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Originally published Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 9:44 PM

1968's Sky River Rock Festival revisited Friday

That's the opening day of the weekend Festival of the River. Groups on Friday's bill include Big Brother and the Holding Company, Canned Heat, Buffy Sainte-Marie, It's A Beautiful Day, Jesse Colin Young, The Daily Flash and Jef Jaisun.

Seattle Times arts writer

Festival preview

Festival of the River

2 p.m. Friday-10 p.m. Sunday, River Meadows County Park, Arlington; free, $5 parking (no camping is available). The festival is an alcohol-free event.

(www.stillaguamish.nsn.us, click on Festival of the River).

Lineup:

2 p.m. Friday: "Sky River Revisited" with Canned Heat, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Buffy Sainte-Marie, It's A Beautiful Day, Jesse Colin Young, The Daily Flash, Jef Jaisun, Nolan Garret, Superfekta

11 a.m. Saturday: The Kevin Jones Band, Shemekia Copeland, Gin Blossoms, The English Beat, Little Feat, Junkyard Jane, The Spirit of Ojai, Eagles Whistle, Carl Tosten

11 a.m. Sunday: Chance McKinney & Crosswire, Eden's Edge, Sunny Sweeney, David Nail, Gloriana, Dana Lyons, The Tall Boys, Peter Ali, Aces Up

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Quick question: Where was America's first outdoor, multiday hippie rock festival on an undeveloped site?

If you answered "Woodstock," you're wrong. It was in Snohomish County.

A year before the more-famous 1969 summer spree, a core group from Seattle's blossoming counterculture produced the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair over Labor Day weekend, 1968. The site was a 40-acre organic raspberry farm on the banks of the Skykomish River, just outside Sultan.

Nobody seems to agree on who actually played — though the Grateful Dead, Santana, Big Mama Thornton and comedian Richard Pryor were definitely there, and so was the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Nor does anyone seem to know how many people came, since in addition to 13,000 paying customers, thousands of others sneaked in through the brush off an adjacent country road.

Recently, Seattle promoter Terry Morgan decided he wanted to pay tribute to this iconic Northwest event by bringing together some of the musicians who played there 43 years ago. The result is "Sky River Revisited," a Friday show that kicks off Arlington's free, three-day Festival of the River, sponsored by the Stillaguamish Tribe.

When you consider how confused most everyone still is about who played the first Sky River, it's probably no surprise that Morgan pretty much got the lineup all wrong. He mistakenly booked two bands who were never advertised and never played Sky River — Canned Heat and Big Brother and the Holding Company. And the performer who sparked the whole project — Native-American singer Buffy Sainte-Marie — was billed on the Sky River poster but never showed up.

"Oh, well," Morgan said in a telephone interview earlier this week, chuckling through the egg on his face. "It just adds more spice to an old controversy, I guess."

Even if the lineup isn't quite right, this weekend's schedule certainly reads like a déjà vu of a '60s rock poster, and the other acts on the bill definitely played the 1968 event: Jesse Colin Young; It's a Beautiful Day; the Seattle band The Daily Flash; and Seattle-based singer-songwriter Jef Jaisun, who wrote and recorded a signature underground song of the '60s, "Friendly Neighborhood Narco Agent."

"A utopian event"

By all accounts, Sky River was, in the parlance of the day, "a peak experience." (The "lighter than air" part of the title referred to hot-air balloons, one of which got away, thankfully with no one on it. But it was always seen as a double entendre about all the pot smoked at the festival.)

"I never saw a frown," recalled Tom Robbins, who wasn't yet a famous author but was writing for a Seattle alternative paper, The Helix, whose staff sparked the festival. Robbins also had a radio show on KRAB-FM, "Notes From the Underground." "Everyone was happy and smiling. It was such a utopian event. There was a feeling of freedom and sharing and loving."

The germ of Sky River was an event that had as much kinship with the provocative 1920s art movement Dada as it did with music. That was the Great Piano Drop of April 28, 1968, on musician Larry Van Over's farm in Duvall, where a helicopter dropped an upright piano into a field just so everyone could hear what it would sound like.

Though it turned out the piano hit the ground with a rather anticlimactic thud, the gathering gave Paul Dorpat — photographer, future Seattle historian and Helix co-founder — an idea.

