Mental Health, Music Culture, & Community Coalesce At Magical Park City Song Summit 2023 [B.Getz on L4LM]

photo: Jay Blakesberg

originally published on Live For Live Music

Only in its second year, Park City Song Summit is well on the way to redefining what’s possible for festival nation; cross-pollinating a multi-day music event with a mental health/recovery/wellness conference, all the while providing a mighty good time. Held from September 7th–9th, 2023 and tucked into the glorious environs of Park City, UT’s sprawling Canyons Village campus, Park City Song Summit once again unveiled a meticulously curated assembly of world-class musicians, songwriters, artisans, leaders, teachers, journalists, and local talent to offer a unicorn experience that sets it apart from the music festival status quo.

By day, fans attended an assortment of “Summit Labs” and “Songwriter Rounds“, in essence roundtable panel conversations that soaked in the terrific tales of heroes and troubadours of yesteryear, today, and the future. Headlined by Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros featuring The Wolfpack, Chuck D & Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Danielle Ponder, a Celisse-helmed Stevie Wonder tribute, King Canyon‘s debut performance, and an Eric Krasno & Friends superjam, the music stages were glowingly ablaze deep into the Wasatch mountain nights.

While the PCSS engine may be powered by the plethora of eclectic music on display, there’s an undeniable immediacy and potency to the daytime discussions, be they labs, songwriter rounds, or live podcast tapings. By removing shame from discussions of mental health, addiction/recovery, and encouraging overall self-care and personal improvement, the event stands in a league of its own with regard to essential human services juxtaposed with top-tier collaboration and sky’s-the-limit creativity.


Park City Song Summit 2023 Recap


The whole shebang is the brainchild of local musician/activist Ben Anderson, a longtime Deadhead in recovery who dreamt up this convergence, and then assembled a capable team of go-getters to manifest this vision. Festivities kicked off Wednesday, September 6th with a grandiose opening night gala dinner, featuring a stirring solo performance by Lukas Nelson.

Starting on Thursday morning, three straight days and nights were jam-packed for fans of all stripes who were treated to a multi-hued menu of terrific programming that leaned into progressive ideals and the concepts of community, awareness, allyship, empathy, and forgiveness. There was a decided spotlight on wellness: a multi-faceted wellness lounge for proper self-care, recovery meetings and support gatherings, oxygen bar, hydration stations, and b12 shots courtesy of AmberHealth, low-intensity hikes, spa pampering, plus numerous other intangibles.

A sweet new edition to the staggering amount of options was a small stage for local artists—like Salt Lake City rabble-rouser Talia Keys—nestled in the Canyons courtyard. I quite enjoyed the low-volume jams in the blazing sun, an authentic midday musical detour that broke up some of the lab sessions during afternoons.

With copious amounts of engaging, engrossing, and thought-provoking conversations taking place each day, it was impossible to sample all there was to offer. The same can be said for the kaleidoscopic musical options that spun out of these dialogs, onto the stages, and into the nightclubs. As such, here is a distilled selection of a few of our favorite things from Park City Song Summit 2023.


Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros ft. The Wolfpack

Grateful Dead fever was alive and well all weekend long, including a colorful storytime chat with Jerry Garcia’s right-hand man Steve Parish and his longtime collaborator, George Michalski. The pair regaled Deadheads with psychedelic adventures of days gone by, always with a humorous twist. Park City Song Summit welcomed back for the second straight year GD photographer extraordinaire Jay Blakesberg, the legendary lensman and curator offering his memorable “Grateful Dead Walking Tour” and a staggering collection of music culture photos to the Canyons courtyard.


Bob Weir & Wolf Bros ft. The Wolf Pack – “Terrapin Station” – 9/8/23

[Video: Gunnar Hanson]

But the highlight for many who treasure all things Grateful Dead was the return of the psychedelic cowboy Bobby Weir, this time bringing his venerable Wolf Bros along with The Wolfpack, an extended ensemble of horns and strings. A lengthy journey in song under an enchanting Utah night sky, Weir and his cohorts delivered an absolutely astounding performance that ran the gamut of the GD songbook, plus an apropos “Salt Lake City”. Special guests included 91-year-old badass “Ramblin’” Jack Elliot on Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, soulful vocalist Brittney Spencer on a serene “Looks Like Rain”, and songwriter supreme J.D. Souther for Eagles‘ “Heartache Tonight”.


