Hemp-Fest - Seattle, WA
WOW what a day! A nice summer day in Seattle is difficult to top, but when you add 50+ bands, artists and performers playing to a estimated crowd of over 55,000 enthusiastic fans, I'm sure Hemp-Fest will go down in the history books as the event of events at Seattle's Myrtle Edwards Park.
As the brain-child of hemp-fest director Vivian McPeak, it has grown from a group of stoner/activists wanting to make changes for the reform of marijuana laws, to one of the largest marijuana reform events in the United States. The history of hemp-fest shows that support of drug reform has grown into a grass-roots movement that is spreading like a grass fire (pun intended) across the country!
I arrived in Seattle via Ferry around 2pm, so I unfortunately missed some of the earlier bands (I really wanted to see Fedora again!), but got my back-stage pass and weaved my way through the masses to the main stage where I caught the tail end of Swamp Mama Johnson, a five-piece funky R&B all female group, voted best band by the Seattle Weekly. They've been together for 7 years, and I saw them in Seattle's Pioneer Square about 5 years ago. Always a crowd pleaser with great lyrics and a rolling groove, SMJ consists of Lisa Mills fronting the band on vocals and harp, Tracy Ferrara on sax, Laurie Miller on guitar, and a very funky and tight rhythm section with Leah Hinchcliff on bass and Kim Carson on drums.
Next, I went South to the Ralph Seeley stage and saw about 20 minutes of Kilgore Trout before making my way to the drum circle. Their set was free-form fusion jazz complete with horns. Complicated rhythms and solos were enhanced with a backdrop of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains on a clear day. Kilgore Trout has been a standard band at the Seattle Peace Concerts as well as having a large following in the area. This was the first time I had the chance to see them live, but enjoyed what I heard.
From there, I traveled back North past the Main Stage to the "Eco" stage. This stage is totally powered by solar cells, and seemed mostly to be hosted by acoustic acts. I saw an acoustic duo named River Roots that were suprisingly good. With just acoustic guitar and acoustic bass, River Roots had the reggae beat happening without any drums. I saw them about two hours later at the Seeley stage as well.
I never had the chance to make it to RC's Sports Bar beer garden had the fourth stage...just getting back and forth between the other three stages covered an area of about a half mile. Pack 55,000 people and 100 vendors selling everything from food to hemp products of all kinds to T-shirts and hats in-between this half mile stretch, and it made for a LONG day! As often as I could, I sought refuge back stage at the main stage (thanks hemp-fest for the backstage pass!) where the main stage performers, hemp-fest staff and special guests were catered with vegetarian food and healthy drink of all types.
At 4pm, the high-point of the day (in my opinion) happened when The Herbivores took to the mainstage. This band has a special place in my heart because in their early days as a band (around 10 years ago), they shared billing every Wednesday night with a band that I played in at a club (now gone) called The University Bistro in Seattle's University District. A serious roots/reggae band, they have had a few member changes over the years, but the main core of the group has remained the same: Singer/songwriter Jim Matthiessen, bassist Share Parker and virtuoso lead guitarist Jay Roberts (son of the late great jazz guitarist Howard Roberts). New additions to the band are Dan McCormack on keys and Brendon Scanlan on drums. The Herbivores have been a standard at every hemp-fest held since the first one in 1991 and have always been great. Sound wise, they have only gotten better, but the main thing I noticed is that Share's dreads grew from shoulder length to down below her tush, and Jim's grew from waist-length to just above his ankles! At 4:20pm, the band worked the packed crowed into a frenzy and was joined on stage by Larry Steiner (local freekster and cool dude) painted blue with a blue feather head-dress. It was truly an amazing event as the photographs hopefully can express.
From here I went back to the Seeley Stage to see Phat Sidy Smokehouse (Hotbands featured band for June 1999). Larry Steiner was also on stage with Phat Sidy to work the crowd. Since there were so many bands and it was so difficult to travel between the stages due to the amount of people at the show, I was only able to catch three of their songs, but Phat Sidy is one of the most popular bands in Seattle and always has a positive response from the crowd.
I then headed back to the main stage where I hung for the remainder of the festival. Napiers Bones was a band that I hadn't heard of before (I was in Texas for the last two years), but was totally impressed with! Their style was a combination of rolling groove rock mixed with reggae. Their seven-piece band is made up of Derek Sasberg on acoustic guitar, percussion and vocals, Vito Truglio on lead guitar and vocals, Sheree Frye on percussion and vocals, Dave Wyke on drums and vocals, Paul Mitchkowski on bass and Scott Jantzen on percussion. With four of the seven band members singing and five of the seven playing percussion or drums, it was like a totally happening drum circle that had direction, groove and drive! This is a band that I expect to see at more of the larger festivals and hopefully to be touring the West Coast.
The Toyes followed with their blend of reggae and rock. I had stepped out to check out the booths and vendors, so I caught the last two songs by them. Another solid band that I hadn't heard of, but was obviously well known enough to gain a spot on the main stage.
Finally, the last band of the day was Selassie-I-Soldier. From Jamaica to Seattle to NY back to Seattle again, this band started their set with the band playing AC/DC's "Back in Black" with lead vocals rapping over the top in Dub-style Reggae. During their set, they also took a break while one of the band members proposed to his girlfriend (yes she accepted! congrats from us!) and closed the festival out in grand fashion as the sun started sinking over the Olympic Mountains on the horizon.
The most touching moment of the entire day was when Hemp-Fest director Vivian McPeak made a dedication to his deceased father. As I mentioned earlier, the Hemp-Fest is a politically active event put on by an organization founded by Vivian called The Peace Heathens. Their message is to create awareness of the injustices of the drug war and the absurdity of criminalization of marijuana use...especially for medical purposes. Being from the "old school" of thought where it was taught that smoking marijuana lead to heroin use and becoming a mass murderer but alcohol was perfectly acceptable, Vivian's father didn't like or use it. He was diagnosed with a terminal illness and wasted away to 85 lbs. before agreeing to consume brownies made from marijuana. Although he didn't recover from his illness, his appetite did increase and he was able to cheat death for three months longer than what the doctors predicted he would last. In Vivian's words "When you know you aren't going to see somebody you love for eternity, three months is a long time" He brought his father's remains to the last hemp-fest of the millennium and spread his ashes to the winds after a heart wrenching eulogy.
My hat goes off to you Vivian and all of the staff of the Hemp-Fest for one of the best organized music festivals I have ever been to! Congratulations on a job well done!