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An Unshaven Look Back at Chinook Fest

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Blake Noble & Cody Beebe at Chinook Fest Summit (Photo: Greg Roth)

Warning:  If you’re expecting a balanced, concise review of Chinook Fest Summit with any attempt at objectivity, answers to anticipated reader questions, or even comprehensive coverage of the bands that actually played – you should probably stop reading.

The article does is to look back at Chinook Fest Summit, look forward to Chinook Fest Central, and explore what it is to experience either of these burgeoning grass-roots festivals.

Chinook Fest Summit: Day One

“The traffic isn’t too bad anyway,” I thought, revving my 4-cylinder Accord into the mountains and towards a looming deck of clouds.  I was missing what I knew must be a kick-ass set from Portland rock group Tango Alpha Tango, and starting to doubt that I’d see Maiah Manser’s liquid brand of indie-electronic either.  I’d talked to them both in interview the last week, and wanted to prove that my fake-sounding compliments over the phone had been real, not the swinish buttering-up I fear they may have approximated.

That the artists played consecutively and on separate stages wasn’t the problem – the Plaza and Main Stages were quite near each other and didn’t compete time-wise.  The problem was I’d spent too long deciding what kind of hot dogs to buy and was paying for it in musical angst.

Chinook Fest Summit was to be the first of its kind at Snoqualmie, and I had reason to be excited about it.

Though it is its own festival, Summit is more properly thought of as an offshoot of the Chinook Fest that’s been held near Naches, Washington (just northwest of Yakima and tucked into the Eastern foothills of the Cascades) for the past three years.  I’d loved Chinook Fest 2014, and had enjoyed many conversations with the organizers and bands involved about how well it had gone.  These talks were honest, cathartic, and would have sounded impossibly smug to anyone listening in.  An example:

“It’s like, people really talk to each other there, you know?”
“Yeah, there’s this wall that sometimes comes up between campers, between audiences and bands – it keeps people from letting go and just being themselves all the way.  That wall was never there at Chinook.”
“It’s so ironic.  That’s what people go to music festivals to do, and more and more it’s not happening.”

Maybe the talks were a bit self-righteous, but their observations were founded in reality.  I spoke at some length with organizer Michelle Bounds – about her goals, about Chinook Fest founder and Seattle band member Cody Beebe’s goals, and about the goals of the festival as a whole.  The gist is pretty simple: Cody, like Michelle, wants to create a festival that builds community.  Maybe even one that changes and opens up music culture in the Pacific Northwest.

With this in mind, I was understandably pumped as I slowed and turned into event parking for Chinook Fest Summit.  Out of my front windshield was a scene I hadn’t been part of since ski lessons 20 years ago:  The Summit at Snoqualmie.  It looked as it normally does in the summer, a group of handsome lodge buildings flanked by ski lifts and surrounding a brick plaza – all at the base of a giant grass hill that became first rocks, then trees, then grand cliffs and peaks of dark, hard-looking stone.

I grabbed my ticket from the greeters at the entrance and saw that behind it, Chinook Fest had totally closed the road past Snoqualmie!  The main stage sat smack in the middle of a two-lane mountain highway.  I imagined a world where musicians had systematically taken over all departments of infrastructure in the United States.  This was to be my world for the weekend.

One ride up to camp (funny little 4-wheeler flatbeds ferried everyone and their gear up the hill), 15 minutes of tent setup and a few lukewarm Rainiers later, I was watching Nolan Garrett tear it up on the Plaza stage.  That Garrett is merely 17 years old I completely forgot as he slammed 5-finger chords and Stevie Ray Vaughn-speed solos over dark but poppy blues rock.  That he’s still a kid I couldn’t mistake as he jumped off monitors, rampaged through the audience while soloing and finished his set with a wildly flailing dance onstage after throwing his guitar aside in a fit of sheer manic energy.

Feeling old, I returned to camp for beer and friends.  We watched Barcelona play practically from our seats (yes, camp overlooked the Mainstage) and continued drinking and chatting while Mealfrog played the Plaza stage – which we could hear and see even more clearly from our settlement.  It was about then that I realized why the crowd had looked a little thin for Garrett and Barcelona: everyone was doing what we were!

