American River Music Fest — offbeat, upbeat, hard to beat

By From page B1 | September 03, 2014

The American River Music Festival is Sept. 12, 13 and 14 at Henningsen Lotus Park, 950 Lotus Road in Lotus. The park sits on the South Fork of the American River — perfect for a festival celebrating music and moving water.

The festival, now in its eighth year, offers a yin and yang mix of sensory pleasures. Ample shade and cool river breezes temper a hot sun, while a carpet of fresh-mowed grass soothes bare feet.

The numbingly cold American River is unfailingly invigorating.

For some, the festival is a chance to relax in the shade with a cold drink and a good book. Others plop their chairs right in the river and soak up the hot sun and clear blue water.

The festival is an offbeat, upbeat and surprisingly intimate scene which somehow transcends the sum of its parts.

Good vibes

Some tie-dyed festivarians contend that negative ions get churned up in the surrounding rapids and pile up in Lotus, creating an ionic tonic that bolsters the musicians and heightens the weekend’s relaxed, feel-good vibe.

The music propels a disparate mix of young and old to the area by the stage to dance, sweat and bond. At times the stagefront and onstage energy combine, spilling onto the Henningsen Lotus green.

Last year’s headliner, the irrepressible Paul Thorne, appeared with a cast on his recently broken ankle. Following a strong set and a couple well-received encores, he launched himself and his crutches into the crowd, where he hopped through the crush exchanging handshakes, hugs and kisses without missing a note in his show-closing final refrain.

A vision of love

The festival is the vision of Matt Simonsen, who deflects credit but clearly loves the work and the music. His multifarious lineups have been one large key to its success. Another is the river-front ambiance of Henningsen Lotus Park.

With few exceptions, the sound has always been crisp and clear. Greg Upton and Gabe Lewin of Clarion Sound in Davis have their hands on the knobs again this year and promise more speakers and even better acoustics.

Upton has become a familiar site behind the monitor board at stage left. Lewin mans the main board in the lawn, controlling what the audience hears.

The festival has woven itself into the fabric of the Coloma and Lotus area in El Dorado County, becoming a much-anticipated late summer institution.

Long time festivarians know that the music doesn’t stop when the sun goes down. The cozy campgrounds of Coloma and Lotus host intimate evening shows. Dining spots like Marco’s Café, 7221 Highway 49; Gringo’s Mexican Café, 7310 Highway 49; and the Sierra Nevada House, 835 Lotus Road all stay open late and host multiple sets.

The Saturday late night dance party has become a tradition, often bringing a mainstage headliner back for extended airtime. This year the party is at Gringo’s.

Stuff for young fans

The festival has always been family friendly. Assorted kid props are scattered throughout the green, providing an interesting side show that makes the entire experience special.

On Sunday morning locals break fresh bread with groggy tourists at Sierra Rizing Bakery, 7310 Highway 49 in Lotus, swapping Saturday highlights and Sunday anticipation while enjoying a delicious assortment of baked goods and live music.

The American River Music festival is uncrowded and inexpensive, a bargain at just $45 for adults at the door and $15 for children for one-day tickets.

Plenty of walk-up tickets are available.

Discounted adult tickets are available in Placerville for just $35. Go to the El Dorado Arts Council, 772 Pacific St. or the Placerville Food Coop, 535 Placerville Drive, both in Placerville. Each organization receives $10 for each ticket sold.

The festival also offers three days/nights of beautiful riverfront camping with performances, join-in-shops and jams in each campground, and when you buy a camping ticket it includes entrance to all festival music, shuttles and the very popular Friday guided river walk.

For tickets, a complete list of performers, the complete schedule and information about this “celebration of music and moving water” go to americanrivermusic.org or call (530) 622-6044.

2014’s plucky line up

For eight years running, the American River Music Festival has celebrated the diversity of Americana music and never failed to broaden the communal musical palette. This year is no exception.

Saturday’s, Sept. 13, mainstage headliner is a self-described “high-octane Rocky Mountain dance band” — Whitewater Ramble rambles onstage at 5 p.m.

These rollicking jammers follow a Colorado front range jam-band tradition that also produced super groups Railroad Earth, String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon. Its sound is anchored by complex driving drum beats, combining soul, funk, bluegrass, country, gospel, jazz, salsa, Caribbean, hip-hop, reggae, Celtic/Irish and good old rock ’n’ roll.

