s,” comes a chipper voice from my right. My window is rolled down and I turn to see a girl standing on the side of the road. She wears a neon-green shirt that reads “Volunteer”.
“Where should I park?” I ask her.
“Just keep driving,” she says with a devious smile. “You’ll find the way.”
I grinned and waved and continued down the rocky hill.
The winding path soon spat me out into a clearing, where the vibe had already begun to accumulate.
Cars from all over the country gathered in this main lot. License plates read Florida, North Dakota, and British Columbia. It’s only Thursday and it seemed like every state was already represented.
The reason: the ninth annual Northwest String Summit, settled in the quiet region of North Plains, Oregon.
Every year the festival is held here in Horning’s Hideout, a privately owned plot of land loaded with hundreds upon hundreds of acres of rolling hills, soft grass, thundering trees and many a peacock.
The space is used mainly for weddings, but for the next four days it belongs to the Summit.
As volunteers continue to lead me through this wonderland, I was met with a strange sense of familiarity. The lush atmosphere reminded me of Endor or a distant land dreamt from the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien. The plant life breathed with ease and trees outlined almost every view. I almost expected to be pinched.
But what is so fantastic about this place is that it is not a movie or a book or some otherworldly land created from the depths of one man’s psyche. It is real and it is for everyone.
I am finally led to Lot C, which rests at the far end of the Hideout. I park, set up camp, meet the neighbors and head to the Beer Garden for the night’s first and only musical presentation: Pete Kartsounes and Friends.
It is quite a trek from Lot C to the stage, but it gives me time to absorb my surroundings. There are paths everywhere, leading wanderers to a number of different scenes within this small community.
Tents nestle in areas that seem inaccessible, and there are even more camps set up in the nooks and crannies most people don’t know about. Already the Hideout is turning into a shantytown.
I arrive at the Beer Garden, a 21 and over chunk of hill separated from the rest by a thin green mesh. I sit just as Pete and bass player Kevin Malone are getting started.
They have an extraordinary amount of presence given there are only two of them, and Pete’s voice is raspy, comforting and well traveled.
Those who are settled in are clearly enjoying the first of many musical explorations of the weekend. Their heads bob to the beat as Pete and Kevin delve into some groovy jams.
It is no easy feat to open a three-day music festival a day before it actually begins and half the audience has yet to arrive. But Kartsounes commanded the stage with an impressive energy and the best part: it was loud!
The duo ended things with an appropriate rendition of “Eyes of the World”, bluegrass style of course, sending everybody to bed with a good feeling about the days yet to come.
As we all settled into our tents, thinking of sleep and the plethora of music about to be enjoyed, a faint whooping erupted from the opposite end of the Hideout.
We listened, intently, as the noise began to spread across the camp. It was a cheer; a vocal wave that allowed everyone to rise up in delight and express gratitude for being allowed access to this blissful paradise.
The wave washed over Lot C and we went up like the rest of them. We whooped and yelped and walloped in unabashed ecstasy.
And just like a wave, the celebration came crashing to shore, sending a thick, humble silence through the woods.
We were warm that night.
Friday was hot and everyone was up and about at an early hour. The music didn’t start until 4:45 so the day was open for improvisation. Wandering seemed like the best option, for those hundreds of acres were ripe for adventure.
Everyone chats with their neighbors, making new friends and catching up with old ones. It is an egoless event. No self-involvement or priority, just people looking to enjoy life and live peacefully if only for three more days.
My wanderings brought me to the stage four hours before the start of the show. On stage, the crew was having as much fun as the festival goers and it only served to liven the scene.
A large, grassless semi-circle was implanted in front of the stage. Its bareness indicated that this was the pit. Reserved only for the most nimble and daring, the pit was the hub of human activity: where the faded gather to sway to the beat, to feel the music as if it was pumping through their own veins.
Now, however, only children venture through this crunchy dust bowl. They hula-hoop and chase each other in circles, clearly enjoying the break from the familiar swing sets and jungle gyms.
Family is the focal point of the fest. Children aren’t only expected, but welcomed with open arms. Everyone is mindful of their actions when little ones are present and it is this awareness that allows the Summit to function on such an inspiring level.
4:45 rolls around and the Band Competition kicked off the festivities. All four groups drew a respectable audience, but it is Pert Near Sandstone that gets the crowd to their feet. Their lively blend of bluegrass and backyard pickin’ wins over the audience and the judges. They have secured a spot in next year’s festival, as well as the honor of opening the stage on Sunday
Next on the bill: Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings. The band brings a vastly cinematic scope and mystery to their tunes, and provide for a genuinely unique listening experience.
But it was Great American Taxi that stole the show on Friday. Vince Herman, of Leftover Salmon fame, knows how to command an audience and the band’s fun, loose style quickly made its way into the audience’s hearts.
Up last was Yonder Mountain String Band, whose buzz had been building all day. Yonder has performed at every Summit since its inception, and this year they had closing sets on Friday and Sunday, while providing the meat for the Rhythm Devil/moe. sandwich on Saturday.
Yonder brought in the audience more than the other acts, but they could not match the utter humanity and joy of Great American Taxi. The band picked and paraded until one in the morning, then finally sent everybody to bed with higher expectations for Saturday.
