In August 1969, almost exactly fifty years ago, three days of music, peace & love in upstate New York defined a generation and became a legend against which every future music festival would be judged. For us, the Woodstock anniversary thus brings significance to our stay in the tiny Cook Inlet town of Ninilchik, site of the annual Salmonfest music festival – “three days of fish, love & music at the cosmic center of the salmonverse.”
Born in 2011 as Salmonstock, this event has always had a focus on protecting the environment, particularly salmon habitat and the Alaskan ocean and streams on which these fish (and the livelihood of many Alaskans) depend. Threats posed to the Bristol Bay fisheries by the proposed Pebble Mine are especially concerning at the moment and opposition to this development was a consistent theme throughout the festival. Proceeds from the festival assist a number of Alaska’s salmon and environmental conservation organizations, and we’re happy to help.
New at Salmonfest this year was a huge camping area adjacent to the festival grounds, where we made a reservation. We were among the first to arrive and scored a wonderful corner spot for the long weekend, nestled into the fireweed and just a short walk from the festival’s back entrance.
The music was great. More than 60 acts from all over the US, including a number of bands from Alaska, played on four stages and kept us moving from one to another (and another and another…) to see as much as we could.
I have to confess that I was not too familiar with the Salmonfest headline acts. Of course I’ve heard of Jason Mraz, and also Ani DiFranco, but never had taken opportunities to listen to much of their music. Of the headliners, we were most impressed by Ani DiFranco, an insightful poet and indie folk-rock singer-songwriter and (as I am now aware) a great performer with some great songs. And Jason Mraz does put on a good show.
You might not expect that a tall, skinny, redheaded white guy could effectively channel James Brown, but the smoking hot Colorado soul band called The Burroughs would prove you wrong. Behind their charismatic frontman, this nine-member funk machine has a great horn section and a fantastic rhythm section that all together kept the crowd on their feet through both of their two sets.
There’s a singer-songwriter-storyteller-madman named Steve Poltz who was born in Nova Scotia, grew up in California, toured and wrote songs with Jewel, now lives in Nashville, and made me laugh harder than I can remember. He’s also a pretty amazing fingerpicking-style guitar player. Tim Easton is another Nashville singer-songwriter, not as crazy as Steve but also pretty funny and also a great entertainer. Tim has some Alaska connections and had a lot to say (and sing) about the Pebble Mine.
Alaska musicians of course had a big role in this festival. The Blackwater Railroad Company, from Seward by way of NC, are an Americana indie band with a country-bluegrass flair. The Hope Social Club from Girdwood fall into a similar category, minus most of the bluegrass. Their rhythm section notably backed up maybe half the acts who played on Sunday!
We didn’t expect to hear classic rock that would make us boomers feel like we were back in college from a quartet of 20- (or 30?-) somethings from Anchorage, but that’s what the Jangle Bees had. Awesome! We did expect to hear a few blues standards from Alaska’s Blues Core – five guys about my own age – and we were not disappointed. The blues are alive and well in the 49th state! These guys were on fire, taking the blues standards beyond ‘standard blues’ with new and original (and really good!) interpretations.
Our next-door neighbors in the camping area were the John Budnik Band, based in Palmer, whom I will describe as a modern take on the classic power trio. They gave the crowd a great set of John’s original songs mixed with a couple of well chosen covers. There was a pleasing range from bluesy and driving Americana ballads through hard rock to funky soul. We really enjoyed their show, and it was especially cool to rock out to someone we knew!
Other highlights: singer-songwriter, and keeper of the Woodie Guthrie flame, Joel Rafael (San Diego); Andrew Duhon (New Orleans), an excellent songwriter whose performance piqued our interest as a vocalist/guitarist and drummer duo; classic and original rock from the Jones Gang (Napa, CA); indie folk sibling harmony with the T Sisters (Oakland, CA); string-band, classic rock, country standards and more from a Florida couple who together are known as JunoSmile and also form the core of a quartet called the Hindu Cowboys; the Sweet Lillies, a bluegrassy Americana string band from Boulder, CO; and the DeadPhish Orchestra, a jamband from Colorado who are exactly what their name suggests (“We play both kinds”) .
Wow, quite a time! Admittedly not as apocryphal as the original Woodstock, but neither was it muddy, nor were there problems with bad acid, plus it was very well managed and not chaotic at all. Oh, and there was this truck selling halibut burritos that bring festival food to a level of excellence that I believe has seldom been matched on this planet.