Summit-time, and the pickin' is easy
Watershed events like Monterey Pop and Woodstock color the late 1960s as nirvana for communal, music-based celebrations, but when it comes to the ubiquity of weekend music festivals, that iconic era's got nothing on the here and now.
In fact, the multitude of multiday music events makes attracting appropriate artists to play yours an art unto itself.
Skye McDonald, co-owner and promoter of the Northwest String Summit at Horning's Hideout near North Plains, admits booking the annual four-day, four-stage event presents unique challenges.
"I've gotta say, with the festival climate in the country the way it is now — and with summertime being such high demand — what we're finding is that all events everywhere are looking for the same talent," he says. "To bring a band out to Oregon on a summer weekend, when they could bounce between the East Coast and Midwest — and triple their earnings on a weekend — the money's got to be right."
McDonald is in his 15th year co-producing the hoedown held this year from Thursday, July 13, through Sunday, July 16, at Horning's Hideout. Hundreds of music fans camp in the wooded resort for the summit, which highlights stringed instrument-based music encompassing both modern and traditional bluegrass, folk, singer-songwriter, and Americana-flavored rock, along with some acts that combine all of those and then some.
Hosted by Colorado-based "jamgrass" giants Yonder Mountain String Band, this year's summit highlights such returning favorites as Greensky Bluegrass, the Del McCoury Band, Fruition, Todd Snider with Great American Taxi, and the Shook Twins, along with indie-alternative luminaries such as Blitzen Trapper, Danny Barnes, Elephant Revival, The California Honeydrops and The Lil' Smokies, among many more.
McDonald toils for months in search of the just-right balance of familiar and fresh, traditional and groundbreaking — and of course, available.
"To continue the vision we have is always a challenge," he says. "We try to maintain our stable, core bands while trying to switch it up enough to where the evolution of the framework expands. It's gotten more complicated, long story short."
With the long weekend approaching and most of the the heavy lifting behind him, McDonald can look at the lineup he helped create with admiration. He's particularly proud to pick up on the excitement from returning acts, many of whom claim the Northwest String Summit as their favorite event of the year.
"Greensky (Bluegrass) is in their ninth year at String Summit, and we hope to continue to have them," he says. "Del and the McCourys love our event and want to come back every year."
Other bands who started out at String Summit as virtual unknowns saw their popularity explode in subsequent years.
"Elephant Revival (from Colorado), and Fruition (from Portland) are bands that kind of got their start coming to the event, and now they're on fire," he says. "We're glad to have them as part of our extended family."
Each of the festival's four stage areas has its own distinct size and vibe, from the tree-lined bowl of the Main Stage to the more intimate, wooded Cascadia and Troubadour stages. Funkiest of all is probably the Furthur Tweener Stage, which sits atop the multicolored, legendary "Furthur" bus that took Ken Kesey, the late author and Oregon native, and his Merry Pranksters — a loosely knit band of 1960s misfits — on innumerable countercultural adventures. These days Kesey's son, Zane, helms "Furthur," as a magnetic attraction at String Summit and like-minded events.
In keeping with the festival's bohemian roots, McDonald helped conceive the "Fallen Heroes" workshop segments. Held at the Kinfolk Revival Tent at 4:30 p.m. Friday and at 4:15 p.m. Saturday, the sessions will feature various musicians paying tribute to musical legends who've died in the past year. The Friday set will highlight songs by rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry, while Saturday's pays homage to "Eat a Peach," the 1972 double album by the Allman Brothers Band, whose leader Gregg Allman recently died.
"We're always losing musicians, but last year was catastrophic," McDonald says, leading to 2016's tributes to Prince, Merle Haggard and David Bowie. "This features some of our best players — some who don't get to collaborate often — playing some of the best music of our lifetime."
While String Summit's reputation grows year by year, McDonald said attendance at Horning's Hideout has remained steady over the past five years or so. There are about 5,000 paid attendees each day, with as many as 2,000 more including musicians, volunteers, vendors, special guests and children.
"It has become an extremely family-friendly event," he says. "We're lucky to have the repeat (attendees) we have. Forty percent of our patrons are multiyear returning. Many have grown up here who came here with their parents."
Northwest String Summit
What: More than 50 bands, performers and workshops on five stages
When: Thursday, July 13-Sunday, July 16
Where: Horning's Hideout, near North Plains about 35 minutes west of Portland
Tickets: Two-, three- and four-day and Sunday-only passes still available, $75-$260