Published: Sunday, September 6, 1998

Music fest just about the music, not money

It was so long ago that no one had heard of Woodstock, so long ago that KRKO was the area's hip radio station, playing Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa.

It was 30 years ago this Labor Day weekend that a swampy pasture three miles south of Sultan was transformed into the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair.

An obvious question, on this Bumbershoot weekend of big-name music acts, might be "Who played at Sky River?"

So novel were the sights and sounds that descended on the lush valley that it wasn't obvious to The Everett Herald writer whose story was published that Labor Day. Names of bands and musicians weren't mentioned.

The story noted mud, traffic, nude swimming and a "hairy" crowd of more than 20,000 people. It appeared not on Page 1, but on 3A. (Page 1 featured an article on the remodeling of Chaffee's, a downtown Everett clothing store.)

"With Betty 'Universal Mother' Nelson's organic raspberry farm the Mecca, thousands of them came this weekend," said the story, printed Sept. 2, 1968. "Who are they? Hippies ... all sizes, shapes, skins and scents."

"That's what made the news, the hippie counterculture and not the music per se," said Neal Skok, 45, a part-time rock promoter and collector of music memorabilia. Skok is responsible for bringing the band? and the Mysterians to Bumbershoot today.

So who played Sky River?

Skok wasn't there, but the Woodinville area man has a stash of festival posters, reviews and articles.

"Santana was there, and the Grateful Dead showed up, but they weren't billed," Skok said. "By all accounts, the highlight of the festival was a monstrous jam with the Grateful Dead, Big Mama Thornton who wrote 'Hound Dog' for Elvis, James Cotton and Billy Roberts.

"Billy Roberts' claim to fame was that he wrote the song 'Hey Joe.' "

The book "Encyclopedia of Rock Stars" (DK Publishing; 1996) confirms that the Dead played there Sept. 2, '68.

Other names at Sky River were the Youngbloods, Muddy Waters, Buffy St. Marie, Pink Floyd, Country Joe & the Fish, John Fahey, It's a Beautiful Day, Rambling Jack Elliot, classical guitarist Sandy Bull, and a Seattle psychedelic group called Easy Chair, whose leader went on to play with the Mothers of Invention.

"There are arguments about who played. It's almost an urban tale, who played and who did not," said Mark Stevens, who lives in Arlington. He was at Sky River that wild weekend and remembers seeing Santana and a young comic named Richard Pryor. He also remembers kegs and kegs of free beer.

"The people who were there, their memories are suspect," Skok said. One Sky River poster shows a frog sitting on a rock smoking a joint.

The Lighter Than Air Fair moniker "was accurate, they sold rides in hot-air balloons," Skok said, although weather may have put a damper on that.

"The first day was horrible rain, then Sunday was sunny and Monday was cloudy with drizzle," Skok said. "The final performance was Monday afternoon, the band It's a Beautiful Day."

The festival was organized by John Chambless and his Seattle organization, New American Community, Skok said.

Marion Van Trojen remembers Chambless coming to make arrangements with her husband, the late Johnny Van Trojen, then Sultan's mayor.

"Of course, the town was scared spitless," she said. "It had been publicized in an underground newspaper, the Helix. The town was full of cars and people, and a field north of town was used for parking."

Van Trojen, who is 82 and Sultan-born, recalls that at one point, the festival ran out of water. Townsfolk took tankloads of water to the site.

"It was on a hillside, like an amphitheater. It was the first time I'd ever seen such a huge screen. It wasn't a movie, but shapes and lights. It was really rather pretty," said Van Trojen, who even bought love beads from a festival booth.

Tickets for three days were $6 in advance or $8 at the gate, and proceeds were to benefit the Mexican American Federation of Washington, the Foundation for American Indian Rights and the Central Area Peace and Improvement Cooperative.

Stevens, 49, played drums in a band called the American Wall. Because the band's bass player didn't show up at Sky River, they never played before the crowd. "We wound up testing the sound system," Stevens said.

Stevens and his bandmates in American Wall, Jim Osborn, Toby Bowen and Sherman Davis, were all teens. "I went to Everett High, Sherman went to Meadowdale and Jim went to Sultan High School." Stevens remembers Toby Bowen being booted from school in Marysville because he wouldn't cut his hair.

Earlier that summer, American Wall played weekends at an Everett pizza place, now the Knights of Columbus hall on Marine View Drive. "We got paid in pizza," Stevens recalled.

Now an environmental activist who owns a hair products company, Stevens is a little wistful about what might have been.

"We were supposed to play on the Monday," he said. "I've talked with Sherman and Toby about all this, and we all agree if we had gone on stage that day, it would have opened a door.

"I have no idea what it would have been, but there are very, very few success stories," he said. "Even in the great groups, many members are dead, or drug addicts, or has-beens. I have no regrets."

Of the four in American Wall, only Sherman Davis is still playing music, Stevens said. "Sherman's in a blues group in California, he's doing well."

Stevens remembers his friend as a skillful guitarist. "Sherm's leads were a blur of notes," he said. "Putting Sherman on that stage with all that Fender amplifying equipment, he would have gotten a standing ovation."

It's been 30 years. Stevens now can't name a single member of Pearl Jam. "Basically, I put my childhood toys away. I'm on to other things now. Let the kids have their kid stuff."

There are plenty of gray-haired rockers in the Bumbershoot throngs, but it's not the same as those freewheeling days of the Sky River Rock Festival or of Woodstock the following summer.

"When the money came into it, that corrupted it and changed it forever," Skok said. "Before '68, it was about love of music and chasing girls."

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or

Copyright © 1998 The Daily Herald Co., Everett, Wash.
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