Music News & Reviews

A raft of good tunes at the American River Music Fest

Since American River Music Festival founder Matt Semonsen was 4 years old, his life has revolved around water and music. Combining them into a weekend-long celebration was a “natural fit,” he said.

The emphasis on the water makes the ARMF, in its eighth year, a refreshing departure from other festivals. Held in the Coloma-Lotus Valley and running Sept. 12-14, the event capitalizes on its proximity to the south fork of the American River.

Festivalgoers can stay at three campgrounds that run along the river, and an 8-mile whitewater rafting trip has become one of the biggest draws in addition to the rock, funk, folk, country and jam-band artists who perform. The main stage at Henningsen Lotus Park sits near a swimming hole where festivalgoers can cool off between shows.

“Moving water expresses itself in many interesting forms and personalities,” Semonsen said. “We want people to see those personalities, and the only way to do it is to get in it and sit by it.”

In addition to musical acts, the main stage area will host a diverse selection of food, beer and wine vendors. An art market and kids activities are also part of the experience.

Semonsen has seen his passion project grow over the years, from 350 tickets sold in 2006 to 1,750 in 2013. The greatest testament to ARMF’s reputation is that it relies primarily on word-of-mouth for advertising, he said. In addition, the ARMF separates itself by its work with local sponsors. Semonsen said he emphasized the importance of supporting Lotus’ businesses from Day One, and because of that, the community has gotten behind him.

“We don’t have any billboards or any signs up at our event,” Semonsen said. “You won’t see a single corporate advertisement when you walk into our festival. We are probably one of the more amazing, collaborative models that you will ever see put on such an event.”

Nearly all of the 150 volunteers return each year, and most of them come from the surrounding Gold Country area.

“We work with everybody in this town,” Semonsen said, “and that’s super important for a music event that wants to present really exciting, terrific roots music” that’s not merely “ ‘buying the audience,’ so to speak, with names.”

This year’s gathering is slated to host 33 shows in nine locations, all accessible by the festival’s shuttle.

The evening of Sept. 12 is the musicians showcase at the American River Resort. Ten artists will get the chance to perform two songs apiece, and the top two acts – voted on by a jury – will perform songs on the main stage.

Marquee acts with a range of sounds share the main stage Sept. 13 and 14.

Tommy Malone is set to play at 3 p.m. Sept. 13, bringing more than 30 years of musicianship with him from New Orleans. Known for his talented songwriting and distinctive voice, the former frontman of legendary roots-rock outfit the Subdudes is in the thick of a nationwide tour to promote his latest album, “Poor Boy,” a record that the Times-Picayune called “one of the year’s best thus far.”

Whitewater Ramble will follow Malone in the 4:30 p.m. slot. The quintet from Colorado, described as “high-octane Rocky Mountain dancegrass,” likely will be one of most lively sets of the weekend. The group’s ability to stretch the boundaries of bluegrass has earned it a notable following on the road.

Among the Sept. 14 acts will be Baskery, a Swedish trio of sisters with a gritty take on Americana and big, blazing harmonies. They play at 12:15 p.m.

Veteran folk singer Greg Brown will follow at 1:30 p.m. before The Bills take the stage at 3 p.m. to “dance your socks off,” as Semonsen put it. The Canadian “acoustic super group,” whose dense arrangements and energizing sound make it one of the toughest bands in the lineup to categorize, will be followed by Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash at 4:30 p.m.

With the ARMF, Somenson said he wants to provide a place where people can connect harmoniously for one weekend each year.

“Our concept is this sense of community that music has around water that brings everybody together,” he said. “The conflicts of life are set aside.”