Gleason Fest 2014: Way More than Music…

No White Flags Steve

No White Flags

“Awesome Ain’t Easy!” – Steve Gleason

If you haven’t heard of Gleason Fest yet, take notice. The backstory, the inspiration, the cause, the music, and the love… it’s not to be taken lightly, and it’s definitely not to be missed. In 2011, at the age of 33, Steve GleasonSpokane native and former member of the New Orleans Saints, was diagnosed with ALS. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Amyotrophic, literally means, “no muscle nourishment.” Over time, patients with ALS lose the ability to move, to speak, and ultimately, to breathe. Most individuals pass away within the first five years of their diagnosis. It is an intense disease, with no known cause, no cure, and essentially, no treatment. Steve’s story is an incredibly inspiring one that has already been told so beautifully, so I won’t get into it here, but I strongly encourage you watch any or all of Team Gleason’s videos starting with this one.

Seeing the impact he and Team Gleason have had in the ALS community and far beyond gives me so much hope for this world. His latest venture was upping the ante in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to… the NAKED ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. You have to love his sense of humor and adventurous side.

One day, Steve sat down with his wife, Michel, and his younger brother, Kyle, and they brainstormed – how do we make this a positive thing? What are we really into? They arrived at two main loves – Travel and Music.  So they came up with the idea to create a music fundraiser that would raise money for Team Gleason and their mission. The original Gleason Gras! began in New Orleans in 2011, but with Steve growing up in Spokane, there were many people back home who didn’t have the opportunity to see Steve, serve or get involved.  So Team Gleason decided to bring Steve and the festival home…Gleason Gras! West was born. It was an emotional two days as people who had been wanting to get involved were finally able to step up and give back to the Gleason family and give back to Spokane. For some, it was the first time they had seen Steve since school days. It was the second year after his diagnosis, the disease was quickly progressing, and no one knew what the future held for him.

In speaking with Kyle, I had three questions that I really wanted answered:

What is the backstory of Gleason Gras (the original New Orleans festival) and Gleason Fest (formerly known as Gleason Gras! West)?

The concept is very much attributed to Evan Volk and his idea to make it a block party style event. The thing with this though…we all want to make it as much about Spokane as possible. We’ve created shirts and logos that are identifiable to Spokane. The intention isn’t to make it about my brother, but rather to make it a community event that everyone will come out to and know that it’s for a good cause. We have had a lot of people in the northwest wanting to help, and this is a really cool way for them to give back and for our family to give back to Spokane. The price point is amazing for the bands we bring in, and it’s a grassroots event that the whole city can love, and I think that’s happening. Plus, we get to connect with our friends and family and meet some of our supporters.

How was Gleason Fest 2013 different from Gleason Gras! West 2012, and what do you hope to see come out of Gleason Fest 2014?

Well, for 2013 we condensed it to one full day of music, just because it would focus the energy better. The experience as a whole…we were a little further out in front of the event last year, which was helpful. That first year, we had the idea, I called around Spokane to see if anyone would take it on, and Matt Blaine said that John Blakesley was my guy. I called him, he said “yes,” and took the event and put it on his shoulders. It was a lot to do in a little amount of time, but he took that on. Last year (and this year), all of the people were already in place, so that made it much less frantic, and we had some fluidity and traction to work with.

This year we want more bands, a bigger crowd…at this point, we have kind of cemented ourselves into the fabric of the city…the city has embraced us, and we would love to grow the event, but grow it in a controlled manner. Last year we pushed our capacity limit by about 8pm. This year, we would like to see it pushed by, say 3:30 in the afternoon. We wanted to be able to bring in a slightly bigger national band and also have a strong display of regional music – Seattle, Boise, Portland, Spokane and everywhere in between, and we have definitely done that this year with Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real as our headliner, Old Man Canyon from Vancouver, BC, Tango Alpha Tango from Portland, and The Grizzled Mighty from Seattle among others.  This way, John, (co-founder of Music Northwest Group), would be able to book bands and bring them back to play another event or venue which would continue building Spokane’s music scene…another way for us to give back.