The ease of access, the borderline promotion of campsite drinking, the little pieces of thoughtful event planning (though near each other, there was zero sound bleedthrough between the Plaza and Mainstage) – I was beginning to remember why I liked Chinook Fest concerts.  They’re put together quite well and, more importantly, there’s no pressure.

It seems odd to talk about pressure in a festival setting, but it happens all the time.  Walking a mile into Sasquatch from camp, fretting over lineup overlap, sweating at a security checkpoint through which exorbitant prices have forced you to smuggle whiskey in a Ziploc bag, getting a day hangover from pre-emptive campsite drinking and losing your friends in the crowd – all perhaps while worrying if you’re having enough fun to make up for the ticket price?  That’s pressure.

I’m not discounting Sasquatch here (who could, it’s a blast), but there’s a lot to be said for being able to truly relax at a music festival.  It leads to all kinds of wonderful interactions that just don’t happen when people are rushing around with heads full of musical checklists and timetables.  Like the song a mysterious neighbor convinced my camp to write – about “Gorfax” the evil dragon.  Between lines of a language he made up himself, the camper demanded we improvise verses about Gorfax and the princess he ‘stowed.’  She ended up in a hot tub, Gorfax just watched, and no knight ever came to save her, but I haven’t laughed as hard in some time.

Relaxed as we might have been, no one could resist the draw of Chinook Fest Summit’s Friday night headliner X-Ambassadors.  These guys hit number one on the alternative charts shortly before being booked for the festival, and they didn’t disappoint.  Front man Sam Harris was all over the place, pouncing across the stage with his mic during “Jungle,” stomping while strumming an acoustic for “Renegades”, and looping catchy saxophone hooks on more than a few tracks.  His antics were matched by earth-shattering dance moves and fat, fat synths from Sam’s brother Casey Harris on keys, carefully fitted guitar from Noah Feldshuh and giant kicks and snares from Adam Levin.  Together they create epic and surprisingly unique alternative arena rock, and they had it turned on 100% from the minute they got onstage til the minute they finished the encore.

After all that happened – in the middle of the highway – it was time for the Plaza afterparty.  There was one of these on both Friday and Saturday, each hosted by DJ Marco Collins.  They became two of my favorite parts of Chinook Fest Summit.  As hard as I laughed at the Gorfax song, I laughed harder at the members of Tango Alpha Tango during Friday’s dance party.  And my love for improvisation was more than satisfied when Marco Collins recruited Seattle drummer Heather Thomas (out of nowhere) to play along with the turntables during most of Saturday’s afterparty, also bringing up vocalists and band members to augment the DJ set.

Chinook Fest Summit Day Two

…It started with cloud cover, puffy eyes and eggs benedict.

I poked my head into the gathering mist around 8:30am to the sound of beers cracking to my right and the smell of bacon to my left.  I decided between the lesser of two evils and tottered towards the source of the sizzle – a full-size gas barbeque Violette had hauled up in her truck.  In addition to frying bacon on a grill, Violet had devised a way to make eggs benedict in the mountains, and had brought enough for everyone in our camp.  I marveled groggily at the genius of eggs poached in the water-filled depressions of a muffin tin (six at a time!) as we ate and then sat back in my camp chair, fully hypnotized by the constant cloak and reveal of nearby peaks in the shifting clouds.

I thought back to last year’s Chinook Central.  Like Snoqualmie, Central’s Naches River Valley location is surrounded by walls of evergreen.  There though, the walls are broken dramatically by gashes of bright dusty stone and were bathed in sunshine by 9am every morning.  It had been cold at night in 2014 – my jacket and long pants got more jealous looks than they’ll ever deserve – but by early afternoon most women had reached a consensus on short-shorts and the brave among us were already being reborn in the river that runs through the grounds (there’s a sweet shot of Blake Noble’s bassist Joel Hoyer doing just that about halfway through the Chinook Fest ’14 highlight reel).

