‘Return to magic’
Butte County’s homegrown music fest celebrates spirit of Concow community
Northern California is full of summer music festivals these days, but the good folks who organize the Wild Mountain Faire at the idyllic Lake Concow Campground produce something different. As a regular festivalgoer who has been going to this event since it was revived in 2007, I’ve seen the small community lovingly nurture a special multi-day affair that is as much about spirit, community pride and folklore as it is about music.
Free of marketing strategies or official spokespeople, the event tucked away in the Sierra foothills has an organic charm. These days, the Faire crew instead devotes its time and resources toward building and crafting the 78 acres into a magical multipurpose site. Tony Salzarulo, a life-long Concow resident and year-round tender of the campground land, promises this year’s version will be the best yet.
“We have a humongous dance house, we have a sweat lodge again, we have a natural swimming pool of water, and we’ve done work around the creek that includes some surprises,” said the talented 53-year-old builder. Salzarulo and company are continuing a legacy of outdoor Concow fests that dates back to the mid-1970s.
“I was involved even before it was called Wild Mountain Faire, in the summer of ’74,” added Sarah Salisbury, 63, who has maintained a local cabin for 40 years and has remained involved with the festival since the beginning. “We put on a play in Crane Park,” Salisbury said, about that first year. “It was for one day, and we performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream and we didn’t charge any money. About 200 people came. It was really fun and a real community event. We’d rehearse in an abandoned roadhouse by lantern and candlelight.”
The event took its Wild Mountain Faire moniker the next year, and those one-day fests at Crane Park (a stone’s throw from the campground) continued for about 15 years, with food and generator-amplified music performed on a flatbed truck, Salisbury said. The festival would end when darkness overtook the site.
“We benefited many local organizations, and there was country music, rock ’n’ roll, belly dancers, clowns, whoever wanted to perform,” Salisbury said of the fest that went dormant in the early 1990s before its return in 2007.
The current incarnation of WMF continues to advocate and raise money for important community endeavors. Immediately after the devastating fire in 2008, the Concow Phoenix Project helped the community’s rebuilding efforts. Current projects include fundraising for children’s field trips to Chico Performances shows at Laxson Auditorium and an effort to garner scholarship funding for Concow residents to attend firefighting courses at Butte College.
The WMF infrastructure has bulked up each of the past six years to now include, in addition to camping, food and artisan vendors, four stages, a Creekside Native Village with towering teepees, an Enchanted Kids Village, late-night DJs, drum circles, gonzo art creations and one mondo campfire ring.
Of course, plenty of local and regional reggae, rock ’n’ soul, avant-garde, jam and electronic groups—from Swamp Zen to Dylan’s Dharma and Soul Union to Soul Butter—will provide the backbone of the entertainment.
Local pride, with particular respect to its native people, the Konkow Valley band of Maidu, and made all the stronger in the aftermath of the 2008 fire, are unifying themes here. The literal theme of this year’s fest is “Return to Magic,” Salzarulo said.
“It seems like now everything’s coming back from the fire,” he said. “New trees are getting about 10-foot tall now, the oak trees are coming back and it’s getting green again.”
But it might be the Native American influence that most permeates the festival. Salzarulo’s late mother, affectionately known as Granny Lou, was friends with Byron Beavers, one of the last native speakers of the Maidu language. And the Indian energy remains with the festival. Salzarulo said that Konkow Maidu tribal Chairwoman Patsy Seek will demonstrate native artifacts and answer questions. In addition, tribal Vice-Chairman Wally Clark will perform native dance and Jack Falls-Rock, founder of the People of the Earth Foundation, will travel down from Oregon and offer the festival’s opening prayer.
These days, ubiquitous local DJ Hap Hathaway, of Resonators fame, is in charge of the music. Though not a Concow native, he “gets it.”
“The fact that this festival started as a real family gathering that grew to something bigger gives it a genuine sense of tribe and family that many festivals don’t seem to invoke,” Hathaway said. “The sacred land and incredible lake scenery and riparian zones, along with the incredible native village that Tony and so many volunteers have built, add to a deep sense of connection with our past and a sense of responsibility for the land and the vibe of the gathering.”