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Strawberry Music Festival Serves Up Eclectic Fare  - 2004-09-22

Since it's inception in the early-1980s, the Strawberry Music Festival has become one of the foremost eclectic festivals in the country. It's also become a regular destination for the thousands of music fans who pack up their camping gear, and head to the Sierra Mountains in Northern California, for holiday weekends in May and September. "Strawberry-ians" make the trek to bask in the beautiful scenery, greet old friends, and enjoy four days of wonderful music.

The Blind Boys from Alabama's Sunday night performance closed out the September 2004 edition of the Strawberry Music Festival. The festival officially began the previous Thursday morning when a line of cars and campers several kilometers long arrived at Camp Mather, a campground owned and operated by the city of San Francisco. Some of the attendees this year started coming to the festival as children. Now, they're bringing their own children.

Located about 300 kilometers from San Francisco, Camp Mather consists of 140 hectares of mountains, meadows, lakes and pine forests, making it a prime spot to spend the weekend, with or without live musical performances by Mark O'Connor's Hot Swing Trio, The Laura Love Band, and Guy Clark.

One thing that makes Strawberry stand out from the hundreds of other music festivals held throughout the United States is "Strawberry Hog Radio," the festival radio station. "Hog Radio" broadcasts 24 hours a day during the festival, airing not just the music sets on the main stage and workshops, but also filling other hours with songs recorded at previous Strawberry Music Festivals.

This is the Strawberry Hog, and as you walk out of the meadow, we remind you to take all of your belongings, and maybe a piece of garbage from your neighbor as well. And if you're back at the campground, hey it's a Saturday night at Strawberry! There is nothing better. This is why we were put here on this planet, I believe, to enjoy music like this. We have music for you all night long. Right now, we roll back into the Hog memory banks for one of our favorite folks who comes up to Strawberry, with many incarnations. At this point, she showed up with a band called 'Spyboy.' Here's Emmylou Harris on the Strawberry Hog.

Afternoons at the Strawberry Music Festival are made special by the workshop performances. These workshops give festivalgoers a chance to watch the mainstage performers in an informal setting. On Saturday afternoon, Martin Sexton sang and answered questions about his songs.

"So my boy is five-years-old, and one of his favorite songs is 'The Beast in Me,'" said one fan. "And I was just wondering what was the time and place where you put that song together."

"Well, I had just come back from another trip to, I'm sure one of all our favorite cities: Los Angeles," Sexton replied. "And whenever I'm in Los Angeles, I find that it's a city that polarizes me. I am either wanting to go to church and pray and get down on the knee and thank God for blessings, or I'm wanting to go to the bad section of town and get into some trouble. So, I thought I'd write a song about L.A., and how it brings out the very best, and the beast in me."

Martin Sexton knows his fans enjoy his live shows as much as they enjoy his studio recordings. So, he records almost every performance, and offers them for sale to the audience. They are duplicated on the spot, allowing fans pick up their copy minutes after the show is over. At Strawberry, audience members could purchase both Martin's workshop and mainstage performances. Many purchased both, along with copies of his studio albums. "It's proven to be a really wonderful means of spreading music around, getting music into people's hands who might not already have it," Mark Sexton said. "It's total instant gratification."

"And it makes a better keepsake than just a T-shirt saying you were at the festival," said the show host.

"Exactly. I think people like to take home a piece of the festival, or the show, or the even that they were at," added Sexton. "And then they can say 'Hey! That's me screaming in the left speaker there after that phrase, you know, after he does that cool thing with his voice. That's me yelling.'" After 23 years, Strawberry has become a model of what a music festival should be. That explains why these festivals often sell out months before the performers are announced. Returning fans said they know they'll always find top flight musical acts, a gorgeous setting, and smiles on the faces of fans, staff and musicians like Martin Sexton on the Strawberry Festival mainstage.