The first year of Salmonfest, the event formerly known as Salmonstock, promises the compelling combination of musical entertainment and salmon habitat conservation efforts that have drawn thousands to the Ninilchik Fairgrounds year after year.
The bash begins under a blue moon Friday and carries on through Sunday. Long-time staples such as the unofficial “house band” Great American Taxi, will pair with famous performers — and festival first timers — including the headlining duo Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, among 60 acts scheduled to sway audiences.
“It is the same weekend, same artists, same themes, same sound, same stage people,” said Salmonfest producer Jim Stearns, also vice president of Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, the event’s new beneficiary.
People probably will not notice much difference — the weekend is still chalk full of local entertainment in its many forms, said Stearns. Alaska’s top concessionaires, artisans and crafters, all-day kids activities and an “educational symposium,” will cover the fairgrounds for the three-day event.
Stearns began booking acts after the “amicable split,” in the fall of 2014, from his co-founders of Salmonstock. He had no intention of letting too much time lapse once the decision was made to end the partnership with the Renewable Resources Foundation.
“I think it is going to be better,” Stearns said. “There is more passion in it this year.”
The plan is to “cast a little lighter net,” this time around, Stearns said. Instead of halting development of the Bristol Bay Pebble Mine, the new target is preservation of salmon species statewide, he said.
The festival’s overarching focus on habitat protection is ushering back many of the names synonymous with its very roots including renowned artist and “godfather of the festival,” Ray Troll, Stearns said.
Homer-based artist Mavis Muller also will return to create her trademark human mosaic. Hundreds gather annually at the rodeo grounds to form a border around her mammoth fabric designs featuring salmon imagery and bring the pieces to life.
An aerial photograph is the only option to capture the act of “interactive advocacy,” and “statement of salmon solidarity,” to happen at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“I think that the waters are going to need us to protect them forever,” Muller said. “We must remain vigilant at all times. To ease up at this point would be a mistake.”
Other familiar faces — so familiar festival staff has dubbed them the house band — the Lower 48’s Great American Taxi is returning for the first year of the new festival and fifth performance on the Kenai Peninsula to help celebrate Alaska ideals.
Keyboardist Chad Staehly said he is glad to see the Salmonfest continue Salmonstock’s safeguarding of resources.
“I take it all as a good sign. There are more fights and battles to be won to protect resources,” Staehly said.
The band, “always just about getting people to dance,” is looking forward to the other element that keeps them coming back.
“Nothing beats Alaskan hospitality,” Staehly said. “The rugged spirit really shines through in a setting like that. It is a transcendent gathering on so many levels.”
World-renowned act and first-time visitor to the Kenai Peninsula, Karl Denson, said he is looking forward to some down time fishing and bear viewing in addition to bringing a “swampy but precise funk,” “deliciously dancy” performance to the festival.
His band, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, “we joke whose other band is The Rolling Stones,” is headlining Saturday, said Stearns. Denson also has worked with Lenny Kravitz before signing on with the Stones’ recent international tour.
“We do what we do,” Denson said. “For some reason they keep hiring us.”
Other big acts including MarchFourth Marching Band — a “sensory extravaganza” — Moonalice, the Dirty River Ramblers and The Motet will join 40 bands from around the state throughout the weekend, Stearns said.
“We try to pluck bands from all over the state,” Stearns said.
Staehly said there are few events like Salmonfest in the Lower 48 that perfectly fuse advocacy and entertainment.
“We are seeing how connected they are to resources, the top of the list being fish,” Staehly said. “They are fighting for their very living, and very existence. It far exceeds other events.”
Friday – Sunday
Fair Grounds, Ninilchik
3-day adult pass: $135 (through today)
Friday-Saturday adult pass: $120
Saturday-Sunday adult pass: $125
Friday only: $65
Saturday only: $75
Sunday only: $75
Available online at Salmonfestalaska.org or at the gate.