WinterWonderGrass: Making friends, digging the scene

Garrett Bethmann
Tahoe Onstage writer Garrett Bethmann makes new friends during Day 2 at WinterWonderGrass.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Larry Sabo

What was great about waking up on Saturday morning after the first day of WinterWonderGrass was that there were still two days left of beer, skiing and bluegrass. Nothing fills up your morning cup of soul coffee better than knowing what great times are ahead and the second day celebrating life in Squaw Valley was another treat.

Walking around the grounds just as the first notes of music were emanating from the Pickin’ Perch, Jamboree Tent and the newly minted Soapbox Stage, I had to take a second and appreciate the importance of community in the whole WinterWonderGrass experience. Friday, I had come to the festival on my own without knowing a soul, yet by the ways of the universe I had met several people who were in my same position within half an hour and we became a fun-loving gang with a group from Santa Barbara sharing suds and dancing to the music for two days and nights (small world: one new friend had grown up 30 minutes from my home in rural Maryland and was cousins with friends from high school and another attended high school in Virginia right next to my college).

WinterWonderGrass Day 2I had been alone walking into those gates but I’ve walked out with a new community of friends, and there are lots of different groups of people who unite under the WinterWonderGrass banner. Ski bums with goggle tans using the festival as the ultimate Apres Ski party, hippies following their favorite band around on tour as they make a stop at Squaw, families reuniting for a weekend of great music. There are also the photographers and writers covering the event who see each other at all the different festivals they attend and the artists who finally get to hang out and play with one another after months of hitting the road (members of Gipsy Moon, Good Time Travelers and Elephant Revival could be seen commiserating in the VIP area and Paige Anderson had stayed the night to catch the shows after her band’s performance on Friday).

To top it off, founder and brains of the whole operation Scott Stoughton could be seen walking around smiling and talking to fans and crew alike checking in to see how the weekend was going and sneaking a peek at some of his favorite artists. In two years WinterWonderGrass has brought together a tight knit community of people that all fit together beautifully in their different colors.

The music was on point from the very start of the day, thanks in part to sets from artists who had seen some action the previous day. Gipsy Moon tore up the Pickin’ Perch with two performances after holding down the Jamboree Tent on Friday. Gipsy Moon’s Silas Herman (mandolin, guitar, vocals) Mackenzie Page (guitar, tenor banjo, vocals), Matt Cantor (bass, vocals), and Andrew Conley (cello) just hit you right where it feels good and their brand of hard-charging folk that incorporates elements of Celtic ballads and Latin rhythms kept people on their toes figuratively and literally. Herman was particularly fiery picking on his mandolin and he approached his solos with heavy-metal intensity. Talking with Page afterwards, she revealed the band has plans for a new album in May and one should look for Gipsy Moon to grace the main stage next year because it is on the up and up.

On the opposite side of the festival, Pete Kartsounes (guitar) and Michael Kirkpatrick (mandolin) of The Good Time Travelers lit up the Jamboree Tent with two performances of their own. Despite having only two people on stage they made enough noise for four and vibed off each other’s playing like they were each other’s biggest fans, putting together a rollicking, jammed-out version of Tim O’ Brien and Darrell Scott’s “Walk Beside Me.”

WinterWonderGrass Day 2Later in the evening Montana’s The Lil’ Smokies threw down a huge bluegrass party within a bluegrass party. The tent was packed to the brim and the glowing faces from the fans matched the smiles on the musicians as they rolled through two sets, including favorites “Might As Well,” “California,” and a cover of “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad.” Seeing all six of them scrunched up together on stage and doing what they love to a mass of screaming people you could tell they couldn’t be happier.

The strength of the bands in the smaller tent stages was matched by the main stage artists playing underneath picturesque Broken Arrow Peak. North Carolina’s Mandolin Orange was the perfect band to usher in the stage’s first performance. The group’s sultry country-folk blew over the crowd like a warm mountain breeze and included playing that was subtle in style but perfect in tone. Talking with mandolinist Andrew Marlin while we watched a set by Elephant Revival’s Daniel Rodriguez, Marlin said he was happy to be playing the festival and was looking to enjoy the full experience and get some turns in at Squaw on Sunday morning, the boarding there much more choice than the ice mounds in North Carolina.

The Dustbowl Revival brought some backbone to WinterWonderGrass with its powerhouse, Prohibition-styled party set. In a festival dominated by string instruments, though not exclusively, the band’s raucous horns and drums punched you in the gut in all the right ways. The band ripped through the bluegrass-tinged “Cherokee Shuffle” with riveting aplomb and led a joyous sing-along to Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz.” No one looked to be having more fun then the band members as they traded solos, sang to the dancing horde on the speakers in front of the stage and generally gallivanted its way through a high-energy set, except maybe the people dancing to it all.

As the day turned to evening, Elephant Revival played an elegant set that echoed the mood. On its records the band has a very coffeehouse feeling to it that is soft and demands serenity. It brought that energy on songs like “Remembering a Beginning” and an acapella solo of “Out Under The Winter Sky” by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Bonnie Paine. Notably, though, the band proved it can also add a little double shot of espresso into the mix, a must for a bluegrass festival, and brought on Andy Goessling from Railroad Earth on saxophone and Andrew Marlin from Mandolin Orange on mandolin for a dynamic “Feather.” At one point, Paine looked up at the mountains behind the crowd as the sun was setting and threw a simple grin, appreciating the moment, music in the mountains.

WinterWonderGrass has always prided itself in creating almost a family of musicians that have played the festival over its multiple years and locations. California got a WinterWonderGrass debut as it welcomed a new member to the family in Railroad Earth, which played a tight and exceptional set under the stars. The members seemed loose and jovial with Tim Carbone’s fiddle leading a spirited take on “Dandelion Wine” and multi-instrumentalist John Skehan plugging away a passionate honky-tonk style piano solo on fan favorite “Hangtown Ball.” But the band really lit up the crowd with two big-time jams in “Like a Buddha” and “Hunting Song,” the former releasing ecstatic “Hoo-Hoos” from the thousands and the latter getting down and dirty with trenched-in grooves that were irresistible. It was a glorious way to close out the second day of WinterWonderGrass and acted as the perfect primer for the festivities that await on Sunday.

Related story: WinterWonderGrass founder Scotty Stoughton, ambassador of campfire lifestyle. LINK

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Tahoe Onstage is an online entertainment and sports magazine covering Lake Tahoe, Truckee, Reno, the Carson Valley and June Lake.


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