It is good to be the King of Newgrass.
While Saturday’s lineup at the third annual Winter Wondergrass Tahoe included Head for the Hills, Fruition, Dustbowl Revival and Greensky Bluegrass among others, it was Sam Bush who seemed to be at the center of it all.
Taking the stage shortly after 6 p.m. for sound check, the Sam Bush Band immediately drew a massive crowd from all corners of the venue, adjacent to the Squaw Valley Aerial Tramway.
“Thank you very much friends,” Bush called to the roaring crowd, after opening with “Play by Your Own Rules.” Having his band along for the first time in Stephen Mougin (guitar), Scott Vestal (banjo), Todd Parks (upright and electric bass) and Chris Brown (drums) clearly amped Bush up; he was undoubtedly high-energy, at his best.
Sam Bush Band tore the house down on its debut performance at WWG Tahoe, playing a blend of Bush’s older tunes alongside material off of his 2016 release “Storyman.” Newer tunes such as a ripping instrumental “Greenbrier” and the nostalgia-filled “Bowling Green” fit perfectly alongside classics such as “Howling at the Moon” and “Riding That Bluegrass Train.” A grassed-up, hyper-speedy rendition of “Great Balls of Fire” was a nice surprise, while the ever-poignant “Circles Around Me” was the emotional high point of the show, with the crowd belting out the lyrics of the spirited chorus alongside Bush.
A very special moment occurred when WWG founder Scotty Stoughton took the stage with the Sam Bush Band, stepping up to the mic to freestyle two hip-hop verses over a grassy, rhythmic stomp laid down by the band. He exuberantly exhorted the crowd to feel the positive energy and the joy of the festival, and to reflect that loving feeling back onto the musicians. Stoughton, a longtime pal of Bush, had the festival crowd roaring at the end of each rap, and danced his way offstage as Bush and company dropped into “I Just Wanna Feel Something.”
Indeed, the entire event seemed to revolve around Bush. Throughout his set, members of other acts appeared constantly in the wings, standing with food or drink to watch Sam Bush Band for a song or three. Members of Head for the Hills, Dustbowl Revival and Greensky Bluegrass all appeared, grinning and tapping their feet. Another bluegrass icon, Peter Rowan, even stopped by to watch a few numbers, although he himself was not to appear until the next day. The constant flow of supremely talented musicians stopping by to watch Bush and company was an eloquent testament to the draw of the legendary mandolin and fiddle player.
Perhaps the crowning moment of the evening for Bush came as Greensky Bluegrass was closing the evening out. The Michigan quintet invited Bush up on fiddle for a few numbers, and bestowed upon him a singular honor, inviting Bush to be the honorary sixth member of the group.
“If you’d told me years ago that the guy who’s played onstage the most with us out of anybody would be this dude, I would be, like, ‘I don’t believe you,’ ” dobro player Anders Beck said of Bush. “But it appears to be true.
“Would you like to be the sixth member of our band?”
“I’ll be the sixth,” Bush said. “I’ll be your sixth sense.”
While this was the first time that his full band made the trip to Tahoe for this festival, Bush himself appeared as something of a surprise guest at the inaugural event in 2015, jamming with Fruition and other acts.
I expect that Bush may view this infant festival as somewhat reminiscent of the early days of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, viewed by many as the premiere event of the calendar year. The festival takes place in Telluride, Colorado, at 8,750 feet, a lovely wooded setting surrounded by massive snow-clad mountains, not unlike the scenery at Squaw Valley. Bush has performed at Telluride every year since the 1974 debut, and is one of the event’s primary attractions, regularly sitting in with other acts and taking part in the many group jams that occur. Watching him play a similar role in the opening years of WWG Tahoe as the last rays of the warm spring sun slid from the snowy peaks above was joyfully familiar, a truly wonderful experience for a Tahoe bluegrass fan.
I’m already counting down the days until next year.
This time Sam Bush brings entire band to WinterWonderGrass.