Music Website Rocky Mountain Jams (rockymountainjams.com/tag/fox-theater/) describes Whitewater Ramble’s sound as “feel-good clusterpluck” that’s “Memphis heavy, sweaty and solid … funked up and low down.”

No banjo abuse

Like fellow jam bands, Whitewater Ramble relies on bluegrass instruments to create an uptempo, improvisational sound that’s particularly powerful live.

The guitar in its many variations is a mainstay in many genres, likewise the violin. But the banjo’s distinct sound seems genetically linked to bluegrass music.

Purists wince when they hear jam banders strum a banjo like a guitar or worse, pick it like one, leading some to accuse jam bands of banjo-abuse.

Thankfully, Whitewater Ramble has omitted the bluegrass mainstay. There will be no banjo-abuse in Lotus this year.

The band recently released its second studio album, “Roots and Groove,” produced by Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone. The group toured for eight years before releasing its first studio album, “All Night Drive.”

Tommy Malone

Earlier Saturday, former Subdude Tommy Malone will bring his swampy New Orleans bar room boogie to the Henningsen Lotus stage.

Malone is touring behind his third solo album, “Poor Boy.” The songs “run the gamut from layered, Beatleish psych-pop to rock-infused soul, with a consistent thread of eloquent, gut-level storytelling skill,” according to the New Orleans Times Picayune.

Laura Love

The day’s most intriguing performer might be Laura Love, not to be confused with a far grungier Love — the late Kirk Cobain’s wife Courtney.

Laura Love embodies the modern folk genre. Like Alanis Morrisette, Michelle Shocked, Joan Osborn and Ani Defranco before her, the charismatic Love embodies strength and intelligence. She’s lyrically sharp and takes no prisoners in life or love.

In Lotus, Love teams up with Big Bad Gina, whose sweet love ballads stand in stark contrast to her moniker — a great addition to the American Music Festival’s eclectic lineup.

Boys named Sue

Sunday’s, Sept. 14, headliner, The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash bring revival rockabilly and hard country to Lotus. The songs touch familiar country music themes: one-night stands, highways, hangovers and well-worn hearts.

Expect shuffle rhythms, a twanging steel guitar, big soulful vocals and a bad-ass sound worthy of the man in black from which the group takes its name.

Country music fans will also hear hints of Hank, Merle and Waylon. A boy named Sue might also make an appearance. But this is not a Cash tribute band. These guys borrow from their heroes but perform mostly original material.

Greg Brown

Midday Sunday, veteran folkie Greg Brown brings his sandpaper-coarse baritone, insightful lyrics and dry wit to Lotus for the first time in a 40-year career that spans 25 studio albums.

This author recalls seeing Brown 35 years ago at a college coffeehouse named Juicy John Pinks, backing up what was, in hindsight, a Smothers Brothers tribute band. Brown contributed to a lifelong affection for folk music that’s travelled from Greenwich Village to Garberville.

The Bills

Canadian roots rockers the Bills follow Brown. Their globally inspired grooves feature lush vocal arrangements and evocative song writing.

The festival

The American River Music festival is truly grass roots. Local campgrounds and eateries form a network of alternate, small-stage venues where mainstage performers along with more eclectic acts can be heard in the evenings and also in the morning.

Major music festivals can be crowded. The line to get in can be a multi-hour experience. Long queues for food, bathrooms, showers and liquid refreshments are the norm.

There’s none of that at the American River Music Festival.

Fist pumping stage-front rockers can revel in the scorching guitar monsters the festival has often featured in its seven-year run. The tradition continues thanks to the rafting industry, Coloma and Lotus have outstanding camping options. Hundreds of commercial campsites are available in four large campgrounds, all with spacious camp sites, full amenities and reliable shuttle service to the main stage.

For those who prefer a roof over their head, affordable lodging is available a short, scenic drive in any direction. Local restaurants keep everyone well-fed, and often feature festival bands playing live each night.

The festival is the project of American River Music Inc., a charitable organization, based in Lotus, with a mission, “To Teach, Inspire and Enjoy Music.”

Mike Roberts


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