Before Woodstock, there was the lesser-known (but no less rock ‘n’ roll) Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter than Air Fair.
The year was 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated a few months earlier. The Vietnam War was in full swing. Things were volatile and tense, and the stage was quite literally set for a different kind of music-inspired movement.
“There was a feeling of change in the air, kindled by the knowledge that the present state of things was simply not acceptable,” said Roger Fisher, a Sky River attendee and, most notably, a founding member of the band Heart.
The festival took place in late summer on a raspberry farm in Sultan, Washington. Thousands of music fans (some paying, some allegedly not) gathered to watch an impressive lineup of performers such as Santana, the Grateful Dead and Big Mama Thornton.
It was a time when music was motivation, when drugs were freely available and when change seemed, if not probable, at least possible.
“The event alone gave us hope,” Fisher said. “To be there with all these people, getting rained on and getting muddy and celebrating being together in that spirit. It was just magical.”
This August 25 and 26, the Sky River Rock Festival will return to the small city of Sultan.
Fisher, who now lives in the Monroe area, supports the revival, calling it “sacred” for him and for others who attended the original.
There have been smaller versions and varied interpretations of the festival in the past, the most recent being Loggers Inn owner Leo Moreno’s 2016 Sky Valley Rock Festival.
A few hundred people crowded into Loggers Inn, a popular bar with a long history in Sultan, for music, barbecue, horseshoes and corn hole.
“I have been in the bar business now for about 11 years,” said Moreno. “I just enjoy things that make people happy.”
Moreno has been pushing to revive the full Sky River festival since at least 2014. “If you start small, things grow,” he said. “I want it to be something that people want to come to. There’s so many things to do in this town and nobody knows, because nobody comes to Sultan.”
In 2015, with encouragement from Moreno, a committee was formed to help bring back the Sky River Rock Festival.
T.J. Mohrbacher, the appointed head of the committee, discovered the location for the festival through social media: the Lauritzen Family Farm in Sultan. The 40-acre farm, owned by Lori and Fred Lauritzen, is just down the road from the original 1968 venue.
There will be two stages, food vendors and other activities, and the farm’s backdrop includes a stunning view of the Cascades. Bands booked to play include Whisky River, Helldorado, Palooka and The Staxx Brothers.
“It’s going to be all happy music, to keep everybody in a good mood,” Mohrbacher said. “It’s going to be the farm spirit. It’s going to be community-assisted and community-based.”
Since the announcement of the festival’s return, Lori Lauritzen said people have been coming out of the woodwork with memories, original ticket stubs and photos of the 1968 event. “It’s just growing. It’s getting crazy actually,” she said.
Mohrbacher has had a similar experience. “It’s been funny trying to promote this thing,” he said. “The buzz is already there before I even explain what’s going on.”
This year’s event is operating as a fundraiser for next year’s 50th anniversary Sky River Rock Festival, which will be an even bigger party.
Despite the decades between the two events, those involved are eager to try to recreate the original atmosphere. According to Mohrbacher, the event will pay homage to the first Sky River, but without all the drugs and naked people.
“We’re just trying to bring back the whole concept of community, peace and love,” Lauritzen said.
Jill Hatcher, who books the bands for the festival, described the upcoming event as “a music love fest.”
A little hippie-sounding? Absolutely. “That’s how it’s supposed to be,” Hatcher said. “That’s how I am. That’s how Lori is too.”
Without legendary bands like Santana and the Grateful Dead and without the true counterculture of the 1960s, it will be difficult to travel back in time to the first Sky River Rock Festival.
“It’ll never be the same as it was before, but the fact that we’re trying to do something really good in that vein is a good thing,” said Fisher. “All we can do is try.”
For more information, visit skyriverrockfestival.com.