Lucky No. 7: An epic Hangtown Music Festival

Tahoe Onstage

Still captivated after four days, concertgoers at the Hangtown Music Festival watch Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Michael Smyth

The 2017 Hangtown Music Festival concluded Sunday after four days of perfect weather, great musical performances and positive festival vibes.

As I rolled up to the main stage for the noon set from Portland, Oregon, band MarchFourth, I expected to find weary festivalgoers causally taking in one of the first sets of the day, as they defogged and recharged for one last push. Before I could see anything I could hear that my assumption (as usual) was dead wrong. The high-energy, eclectic, eccentric, 20-piece costumed ensemble of horns, drums, bass, guitar, and other assorted noisemakers were blowing up a packed lawn of dancing, whirling festival peeps already partying at Mach 3. I spoke with one of their saxophone players who said, “Yeah, we always dress up but ‘Halloweened’ it up a bit.” He then added with a chuckle, “but truthfully some of us dress like this all the time”.

Tahoe OnstageNever miss a Sunday show, they said. Apparently, this was going to be quite a ride into the sunset for this year’s festival, which appeared to be one of the best attended in its seven-year history. Scarcely had the last note been played on the big stage before everyone migrated 200 yards to the west toward a new source of music, as they had done for three Pavlovian days. Ocean Beach jam band Brothers Gow turned in what colorful emcee Joe Craven proclaimed as “the best use of 35 minutes on the small stage all week” as they launched into some decidedly deadhead jams.

After their set, I ran into guitarist Kyle Merrill. Having headlined the Apache Lake Music Festival in Arizona Friday night, the musicians admitted to scratching their heads a bit on the long drive to Placerville for such a short stop. “But, in the end the turnout and the vibe was so great it was totally worth it,” Merrill said.

Making your own mark in the world, musically or otherwise, as the son or daughter of one of the most famous artists on the planet is almost an unfair task. Willie Nelson’s son is on track beating those odds with the thunder of Thor’s hammer. Lukas Nelson and his band Promise of the Real (who back Neil Young as his touring band) delivered what many, including myself, were calling the set of the festival.

Country music wants understandably to claim him as their own but the truth is Nelson, who will turn 29 on Christmas Day, lives in Los Angeles and is a rock star. His Instagram bio reads “Rock and Roll with a Twang.” I’d agree. The band plays with an edge and an attitude, while mixing rock lyrics and dashes of country sentiment.

As one song began I heard distinct rock power chords with Nelson not playing a note, only to discover they were coming from Jesse Siebenberg’s lap steel a la Sammy Hagar in his “Bad Motor Scooter,” Montrose days. Nelson also showed off his own vocal chops as well dropping a couple of mid-set solo acoustic ballads on the Hangtown crowd, who by then had totally fallen for he and POTR. His voice is smoother and perhaps less powerful at this point than the elder Mr. Nelson,  but there’s no questioning the unmistakable tone and timbre, which smartly is a gift he’s embraced and sharing with his generation of fans.

Nelson and POTR played songs from their latest self-titled record, covered Neil Young, provided a Tom Petty tribute with “American Girl,” and showed that they’re more than a one-trick-pony by covering Paul Simon’s “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes.” I can’t wait to see this band again and kind of wish I were in Chicago to see them paired with Nikki Lane, who recently appeared at Cargo in Reno.

The New Year’s Eve headliner at Tahoe’s Crystal Bay Casino, Leftover Salmon, was next up on the on the main stage as day moved toward evening. Salmon ran through its classic mix of rock and zydeco tinged bluegrass before inviting Lukas Nelson back out on stage. Now sporting a bandana and round, wireframe glasses he and the boys from Denver delivered a spirited and extended cover of Neil Young’s “Down By The River,” rolling through Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and Young’s “Alabama.”

As night fell for the last time on Hangtown 2017, festival host Railroad Earth closed the main stage action with a 10-song set, not in costume as they had done the night before, but with the festival tradition of attendee-carved pumpkins lining the front of the stage. They moved through fan favorites and ended things with encore performance of the title track of Tom Petty’s solo record “Wildflowers.” It was a beautiful remembrance and a fitting way to end a week filled with everything that daily life outside of the festival gates is lacking.

-Michael Smyth

Tahoe Onstage

Lukas Nelson and John Avila of Oingo Boingo play an inspired set during the final day of the Hangtown Music Festival.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Michael Smyth

Michael Smyth / Tahoe Onstage

Every day is Halloween for MarchFourth.

Tahoe Onstage

Hangtown Music Festival hosts Railroad Earth close out the show.

Tahoe Onstage

Lukas Nelson plays rock music with a twang.

Tahoe Onstage

About Michael Smyth

Michael Smyth moved to Reno in 2007 after living more than 40 years in the Bay Area. In addition to going to live shows, he enjoys golf, skiing and fly-fishing. Check out his website www.bombilations.com

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