The star of the Fresh Hop Ale Festival has always been the beer, that floral, herbal, impossibly fresh-tasting nectar of the gods that you can only get once a year at this festival.
That’s not likely to change. But that doesn’t mean the entertainment has to be an afterthought, as has often been the case over the 11 years of the festival’s existence.
The procession of essentially interchangeable cover bands has been such that when I tried to remember which bands had played previous Fresh Hops, the only one I could think of was Seattle’s Handful of Luvin’, a rare noncover band that played in 2010. The rest just sort of blend together as a group of just fine but wholly unmemorable street dance bands.
This year will be different. The True Spokes, a roots-rock band out of Seattle will headline Saturday, following soulful, rocking openers Imagine the Giant.
“True Spokes is a bigger band than has ever been at Fresh Hop before,” says Navid Eliot, the local singer-songwriter who took over booking the music for this year’s festival. “Fresh Hop has a great budget for music. I don’t think they realized how big the potential was. If you have a crowd of 4,000 people and a good budget, you shouldn’t just settle for a good bar band. You can get a great band if you can promise them that 4,000 people will be there.”
So, yeah, the 28 breweries at the event and the prospect of beer made with hops that were never dried, remains the primary draw for the event. But it doesn’t have to the only draw.
“One of my personal goals — starting this year with the music, and we’ll build upon this — is making art have a more prominent role in the festival,” says Robb Wasielewski, the new director of Allied Arts of Yakima, the group that throws this party every year.
The event, which draws beer lovers from throughout the Northwest, raises 25 to 30 percent of Allied Arts’ overall budget each year, he said. And, though the art-and-suds pairing may seem incongruous, Wasielewski points out that craft brewing is itself an art form, one that makes use of one of the Yakima Valley’s key agriculture products, the hop.
“It’s been amazing to me how many folks I’ve met since coming to town who have said to me that the Fresh Hop Ale Festival is their favorite event and, to them, the biggest event in Yakima,” says Wasielewski, who took the helm at Allied Arts last month.
The guys in The True Spokes are pretty excited about it, too, guitarist R.L. Heyer says. They recognize that most of the attendees probably won’t be coming specifically to see them. But they see that as an opportunity to make new fans.
“We’ve definitely had that happen before at other events where the music has been a secondary aspect,” Heyer says. “We’ve won over crowds before.”
The band, which formed about 13 years ago as Flowmotion, knows about playing festivals. They founded Summer Meltdown, the annual Darrington music festival that served as the inspiration for the Chinook Music Festival, which Selah native Cody Beebe founded last year in Naches. Since then, they’ve gone through a few lineup changes and a name change. They’ve been The True Spokes for about a year and a half, Heyer says.
“We just felt more empowered by having the name changed to The True Spokes,” he says. “As Flowmotion (frontman) Josh (Clauson) was the only original member. So as Flowmotion people were expecting something that we weren’t necessarily doing anymore.”
The new band has maintained some of Flowmotion’s groove-oriented style and in some ways is still a jam band, he says. But it’s not a jam band like Flowmotion was. The True Spokes sound more like Wilco or The Band than Phish or The Grateful Dead, he says, more song-oriented.
“We play a high-energy blend of rock and funk and dance music,” Heyer says. “It’s almost like ’70s rock — well-crafted songs with a nice groove.”
And they have a good time doing it, he says. The band members genuinely like each other and like playing together. Audiences react to that, he says, and that just creates an even better energy. It’s the sort of energy that may be just right for an event like Fresh Hop.
“It’s people who are there for beer,” Heyer says. “So you want to just provide a nice soundtrack for them to have a good time.”