Reggae on the River A Round-Up of a Wild Humboldt County Weekend By Ethan Stewart
Faced with the doldrums of being a surf addict living in a Santa Barbara summer, I sought out a little adventure a few weeks back and popped my Reggae on the River cherry. Though no stranger to festivals—I saw my fair share of “shows” during college and high school—it had been at least seven years since I’d loaded up the truck and lit out for shower-free fun of a weekend long live music orgy. Attending reggae shows on the East Coast throughout my youth, I had always heard about ROTR as the penultimate North American gathering of the reggae tribe. Joined by two fellow Cape Cod transplants, we made the long trek north to Piercy for the 23rd annual incarnation of the event. What follows is an attempt to document something that really can only be experienced.
5:45 p.m., Thursday, August 3, Dimmick Ranch, Humboldt County Still a day until the actual festival begins, but already the ranch is popping. A line of trucks, RVs, VWs, school buses, and assorted other cars snakes around a dusty parking lot. Smiling, sunglass-wearing volunteers swarm in a mildly organized form of chaos, offering help and generally contradicting each other The mini-city in the redwoods that we will call home for the next four days is fast-forming all around us. From the second you enter the ranch, you realize you have left civilization as commonly experienced. The air is sweet with ganja smoke, cold beer seems to appear out of nowhere, and everyone--and I truly mean everyone--is happy. With relative ease, we secure our passes from media guru Yvonne Hendrix and head back to the truck. We are looking for a guy named Johnny Diem--he rides an ATV and he is supposed to guide us through the madness to our camp site. A person with a walkie talkie and big belt of various gadgets stops us and inquires as to what exactly we think we are doing. Confused and drunk on the buzz of people all around me, I mention the word “Diem” and wave my forearm--complete with my newly aquired menagerie of all-access wrist bands--in the general direction that I think our campground might be. Before gadget guy can respond, Johnny rolls up on the scene yells something I didn’t hear but I definitely understood and we are off, descending towards the Eel River below past hundreds of wrist banded party people.
8 p.m., Thursday, August 3rd, in D’Orchard Camp is set. Reggae music blasts from all directions. Pasta is cooking on the grill. An electric pink sky stretches forever beyond a sea of red woods. It feels like the calm before a mid-summer rainstorm, but there is no precipitation in the forecast. A person walks by and offers up mind-altering rice krispie treats. The general public isn’t allowed in until tomorrow at 6 a.m. yet I feel surrounded. I mention to one of our neighbors that I want to wake up early to bear witness to the invasion of campers. He laughs and says, “Don’t worry dude, the rocks will wake you up.” I don’t know what this means, so I smile and nod, nonetheless thinking to myself, why go to river if you don’t plan on jumping in?
6:30 a.m., Friday, August 4th, in D’Orchard Not sure what came first, whether it was the rumble of RV’s or the scream of reggae revelers, but I was up early and instantly understood the “rock” comment. As the masses rush French’s River Bar--arguably the most popular and party oriented portion of the campground--the rocks of the river bed start flying as people attempt to make there campsites as comfy as possible. Tarps, rasta flags, and tapestries blow in the wind. Probably have never felt so much energy from so many people at such an early hour. By the time we get eggs on the skillet, we are completely boxed in by people and their vehicles for as far as the eye can see. It is approaching 80 degrees by 8 a.m.--the river calls. No doubt, the festival has begun.
Sometime after noon, August 4th, in the Concert Bowl The sun is ferocious and time has officially become irrelevant. The music kicked off with a more than enjoyable local group: Jade Steel and the Emerald Triangle band. San Diego’s Alfred Howard and the K23 Orchestra followed with an equally enjoyable fusion of hip-hop and reggae stylings. Seeking shade, I wandered from the concert area towards the mall of vendors surrounding it. Dozens of companies like I-Path and Pure Clothing have set up shop for the weekend creating a classic market place atmosphere. Half-naked people stroll casually through rows of hemp clothing, hooded sweatshirts, Conquering Lion of Judah stickers, bongs, pipes, t-shirts, and Mendocino mate. There is Mexican food, Chinese food, pizza, first aid stands, shade shelters, smoothies, churros, gyros, and ice cream and 15-foot people. Red, green, and gold swirls everywhere you look. Eye contact with strangers invariably results in smiles, casual introductions, and well wishes. They say more than 15,000 people are here with another 5,000 or so expected tomorrow. ROTR veterans have started grumbling that this year’s “new” site doesn’t have the same feeling as past years. Having no basis for comparison, I file their feelings under the “Nothing ever stays the same” category and make my way towards the river for my first swim.
