Reggae on the River

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!”

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