Sitting around a table recently at Ivar's with Morgan, Jaisun and Seattle artist and fellow Helix collaborator Alan Lande, Dorpat said, "We thought if we could do a Piano Drop and get 3,000 people to come into a narrow road near Duvall, we could probably do a festival."

Dorpat enlisted the help of a philosophy professor at the University of Washington, John Chambless, to book the event. Country Joe and the Fish had played the Piano Drop, so Chambless started there and fanned out, booking, among others, James Cotton, Mother Tucker's Yellow Duck, Sandy Bull, The Youngbloods, Frumious Bandersnatch, Kaleidoscope, Dr. Humbead's New Tranquility String Band and the Cleanliness & Godliness Skiffle Band.

Like Woodstock, things didn't exactly run on schedule.

"Santana played at 3 o'clock in the morning," recalled Dorpat.

But the highlight of the festival, according to many, was the last-day jam by the Grateful Dead, Big Mama Thornton, Cotton and Billy Roberts, who wrote the Jimi Hendrix hit "Hey, Joe."

"I don't think at the time anybody dreamed it would become a three-day festival over the Labor Day weekend," said Chambless, who had helped with the Berkeley Folk Festival and later booked music and arts groups in Seattle's public parks. "I thought the music was important. I thought the entire hippie movement had some great social significance."

Bright outlook and rain

It's difficult today to key into the utopianism, optimism and hope that permeated that period, especially after it took such a drubbing — often from people who weren't there but wished they had been.

But it says a lot about the spirit of the times that practically all the musicians who played Sky River did it for union scale; that the site was donated free by owner Betty Nelson; and that most of the staff worked for free — including Chambless and the festival's unlikely security chief, Roger Downey, another Helix contributor who later distinguished himself as an arts critic for Seattle Weekly.

Any profits, it was decided, would be donated to the Mexican American Federation of Washington, the Foundation for American Indian Rights and the Central Area Peace and Improvement Cooperative.

"There was a tremendous amount of optimism at the time that constructive change was possible," said Chambless.

In fact, there was a $5,000 loss, largely because it cost so much money to build the site from scratch, but also because so many people discovered that they could sneak in without paying.

And then of course there was the rain.

Though the sun shone briefly at the start, the first two days of Sky River were drenched by a downpour compounded, said Chambless, by the sudden upswell of a spring in the field where the crowd assembled.

"I remember people out in front of the stage in the mud, just rolling around," said Seattle blues singer Alice Stuart, who played Sky River but was unable to commit to Friday's reunion.

On the last day, many actually participated in a "Sun Dance," raising their arms skyward and chanting "Sun! Sun! Sun! Sun!" while percussionists played along.

And, lo, the sun finally did come out. Appropriately, the last band was It's a Beautiful Day.

Big names returning

Today, It's A Beautiful Day, which had the hit "White Bird," still features frontman and violinist David LaFlamme and his wife, singer Linda LaFlamme. Canned Heat ("Goin' Up the Country," "On the Road Again") has three members from its Woodstock days — Fido de la Parra, Harvey Mandel and Larry Taylor.

Big Brother and the Holding Company, the band that launched Janis Joplin, features three of its longtime members — Sam Andrew, Peter Albin and David Getz. Jesse Colin Young is no longer with the Youngbloods, of course, but appears with his own band. Steve Lalor and Barry Curtis are still with the Seattle folk-rock group The Daily Flash. Buffy Sainte-Marie is coming with a full band, too — albeit 43 years late — and Jef Jaisun plays solo.

"Sky River Revisited" is part of a much larger, three-day event that also features a traditional Native-American powwow, salmon bake and three days of music. The Saturday lineup includes blues shouter Shemekia Copeland and the great American band, Little Feat. Sunday is country music day, with Sunny Sweeney, Chance McKinney and others.

Morgan hopes the Friday lineup will rekindle some of the optimism he felt in the '60s, when he was a 14-year-old kid growing up in Oak Harbor, reading the Helix and running down to Seattle to see rock bands at the Eagles Hall.

"The idealism of those times was much higher than anything now," said Morgan. "People had a real positive sense that things were going to get better."

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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