After being canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Salmonfest returns this weekend at the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds in Ninilchik for its 10th live year of “fish, fun and music,” as its slogan goes. The festival will be held from Friday through Sunday, Aug. 6-8. In light of the pandemic, organizers have made these changes to keep the festival safer:
• Limiting capacity and ticket sales. Tickets may be sold out online by Friday, but a small number will be available at the door.
“We’re going to be about 25 to 30 percent below capacity,” said assistant director David Stearns in a phone interview on Monday.
• Encouraging vaccination and mask-wearing. Salmonfest will have masks on hand and encourage people to wear face masks. On Friday and Saturday as part of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ Sleeves Up for Summer campaign, nurses will be at Salmonfest to talk about vaccinations, and then give shots on Sunday.
• Spreading out more and holding all events outdoors. As part of expansion plans that started before the pandemic, Salmonfest has enlarged the River Stage and added an amphitheater there, making it the main stage. The festival site has added 40 more acres so that people can spread out, and it has expanded the ARCHES campsite next to the festival grounds. Everything, including musical acts and vendors, will be outside. To keep choke points down in lines, staff will move through lines to register people or make sales. Security staff has been doubled to help with crowd control.
“We’re spending energy, money and resources to make everyone safer,” said Salmonfest director Jim Stearns. “It will allow anyone who chooses to maintain CDC recommendations and social distancing.”
Noting how other venues have been holding events, some indoors, Stearns said Salmonfest is moving forward. COVID-19 cases have been on the rise this month locally and statewide, with all regions of the state in the high alert level.
“We’re doing everything we can and the best we can,” Stearns said. “… The train has left the station. All the chips are on the table. We’re in. We have to ride this out.”
Stearns acknowledged that for some popular acts, people might rush the stage, jamming together in a tight pack.
“That’s almost impossible,” he said of trying to keep people back. “… We’re outnumbered. Trying to keep people back … Those that are going to be a little bit reckless, we’ll have to let be reckless.”
People more COVID-19 cautious can spread out, he noted, and listen to acts more safely with the expanded area.
There also will be more portable toilets. Jim Stearns said that of the information he’s seen on the low vulnerability to hospitalizations and serious illness among fully vaccinated people, he thinks Salmonfest will be safe for vaccinated people.
“I like to think of what we’re doing and what I would do if I was the guy looking from outside, to be honest, I would come to Salmonfest,” he said. “I would play it safe. I’d wear a mask when I was around people.”
The ARCHES campground on the east side will be for tents and small camper vans less than 22 feet. Larger motorhomes can camp in the parking lot near the rodeo arena. The jam corner has been moved to the campground, too.
“More one with the land,” is how David Stearns described the campground.
This year’s lineup may not be as strong in terms of radio hits, but Jim Stearns called it “the strongest we’ve ever had.” Headliners include Greensky Bluegrass, four-time Grammy Award winner Sarah Jarosz, The High Hawks, Pamyua, Vella and Con Brio. Other national touring acts performing this year include The National Parks, The Burroughs, LowDown Brass Band, Lindsay Lou, Carsie Blanton, Megan Hamilton and Defunk. Alaska-based bands include Blackwater Railroad Co.; I Sing. You Dance.; Hope Social Club; Super; the Saturated Sugar Strings, and Homer’s own KP Brass Band.
“Sara Jarosz is stellar,” Jim Stearns said. “Greensky is the top festival bluegrass band in the country. They’re like the Grateful Dead of a bluegrass band.”
National, state and local acts booked for 2020 were offered right of first refusal to play in 2021, and most accepted, Jim Stearns said. Jackson Browne had been scheduled, but held off for another year.
“This is part of the heartbreak of the music business,” Stearns said. “The top, top acts are fine. They can afford to be a little risk averse. It’s that entire middle of bands that are clamoring to play.”
Groups in the middle tier who can make a living playing at clubs and festivals have been hurt hardest by the pandemic, Stearns said.
“This is the thing that breaks my heart, the 1,000s and 1,000s of bands. They’re not making a killing. They’re making a living. That got gutted. They need to work. They need to play,” he said.
Salmonfest favorite LowDown Brass Band returns, joined by new act Con Brio “the LowDown Brass Band of San Francisco,” Stearns said. Along with Homer’s KP Brass Band, he admitted they might be overdoing brass bands a bit, “but people seem to love it.”
Other acts to watch include National Parks and Vella. Both are being pushed hard by their agents, a sign that the industry thinks they’re on the way to stardom. Vella describes herself as “the love child of Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse,” Stearns said.
With so many acts and four stages, Stearns said, “I always tell people if you don’t like somone on one stage, you’re going to like someone on the other one. … You can just keep moving around and have no contact with anyone and still have a killer time.”
Jim Stearns said reaction to holding Salmonfest this year has been all over the map. Some are saying, “Right on, full speed ahead,” he said, while others are cautious. Older people seem to be more hesistant and have bowed out for 2021, he said. That’s OK. Anyone who bought tickets this year or in 2020 can roll over their tickets until 2022, he said.
“The people who are vaccinated like myself are pretty confident,” Stearns added. They can be safe “if you’re outside, moving around, make sure the vending isn’t too crowded, don’t go into the beer garden when it’s jammed like cattle.”