After breakfast and a few chilly hours during which, inspired by our WSU neighbors, I almost started drinking, alt-country artist Star Anna took the Mainstage.  Now, I’ve heard Star Anna doesn’t partake of spirits, but Saturday morning she appeared to be hungover – richly, hilariously and vividly so.  I’ve got to breeze past most of Saturday coverage-wise, but I pick out this performance to describe in detail.  Not just because it was funny, but because it was so, so amazing.

“You know how early it is to play a show?” Anna grunted from behind dark glasses and a tangle of dirty blonde hair.  “We’re doing our best.”

Her head was hung slightly, her feet were slow and clumsy, and her black leather jacket looked way too hot.  I was looking forward to the train wreck rather deeply.  Imagine my surprise, then, as the sufferer scratched her drooping head, waved a limp salute to her band – and transformed into Star Anna.

“Let Me Be” is a song off Star Anna’s newest album Go To Hell, and she played it at full power.  It’s dirty, full of grindy, beaten-sounding electric guitar.  It’s clean, Anna’s traditional rasp turning sweet in remembrance of some hard love past and all the ways it tore things up.  It’s both, wandering back and forth between an innocent girl asking “why?” and a calloused ex-lover damning the hurt.

“We’re Star Anna…I’m Star Anna…these guys are all Star Anna,” she groaned after a few more songs.  “Yeah, I didn’t bring any CDs, so you gotta go on the computer…”  This second sentiment trailed off as her guitar’s strap came off the instrument, causing a light whine and cursing to escape the lip she’d split (and cursed) a few moments before.

But you better believe she nailed “Power of My Love” right after that.  It was probably the song that required the most from Anna that morning.  I could almost feel her head aching, but you would have thought she was feeling like a vengeful million bucks if you came upon the scene during this performance.  Saucy in a country-soul way, the track is heavy on honky-tonk piano and wailing warnings of how powerful Anna’s love is.  Watch out!

Though she is clearly in control, watching Star Anna sing is a bit like sitting in on an exorcism.  She stamps out invisible demons, she writhes, she smokes (cigarettes), and she releases something quite powerful.  The tremendous amount of pain in Star Anna’s music will break, lift up and enrage your heart in perfect time with hers.  One thing’s for sure, even if she’s massively hungover and singing for a crowd of about six people standing (in awe) on a deserted mountain highway – and perhaps especially if that’s the case – Star Anna will make it happen for you.

Allen Stone

Flash forward past a full day of music to Saturday’s headliner Allen Stone, and the highway was anything but deserted.  A thick column of deliriously happy people covered the road, dancing and singing along to Seattle’s champion of soul and R&B.  This was Chinook Fest Summit at its peak, and Stone was taking it for all it was worth.

His curly mane bouncing, Stone sang his heart out over two keyboard players, two backup singers, a drummer and a guitarist.  They played smooth, at times almost Motown-sounding jams full of love all night, and the stage lights shot giant beams through the sprinkle of mist coming gently down.

Stone was, of course, his wild and charismatic self throughout the performance, which was startlingly mature when one remembers he played his first Seattle Living Room Show less than 6 years ago.  The singing was incredible (silky, and Stone’s range is out of this world), the band was air-tight, and I don’t know where he found those backup singers, but it was like Stone had a sonic muse to either side of him the whole night.

It seems to be a primary objective of Stone’s to personally connect with every audience he plays, and that was especially clear on this occasion.  He took special care to thank Seattle and the PNW in general for supporting him in his rise.  He pointed to audience members, he started a dance competition, and he essentially left it all onstage.  Considering Stone just finished a 6-day tour of thanks in Seattle, I think the crowd felt closer to him than ever.

Chinook Fest Summit Day Three

…I only saw Trout Steak Revival.

As promised, this article’s coverage is dependent on nothing in particular beyond my experience.  My experience on Sunday was a bit like Star Anna’s the day before, and unfortunately I had to take off shortly after Denver-based bluegrass band Trout Steak Revival played their morning set.

