Sky River Rock Festival jams again

Local music festival gears up for 50th anniversary concert

Kelly Sullivan

Susan Batchelor hadn’t planned on attending the Sky River Rock Festival, nor did she know about its history in the area.

The Seattle resident had been passing through Sultan with her boyfriend Rob McKibbin, who lives in Index. They came into town to visit Sultan River on Friday afternoon and happened upon the festivities. Serendipitously, Batchelor’s longtime friend was set to go on stage soon. Amy Denio is a well-known Seattle musician who plays the bass and accompanies singer Annie O’Neill on vocals.

“That is the spice of my life — the crossing of paths,” Denio said. “That is what this festival is all about.”

The two women hadn’t seen each other in many years, she said. Batchelor and McKibbin stuck around to hear the start of the two-day lineup. They sat on the lawn in front of the Sultan River Park gazebo, which was dry and golden from the summer heat.

First on was The School of Rock. The performers are part of the educational Seattle-based program.

“They were terrific, they got us in here actually,” McKibbin said. “They were playing Queens of the Stone Age. They were wonderful, they hit all the notes.”

O’Neill and Denio followed after. Also on that evening were Spectres of Chaos, Zombie Jihad, Steel Beans, which opened for the Staxx Brothers, and Northern Shakedown.

The revival festival has been in the works since winter. A committee had formed by January, which at points included different community members and Mike and Roger Fisher from Heart. The bands were initially scheduled to show up at the Lauritzen Family Farm, south of Sultan. The spot was miles from Betty Nelson’s raspberry farm, where the original Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair took place in 1968.

It was the Woodstock before Woodstock, complete with mud-covered bodies, drugs and a lineup that drew thousands of people from all over the region.

More than a month ago the venue was switched to River Park downtown. The car show and pinup pageant were cancelled. The lineup underwent revisions and the website was switched out.

Regardless, event manager Jill Hatcher said the precursor to the 50th anniversary festival turned out how she had envisioned. She called friends and family to help her work the entrances, run booths and sell tickets. People donated their time and skills to help pull it off, she said.

Street food, clothing vendors and other activities filled up Main Street in front of the park. World-renowned chainsaw carvers created an open-air shop beside the Sultan River.

Dale James “Rogue” Pratt and Kreg Oveson of Zombie Jihad said the band has been prepping for the show for months. The two members said they play hard rock similar to Alice in Chains, with Black Sabbath as a dominant influence.

They were followed up the next day by a lineup that included Helldorado, Palooka and One Gun Shy.

Montana man Greg Garton manned the tent that acted as a small history museum and ode to the original festival. He lined the walls with reprints of the Helix underground newspaper; the staff came up with the plan for the Sky River Rock Festival decades ago. Also hanging on clotheslines were pictures taken by photographer Tore Ofteness, who is based in Bellingham.

Some of the images have never had a public showing before, Garton said. One depicts a young girl playing with what are assumed to be Nelson’s two large pigs. Another shows a group of friends sitting on a couch in the middle of a muddy field, their eyes fixated on something outside the frame.

Garton has used a few of the donated pictures to corroborate or disprove the stories that became popular following the original festival. He said a handful of people who had attended in 1968 wandered over to his booth Friday afternoon to share their stories. He said one person recollected the rides a local farmer gave people from Monroe into Sultan, as they otherwise would have been forced to walk for miles — the site was so packed already.

After hearing different accounts and looking at images of where the bands were supposed to be, Garton said he believes it is impossible that more than a couple thousand people ever made it out to the remote location.

Some bands that were advertised in the Helix didn’t show up, but one of Ofteness’s photos does prove the Grateful Dead were there, as was Big Mama Thorton. Garton also said a paper trail has never been found that would show how much revenue was made from the event, which should be public knowledge. It had been sold as a fundraiser event for various minority groups, he said.

He hopes to have all the unanswered questions at least addressed in a documentary and book that are in the works. Garton will be following progress of the 50th anniversary as plans unfold over the next year.

As of early Friday evening, the grounds of the festival had only a few attendees wandering around. Loggers Tavern owner by Leo Moreno, who played a lead role in the original committee, held a three-day version of the revival this weekend as well. The bar is located just up the street from the gazebo.

O’Neill and Denio said they loved the beautiful location of the venue. They had met “nothing but excellent people” since they arrived, Denio said.

Hatcher said the hope is to break even on sales. Proceeds went to paying for the bands. Originally, she had hoped that this year’s revenue would fund next year’s headliner. It is more likely they will have to find sponsors, she said.

Hatcher still intends to make the follow-up a success. Fisher and the organizers of the pinup pageant and car show also said they hope to be on board, and believe it can be what everyone intended as a true revival of the first festival.


Photos by Kelly Sullivan: Spectres of Chaos perform at the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair revival in Sultan on Friday, Aug. 25. A 50th anniversary festival is planned for next year. Montana resident Greg Garton set up a tent with photos and news articles from the original Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair held in 1968. Annie O'Neill and Amy Denio were the second to perform at the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair revival.


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