WinterWonderGrass might be the only music festival at which you’re just as likely to see ski helmets and goggles as you are to see wacky onesies and hula hoops.
The loosely termed bluegrass festival kicked off its fifth year in Squaw Valley in fine style, with warm sunny weather, snow-clad surrounding peaks, and a bevy of fantastic music making for a memorable end to a wintery March.
Like any day at WWG, Friday opened up with thronging festival-goers warming up with midday sun and a variety of early afternoon acts while enjoying a wealth of brews during free beer-tasting hours. Pickin on the Dead opened the day with a variety of faithful renditions of Grateful Dead tunes, with the crowd dancing and swaying to New Speedway Boogie and Maggie’s Farm (done dead-style, of course).
Fans of Tahoe’s local music scene were in for a treat at the Pickin Perch after, one of the festival’s three secondary stage areas featuring heated air and full bars. North Shore’s own Jenny and Jesse & Friends played to a packed house tent, including good pal and South Shore musician Darren Senn on guitar. The spirited set had the audience stomping to a variety of jams, with as many as seven musicians grooving at one time.
Fruition took the main stage as the afternoon sun sank low over the peaks of Olympic Valley, opening with the upbeat, heartfelt “Stuck on You.” The front of the stage surged with fans of the band, gyrating and singing along to the Portland group’s signature pop/folk/blues blend, from psychograss-sounding jams to R&B feeling love tunes. The interplay between the respective chops of Mimi Naja on mandolin and lead guitarist Jay Cobb Anderson was particularly enjoyable, both shredding and strumming with abandon, with Anderson simultaneously breaking a string and losing his sunglasses via headbanging on one aggressive solo.
Temperatures were dipping, but the crowd was fully warmed up as Sam Bush Band picked up instruments to serve them some top-shelf bluegrass (and beyond). The slow lead-in and quick up-tempo swing of “Play by your Own Rules” quickly established a lasting groove among the music-lovers present. I overheard a fellow to my right, seeing Sam Bush for the first time, say “That right there was worth the $150.”
Bush was three tunes into his set at that point, and I couldn’t have agreed with the gentleman more fully.
Sam Bush Band regaled the crowd with beloved classics such as “Howling at the Moon” and “Circles Around Me,” as well as grass-infused covers of timeless classics. Leon Russell’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” was a delight, but “No Woman No Cry” truly captivated the crowd, festival-goers stepping and swaying to the sudden reggae-grass surprise.
Bush always brings a little spirit of Telluride with him wherever he goes, and at the base of the Squaw Valley tram, surrounded by wintry peaks, that flavor was fervently felt.
Anyone feeling the cold by mid-evening had only to step out of the late-winter air and into one of the tents. At the Pickin Perch, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades heated things up even further, stomp-worthy bluegrass belting out over the crowd that quickly packed the Perch to the seams.
Leftover Salmon closed out the evening’s festivities on a rocking note, with the beloved poly-ethnic Cajun slamgrass group filling the concert grounds with swirling, cheering, steaming music lovers. Under a night sky filled with stars, and the vivid blue lights of snow groomers climbing the near-vertical surrounding slopes closer to home, the band showed why it is a festival favorite after 30 years running. From classic Salmon songs to absolutely ass-kicking covers like “Rambling Man” by the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead’s “Railroad Blues,” the crowd was thrilled, cheering, gamboling and singing along in the starlight.
Just five years in, Winter Wondergrass has crafted an unforgettably enjoyable, dynamically intimate music festival in a premier location. I’m sure I’m not the only one who already can’t wait for next year.
— Josh Sweigert
Pixie and the Partygrass Boys play Grass After Dark at Alibi Ale Works