The organizers of Salmonfest are ready to bring the people of Alaska another three days of “fish, love and music” next month, with a cause close to the festival’s namesake.
The festival kicks off at noon Friday, Aug. 3 at the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds in Ninilchik. Tickets and passes are still on sale online at salmonfestalaska.org.
Now in its eighth year, the festival has been operating as Salmonfest under the direction and production of Jim Stearns since 2015. Previously Salmonstock, the festival was inspired by a fight against the proposed Pebble Mine project. When it appeared an environmentalist victory had been won for the time being, the festival changed course and leadership and became Salmonfest.
When the issue of the proposed Pebble Mine reared its head again recently, it looked like that might be the focus of this year’s festival, bringing the three-day event back to its roots.
Stearns said those involved with the festival were geared up for a fight, but that when a major partner in the project pulled out in May, the mine was no longer front and center.
The focus of this year’s educational aspect of the festival will be the “Stand for Salmon” initiative, a ballot proposition that would revise much of Alaska’s statute regarding protections for anadromous streams.
Supporters say the update is overdue and necessary to protect salmon. Those who oppose the proposition say added regulations could stifle resource development.
To Stearns, one of the best ways to galvanize people into social or political is through music.
“You have three days where you’re kind of living together as a tribe,” he said of the festival.
There, likeminded people can come together, while those who are just there for the show can potentially also learn a few things through the “Salmon Causeway.” A section of booths and activities dedicated to education and activism, the causeway has bloomed over the years with the help of its beneficiary, Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, as well as Cook Inletkeeper and other sponsors.
At the same time, Stearns wants it to remain a fun place to be, especially for families and kids. Along with the information, kids games and musical performances can be found in the causeway.
“We try to make the whole educational … component of the festival into a kind of interactive .. experience,” Stearns said.
Balance is the goal, according to Stearns. Without intriguing acts from all over the state and country, the education would fall on deaf ears or those of people who have heard it all before. Without causes to be passionate about, it would be just another music festival.
Folk rock singer Brandi Carlile, who first appeared at the festival back in 2013 when it was still Salmonstock, will headline the activism-oriented event.
“I’ve worked in the rock and roll business for 30 years … and they were some of the most gracious and down-to-earth people I’ve ever met,” Stearns said of Carlile and her bandmates, twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth.
An activist herself, Carlile is an advocate for the LGBTQ community. She and her wife welcomed a second child earlier this year. Carlile also performed at the March For Our Lives event held in Seattle, Washington in March.
The nonprofit Carlile formed, called the Looking Out Foundation after one of her songs, “amplifies the impact of music” funding causes “that often go unnoticed” and thereby giving more people a voice, according to the foundation’s website. A dollar from every concert ticket sold to see Carlile goes toward the foundation.
When she first appeared at Salmonstock, Carlile embraced its activist roots, Stearns said.
“She clicked with every part of our mission,” he said. “Our values, our audience, everything.”
Carlile returns to headline at 9:15 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3 on the Ocean stage. As this year’s headliner, she marks the sixth female artist in a row to be chosen as Salmonfest’s main act. She’s also the artist that began the tradition when she headlined Salmonstock in 2013, Stearns said.
“We try to get a female headliner every year,” he said, explaining that it’s important to festival organizers to promote gender equality in a male-dominated industry.
Stearns, who has worked in the music industry in the past — including 10 years working for the Grateful Dead — said he’s seen the imbalance in the music industry, and is proud of how many female artists, or bands including strong female members, Salmonfest brings out each year.
“If you don’t give women or minorities a chance to have a leg up … or level the playing field a little but, then how in the heck are you ever going to find any balance?” he said.
Other acts scheduled to hit one of four festival stages this year include: Michael Franti and Spearhead, Gasoline Lollipops and Diggin Dirt. Local Alaska performers making an appearance include Great American Taxi, Seward’s ever-popular Blackwater Railroad Company and Homer’s own Nikos Kilcher.
For a full schedule and lineup of this year’s festival, visit salmonfestalaska.org.