I have gone to every Gleason Fest since its inception in 2012, a year after Steve Gleason’s ALS diagnosis. Every year I watch it grow and feel a little different as it takes a few steps further away from the first Gleason Gras! West… one that was full of melancholy tears, happy reunions, and a very small and intimate crowd of friends and family who were eager to support the Gleasons. I have interviewed Kyle Gleason, Steve’s younger brother, in 2014 and he had expressed the initial intent behind the festival, but I often wondered what the true vision of the festival was. Was it meant to get this big? Was it meant to involve fans of bands that didn’t know Steve, his story, or the Gleason Family? When speaking with Kyle this year, he answered these questions for me without actually knowing it. I asked him to tell me what Gleason Fest is for him and his family, followed by one favorite memory from each year. This is what he had to say:
“It’s been such a pleasure to watch Gleason Fest evolve from an idea that John Blakesley and I had to an amazing day at the Lilac Bowl. He and I threw the idea of the Lilac Bowl around a few years ago but it wasn’t right to make the leap until this year. We’d grown to the right size, had the right team in place, the date was available, booked the talent that would fill it, and had the support of the community to make the day a success.
Gleason Fest is a huge coming together of family and friends for my family. I see my parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends from high school. I get to see and spend good time with my bro and his family. My kids get to play with their cousin, Rivers. It’s a celebration of love for us.
Most memorable moment…that’s a tough one.
Year one, probably the set Hey! Is for Horses played as it got dark.
Year two, definitely Matt Blaine dancing with a bucket on his head while Blue Scholars was playing. I know there’s video footage of that moment somewhere.
Year four, definitely watching the sisters from Rising Appalachia, Leah and Chloe Smith, flirt with Bruzzie after their set.
This year, I would say getting to feed the guys from Portugal. The Man (who are from Alasaka), the smoked wild Alaskan salmon that I had caught this summer.”
After hearing Kyle’s reflections, I marinated on my own experiences of Gleason Fest. It has always brought many former Gonzaga Prep high school friends, but this year brought a few more than usual. Perhaps it was the band selection, the location change, the build up with his documentary, Gleason, being released or just that their personal schedules allowed for it, but it was great to see so many familiar faces supporting Steve, his family, and his cause.
With great sets from Hey! is for Horses, made up of mostly Gonzaga Prep alumni and a band Steve personally made sure to have on the docket; Duke Evers, a new favorite I had recently discovered at Elkfest this year; Delbert, another band with Gonzaga Prep alumni and songs that many of us used to belt out in our first vehicles with windows down heading to and from high school and high school games; and Pickwick, an all time favorite local band (Seattle side) I have photographed about 4 or 5 times and finally got to sit down with for a Feed Me A Line collaboration, the sunny day with a slight breeze proved to be, according to most attendees that I had spoken with, the best Gleason Fest yet.
Looking back over the last five years, Lukas Nelson and POTR really stood out as a headliner because they really understood why they were there; the cause; Steve’s story. Kyle’s memory of that year was my favorite as well; Nelson dedicated Just Breathe to Gleason and while they played that song, there were tears falling down the cheeks of Gleason’s close family and friends. It wasn’t about their performance that night for them. They were there for the community… for the friends and family of Steve.
Portugal. The Man had the same demeanor about them. They put on a great show, but the bassist, Zach Carothers, thanked the crowd multiple times for coming out and showing support of the cause. “It’s amazing to be able to do what we love, but when we are able to do what we love and know that it’s for a good cause, there’s nothing like it. That’s why we do this.”
They were incredibly pleasant backstage; fun guys willing to try their hand at my interview series, Feed Me A Line, and all were easy to converse with. During their set, nostalgia filled the air as they slipped from “People Say” into Oasis’ “Don’t Turn Back In Anger” – a song that was a big part of many of our adolescences from high school and college days. A handful of the crowd I spoke to were long time fans of Portugal. the Man and so excited to be able to see them in such a enjoyable venue. To finish up their encore, they had everybody singing “Hey Jude” in a cappella fashion. It was a beautiful closure to a beautifully nostalgic evening.