Ethnocentric moniker notwithstanding, the mixed bag of genres under the “Americana music” umbrella is a transnational mélange that shares a common element: they all connect with the listener at an emotional level, creating a shared experience, especially in a live environment. And what better environment than Henningsen Lotus Park?
A large grassy lawn, a cloudless sky, the clear blue American River and a thousand or so like-minded souls make for something special. That’s the American River Music Festival, Sept. 14-16.
Last year’s closing performance by Americana music godhead James McMurtry epitomized the phenomenon. His dry, revealing depictions fringe-of-society characters and their all-too-real struggle was poignant, pertinent and at times painful.
But his frank political songs are what got the sun-soaked festival goers on their feet shouting. In a fit of patriotism, one ardent festivarian produced a huge American flag, 20-foot flagpole and all. He waved it patriotically through a particularly acerbic McMurtry rant about a certain former president that wasn’t mentioned much in Tampa two weeks ago. For many, it was a festival-defining moment.
The American River Music Festival has provided many such moments in its six-year run under the stewardship of Matt Semonsen, who has consistently booked a mix of recognizable names and rising stars in the catch-all genre, enticing touring acts that typically stick to the big cities and large festivals onto our little bend in the river.
Artists like McMurtry and this year’s Saturday headliner, Dangermuffin, remain unfamiliar to many casual fans, despite chart-topping CD sales and generous airplay on multiple Sirius XM stations.
Selling tickets, even at the rock-bottom price of $35 to $40 per day — dirt cheap by festival standards — has been Semonsen’s largest challenge.
Exacerbating the difficulty, a glut of late-summer concerts have cropped up in recent years — all vying for the attention of the casual fan. Many of those shows are free, often conveniently located near shopping and dining.
Semonsen knows that none can deliver a fraction of the experience he packages every year in Coloma and Lotus. None have the American River as a backdrop, or the intimate local stages his audiences and performers enjoy.
No, it’s not free. But unlike larger festivals that cost twice as much and offer little more to most listeners, the American River Music Festival has remained pleasantly uncrowded and completely, delightfully, unpretentious. There’s none of the sometimes-ugly competition for stage-front real estate that accompanies larger festivals.
Drug problems and excessive drinking are rare. Those crowds attend other festivals. This one is for the whole family — a place to reconnect with old friends and meet new ones, some of whom come toting an instrument.
The musicians also succumb to the event’s charms. Rarely spotted outside the CD booth or the main stage at larger venues, many bring their families and mingle in the audience before and after their performance in Lotus. Many also play to intimate crowds at a local eatery or campground later in the evening.
Semonsen’s goals haven’t changed much over the years. He strives for dance-friendly acts at the top of his main stage lineup, hoping to get the sun-baked festival-goers, who tend to get distracted over the course of the day, on their feet and moving.
Both days’ headliners are guaranteed to fill that bill this weekend.
Saturday’s lineup-topper is the dichotomously named “post-roots” trio Dangermuffin, whose world-infused rhythms and stellar songwriting have made them a rising star in the jam music scene. Despite two years of nearly constant touring, the American River Music festival will be their first California appearance … ever.
Blues rocker Roy Rogers anchors the Sunday lineup with the Delta Rhythm Kings. Rogers was headquartered in the Bay Area for many years, but settled outside Nevada City with his wife Gaynell in 2007, much to the delight of local fans like Davey “Doc” Wiser, who enjoys more of Rogers’ slide guitar-driven delta blues rock than ever.
Visit the Village Life website for profiles of both headliners.
This year’s midday acts include the roving hootenanny known as Poor Man’s Whiskey and the high-energy Americana-rock of the Wheeler Brothers, who recently won Roots Rock and New Band of the year awards in Austin, Texas.
“They never stand still,” said Semonsen, who compared the Brothers to last year fan-favorite Truth and Salvage.
The weekend includes other national acts you might not have heard of but probably will.
Tony Furtado’s mix of Americana and indie-rock is sure to burn a few calories on the main lawn. The virtuoso banjo and slide guitar player has headlined larger festivals. He says he feeds off the interplay of his audiences. Expect pyrotechnics in Lotus.
On the folkier/bluesier side, legendary songwriter, storyteller and character creator Tom Russell makes a rare Northern California stop.
Ray Bonneville and Nina Gerber won a main stage spot after an amazing Camp Lotus set last year that featured an audience-supplied laser light show in the giant live oak tree overhead. Bonneville was recently recognized as solo/duo artist of the year at the Memphis International Blues Challenge.
The Birds of Chicago haven’t even released a record yet, but the stellar vocals of JT Nero and Allison Russell are already wowing festival crowds and defying categorization. Get there early to catch them. They open the festival at 11 a.m. Saturday after rafting on Friday.
Spirited multi-instrumentalist Joe Craven returns to the festival with his trio, John R. Burr on piano and Kendrick Freeman on drums. The unpredictable Craven, who also hosts the annual American River Music Camp, is known for playing rhythms on kitchen ware, deceased animal parts and his own body. Last year he soloed to great acclaim on a purloined restroom convenience item.
The trio is a more serious affair, dishing out a worldly mix of Latin, jazz, folk, swing, funk and an ocean of island music from Ireland to Puerto Rico. Expect tight, crisp grooves in modest portions that compel you to the “merch booth” for a side order to go.
Craven is also the guest artist on the Friday afternoon river hike, an easy couple-mile affair titled “an exploration in percussion.” The kid-friendly hike departs from the Greenwood Creek parking area, 2.5 miles north of Coloma off Highway 49 at 2 p.m. Expect the unexpected. All are welcome.
Lesser known artists from around the country flock to Lotus each September for an opportunity to play at the Friday Night Showcase, an evening-long song competition at the American River Campground. The top two earn “tweener” sets on the main stage.
Many festival goers return after dark for shows at Gringos, the Sierra Nevada House and Marcos. Early risers can catch a morning set by Bev Barnet and Greg Newlon, or Greg Lamboy at the Sierra Rizing Bakery.
Other artists scheduled to play in the campgrounds and eateries include Spark and Whisper, Gordy Ohliger, Garrin Benfield Sourdough Slim with Robert Armstrong, Michael McNevin, Tamra Godey and Cindy Kalmenson.
Among the festival oddities this year is the legendary cowpoke comedian Sourdough Slim, whose Saturday morning yodel, 9 a.m., will awaken campers trying to sleep in, and likely incite mating behavior in geese within earshot.
Merchandise booths, live art, kids’ activities, fresh food and local libations are all in the mix. This is a truly great community event. Come out and support it.
Walk up tickets cost $40 for adults, kids 8–17: $17, kids 7 and younger are free. Two-day passes are $59 and $20. Parking and good vibes are free. Doors open at 10 a.m. The music runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the main stage, and late into the evening at local venues. Purchase tickets on site at Henningsen Lotus Park.
Nevada City public radio station KVMR will simulcast the festival again this year.
For more information or to purchase tickets visit the festival website at americanrivermusic.org.