Bob Witte experienced a double whammy of agony during the spring of 2020. The president of the board of directors of the Festival at Sandpoint learned that the musical event of North Idaho would be scrapped due to COVID-19. Just after Witte digested that the event and live entertainment would be on a lengthy hiatus, the venerable singer-songwriter John Prine succumbed to the coronavirus.
“All of that was just awful,” Witte said. “It was the weirdest and most dreadful spring and summer. Losing John Prine is just terrible. Seeing John Prine perform and meeting him when he played our festival in 1998 is the highlight of my Festival at Sandpoint experiences. Looking back at that, it was the funnest afternoon ever.”
The iconic folkie is gone, but the Festival at Sandpoint, which debuted in 1983, is back. Recording artists, food and camaraderie are on tap through Aug. 8. “It’s amazing,” Witte said while calling from his Sandpoint office. “It’s absolutely huge to pull this off again. It was devastating not being able to put on the festival last year, but we’re back with live entertainment. We put together a well-rounded lineup.”
The array of talent is certainly eclectic. Country star Jake Owen, who will perform Friday, is the lone sold-out show so far. Austin singer-songwriter Shakey Graves, who mixes folk, blues and rock, will perform Saturday. Veteran bluesman Keb’ Mo’ will headline Sunday. The Empress of Soul, Gladys Knight, is slated for Aug. 5. Alt-rockers Young the Giant will make its Sandpoint debut Aug. 6. Classic rockers REO Speedwagon is set for Aug. 7. “Music From the Movies” will be delivered Aug. 8.
Gospel/soul group St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ singer Paul Janeway is looking forward to the band’s debut, which was Thursday. “I love performing in beautiful places,” Janeway said while calling from Birmingham, Alabama. “There’s a lot of beauty here in Alabama. I’ve seen it all here. But have I seen the beauty in Idaho? Not so much.
“It’s so appealing for bands to play in an environment like Sandpoint. It certainly beats playing in a little box with a concrete floor. We’ll get out there early and go for a hike, and we have some bass fisherman in the band. Maybe there will be time to fish in the lake. We can’t wait to get out and play new songs for fans and experience the beauty of Sandpoint.”
Musicians who trek to the festival sometimes make specific nature requests. “I remember picking up George Thorogood (in 2017), who is a big fan of the great outdoors,” Witte recalled. “He asked me to take him to see where the wolves are. He asked if I could find some bears and moose. It’s beautiful here, and sometimes you’ll hear recording artists say it from the stage.”
KPND program director Marie McCallister, who named Counting Crows as her favorite Festival at Sandpoint experience, remembers how overwhelmed the band’s frontman, Adam Duritz, was with the scenery during a 2012 performance. “Adam said, “This place is beautiful,” McCallister said. “If I knew it was this beautiful, we wouldn’t have stayed in Spokane.”
Sounds about right since during a recent interview, Duritz said that his band, which will perform Aug. 28 at the Pavilion at Riverfront, often avoids staying in the cities they play in favor of the idyllic countryside. When the Counting Crows performed in Spokane in July of 2017, the group spent a few days relaxing in Coeur d’Alene.
Just about all of the bases have been touched by the Festival at Sandpoint. That’s not just from a sonic standpoint. There will be more space than in prior festivals. Capacity is 4,000, which is less than in the past. “We want to make it as safe and enjoyable as possible,” Witte said. “We’re going to have sanitation stations.
“There will be more room since we’ll only sell so many tickets. We did our research to see how to make this as safe as possible. We’re going cashless. We’re using the Noble app. You can pay and order your food before you even get to the festival, and all you have to do is pick up your order when you receive a message that your food is ready.”
Mexican, Greek, Italian and gourmet potatoes are part of the fare. The typical festival grub, burgers, pizza and fries, is also on the menu. Fans can still pack their own food and beverage. “That includes alcohol,” Witte said. “You can bring in beer growlers and wine bottles. We will not allow beer bottles. We can’t have broken glass on the field.”
Witte, who is also the general manager of Blue Sky Broadcasting, which owns KPND, is excited about recording artists returning to his radio station. “It’s been so long since we had anyone in,” Witte said. “It’s been a year and a half. Last week, we had a local concert, and the first band to come back in was Heels to the Hardwood. We’re so glad to have concerts again and guests in our station. We all just want normalcy or something close to it after experiencing all that we went through in 2020.
“I can’t wait to see people’s faces walking in here since they haven’t been here in two years. There is nothing like our setting with the lake. It’s just beautiful here. And it’s always fun to hear what the recording artists say. I remember when the Barenaked Ladies played here (in 2012), and they said, ‘I can’t believe we’ve never been here, and we’re Canadian. This is amazing.’ It really is a special place, and the greatest thing is that we’re back.”
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