By Jenny Neyman
As far as rumors go, this has been a potent one — that the Wailin’ Jennys are headlining the 23rd annual Kenai River Festival.
What could be more of a surprise? That the Run for the River is being replaced with a monster truck rally? That the Kid Zone wooden fish painting is discontinued in favor of an activity to see what pretty sheens kids can create by dumping gasoline into Soldotna Creek? That instead of the fresh salmon dinner, the Kenai Watershed Forum will instead be serving up microwaved hot dogs and deep-fried Twinkies?
All sound unbelievable, but luckily only the first is true — the Wailin’ Jennys are indeed performing a free concert during the festival.
“I’m really excited about it, it’s going to be dynamite. I think it’s very suiting for the Kenai River Festival,” said Robb Justice, music coordinator.
The Wailin’ Jennys — the name being a takeoff on Waylon Jennings — is a Canadian music group founded in 2002 in Winnipeg. They have released four albums, with 2006’s “Firecraker” peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Bluegrass charts. They’ve performed on a “A Prairie Home Companion,” and have won two Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent to a Grammy.
They performed on the Kenai in 2005 and 2008, and their angelic harmonies, intricate arrangements and vibrant sound resulted in scores of devoted fans who have been thrilled to hear about the river festival performance.
Music has been a staple of the three-day festival, this year to be held June 7, 8 and 9 at Soldotna Creek Park. It’s always a mix of local musicians and out-of-town bands, generally with singer-songwriters playing during the day, and bigger bands jamming away the evenings. For music lovers, it’s a great chance to sample the current music scene all in one setting, while lounging in the grass, participating in the many family activities, perusing the educational displays, browsing the wares of the arts and crafts vendors, sampling the many food options available or, for adults, having a libation in the beer garden. Instead of listeners going to umpteen different venues to catch the 23 acts, the festival brings the musicians all to one spot, with no cover charge.
“It’s as much a celebration of the river as it’s about community appreciation. I really, really like the fact that it’s free and anybody can come in. Anybody can come by and listen, and spend your money on the booths you think you want to support. Even if you’re just a kid riding by on your bike, you can come in and check out the music.”
“Rick Zuber, he’s like Animal on the ‘Muppets.’ We’re going to set up a drum kit out on the lawn and let him go nuts on it,” Justice said.
Several local favorites will be gracing the stage — including Justice’s band 907, the up-and-coming Say Surrender and Just We Too with Barb Anderson and Lee Johnson. For some local acts, their festival appearance will be particularly momentous. For longtime local performer Rick Matiya, his Saturday performance will be something of a swan song, as he’s moving to the Lower 48. The PG Band, playing Friday, also expects the festival to be its last performance.
On the happier side of that coin is singer-songwriter Katie Evans, playing Sunday, who has returned to the area. And on Saturday night the Baked Alaskans will be reunited with their founding frontman Mike Morgan, who has himself been out in the world after spending many years bringing outside music to the central peninsula through his World Music for the Kenai.
Out-of-towners include the popular Homer bands Barroom Roses and the Holy Santos Gang, and from Anchorage singer/songwriters Amy Lou Hettinger and Justina Grace. Singer/songwriter Melissa Mitchell, from Anchorage but who grew up in Kasilof, will open for the Wailin’ Jennys. Mitchell has become an ambassador of music for the state, touring worldwide herself and opening for substantial touring acts as they play in Alaska, including the Indigo Girls, Michael Franti, k.d. lang and Rusted Root.
“It’s really coming together. It’s going to be a great lineup,” Justice said.
His enthusiasm is two-fold — as a listener to enjoy the music, and as a musician to perform at the festival.
“We look forward to this festival. It’s a really good opportunity to play for the kids as well as the people who don’t get a chance to come out and see us at Kenai Joe’s or wherever we’re playing. So we enjoy the opportunity to be able to play for the community, especially when it’s in conjunction with celebrating the Kenai River,” Justice said.
Along with the music, the festival celebration will again include many of the annual favorites, with a few new additions this year. The five-kilometer and 10-mile Run for the River will be held June 8, with the 10-mile starting at 8:30 a.m. and the five-kilometer at 9 a.m. Early registration is ongoing through June 5, with a bib pickup and prerace dinner June 7, and day-of registration at 8 a.m. June 8 at the starting/finish line at Stanley Chrysler.
The Kids Zone will have many of its yearly favorites, including the wooden salmon painting, and the Passport to Fun activity will again offer a chance to win an iPad. A new event this year is making Gyotaku T-shirts, a Japanese art of doing fish rubbings.