Trout Steak Revival is just what it sounds like – bluegrass through and through.  A guitar, a banjo, a mandolin, a standup bass and a fiddle pick and pluck their way through the mountains of Colorado (the band started as an “informal jamming unit during treks through the Front Range).  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the show was great.  You get a lot of good music when a long-time touring musician like Cody Beebe is in charge of everything, and Trout Steak Revival was no exception.

Rolling banjo reels from Travis McNamara, the tinny shine of Steve Foltz’s mandolin and Will Koster’s dedicated strumming and sliding on guitar sit happily atop Casey Houlihan’s basslines as they entertain Bevin Foley’s fiddle melodies and harmonious vocals from almost every member.  It all takes one back to memories of whiskey, sunshine, lakes and forests.  In other words, exactly what we were surrounded by at Snoqualmie – and will be at Naches.

Looking Forward to Chinook Fest Central

Aside from reviewing the lineup, the best way to anticipate Chinook Fest Central 2015 is to look at past Chinook Fests and examine what the festival itself is about.

If you love local music, you’ll love Central.  Favorites like The Rusty 45s, Massy Ferguson, and Cody Beebe and the Crooks will be there, along with newer Seattle groups like Sarah Gerritsen & the Shadowcatchers, Rust on the Rails and Vaudeville Etiquette.

But Cody makes a point of including bands from abroad, and bands Seattleites likely haven’t heard before.  From California (not that far, I know) comes headliner Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real – a roots rock group with a sound somewhere between Eric Clapton and the Alabama Shakes.  Notable and intriguing bands that might not be on your itunes are Robert Jon & the Wreck (southern rock from so-Cal), The Scott Pemberton Trio (crazy jam band out of Portland) and Sleepy Man (all under age 17).

Beyond the lineup, it’s worth mentioning again that Chinook Fest hopes to be the kind of place communities can mix, form and burgeon.

That’s a tall order (and one that can’t be engineered through festival management beyond a certain point), but in my opinion Chinook Fest is making real progress in that direction.

The original Chinook Fest event (now known as Chinook Fest Central) mixes genres and audiences – a good start to good times when the varied personalities are all having fun.  In 2014 I danced hard to Sturgill Simpson’s ‘brand new!’ psychedelic twang next to cowboy-hatted Eastern Washingtonians who’d known about him for years.  I watched as whole families bobbed their heads to heady indie conglomerates like Pickwick for the first time.  I made real friendships (real festival friendships, anyway) with my neighbors, and sang with the bands around campfires at night.  I still message the guy I camped next to at Chinook Fest 2014 (he’s a hippied-out Microsoft employee who works from home because they couldn’t keep in the office anymore).  Hell, Seattle band Rust on the Rails actually formed at Chinook Fest.

Chinook Fest Central – the year I went, anyway – was a pretty well-oiled fun machine.  Camping was nearby and plentiful, the stages were tucked into the forest by someone with a knack for…that…and although organization was tight, it didn’t come with any stiffness, bristly staff or the ‘herd of cows’ feeling you find at some big events.  At Central, I partied with band members!  I made friends with my neighbors and sang along with their terrible attempts at raspy Cobain-style introspection songs!  I actually had real conversations with security guards – about family, and taste in music!

In short, I’d be surprised if Central 2015 wasn’t a good time that leaves campers with a lot of good music to listen to and adventures to talk about. To purchase tickets, go here. 


To listen to past SMI Radio Shows! featuring some more brilliant artists GO HERE.

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Brandon Taylor started writing at some point in the hazy memory of his youth. He remained lost in books and journals until that happy life was interrupted during middle school by a trumpet and a guitar – both of which he continues to play (mostly in secret, composing and recording what he’ll swear are thoroughly broken songs). His love of music born from creating it, Brandon can’t stop listening to and talking with local artists. Moving from Tacoma to Seattle in 2013 only made things worse, and then he started writing for Seattle Magazine and Seattle Living Room Shows. Given the perfect excuse to continue this behavior and “work” as a “journalist” while he’s so disposed, he’s never been happier.