3:30 pm, floating down the Eel River Armed with a standard issue inflatable raft and a fist full of Budweisers, I put in just above the main bridge and begin my inebriated float down the Eel. The river is like some sort of crazy Daytona Beach meets Jamaica ghetto mash-up. Topless women, naked children, floating coolers, waterproof radios, and hundreds of people I hope aren’t peeing in the water make for a remarkable experience. Somewhere in the distance people start screaming in ecstasy and, like a wave going around a sports stadium, the undulation of pleasure makes its way towards my spot in the river. As it approaches, one-by-one the river rats join in at the top of their lungs. Some one has made an impromptu water slide with a series of tarps laid out down through the rocks. A naked woman on an inflatable crocodile blasts down the track and splashes out into the river. I laugh out loud and roll of my raft. Surfacing, I am greeted by a couple drifting by on a blow-up blue and yellow boat complete with an inflatable palm tree for shade. “Happy Reggae” they smile at me as they pass over a joint the size of my thumb. Smoke on the water…fire in the sky. God, I hope all these people are wearing sun block.
Late night, Friday, back in D’Orchard Darkness came in like a beloved old friend. As the temperature dropped blissfully from scorching to chilly, the music took off. 2006’s “Best New Entertainer” at the International Reggae and World Music awards, Gyptian, and then dancehall dynamo Baby Cham were without a doubt the high lights of the night. Baby Cham had the entire concert bowl jumping up and down at a furious pace for his whole set. I'd never seen the Kingston born star before, but had often heard his live performances were world-class. Needless to say, he did not disappoint. Like party places the world over, the setting of the sun today marked a distinct upswing in drug and alcohol consumption for the ROTR crowd. Not to say that everyone in attendance is out of their tree (this really is a family event), but there are definitely a lot of people altering their perceptions of reality. It is hard to walk through the campground with being offered mushroom chocolates, big bags of psilocybin, dozens of different strains of marijuana, LSD, ecstasy, hash, opium, or cocaine. And from the look of things, it would seem it id equally hard for folks to just say no. On a negative note, things really came unhinged during Sean Paul’s absolutely horrible midnight set. Almost an hour late in taking the stage, the mainstream popular MTV star of dancehall and hip-hop fame came out in blaze of red lights, making constant pompous proclamations of his-own name. Declaring that he had come to “smoke all the pot and fuck all the bitches," Sean Paul alienated more than few members of the crowd. There was nothing positive about his performance and really very little musical substance at all. I have never met the devil but I am fairly certain that if I ever do, he will bear a startling resemblance to the lackluster performance Sean Paul gave us tonight.
Afternoon, August 5th, backstage at the Concert Bowl Just saw the best live performance I have seen in years. His name was K’naan, he is from Somalia and his rhythm heavy, hip-hop spoken word style, soul-nurturing music is incredible. He actually came out for an encore…something which doesn’t happen much here at the River as stage time is a limited commodity. The grandson of one of Africa’s most famous poets, K’naan--who has been touring with Damien Marley for the past few months--tackled everything from first love and the power of the people to the UN’s failed relief missions in Africa and the dismal state of contemporary rap music in the United States. Go get his music right now…it's that good. The walk to the concert bowl this afternoon was incredible. If I thought last night turned up the party meter, today the whole damn scale just exploded. Despite a personal disgust for cliché, I couldn’t help but think about Woodstock as I saw not one but three separate instances of people gathering around eye droppers filled with acid, blissfully dosing drops of sparkling sunshine. A man easily pushing 300 pounds sat cross-legged and naked in his white mini van, surrounded by rose petals and smiling through loud exhalations of “Ohhhm” all day long. Kids walked buy with huge glass bongs strapped to their back and double fisting cocktails. Volunteers zoomed about Mad-Max style on ATVs and in old pick-ups offering help, giving advice, and shuttling folks too beat down to continue. Despite the excess of consumption, trash is hard to find and recycling bins are not. I have seen no violence and the MC just told me there are “about 25,000 people here right now.” I have been passed joints from opposite directions by complete strangers at the same time so often that I have lost track as well as the ability to decline the offer. The music seems endless. I just saw Don Carlos--former front man for Black Uhuru--playing with his grandchildren and laughing his ass off under an oak tree. Thankfully, early afternoon performer, Ishi Dube provided evidence that classic roots reggae is far from dead. Born in the Himalayas but raised in Humboldt, Dube was backed up by the Massanga band and absolutely killed it. It was a much needed boost for folks still suffering from a Sean Paul hangover. He was followed by Junior Marvin’s niece Luna Angel and nephew Moese Angel. Like a more spiritual Sade, Luna has a timeless voice that simultaneously inspires and haunts. I have never been more impressed by so many artists in such a short period of time. The talent level at this thing is absolutely phenomenal.
