On the first day of Bend’s sold-out Four Peaks Festival, the Oregon rain was at such a consistent downpour that it seemed there was no end in sight. All forecasts had predicted that we would all end up very, very wet. Festival-goers set up their tents in a drizzle to the likes of JED and The Pitchfork Revolution, and later jammed through torrential rains for Hot Buttered Rum and Everyone Orchestra.
Then, on a trip back to the campsites for a quick sock-and-shoe change before Melvin Seals and the JGB Band, the skies suddenly cleared up, lending us our first clear view of the festival’s namesakes: the four beautiful mountains that are visible from the grounds — the Three Sisters and Broken Top.
Really, the name Four Peaks doesn’t even cover all the scenery surrounding this area: amongst other hills and nearby mountains, Black Butte is one of the more prominent peaks that can be seen from the festival area.
All mountains aside, the point is that the sun came out just in time for a beautiful evening set from Melvin Seals and the JGB Band.
I really don’t know how this band does it. It seems they are constantly on the road, headlining small festivals, playing day sets at large festivals, playing solo shows and sitting in with other bands. They’ll go anywhere, too: not long ago a friend caught then in Hawaii, and soon they’ll be jumping back and forth between east and west for the rest of the year.
Wherever you may run into Melvin and his band of Jerry-lovin’ rockstars, you’re bound to also stumble upon one hell of a good time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen these guys play a bad show — not even a mediocre one.
Due to the wonderfully small size of the festival, the crowd was torn away from their mountain-gazing by the opening notes of The Harder They Come, which was clearly audible from the campgrounds. They gathered up their costumes, galoshes and toys and made their way down to the stage in the main venue area. This opener eventually jammed into Road Runner, a Junior Walker cover with crossover appeal among several different Grateful Dead side projects, including Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia, Kingfish, and solo Jerry Garcia projects. With lyrics about living free and easy on the road, this song is an appropriate choice for nomads like the JGB Band.
Next up was quite possibly the most rippin’ version of Valerie any of us have ever heard. This jam seemingly went on forever, almost to the point where everyone forgot exactly which song they were in the middle of.
JGB then quickly jumped to the Jimmy Cliff classic Struggling Man, which was a mainstay of the Jerry Garcia project Reconstruction in the late 1970s and reappeared with the latest incarnation of the Jerry Garcia Band.
Amidst a deep jam, Struggling Man eventually became the Hunter/Garcia tune Rhapsody in Red, which may be only getting better with age.
The band then slowed it down a bit for Dear Prudence, one of the more common Beatles songs covered by the Jerry Garcia Band over the years, and a fantastic way to beckon any wallflower “out to play.”
Next was That’s a Touch I Like, which was followed by everyone’s favorite sing-along song: My Sisters and Brothers, a perfect choice for a small festival as family oriented as Four Peaks. The show finally closed with After Midnight, which, despite how awesome the song is, presented a clear irony due to the pre-midnight ending of main stage music.
Never to worry, though; the music continued on through the night with a late-night tent-restricted acoustic set from festival hosts Poor Man’s Whiskey. The band played a string of well-known favorites, which they had no problem encouraging the crowd to sing along with.
After the music ended, festival-goers were released upon the grounds to continue playing throughout the early morning hours. Several campground jam sessions popped up, with a sprinkling of musicians in several different campsites.
On Saturday morning, the Four Peaks crowd awoke groggily but in good spirits, ready to eat breakfast and get a start on day two’s round of festivities.
Some highlights of the Saturday afternoon included the Dead Winter Carpenters, a youthful Americana band that’s making quite the rounds this summer on the west coast festival circuit, and Fruition, a band native to Portland that has developed one of the strongest local music followings in Oregon. These two bands have obviously spent some time together, and regularly borrow members of each other’s groups to appear on stage.
Next up was another pair of closely linked bands: the bay area’s Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, followed by The Mother Hips, a band that features frontman Tim Bluhm, Nicki’s husband. Indeed, Four Peaks was family oriented in the best sense of the term.
Closing out the main stage music for the weekend was a second set from hosts Poor Man’s Whiskey, who showed off an entirely different side of their musical personalities this night. Switching from the quiet sing-along band of the previous night to an absolutely rockin’ Saturday night force of nature, Poor Man’s Whiskey got everyone pumped and ready to come back next year, with the highlight of the set being a fantabulous cover of the Allman Brothers’ song Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More.
Members of several of the day’s previous acts rejoined on stage in the late night tent for an all-out Americana and bluegrass mash-up. With an even higher level of energy than the night before, the tent’s crowd (including a giant inflatable whale) was a-ragin’ and the drinks were a-flowin’ until the wee morning hours.
Poor Man’s Whiskey might just have to expand their festival capacity next year. Having sold out this year, the amazing camaraderie and family vibe of Four Peaks can’t be beat. The rolling hills, the mountain view, the fresh air, the great people and amazing music combine to make this festival one of the west coast’s best small events.
Melvin Seals and the JGB Band set list:
The Harder They Come >Road Runner, Valerie, Struggling Man >Rhapsody in Red, Dear Prudence, That’s a Touch I Like >My Sisters and Brothers >After Midnight