Bob Weir & Wolf Bros ft. The Wolfpack, Brittney Spencer – “Looks Like Rain” – 9/8/23

[Video: Gunnar Hanson]

This was nothing short of a top-shelf serving of the proverbial goods. The string and horn sections each provided extraordinary layers of nuance and beauty. A pristine, late-career evening onstage, Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros unfurled one of the finest performances I’ve been privileged to enjoy across 31 years of Dead-oriented show-goin’.

Highlights for this writer begin with a celestial arrangement and gripping reading of the ever-rare complete “Weather Report Suite” > “Let It Grow”. Equally translucent was a late-set, fully-fleshed out Terrapin Station suite: “Lady With a Fan” > “Terrapin Station” > “At A Siding” > “Terrapin Flyer”, a sublime serenade that tugged at my eye ducts and heartstrings. “Friend of the Devil” took the people all the way out to the prairie; Workingman’s Dead chestnut “New Speedway Boogie” boasted a groove to its gallop, 53 years since “in the heat of the sun, a man died of cold”. And an appropriately rendered “Wharf Rat” offered testimony and sanctuary for the heads who themselves persevered through the darkness and today live to defiantly tell the tale.


Bob Weir & Wolf Bros ft. The Wolfpack – “Weather Report Suite” – 9/8/23

[Video: Gunnar Hanson]

Celisse – Solo Set & Stevie Wonder Tribute

Wailin’ on guitar with a bluesy howl just like her heroine Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Celisse delivered a mighty-strong showing as Friday’s evening’s opening act for Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros. Like the badass she’s proven to be time and again, Celisse commanded the stage with confidence and verve. She was backed by a killer duo rockin’ out her original cuts, along with beloved soul covers like “Chain of Fools”. Folks were seemingly just arriving at this peculiarly placed stage set alongside the ski slopes, while she performed many fans were just getting acquainted with the venue situation. At times, one couldn’t help but wish that the hoards of arriving attendees were more attuned to Celisse’s undeniable onstage electricity, however those of us already in the know, our cups were certainly filled to the brim.



Late Friday night at the OP Rockwell in downtown Park City, Celisse curated and facilitated a magical multi-artist tribute to Stevie Wonder that paired beautifully in concert with the Stevie Summit Lab one day earlier. With bassist Solomon Dorsey acting as a masterful musical director, Celisse led a youthful brigade of women and men to serenade Stevie’s greatness for two solid hours. The parade of singers honoring Stevie was backed by MD Dorsey, guitarist Jeremy Most, drummer Josh Blaylock, plus NOLA-based sax virtuoso Brad Walker & The Hornstars (which included New Orleans trumpet prodigy John Michael Bradford).


Celisse’s own stompin’ version of “Higher Ground” was an early set barnburner, before she ceded center stage to the cavalcade of bright stars she’d invited to join in on the funk. Vocalist Joy Oladokun’s rendition of “As”, hands down my favorite Stevie song of all time (I borrowed the lyrics for my wedding vows just last year), was predictably mesmerizing. Another extraordinary singer, Ruby Amanfu delivered a steamy “Maybe Your Baby”, followed by a stirring “Fall in Love Forever”. Amanfu’s husband Sam Ashworth returned the favor by crooning “Golden Lady” to Ruby seated side stage, a very touching scene. Returning to PCSS for the second year, Devon Gilfillian made a number of new fans once again, especially with his kinetic “Too High”, about halfway through the show.




Then came time for the star power, first in the form of Cuban sensation Cimafunk, who strutted, peacock’d, and shimmy’d his sexy way through “Isn’t She Lovely”, complete with a searing scat that satiated the masses. Paul Janeway, vocalist from St. Paul & The Broken Bones, covered the heart-filling “All I Do” with a jovial aplomb.