In the educational vein, Bird TLC will be back with some of its live, feathered friends, area commercial fishermen will have a display of net-mending and other traditional activities, there will be information on watershed-friendly farming techniques, and at 1 p.m. June 9 will be salmon dissections.
“So people can learn about fish anatomy, form and function,” said Lisa Beranek, festival organizer with the Kenai Watershed Forum. “We’re pretty pumped about the Kid Zone, and we’re very excited about the music lineup this year.”
The Wailin’ Jennys are a bit of a departure for festival organizers — to have such a big-name act — but an exciting one.
“Obviously the Wailin’ Jennys are a big highlight this year,” Beranek said. “The festival is continually evolving. We want to try and meet the needs of the festival mission and provide a festival that’s fun and engaging for the community. The opportunity arose to have them here and we really wanted to do it and see what the response is and see if it’s something we’re interested in continuing in the future. We’re very excited to be able to do that.”
The festival is free and open to the public, running from 5 to 10 p.m. June 7, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. June 8, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 9. Organizers ask that pets be left at home, even if on a leash, in deference to safety and sanitation for festival participants, vendors and the pets themselves.
“The festival in general is a fundraiser for the Watershed Forum, but really the point is to bring people together to celebrate the river and its protection. We’re super excited to get the festival going and get people out there and hopefully introduce them to some new community members and new opportunities to protect the river,” Beranek said.
For more information on the Kenai River Festival, visit www.kenaiwatershed.org/krf/kenairiverfestival.html.
Rock for the River schedule
Friday, June 7
- 5-5:45 p.m. — Backwoods Revolution, a three-piece bluegrass/folk band from Funny River.
- 6-6:45 p.m. — Robb Justice Band, up-tempo classic rock foot-stompers, like Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie.
- 7-8 p.m. — Off the Cuff, formerly Wishbone Creek, a rock band from the Soldotna area playing originals and covers.
- 8:15-9:30 p.m. — PG Band, local rock band giving its goodbye performance.
Saturday, June 8
- 11-11:30 am — Rick Matiya, local acoustic singer/guitarist playing his last Kenai River Festival before moving to the Lower 48.
- 11:40-12:10 p.m. — Carl Sanche, a singer/songwriter from Clam Gulch.
- 12:20-12:50 p.m. — Justina Grace, a singer/songwriter from Anchorage, influenced by Modest Mouse and Ray LaMontagne.
- 1-1:30 p.m. — Jesse Tauriainen, singer/songwriter playing soulful folk.
- 1:40-2:30 p.m. — Amy Hettinger, singer/songwriter from Anchorage, joined by Elise Gelbart on fiddle.
- 3-4 p.m. — Troubadour North, four-piece local bar and coffee shop favorite.
- 4:30-5:30 p.m. — K’alik’a, local ensemble with Bunny Swan, Johnny B and others, playing high-energy soulful music, including jazz, blues and rock. K’alik’a is a Dena’ina word meaning song.
- 6-7:15 p.m. — Melissa Mitchell, singer/songwriter from Anchorage, though grew up in Kasilof.
- 8-9:45 p.m. — Wailin’ Jennys, Canada’s Juno-award winning folk ensemble.
- 10-11 p.m. — Baked Alaskans, local folk/rock/bluegrass/whatever else they feel like band of longtime musicians closing out the night with up-tempo music to dance to.
Sunday, June 9
- 11-11:15 a.m. — JoeRay Skrha, local performer playing acoustic folk/country music.
- 11:20-11:40 am — Family Jam, a local ensemble with Robb, Justice, Hatton Greer, Willow Hagelund, Justin Peterson, Adara Hagelund and Elizabeth Peterson.
- Noon-12:30 p.m. — KT Evans, local singer/songwriter back from living in the Lower 48.
- 12:40-1:10 p.m. — Just We Too, jazz/blues/swing music by Barbara Anderson and Lee Johnson.
- 1:15-1:25 p.m. — Rick Zuber, drum solo.
- 1:30-2 p.m. — Say Surrender, local rock band.
- 2:15-3 p.m. — Barroom Roses, indie folk rock band from Homer, with singer Katie Emerick.
- 3:00-3:30 p.m. — Salvage Art Awards.
- 3:30-4:30 p.m. — Holy Santos Gang, high-energy frontier rock band from Homer.
- 4:45-6 p.m. — 907, original Alaskana roots/folk/bluegrass/rock music.