We also want to keep it a family event. This is REALLY important to us to keep it that way. We want people to be able to come out, regardless of their “oh I have kids,” scenario; and not only that, but this year, we want to have even more emphasis on things for kids to do…really emphasize the family aspect. It’s a very unique dynamic when you have an all ages event. It creates a cool dynamic that’s rare to having everyone celebrating in one place.

How did Steve feel about the event last year?

We hadn’t really debriefed the experience. He left Sunday after the fest and road tripped back to NOLA, but I know he had a great time. He enjoyed what music he could, but he spent a lot of time greeting people, and didn’t get to watch as much of the shows as he did in 2012. There were also fewer people that year, and last year he was much less capable of communication, which makes every interaction that much longer…and slightly more awkward. If he were to say “hi” to everyone, it would take all day…another reality of ALS and how limiting it is…how much longer it takes to interact and communicate with others.

So, why is IRW excited to head out to Gleason Fest this Saturday, August 23rd on the downtown streets of Spokane at Division and Main?  Because this is a grassroots, indie music festival with some great acts this year.  I’m personally looking forward to seeing Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real headline.  When I first met Lukas at Summer Meltdown, I had no idea that Willie Nelson was his father.  Of course I pretended I knew, for lack of looking like an idiot, but I really had no clue.  We just had an instant soul connection that made us engage in a conversation, and it wasn’t until some older crew members came up to him to tell him what big fans of his father’s they were that I asked myself “who could his father possibly be?”  I then put four and four together with his last name, his sound, twangy Southern dialect, the age of the gentlemen that approached him and came up with Willie Nelson.  It was later confirmed in our conversation.

Lukas Nelson teaching Micah Kumakura how to "golf."

Lukas Nelson teaching Micah Kumakura how to “golf.”

In the last two years I have seen four of Lukas and POTR’s shows, and their live show is truly amazing.  The structure of the headlining tours reflected a Neil Young show I had seen years before, in that the first half was just Lukas playing an acoustic set and then the POTR guys jumped in for the second half.  I brought that up later to Lukas, and he told me that is actually where the arrangement came from.  Neil has become quite the mentor to Lukas, and they have even written a song together that I had the privilege of seeing performed at Neil’s “Psychadelic Pill” concert not even a month later.  It’s called “A Singer Without A Song,” although when he told me about it, it was fresh enough that they had never actually decided on a title, and Lukas had referred to it as “A Song She’s Livin’.”  Neil had been performing it with Crazy Horse on the tour, although they have yet to know if he’s planning on putting it on an album or not.

Between teaching my 2 year-old son how to play golf on a PS2, giving him his own set of ‘real drumsticks,’ taking us to dinner, giving us a tour of their bus, in-depth and profound emails about life, and what felt like our own private shows during the few sound checks we’ve been invited to sit in on, Lukas and his brothers have always welcomed us in with the most genuine hugs and incredible tunes.  Spokane is going to love them.

This year’s Gleason Fest Lineup is:

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real

Old Man Canyon

The Grizzled Mighty

Tango Alpha Tango

Hey! Is for Horses

Pine League

Mama Doll

The Rustics

Friends, families and anyone interested in supporting The Gleason Initiative Foundation are encouraged to come enjoy local food vendors, beer garden, special guest appearances and live music.  The festival is out to rally with Steve and continue to support his mission.  If you are moved by this story, you can also give by going to Gleason Fest First Giving site where one-hundred percent of your donations go to the foundation.



Here is a mini-gallery of last year’s Gleason Fest.


  1. matt blaine says

    Nice work megan, can’t wait to see you.

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  1. […] NELSON & PROMISE OF THE REAL: These men…well, I didn’t lie in the preview…Spokane loved them.  They were immediately reeled in with the beginning notes of the first […]

  2. […] Gras! West 2012 – Emily Wells Gleason Fest 2013 – Blue Scholars Gleason Fest 2014 – Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real Gleason Fest 2015 – Nahko and Medicine for the […]

  3. […] 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? […]

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