Friday, July 12, 2013

Up Close and Personal with Reggae on the River’s General Manager, Justin Crellin By Shelah Moody

You never know who you will run into at Reggae on the River: activists and Joan Baez, Julia Butterfly Hill and actors Danny Glover and Leon have dropped into the biggest party in Northern California.

Reggae on the River started out as a grassroots festival 29 years ago as a benefit for the Mateel Community Center. The festival  went “Hollywood” for a few years glitterati showing up from all over the world and  tickets selling out at record speed. For the last five years, the Mateel Community Center has presented Reggae on the River at a smaller site. Benbow Lake State Recreation Area. This year, August 1-4, the Mateel Community Center proudly presents Reggae on the River at its original site at French’s Camp in Piercy, CA, with large scale acts such as Tarrus Riley, Morgan Heritage, Julian Marley, Nkulee Dube, the Meditations and more. Thousands of revelers descend on the festival every year for the chance to camp among the majestic California redwood trees and wade in the legendary Eel River.
                                   Tarrus Riley performing this year at ROTR

I recently spoke with Justin Crellin, General Manager for the Mateel Community Center and Reggae on the River.  Crellin, who hails from Virginia, relocated to Humboldt county and started out as festival equipment manager for Mateel Community Center and Reggae on the River in 1998.

Shelah Moody: What is the significance of the festival returning to its original site this year?

Justin Crellin: Going home to our original venue, French's Camp, which has always been the festival's spiritual home and where we've been working to get back do during our years of living in "exile" in Benbow (which served us well, but did not allow for the camping on site, nor other elements of the ROTR experience).

 SM: Reggae on the River, since its inception, has become so popular that it was even referenced on an episode of the cartoon "South Park." In your opinion, what has made the festival so popular over the years?

JC: The community most of all, but also the beauty of the natural environment where the festival is held.  In its inception, ROTR was one of the world's original celebrations of reggae music and reggae culture was a natural fit for the alternative community residing in the hills of southern Humboldt and northern Mendocino.

 SM: How did you go about choosing this year's eclectic lineup? I see that you've booked ROTR favorites such as Jade Steel and Nuklee Dube.

JC: We strive for balance and diversity.  Though it is mostly a reggae show and we try to represent the full diversity of reggae music (as much as possible anyway), we also like to spice things up with a handful of "world music" acts.  We also look to present a nice mix of both male and female performers, classic and emerging artists, touring NorCal favorites and artists who rarely (or have never) played in our region, acts supporting new albums (along with a few we haven't heard from in a while), etc.  For this homecoming year we also went back to our roots and booked an act (The Meditations), who was with us for the very first ROTR in 1984 and who will be marking their first time back at the festival since this very first year.  As for the specific artists you mentioned, we loved Nkulee Dube so much last year and got such a great crowd response on her that we broke our own unwritten rule of not repeating artists in back to back years and made an exception for her.  Jade Steel will be joining a host of other favorite vocalists and DJs from the Emerald Triangle and beyond in a track set showcase (with lots of special all-star guests) on Thursday, August 1st to kick things off for our early arrival ticket holders. 

SM: How long does it take to organize a large scale event such as Reggae on the River.

JC. All year (and then some)!  Meetings, etc. start ramp up in January and things get busier and busier as we approach showtime. 

SM: I've been attending ROTR since 1992, and I am particularly curious why people feel so comfortable walking around nude at the ROTR. :)

JC: I don't think nudity it is quite so prevalent these days as it once was, but ROTR is also a "free zone" for a lot of folks and a place where maybe they feel more comfortable to let go of their inhibitions to commune with nature and soak up the vibes.

 SM: What do you, personally enjoy about working with the festival?

JC: I like the nature of the work, the people I work with, and the feeling of being part of something much bigger than myself.  It is also fun to work with the artists and to be involved in creating the larger experience that keeps fans coming back to ROTR.  We do this for them (and for the Mateel Community Center and other local non-profit groups who fund raise through the event).  The fact that ROTR is produced by and benefits the non-profit Mateel Community Center is also something that sets it apart from a lot of other festivals.

SM: Can you tell us a little about the Mateel Community Center?

JC: We provide a variety of arts, education, cultural enrichment, youth and social service programs to the rural southern Humboldt community and also offer a meeting space and venue for rent.  For more info on all we do, please visit

 SM: Give us five fun facts about Reggae on the River.

JC: 1. It’s a Grassroots production- for and by the community!
2. This will be the first year back at French's Camp since 2005. 
3.  Our team mantra for the year is "Back to the Future"- as we look recreate the event on the model we used in the past, but in a new format for a new era of fans.
4.  We are keeping the numbers smaller than previous years at this venue (only 6,000 public tickets available) to make for a more intimate and family/ community friendly experience.
5.  It’s been called the "Best Place on Earth."  Come experience for yourself!

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