Rhythms on the Rio Riverside Fest in South Fork, Colorado, constantly amaze me. Though a small festival, it rounds up some of the best talent in the region and manages to snag a big name touring band or two.
The brainchild of the South Fork Music Association (SFMA), it is the culmination of a year of special events that not only fund this event but also support an array of musical opportunities for children and adults in the region. The SFMA supports through grant-writing and concert/festival proceeds for school music programs, scholarships, and workshops for students. For the past two years, the SFMA produced a free program for San Luis Valley children to learn to play the guitar and the ukulele. Courtney La Zier, a member of the Mojones blues/rock band and owner of the Big River Music Store in Creede, taught kids from K-8 at the South Fork Community Center. The kids presented a recital and will perform at this year’s festival.
As a run up to the festival, the SFMA offered a free Summer Concert Series in July at the Visitor’s Center. They drew bands from the region, Taos, NM, and even a NYC transplant to Austin—Lipbone Redding.
In addition, the organization hosted a Comedy Night and a very unusual Golf Tournament. Called the 10 Hole Scramble Golf Tournament, participants had a shotgun start at the Rio Grande Club with a lot of crazy rules. And, of course, live music followed.
But last spring, the good efforts of the SFMA were tested as fires in the forests surrounding South Fork, Creede, and Pagosa Springs sprang up, putting these mountain communities at risk. At one point, South Fork and Creede, in particular, faced flames almost at their doors. The communities pulled together as local firefighters, many only volunteers, managed to beat back the fires and keep these towns safe. This year, Rhythms on the Rio is offering free admission to the two-day festival to all local firefighters to thank them for their heroic efforts.
That kind of community caring is a hallmark of Rhythms on the Rio. The entire festival is run by volunteers. Local businesses and even some musicians donate time, expertise, and materials to make everything run smoothly. Every event is inclusive and welcoming in all areas of diversity. Each person willing to help is matched with a task according to his or her ability.
Last night as the campground on land owned by River Mill was starting to fill up with early arrivals, the SFMA sprung its newest surprise. The offered a special campground only concert in a brand new concert stage. At 8 pm, the local alt bluegrass band, The Scrugglers, entertained campers from a very unique stage. Constructed like a gypsy caravan wagon (or a Basque shepherd wagon), the stage was big enough to host the four-piece band. The curved front was swung open, providing an instant canopy and a rig for stage lights. All of the monitors and sound equipment was tucked against the back. After the show, the front rolled back down and could be secured with all of the equipment safely inside.
Last year, The Scrugglers brought out their instruments after the festival was closed for the night and played into the wee hours. They were unplugged so only those camping near them got the full measure of their musical musings. Last night, though, it was a full show—two sets—with these guys banging out traditional bluegrass tunes and twisting up some moody but witty John Hartford numbers.
A new addition to The Scrugglers was Rich Dog Riddle on guitar, adding a layer of rhythm guitar and occasional lead work. Todd Webster, the front man of the band and mandolin player, was barefoot in the crisp night air as he delivered vocals in his signature style. Patrick O’halloran laid banjo rifts that weren’t your grandpa’s bluegrass while Steve “Fishy” Labowskie drew the audience’s attention with his washtub bass and deep vocals. Webster and Labowski swapped leads throughout the set, but were quick to add a crisp harmony on any song. O’halloran and Riddle also added smooth harmonies to some tunes.
The Scrugglers, hailing from Durango about a hundred miles away, describe their music as “goodtiming rowdy mountain tubgrass,” and I guess that’s a pretty apt description. They always make audiences happy and get them up dancing—even in a grassy campground on a chilly evening.
The Scrugglers will be back tonight at the Gypsy Stage in the campground after Saturday’s festival lineup is over. They will also take the main stage on Sunday. It will be a most welcome treat.