All elegance and intoxicating energy, vocalist Danielle Ponder soon assumed the role of Chaka Khan, clad in a magnificent dress and so much swag it barely fit in the room, let alone on this cramped stage. She chose “Tell Me Something Good”, the timeless Rufus hit that was penned by none other than Stevie Wonder. Naturally, Ponder made it her own, inhabiting the cut just as she had Radiohead’s “Creep” a day earlier back at Canyons Village. To bring it on home, Celisse retook center stage (proudly several beverages deep) and reeled off a bombastic, funktastic “I Wish”, whipping revelers into a frenzied finale as the clock approached 1 a.m., for all intents and purposes a “late night throwdown” for Utah standards.


Songs In The Key Of Life: Songwriting Of Stevie Wonder

In one of the more captivating and illuminating labs across both years of this event, guitarist/vocalist Celisse and singer/songwriter/ex-public defender Danielle Ponder linked up with writer/sociologist/professor Tressie McMillan Cottom for an engrossing discussion on the seismic impact of the iconic Stevie Wonder. The dialogue was personal, intimate, and inspired, as each woman dug into their memory banks for candid stories and reflections on their relationship with Stevie’s music and message. They expounded on Wonder’s peerless solo album run through the 1970s, as well as his activism: singing truth to power and the social/political waves he unabashedly created through remarkable artistry and unwavering ideals. On this day I learned a phenomenal factoid: Stevie Wonder’s omnipresent, exalting version of “Happy Birthday” (found on Hotter Than July) was really a protest song, with Stevie demanding a national holiday honoring the birthday of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Related: A Day In Your Celebration: How Stevie Wonder Helped Establish MLK Day As A National Holiday

Hip-Hop: The First 50 Years

The Forum Tent outside in the vibrant courtyard was host to numerous magnificent conversations all weekend long. Among my personal top sessions was a deep dive on the origins of hip-hop, from the perspective of pioneers Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of Run DMC, and the iconic Chuck D of Public Enemy. The pair, who performed together later that night for the very first time, took turns regaling a capacity crowd with colorful, detailed reflections on their earliest experiences with hip-hop, forays into writing rhymes, DJing, and performing nascent rap bars as young emcees.

Expertly moderated by David Manheim of Dopey Podcast fame—a quintessential New Yorker himself—DMC and Chuck D unpacked their individual pathways to the mic, and later onward to hip-hop superstardom. The detailed memories unearthed seemed to manifest the inner child in these esteemed elder statesmen of emceeing. DMC was particularly animated throughout this thrilling hour of “remember when’s”, reeling off classic verse after verse from pioneers who inspired him on primordial cassette tapes from the late ’70s through the Golden Era, much to the delight of Chuck D, who repeatedly remarked how impressed he was with McDaniels’ euphoric recollections.


Working Songwriter Podcast: Technology And Songwriting With King Canyon

Musicians Eric Krasno (guitar), Otis McDonald (drums), and Mike Chiavaro (bass) joined Joe Pug (Working Songwriter Podcast) to discuss the conception and execution of their new project King Canyon. This dreamy, psychedelic, groove-focused group came together remotely during the pandemic, with its entire album manifested through digitally trading countless tracks and ideas until the trio distilled the parts into songs, and eventually, a cohesive document. Pug piloted an informative discussion on how the process mutated from a traditional recording studio to individual tracking sessions in different parts of the country.

That very same evening, downtown at local nightspot OP Rockwell, Kraz, McDonald, and Chiavaro took the stage as King Canyon for their first live performance. They added organist Wil Blades, a longtime collaborator of Otis and Krasno, as well as guitarist Jeremy Most into the fold for a phenomenal showing of fleshed-out numbers from the band’s new self-titled debut.

Two nights later, to close out PCSS 2023 Krasno would assemble an all-star NOLA-centric funk band including Ivan Neville and Tony Hall (Dumpstaphunk), Raymond Weber, Anders Osborne, and Brad Walker & The Hornstars, with a special guest boomshot from Matisyahu. Even festival producer Ben Anderson got in on the fun, belting out “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with the band cookin’ behind him, already something of a tradition only two years into this experiment.



