Infamous Stringdusters at the 2022 Northwest String Summit – photo by Dave Vann
This report from the 2022 Northwest String Summit near Portland, OR is a contribution from freelance music journalist Jed Nussbaum.
Northwest String Summit, held in the lush, wooded paradise of Horning’s Hideout in North Plains OR, has been the West Coast’s preeminent gathering for the ever-expanding universe of bluegrass and beyond for two decades. What started as a small party hosted by jamgrass veterans Yonder Mountain String Band has evolved into a revered destination for players of the highest caliber that draws around 5000 “kinfolk” for four days of incendiary performances, all-star collaborations, and familial revelry. This July saw the festival come to an emotional end, referred to as “The Final Verse,” and boasting the most diverse lineup of its 20 year run. One could feel a sense of near-urgency both onstage and off to make the most of every moment, and cherish each memory made – as one attendee summed it up on Thursday, “Today is the day, and now is the time.”
Acknowledgments of the festival’s finality started early onstage and ran through each set like a binding theme. Festival queen Lindsay Lou played a touching cover of Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright on the mainstage, choosing the poetic farewell as her second song, “To get it out of the way.” The rest of her set – and most of the festival – was far from a somber affair, however. Local heroes Fruition brought an unbridled exuberance to their set that was fitting for a band that spent the last decade cutting their teeth at the festival, and the first night’s headliners Greensky Bluegrass played two entire sets with keyboardist Holly Bowling that also saw members of Yonder sit in on Who is Frederico. Lindsay Lou reappeared to end the second set with the band, singing the classic Dirty Dancing tune I’ve Had (The Time Of My Life) as a duet with mandolin player Paul Hoffman in a fitting tribute to the festival’s final days. The late night set at the Kinfolk Revival stage from Montana-based “galaxy grass” outfit Kitchen Dwellers set a precedent for the band who would go on to play two more sets over the weekend, showing off their fearlessness and electrifying synergy that makes them a perfect late night band.
Strummit boasted six stages in total this year, each hosting a continuous stream of diverse talent. Rising Portland-based string band Never Come Down warmed up the Cascadia stage early Friday for the Travelin’ McCourys, who stuffed as many eager audience members as would fit in and around the woodland bowl for a hit-packed set. On the quieter Ear Trumpet Troubadour stage people took some rest as Taarka serenaded them with an afternoon set of globally inspired folk, while Ghost Light simultaneously brought an electric set of heavy groove rock to the main stage that echoed through the trees. The most touching highlight of the day came when elder statesman Del McCoury took to the mainstage in the early evening, backed by his sons in the Travlin’ McCourys, playing his most well-known songs with a smile that never left his face, and a voice that has remained nearly unchanged for his entire career. Directly after headliners Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (that, in addition to blasting through a trove of Grateful Dead material, also delivered a barn-burning rendition of the Allman Brothers’ Jessica) Colorado’s Banshee Tree tore into the Honeydome tweener stage with a fury, blending too many genres to count into an acoustic-electric mixture that made half the audience dance ’til dust clouds rose, and the other half stand shocked and spellbound.
Saturday’s early mainstage set from TK and the Holy Know-Nothings proved that the band’s blustery, boozy Americana really is the perfect fit for any time of day, and the band has no problem bringing the heat to an already hot early afternoon. The same goes for the Kitchen Dwellers, whose third – and earliest – set of the weekend lacked nothing in the energy of their previous ones. The band invited Paul Hoffman and saxophonist Sean McClean (one of the festival’s MVPs, popping up everywhere onstages throughout the weekend) up for a cover of Greensky’s I’d Probably Kill You, and added banjo player Kyle Tuttle for June Apple, but the highlight was the addition of Lindsay Lou for a surprising version of No Doubt’s Spiderwebs. Multi-instrumentalist Tony Furtado was an under-recognized talent on the Troubador stage, but those that caught his interplay with fiddler Luke Price on the traditional Peggy-O knew they had witnessed one of those moments of true festival magic. The collaborative nature of bluegrass was strongly displayed during Yonder’s mainstage set which had the band invite members of Greensky Bluegrass, Fireside Collective, Kitchen Dwellers, and Leftover Salmon up with them before turning the stage over to Umphrey’s McGee, whose headlining set might have been the most out of place, but even they embraced the moment with an acoustic set and invited Paul Hoffman and Yonder’s fiddler Allie Krall up for sit-ins during their electric set.
The last day of a festival is always bittersweet, and this one even more so. Brad Parsons Gospel Experience set a soulful, reverent tone that carried throughout the day, full of hope for the good times yet to come. One of the most impressive sets of the weekend was Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway with Kyle Tuttle on banjo, who probably played with more bands than any other single performer. Directly after Molly’s set was the annual “Frilli for Lilli” head shave that serves as a fundraiser in support of young children with serious illness, and Molly made an impassioned speech and removed her wig in a move of solidarity that brought tears to the eyes of many in attendance before playing her original, Crooked Tree. YMSB’s final set seemed to nod at the ever-evolving nature of traditional music and this year’s inclusion of so many non-acoustic acts as the band donned electric instruments and welcomed drummer Jay Elliot and keys player Asher Fulero for a number of songs, before returning to acoustic instruments and bringing a litany of other musicians and backstage players up for an emotional singalong of John Hartford’s Tear Down The Grand Ole Opry as their final number. The festival wasn’t quite over yet, as SIDEBOOB, an all-female supergroup that was born at Strummit five years ago to acknowledge the lack of female musicians getting booked, blasted off for the final late night set. Thirty three female players in total collaborated for a long, joyful set of covers that assured festival-goers that while Northwest String Summit may be over, the music community that has kept it going this long is in good hands moving forward.