The most interesting part of any festival is the unexpected. Anything can happen at anytime to anyone. And the bands you expect to see are not always the ones you talk about the next day. Case in point: Twisted Whistle.
During Yonder’s set break on Friday, I stumbled into an area labeled “Bob Horning’s Crew”. What led me there in the first place was the familiar chorus of the Dead’s “Viola Lee Blues”. But this was a new version, one that demanded attention and deserved respect. A soaring three-part harmony punched holes into my soul; taking me to levels of enjoyment I had yet to experience. The three musicians on stage truly believed in what they were doing, and it sent a ripple of wholesome sincerity through the audience’s hearts.
The band played for another fifteen minutes, blending their own tunes with familiar, rearranged favorites. They wrapped up just as Yonder was coming back to the stage, but I stayed for a moment to try and sort through what had just happened.
I wandered back to camp that night with Twisted Whistle’s energy oozing through my pores. The unexpected power and beauty behind the band had completely taken me off guard.
And that’s when I realized the secret to the Northwest String Summit: when you stop looking and instead take the time to live, you are met with a world beyond your most earnest daydreams.
Saturday was without a doubt the busiest day of the fest. Fourteen hours of music brought the energy to an all time high.
The Crunchy Western Boys started off the day, sending a nice, relaxing groove through the crowd. You know the music is good when members of the crew start dancing and that is exactly what happened when the Boys’ stepped up to the mikes.
Ben Galloway and Jessica Kilroy took the stage next. The duo brought a welcomed touch of folk to the fest and their stringent harmonies and soft, easy melodies provided a much-needed break from the high-octane bluegrass we had become used to.
The Infamous Stringdusters followed, bringing everyone to their feet. Their rousing, good ole’ bluegrass, meant for nothing else than an easy listen and a mellow sway, took the crowd by storm. They ended things off with a fantastic cover of “Deep Elem Blues”. The band set the bar high for what was to come.
After an hour break, it was time for the main event. The Rhythm Devils were without a doubt the highlight for most of the audience and their powerful, raucus set most definitely delivered. All everyone could talk about before the show was Keller Williams, the all star guitarist that played front man for the Devils. But, as the show came to a close, the only question on everyone’s mind was who was the ace next to Keller?
The answer was Davy Knowles, a twenty-three year old guitar whiz that spent the majority of the set shredding it up. His shifting licks of electrified soul took everyone by surprise. He rocked each tune, from the opening “Cumberland Blues” to the rousing “Not Fade Away” finale. The band was tight and clearly in high spirits and while their set seemed a little short, everyone had a ball.
The stage was cleared and it was time once again for Yonder Mountain String Band. They packed the house once again and treated everybody with an easy “Franklin’s Tower”, paying homage to their predecessors. The crowd moved like an ocean as the band revved up and launched into pure bluegrass, jam based madness.
A set break sent me back to “Bob Horning’s Crew” in hopes of finding Twisted Whistle and luckily for me they were there. I listened for almost half an hour as they tore through their repertoire with a mellow ease. They ended it all with a beautiful version of their original “Lost Coast Highway”, a song too pure to taint with words.
Back to Yonder as they warmed up the audience. People danced, grooved and hula-hooped for almost another two hours before Yonder left the stage, making way for moe.
With anticipation building, moe. took the audience by surprise with a very rare acoustic set. They played a delightful number of favorites before switching, quite slyly in fact, to electric. People were expecting much more psychedelically inspired craziness from the band, but even when they plugged in they managed to keep things calm and easy. They jammed electrically for an interminable amount of time, settling the crowd and asking them just to listen.
Part of what kept things fun, besides the obvious musical talents of the band, was the unique placement of the xylophone. At any moment the instrument would sprinkle through the heady jams, adding a touch of playfulness and drawing shades of the Mother’s of Invention.
As moe. finished their set, they were quickly summoned for an encore, which they delivered with a heartfelt ferocity. They left the stage at 1:30 am, leaving the audience wanting more.
Saturday night ended calmly setting the mood for Sunday, the final day of the fest. The music started at 12 Noon sharp and Pert Near Sandstone, the winner’s of Friday’s band competition, took the stage with fevered excitement. They brought in a big crowd considering the time and the day and everyone had a raucous good time.
1:15 meant it was time for Crooked Sill, a band who has been around for years with various members dropping out here and starting there. But this variation brought an old time, folklore energy to mix that really allowed the audience to soak in what was being presented. Aoife O’Donovan’s earthy voice provided a level of sincerity rarely heard or felt in bluegrass and the band’s musical capabilities made them extremely exciting to watch.
Hometown hero Danny Barnes took to the mike next, bringing some friends along with him. It was a perfect blend of fun and easy listening for a Sunday afternoon.
Finally it was time for Yonder’s last set. They had played house band for the last two days and it was time for them to send the festival off with some ripe pickin’, which they did with gusto.
They bid farewell, thanking everyone for their generous support, and just like that they were done. The music was over, a vast majority of the crowd had taken off and those of us still there were left to sort through what had just happened.
For four days we were on our own. The days were ours and the air was filled with the perfect balance of adventure and humanity.
For four days we were at peace, outside the realm of society. We did our own thing and no one was hurt. Pettiness was checked at the door. We were brother and sister and friends and neighbors all united in the universal realm of being.
For four days we lived.