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Eric Krasno Plus One: Matisyahu

Switching roles from guest to host, Eric Krasno’s Plus One podcast was set up for a unique live onsite taping featuring one-time Kraz collaborator Matisyahu. For an hour, Kraz led Matis through his years and career, driving the wayback machine with comfort and humor as the Jewish reggae superstar told his unicorn story from youthful seeker on Phish tour, to a total Hasidic immersion into the depths of devotion with Chabad, and eventually evolving into a form of religious deconstruction that informs his current day covenant with Creator. This emotional path was paced by a nuanced discussion of Matisyahu music that soundtracked the multi-layered journey he revisited with candor and grace. Krasno and Matisyahu also joyfully reminisced about their shared days and sessions making magic in Brooklyn over a dozen years ago.



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Porch Talkin’ The Blues

Returning favorites Celisse and Adia Victoria, plus poet Caroline Randall Williams, blessed up assembled empathetic souls with a poignant, pragmatic discussion speaking on lived and learned experiences with the blues, from the perspective of women of color, and as performing artists in 2023. Mixing societal hard truths with comedic levity, the space allowed the women to get real with what was a primarily Caucasian, affluent audience, addressing white supremacy, patriarchal violence, and other transparent tales of triumph, trial, and tribulation. Celisse stunned many in the audience with seminal passages from Maya Angelou and the lyrics of Nina Simone. Later came a choreographed performance of poetry that blended “blues thought, prose, and the bodies of Southern Black women.”


Havana Funk Experience: Passing The Torch To The Next Generation Of Jazz & Funk Artists

On the heels of a spirited conversation between red-hot Cuban rockstar Cimafunk and New Orleans royalty Ivan Neville came a look toward the future of their respective music traditions. Moderated by Cimafunk manager Collin Laverty—an expert on American-Cuban artistic exchanges—students from the Trombone Shorty Foundation and music education programs in Havana, Cuba and New Orleans, LA unpacked their experiences in Black American Music and performed a few numbers in the brass band style.


Other contributors to the youth’s enlightening dialog included Bill Taylor, Founding Executive Director of the Trombone Shorty Foundation. These bright stars of tomorrow reflected on their individual journeys into the music culture in NOLA and Havana. Together they traded stories and memories of traveling to meet other similarly talented young people, communicating and learning through international music traditions that they would then take home and spread to their peers.

The Birth Of A Culture: Grandmaster Flash

After a rousing introduction from Dopey Podcast general and self-confessed rap Stan, David Manheim, a certified icon stepped onto the stage and assumed his throne atop the ones n’ twos. What followed was an hour-long, full-fledged first-hand education in the mechanics and history of hip-hop turntablism and production. Teaching this course was a progenitor of the art form Grandmaster Flash, who laid the foundation for a whole genre, generation, and movement with his pioneering “Quik Mix Theory” at the dawn of the Reagan era.



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A post shared by Chuck D 🎤 (@mrchuckd_pe)

Taking a hushed, enraptured tent back to his parents’ crib in the Bronx, inside the “brown-box” turntable in the living room, sneakin’ around playing with his father’s vinyl records, Flash was flashing back with a deliberate cadence and detailed reflections. Then came a tremendous tutorial on the step-by-step advent and development of his influential craft. Spying DMC in the audience, moderator Manheim called a late set audible, requesting that the Hollis, Queens legendary emcee kick a fresh rhyme over a Grandmaster Flash beat, a tandem we soon learned had not yet ever happened. The celebrated DJ swiftly selected a classic Billy Squier break, DMC got busy on the chrome microphone like only he can, and in a Park City instant, hip-hop history was made in the flesh, live and direct.

Check out a gallery of images from Park City Song Summit 2023 courtesy of photographer Jay Blakesberg.

words: B.Getz


Park City Song Summit | Various Venues | Park City, UT | 9/7/23 – 9/9/23 | Photos: Jay Blakesberg