Wow, what a weekend! Tye Menser, festival MC and banjo man for the Oly Mountain Boys said it best at the opening of the festival: this event was hosted by and hosted for the string music community of the Pacific Northwest. Portland, Seattle, Bellingham, Minneapolis and of course Olympia were represented by some formidable talent, with some notable fiddlers taking the best-of honors, at least in my opinion. But I was impressed with the playing all around. Having been introduced to the bluegrass world via the competition festival circuit (Winfield, KS hosts my hometown, childhood bluegrass fest that I still attend annually) I’m always drawn to bands with a roster full of capable players and the bands scheduled by Menser did not disappoint.
Saturday of the festival started off quiet, as Saturdays should after a Friday night party like we had. Open mic was well attended by players playing to other musicians, which made it feel like any other open mic I’ve ever been to. My wife Kendal and I worked ticketing at the front gate of the festival Saturday afternoon so we didn’t get to see much music, although everything we heard from the festival entrance sounded great. Evening music for us kicked off with the Lowest Pair, some old time friends. The intimate guitar-guitar, guitar-banjo and banjo-banjo duo of Palmer T. Lee and Kendl Winter never fails to deliver. Tight harmonies color every tune, and while both members have a unique, biting timbre to their voice when singing lead, they both are amazing harmony singers and back each other up on vocals with ease.
The next band was a new one for me: Scratchdog Stringband out of Portland, OR. They call themselves the bastards of bluegrass and they did have screechy, basement-club-metal overtones to their bluegrassy and old-timey feel. Everyone in the band is a tasty player but they lean heavily on the abilities of their fiddler. The band writes some catchy tunes and all of the players were impressive with their leads. I would say at some points during the set the Scratchdog tunes started to blend together and not stand out from one another as much as they could, but I see this band going places and hope they make it out to Colorado to bring the PNW sound to us there.
The highlight of Saturday night came from the Pine Hearts, another one of the host bands of the festival. Joey’s talents as a carpenter are rumored to rival his as a songwriter, in which case he should be able to build whatever he wants from the ground up with ease. Derrick on mandolin has got great style, borrowing a few licks and concepts from the original bluegrass mandolin man Bill Monroe. The bass player is solid as a rock, shows good vibes on stage and sings excellent harmony but the star of the show is Joey. The born performer brings high energy to his performance and can really get the crowd going. But beneath that showmanship are heartfelt lyrics, snappy musical forms and intelligent phrasing that set Joey’s songs apart from the rest. Pine Hearts are highly recommended, and they do travel extensively playing music, so make sure to keep an eye out!
The late night picks after the music got done were definitely the highlight of my experience at the Steamboat Jamboree. Late nights at bluegrass festivals are amazing for me as a musician because I sometimes get the chance to mingle and jam with performers fresh off the stage, including the main acts from the festival if they’re up for it. Here at my first year at this festival I was able to meet some outstanding players around some late-night campfires, including Collin Stockhouse on the fiddle. Collin seemed to know hundreds of fiddle tunes and rags, most of which I wasn’t familiar with, but he let me lead a couple tunes and we made good music. I eventually wandered over to the Pine Hearts camp and got to pick with Joey and Derrick from the Pine Hearts, Kendl from the Lowest Pair, the Tye and also the fiddler from the Oly Mountain Boys and a few other good players. We passed tunes (and beers) around for hours and hours until the sun came up, a beautiful, orange-red cherry on top of a stellar Steamboat weekend in Olympia!
Steamboat Stringband Jamboree 2019 seemed to be a success all the way around. The organizers didn’t seem nearly as stressed out as most of the productions operations I see at the bigger festivals, and I didn’t see any instances of people being anything but considerate, polite and open to having a good time. Kendal and I had such a blast and hope we can make it back to the south Puget Sound for the Jamboree in 2020!