Huck Finn 2019: Everybody Say “Huck Yeah”
Huck Finn Jubilee: Everybody Say ‘Huck Yeah!!!’
Photos and article by Jeff Clemetson
Even some spotty cloudy weather couldn’t stop bluegrass fans gathered at Cucamonga-Guasti Regional Park in Ontario, California from shouting out a hearty “Huck yeah!” for the 2019 Huck Finn Jubilee, held Sept. 27-28.
Although there were reports that rain might fall, the skies remained dry and temps stayed comfortable — perfect to kick off the fall season with the many talented pickers gathered for the festival.
Huck Finn has been a staple event of the Southern California bluegrass scene since 1976, but in many ways is a brand new festival following several major changes over the last few years. After festival founder Don Tucker passed away in 2012, Huck Finn was acquired by the Greater Ontario Convention & Visitors Bureau and moved from its longtime location at Mojave Narrows Regional Park in Victorville to Ontario. In 2016, the Bureau announced it was ending the festival. However, in 2017, the festival was purchased by husband and wife team Roger and Nikki Malinowski and it resumed in 2018.
Huck Finn: It’s a Family Affair
At this year’s Huck Finn, fans and musicians alike took the time to share their gratitude towards the Malinowskis for saving the festival.
With new owners came some changes to the long-running festival, like holding it in the fall and pairing back the festival to two days instead of three in order to keep closer to the Malinowski’s self-funded budget.
“So spread the word,” Roger Malinowski told me, “and as attendance increases, budget increases, allowing us to add more days, bands and invest in other areas of the event.”
What didn’t change was the family-friendly vibe, the top-notch talent or the location. Cucamonga-Guasti Regional Park is an oasis in the Inland Empire city of Ontario. Every possible campsite, tent or RV, sits on grass. There is a lake stocked with fish and fishing licenses are sold onsite for those who bring their poles and line with them. Paddle boats are plenty and for rent. There is a large water park and children’s playground, and family camp zones guarantee a good night’s sleep for the wee ones. There are lots of real bathrooms and showers are available as well.
If camping is not your thing, the festival tickets are sold unbundled from camping and there are plenty of hotel options within a short walking, biking or taxi ride distance away. Getting to the park is easy, right off the 10 freeway; or if you want to fly in there is an airport minutes away that serves major airlines like Southwest.
A setup like this is one of the reasons the Malinowskis said they can turn this festival from the local and regional gem it is now into something of a destination festival in the future and still maintain its down home vibe that festival goers have come to love about it.
Friday at Finn
Huck Finn 2019 kicked off on Friday, Sept. 27 with three bands battling it out for a spot on next year’s lineup in the Beachgrass vs. Valleygrass Showdown. The Storytellers played a country-tinged set with some standout harmonies and choice covers that payed tribute to some recent music world losses — the Grateful Dead’s “Reuben & Cherise”, “Black Muddy River” and “The Wheel” for Robert Hunter, and “Magic” by The Cars for that group’s founder Rick Ocasik.
Liars Club played a set of tongue-in-cheek humorous songs that had the audience laughing along, but it was the Shakedown String Band from San Diego that won over judges with a set of all original material and earned them the coveted return slot at Huck Finn in 2020.
Following the band contest groups, Rancho Cucamonga-based locals The Honey Buckets gathered round the single microphone for a set of traditional bluegrass standards.
San Diego’s Mohavi Soul followed and kept the bluegrass going with a set of original music, peppered with sweet covers like the harmony-laden “Seven Bridges Road” made famous by The Eagles.
Next up was Hot October, another SoCal bluegrass outfit. The band has been making waves recently with appearances at events like Northwest String Summit and Mateel Summer Arts Festival. They brought the heat at Huck Finn with some fiery picking on a set of original progressive bluegrass songs like “Gravel Yard” and “If I Knew Your Name.”
Boulder, Colorado’s The Sweet Lillies kicked off a sunset set just as the Lil’ Huckers gathered and set out on a children’s parade. The mesmerizing harmonies of the group, led by bassist Julie Gussaroff and viola player Becca Bisque, were a perfect backdrop to the costumed kiddos weaving through the festival grounds. The Sweet Lillies are a band on the rise, with recent appearances at big name events like Jam Cruise and Strings and Sol, and releasing albums produced by the likes of Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon. The group’s recent heavy touring showed in their Huck Finn set which was tight and polished.
