The three days of fish, love and music at the Ninilchik Fairgrounds each summer has a new name but all the old favorites the throngs of concertgoes have come to know and love.
When the Renewable Resources Foundation handed the festival off to the Homer-based Kachemak Bay Conservation Society this year, RRF kept its rights to the original Salmonstock name, so this year’s fifth annual festival became Salmonfest.
Jim Stearns, producer/manager, and much of the managing staff continued on with the festival this year. Really, not much has changed with Salmonfest other than the name and the weather — which was a spectacularly sunny improvement over the rain in past years.
Salmonfest maintained its successful recipe of blending a small-town country atmosphere with a highly charged music festival.
Last year’s festival drew more than 6,000 attendees. This year’s Salmonfest drew large crowds Saturday and Sunday following a slower- than-usual Friday, due to the traffic delay from an accident on the Seward Highway south of Girdwood. Many of those stuck in the delay Friday afternoon were treated to an impromptu concert from one of Salmonfest’s top-billing bands, The California Honeydrops from the Bay area, walking and playing their instruments along Turnagain Arm.
Salmonfest still prides itself on being a family friendly festival and the Small Fry was a big hit again, complete with animal petting, face painting and a giant outdoor slide.
The festival continued its educational component, with booths staffed by Musicians United to Protect Bristol Bay, the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, The Wild Salmon Center, the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, Cook Inletkeeper, Kenai Watershed Forum Stream Watch, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Salmon Beyond Borders, Save the Chuitna and the Save the Susitna organizations.
The tastes of Salmonfest gets better and better each year. From food vendors hawking grilled cheese and nan bread stuffed with delectable goodies to Alaska-fresh seafood, the hungry could find it all — Thai, Mexican, Cajun and other cultural cuisines to the simple fair offerings of burgers, dogs, fries, pizza, cotton candy and pulled pork.
As in years past, Salmonfest featured the work of artist Ray Troll adorning the stages, buildings and in merchandise booth.
One of the more popular activities of the weekend was the aerial group photo in the rodeo grounds Saturday with more than 400 participants. Homer artist Mavis Muller is the director/facilitator of this human mosaic. Muller also brought along Fireball, a huge woven alder branch sculpture, where it was on display near the Ocean Stage.
The music, though, continues to be the biggest draw. Stearns uses his years of expertise managing tours for the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia to blend in a mix of established bands, headliners and up-and-coming acts from across Alaska and the country.
The Sunday headliners, EmmyLou Harris and Rodney Crowell, were fresh off their latest collaborative Grammy Award, the 14th Grammy for Harris, and didn’t disappoint with their mix of country, folk, bluegrass and Americana.
Friday evening on the River Stage began with the Whipsaws, from Anchorage, the Robb Justice Band from the central Kenai Peninsula and the ever-popular Alaska favorite, Big Fat Buddha.
On the main Ocean Stage the Salmonfest house band, Great American Taxi, was back for its fifth year in Ninilchik. Closing Friday night was The Motet band to rock the festival grounds. The now-traditional Late Nite at the Headwaters Salmon Jam commenced, with bluegrass fusion from The Dirty River Ramblers and the honky-tonking Cajun Country Revival.
Saturday heated up early with Jim Page, The Ratfish Wranglers, Braided River, Two Katfish, Seward’s Blackwater Railroad Co. with Alaska songwriter Anna Lynch, Susan Grace, Si Kahn, Dan Lesperance and others taking the stage throughout the warm afternoon. As the warm day moved toward the cooler evening, The Dirty River Ramblers, The Sociables, Holy Santos Gang, Dangertown and MarchFourth!, with their stilt walkers, hoopers and Vaudeville-style dancers, whipped the crowd into a celebratory frenzy. One of Saturday afternoon showstoppers was Homer’s high-energy sounds Williwaw Marimba.
The California Honeydrops got the large crowd swaying and dancing to their vibrant energy and Anchorage’s Super Saturated Sugar Strings had the crowds foot stomping and dancing.
The evening closed with New Orleans Suspects’ jazz-infulenced brass instruments and world-renown saxophonist Karl Denson and his band Tiny Universe. Denson is fresh off touring with the Rolling Stones and counts The Allman Brothers Band to Lenny Kravitz and John Scofield among his past musical collaborators.
Great American Taxi anchored the blend of music at Saturday’s Late Nite at the Headwaters Salmon Jam.
Sunday began with Alaska songwriter and folk singer Susan Grace on the Ocean Stage, followed by Katie Emerick, John Cottingham, Diana Z, Emma Hill, Anna Lynch, the Good Time Travelers, Ghost Hands and the hugely popular Moonalice band with its Grateful Dead-inspired music.
The Rik Nelson Band, Ratfish Wranglers, Leeroy Stagger and Anchorage’s Nervis Rex added to the Sunday offerings before EmmyLou Harris and Rodney Crowell brought the fifth annual Salmonfest to a close.
The resounding opinion from attendees seemed to be that this year’s music was the most rounded array in the festival’s history. Plan early for next year — maybe just don’t plan on a guaranteed repeat of this year’s perfect weather.
Ed Kobak is a freelance music, sports and adventure travel writer, author of sports reference books and media coordinator for Twin City Raceway in Kenai. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.