Words & Deeds

Michael Deeds: Sights, sounds and thoughts from The Huckleberry Jam at Tamarack Resort

Emceeing day two of The Huckleberry Jam, Mix 106 morning hosts “Mike and Kate” laughingly noted the odor of “some real funny stuff.”

“I think it smells amazing,” Kate added for the approving crowd. It wasn’t the nearby forest fires, which added a mild smoky vibe to the festive atmosphere. Truth be told, based on the neo-hippie-leaning music lineup — nine bands ranging from The Motet and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe to Brett Dennen and Ben Harper — the funny stuff scent actually wasn’t all that thick.

It was a testament to the easygoing, relatively bumps-free organizational nature of the inaugural festival Aug. 14 and 15. Set among gorgeous ski-mountain scenery, The Huckleberry Jam provided a laid-back atmosphere for fans, many who stayed in nearby lodging or camped and took advantage of shuttle buses.

A grassy bowl provided excellent line of sight, no matter where festivalgoers plopped down blankets and chairs. A free chairlift ran slowly above, providing between-set entertainment. That’s if you didn’t want to join the gang playing human beer pong, take a $40 helicopter ride or just go grab a $5 cup of craft brew.

Mountain festivals in Idaho come and go. Huckleberry certainly appears to have potential. Organizers from Townsquare Media, which also puts on the hugely attended Boise Music Festival, lived up to their side of the deal. It’s a ton of work to put on this sort of shindig.

But attendance was disappointing — about 1,000 fans on Friday and 2,000 on Saturday. Building a festival’s popularity sometimes takes a year or two, but the perpetually unfinished condos looming behind the stage provided a grim reminder that Tamarack seems trapped in an economic state of “what if.”

The biggest draw — and talent expense, naturally — was Grammy-winning Ben Harper, who headlined Saturday night with his backing band, the Innocent Criminals. Harper broke out “Steal My Kisses” early in his set, pumping up grooving fans. And he delivered his expected slide guitar barrage. But more striking, in some ways, were his hired guns. Until they exploded into a percussion-driven jam, it was easy to forget just how outstanding the Innocent Criminals can be.

There certainly wasn’t any risk of getting upstaged by the prior act. Wonderfully awkward folk singer Brett Dennen is a gifted guy, but he performed a solo acoustic set. It’s impossible to match the energy of a stage otherwise filled by roaring bands. Still, Dennen appeared to enjoy himself, particularly when the crowd sang along to his hit “Wild Child.”

The more sparsely attended Friday was a much funkier day — and arguably more mind-blowing from a technical proficiency perspective. The Motet, a virtual army of hot players, was ferociously tight. As you ingested squiggling synth lines and wicked bass runs, it was difficult to decide who was the most jaw-dropping musician.

Bluesier trio North Mississippi Allstars also provided a musicianship mind blower. Two out of the three band members were drummers. This seems nonsensical. Yet frontman Luther Dickinson — a monster on slide guitar — picked up the melodic slack with no worries. (Was there a bassist hiding somewhere? No, that sound was just his thumb.)

But the festival highlight was Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. A sax-and-flute-playing powderkeg in a suit, Denson has a knack for hiring musicians with liquid funk in their veins. By the time the well-dressed group uncorked an extended, stampeding cover of The White Stripes “Seven Nation Army,” even the pine trees on the horizon were shaking their rumps.

So will there be another Huckleberry? The festival’s website has been updated with photos from 2015 and instructions to “mark your calendars for next year.” But much like the future of Tamarack itself, Huckleberry’s fate might boil down to the name of Harper’s 1997 album: “The Will to Live.”

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