With the sun down and stage lights on, local maestros of all things Grateful Dead, Cubensis took the stage with a special acoustic set. The band, along with guest performer fiddle/mandolin player Chris Murphy, burned through classic Dead tunes like “Friend of The Devil” and “Cumberland Blues” as well as cuts from Jerry Garcia acoustic projects, like Garcia/Grisman’s take on “Shady Grove” and Old and In The Way’s “Midnight Moonlight.” A fitting tribute to Dead Lyricist Robert Hunter, who passed earlier that week, closed their set — a sublime “Ripple.”
Huck Finn was my first time catching Lindsay Lou. She put on a spellbinding performance with a stripped down band backing her unique voice and lyrics — a mix of the best parts of artists like Edie Brickell and Courtney Barnett. There are artists that you prefer live and some you prefer to gobble up their albums — Lindsay Lou is both. With catchy hooks and life’s-lessons-learned lyrics, her concise songs play well in the car or home stereo; and her easy going stage presence and danceable sound is great for the stage.
And speaking of danceable stage presence, the Steep Canyon Rangers closed out Friday’s lineup with a set that just flat-out rocked. I had only seen the band with actor/comedian/banjo player Steve Martin before and knew they were top-notch pickers, but with drums added to the mix, they exploded on stage.
Late night action at Huck Finn is found in the festival ground’s Pickin’ Pavilion and at the many campsites where musicians of all stripes – including many of the main stage performers – mingle and take turns belting out bluegrass standards and folk ballads until the sun comes up. This year’s fest also featured a special “Girl’d Cheese Incident” in the pavilion put on by The Honey Buckets, where a seemingly endless supply of grilled cheese sandwiches was made by the band’s lovely girlfriends and distributed to the many musicians picking away until dawn.
Saturday’s music kicked off with a pair of short but sweet performances from students at a local music academy called Rockstars of Tomorrow. The young performers impressed the audience and the showcase sets were another example of how the festival organizers are making Huck Finn a family-friendly event.
The Devil’s Box String Band got things going with an eclectic set of acoustic stylings ranging from gypsy jazz and Celtic tunes to old sea shanties and civil war era songs. The band was founded by fiddle player/front man Chris Murphy and Cubensis guitarist Nate LaPointe and has become a mainstay act in the beach areas of Los Angeles.
Las Vegas’ Out Of The Desert played a set of bluegrass standards, blasting through tunes like “Wheel Hoss,” White Freightliner” and “Nellie Cane.”
Led by front man Kenny Feinstein (who also doubled as Huck Finn’s MC for the weekend), Portland, Oregon’s Water Tower put on an animated set of their old-timey punkgrass music. The highly-entertaining set featured Feinstein’s songs played by band members on a mix of instruments that included fiddle, banjo, lap steel, drums, bass and even a button accordion. After their set, the band was even granted an encore — a rocking version of Lou Reed’s “Waiting For My Man.”
Things got back to more traditional bluegrass with The Get Down Boys, a three-piece outfit from Los Angeles that featured lightning fast guitar and banjo picking and spot on three-part vocal harmonies.
The sunset set on Saturday also featured a children’s parade, this time with a complete Alice in Wonderland theme and to the rock and soul music of Dustbowl Revival. With horns blowing, drums kicking and bass thumping along to fiddle and other acoustic instruments, Dustbowl Revival opened with a cover of “Don’t Do It” — a song first recorded by Marvin Gaye but made famous by The Band. It was the first of two covers of The Band they’d play, later in the set dropping a rollicking “Rag Mama Rag” in honor of the 50th anniversary of the group’s first album release. Dustbowl finished off their set with a funky “My Sharona” by The Knack that got the crowd going for the Saturday night party.