Late night, Saturday, safe and sound back in D’Orchard One of the coolest things about ROTR is that local radio station 94.5 FM plays the music live throughout the weekend. This provides a uniform and constant soundtrack for everyone’s respective good times while also allowing you to retreat to the safety of camp without missing a moment of the music. Sitting around our shade tent and munching gourmet quality handcrafted steak and cheese sandwiches, we heard Barrington Levy’s voice boom out over the radio. Within moments we were mobilized and moving towards the concert bowl, front and center in the press pit before the first verse of “Twenty-one Girl Salute” was done. After Barrington, Heavyweight Dub Champion conquered the stage for a solid set after being bounced from the previous night’s lineup due to Sean Paul’s ineptitudes. After that, it was straight up Rasta heavy ass-shaking with Sizzla until well past 2 a.m. Cold weather was irrelevant as thousands of people skanked the night away. The walk back to camp took on an air of spookiness as the Zombie Factor was increased ten-fold from prior nights. I saw way too many hollow eyes wandering and wondering around in the night, their hallucinogenic-addled minds obviously blown past the point of immeadiate recovery. Or maybe they were just drunk or suffering from the advanced stages of untreated heat stroke. Either way, I didn’t see too many folks I would ask to help me change a flat tire.
Sunday morning, in D’Orchard Day four and the sun is still brutal, though a few wispy clouds offer delicious splashes of shade. Music is set to start in an hour or so and the lineup is daunting. Spearhead, Stephen Marley, Ziggy Marley, and Bunny Wailer !?! Not to mention Africa’s Salif Keita and the current empress of roots reggae Dezarie. This festival is a war of attrition and you must pace yourself to make it until the late night headliners. The drugs are getting cheaper, the bathrooms dirtier, and our beer supply dwindling. Water is the beverage of the moment and it tastes so good. The foot traffic by our humble camp has increased too with disgusting piles of vomit and undue whiffs of urine closing in. Sunday is not for the faint of heart not to mention the fact that we are so packed in at this place I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to.
1a.m., Monday, August 6th Fourteen hours of music a day for three straight days culminated tonight with the professor emeritus of reggae music--Mr. Bunny Wailer--giving a soul-stirring sermon of Rastafari. Invoking the honorable “Mr. Bob” and “Mr.Peter,” Wailer played a set consisting mostly of hits he made with Tosh and Marley back in the day. Dressed head to toe in white, with a massive cape and huge red, green, and gold scarf, the original Dun-Dadda was a perfect bookend to a long weekend. He seemed like a loving grandfather, offering his hard-earned wisdom to the masses that made it through to the end. Oh and what a battle it was. I fell asleep on a couch during Ziggy Marley’s set about an hour before Wailer took the stage. Exhaustion plus an underwhelming seemingly out of rhythm Ziggy took me out and the couch under the stars with a view of the stage was too good to turn down. Before Ziggy, younger brother Stephen played a short 35-minute set comprised entirely of his father’s music except for the poppy, “One Good Spliff.” The general feeling amongst the crowd was that the concert had been a success, offering a broad and complete spectrum of what exactly reggae music is today. I heard unconfirmed rumors that someone died from an overdose. I have since been told that this was not the case, though several people did wind up getting ambulance rides after fainting in the hot, hot, heat. Nothing left to do but wake up early and escape.
2 p.m., Monday, Ukiah at a burger joint called Jaws It took too many hours to drive too few miles this morning. The ROTR city has disbanded and it would seem that most of its residents are headed south on Highway 101. Society seems a little bit alien right now not to mention the fact that within 12 seconds of pulling out of the Ranch we were faced with CHP officers, the first sign of "The Man" in days. Walking back to my truck here in Ukiah, I noticed a group of young, sunburnt people huddled around a big plate of French fries like it was some sort of vital and scarce life source. They were all still wearing the tell tale lime green wrist bands of the River. I made eye contact and nodded, offering up one last “Happy Reggae.” The hallmark phrase of the festival had taken on new meaning for me in the last day or so--becoming a double-edged blade simultaneously bringing good tidings while invoking all that was not happy about the River. It would be like telling some one who loves ice cream but is allergic to milk that you have just found the best mint chocolate chip cone ever while they are stuck on a toilet in a post-sundae brawl with their lower intestine. Needless to say, the response was uniform from the French fry crew, “See you next year!”