Strawberry Music Festival brings sonic merriment to Grass Valley

By Paul Piazza

There are many things that make the Strawberry Music Festival unique. It’s a camping and music affair deeply rooted in longstanding customs. Central to those customs is a conscious comportment that many longtime festival goers call “the Strawberry way.”

Simply put, this camp philosophy, which has been in-effect since the festival began in 1982, means “be considerate to those around you and to the earth.”

Evidence of this was found everywhere during the four-day festival at the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley. Perfect strangers shared meals, music, swapped stories and constantly recycled in between great sets of music. Then, when the music was over, friends and strangers played music together in camps until the wee hours.

There were workshops on art, beekeeping and the red-tailed hawk. There was even one on the didgeridoo. Sunday morning featured a revival with some of the main stage bands, including the excellent Dustbowl Revival.

Bonnie Rait // Paul Piazza

The festival’s musical offerings lean heavily toward bluegrass and Americana, but it had a few nice surprises, including Friday night’s set by Bonnie Raitt. Raitt sang beautifully and truly inspired those in attendance with an invigorating set where she stopped periodically to talk about playing with the late greats B.B. King and Utah Phillips. It was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop during her storytelling and encore of “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Raitt is true rock royalty and her band are well-oiled knights of music.

The following night, newgrass multi-instrumentalist Sam Bush had the crowd in awe with his incredible technique and versatility. There were all sorts of younger acts that had a great showing over the weekend, including Atlanta’s A.J. Ghent, Boston’s Della Mae and The Easy Leaves of Sonoma County. There were also great sets by enduring veterans like Peter Rowan, Marley’s Ghost and New Orleans Suspects.

A.J. Ghent // Paul Piazza

Della Mae // Paul Piazza

The Mavericks, who closed the festival on Sunday night, may have been the weekend’s most highly anticipated act. In 2013, the great Tex-Mex band was scheduled to headline the fall Strawberry Festival at its former location at Camp Mather in Tuolome County. However, it was cancelled due to the Yosemite Rim Fire.

As the Mavericks prepared to mount the stage, anticipation in the crowd was high. A few minutes into the set, leader Raul Malo encouraged fans to get out of their seats and dance at the front of the stage. The people on the wings made a rush to the middle and security moved in to clear them out. Malo stopped playing, gave security the bird and stormed off the stage. There was a compromise made and everyone was allowed to stay and dance. Malo came back out and said, “What is this? Dirty Dancing?”

Everyone laughed and then the party really got started, the Strawberry way.

The Mavericks // Paul Piazza

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