Something Special for all The Huckers
Adding groups like Dustbowl Revival and The California Honeydrops, which took the stage after, is a bit of a departure for the once bluegrass-only Huck Finn. I asked Roger Malinowski about the direction of the festival and if there might be a greater mix of genres at future fests. He said that Huck Finn will always be a place for traditional bluegrass, as well as acts that represent the ever-widening spectrum of the genre.
“We intend to represent that spectrum and introduce our audience to amazing musicianship/music rather than focus on defining genres,” he said, adding that bringing the fans of new bands to a festival with lots of traditional bluegrass will keep the tradition alive by exposing those newcomers to where the music they like really comes from.
“We work hard to make sure nothing is too far of field and that there is a balance in the lineup and overarching vibe of the audience,” he added. Nikki Malinowski agreed.
“Everything must evolve, including music,” she said. “We will always honor the roots of bluegrass music, but we are so excited to introduce our audience to the amazing music we know they will dig.”
The most important thing to the Malinowskis is giving audiences an overall great experience a Huck Finn.
“Our fans can expect to hear amazingly skilled musicians, be around warm and friendly people, great food and drink, tons of activities for the whole family, a beautiful park setting, delightful vendors and artists/artisans, and enjoy the same comradery in the campgrounds that produces amazing impromptu jam sessions,” Roger said.
Although not a traditional bluegrass sound, The California Honeydrops did put on some amazing impromptu jam sessions with their sound led by soulful singer and trumpeter Lech Wierzynski. The band cruised through numbers with zydeco beats, Cajun stylings and even an epic ska, instrumental version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop The Rain” that had the audience filling in the lyrics as one giant impromptu chorus.
Saturday Sugaree at Huck Finn Jubilee
Festival headliners Railroad Earth then took the stage and got things going with a bouncy “Smiling Like a Buddha” into a rocking version of “Hard Livin.’” The band sounded as tight as ever with new multi-instrumentalist Mike Robinson, who has the unenviable task of stepping into the shoes of Andy Goessling, who passed away in October 2018. Goessling was known for his mastery of every string instrument from dobro to guitar and every woodwind from penny whistle to saxophone, which he would often play two at a time.
In its most recent lineup since Goessling’s passing, Railroad Earth has employed Robinson and keyboard player Matt Slocum, who was not with the band at Huck Finn because he is currently touring with Jimmy Herring’s band.
Railroad Earth’s more classic all string instrument lineup put them in a pickin’ mood, delivering burners like “Happy Song,” “Farewell To Isinglass” and fan-favorite “Elko.” The set was also tempered with more heady jams like “The Forecast,” “Only By The Light,” “Adding My Voice” and a funky “Walk Beside Me,” which closed the set before the band took the stage back for an encore and brought the house down with a rip-roaring “Bringing My Baby Back Home.”
Although Railroad Earth didn’t play an official second set, bassist Andrew Altman was the curator of the Huck Finn House Party – a tradition of the festival where one of the musicians organizes a set of music featuring members of various groups that have performed over the weekend. Altman’s set featured members of The Honey Buckets, The Get Down Boys, California Honey Drops and Cubensis as well as Railroad Earth bandmates Tim Carbone on fiddle, John Skehan on mandolin and Carey Harmon on drums doing a mix of traditional bluegrass numbers like “John Hardy” and “Little Girl of Mine from Tennessee” and a Carbone-led “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” by Bob Dylan. The highlight of the set was the closing number where the musicians were joined by festival owner Roger Malinowski on keyboards for an extended “Sugaree” by The Grateful Dead that had Cubensis’ LaPointe singing the final verse: “Shake it up now, Sugaree. I’ll meet you at Huck Finn Jubilee …”
Lil’ & Big Huckers Welcome
It’s a sentiment that Malinowski shares in why he and his wife decided to revive the festival — to have one that he and other families can keep meeting up at.
“The most important thing for Nikki and I is to have a festival setting that is convenient and family friendly,” he said. “We love festivals but found it hard to ‘festival’ – if I can verbify that word – when we had kids. The remote location of some festivals, the energy of and/or size of the crowds, challenges of parking and carrying infrastructure for our kids, not enough activities to keep the kids happy and entertained, etc. made going to festivals really hard.
Huck Finn made all of those challenges disappear. Come see us next year, and you’ll know what I mean!”
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