Guitarfish Music Festival survives its sink-or-swim year

Vieux Farke Toure at Guitarfish Music Festival

By Paul Piazza

It’s not easy to survive as a small, boutique music festival these days. For example, things were hanging in the balance for the promoters of Guitarfish Music Festival in Cisco Grove after last year’s affair, their sixth event.

Festival organizers, who had been nurturing this adored music and camping event, set in the idyllic area along the South Yuba River just below Truckee, say they were struggling to find a way to keep it financially afloat. Things were seriously in the red at the time, and it seemed that the beloved event might not continue into its seventh year

Promoters Brent Dana and Fred Mahler wanted to keep the dream alive that they, along with a community of others, had helped to nurtur into an annual event. The humble beginnings of Guitarfish were birthed a little over seven years ago, when Dana wandered into a section of the overgrown Cisco Grove campground. It had been unused for 12 years, but he envisioned a natural amphitheater. After extensive clearing of ground and trees, the dream became a reality. Since then, the Guitarfish Music Festival has become an annual tradition for many in the Northern California music community.

But competing with larger events had pushed them to the limit. As a result, Dana and Mahler faced a crisis. Fortunately, they had developed a friendship with Barnett English and Lynne Thelan, who run the Joshua Tree Festival. Recently, that friendship turned into a partnership.

Joy and Madness, living up to their band name

Joshua Tree is a small festival that happens biannually in the high desert of Southern California. Over the past decade, it has become a success.

This new alliance of mountain and desert regions has worked out so far. Things went so well this year that dates have already been set for next year. “Bringing them in gave us the foundation and the teamwork to make this dream stay alive,” said Dana.

The partnership brought in a new artistic flair. Two weeks prior to the festival, the “desert rats,” as the Joshua Tree artists and volunteers like to refer to themselves, got creative. They used dead branches they found while clearing the campground to create art pieces like a free standing DJ booth and woodsy facades for the stage and some of the vendors. The space was rearranged and the music was evenly paced throughout the festival, scaling down from two stages to one in the natural amphitheater and adding a DJ in between sets.

Rustic stands at the festival

This allowed attendees more time to enjoy the festival’s best natural feature: The river that runs below the amphitheater. At any given moment of the day, festival goers could be seen lounging, dunking their heads and generally resetting themselves with the fresh, cold water. That combined with camping in the woods made this festival a far different experience than just about any other. Fresh spring water flowed from every spigot onsite.

“It’s so wonderful to have a river connected to a festival that is based on water to begin with,” said Dana. “To have this much water on the site and to have a beautiful clean river to play and refresh yourself—it aligns with our mission perfectly.”

The Guitarfish concept is based on a children’s book by guitarist Jimmy Leslie that promotes the slogan “blue is the new green.” The underlying theme and mission of the festival has been raising awareness about preservation of our fresh watersheds, rivers and streams.

Of course, another theme is embracing the music. Groups like The Main Squeeze, Vieux Farke Toure, Gene Evaro Jr. and Joy and Madness got the masses dancing. Songwriter and storyteller extraordinaire Steve Poltz moved both children and adults with his gift for engagement and spontaneity. Leslie and a band of all-stars closed out the festival in a big way with spirited covers of the Allman Brothers, Prince and Led Zeppelin.

Looking forward, Dana envisions the festival continuing to grow: “Our goal this year was to start earlier, run smoother and finish stronger. We accomplished that. Our creativity will continue to grow. The dream is alive and well.”

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