Welcome, Spring! It’s WinterWonderGrass time at Squaw Valley, our third-annual Tahoe rendition of the fabled bluegrass (stringed and rockin’) festival. This year promises to be a beauty, full of Alpine sunshine and starry nights filled with the best in modern progressive stringed music, as Friday’s beginning to the three-day festival revealed. Attendees were prepared for the chilly mountains, flashing chic and color in the afternoon sunshine, and prepared to bundle up when temperatures dropped with the sun over the peaks. But with fine music to keep everybody dancing, crowds to wrap up in, and libations flowing, warmth came in many forms for this superlative outdoor event.
The provocative sounds of Grant Farm wafted out from the Jamboree tent, pulling me in to stand, amazed, watching this tight foursome based in Boulder, Colorado, let loose their “Cosmic Americana,” strong folk roots augmented by fierce electric riffs, strains of the Dead in tone and jam, then Hendrix, in the same song. Lyrical and inventive, their choice of covers somehow set the three-day festival off on the right foot with the ’60s throwback “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”. Originals like “Fill Your Cup” offered inspiration, while National Flatpicking Guitar Champion (and band leader) Tyler Grant’s leads lifted the crowds’ feet in joyful solidarity. The Good Bad, and The Deer started things off at the Pickin’ Perch and Soap Box side stages, respectively, while a set of lively tunes from Hot Buttered Rum opened the festival’s main stage.
Fruition, from Portland, Oregon, followed on the main stage with their signature harmonies soaring out into the mountain air like a community prayer. I always like a musician who smiles while playing, like bassist Jeff Leonard did for the entire set, and the 5-star showmanship of lead guitarist Jay Cobb Anderson alongside a command performance (as ever) by Mimi Naja on mandolin and electric and acoustic guitar. Keyboard and rhythm guitarist Kellen Asebroek shone, not to mention drummer and banjo player Tyler Thompson. From sweet love songs, to crowd favorites and new tunes, Fruition rocked its set with phenomenal picking, varied instrumentation (Asebroek commanded claves on one song), and guest appearances by Brad Parsons (performing Saturday on the Soap Box stage), Allie Kral from Yonder Mountain String Band, and Chris Pandolfi from The Infamous Stringdusters. The crowd rose to the high-spirited, happy music like a true rainbow tribe of warriors, dancers, dreamers and leaders, getting their mojo and our mountain jewel of a festival off to a grand start.
Throughout the upbeat, effervescent and smiling crowd I chatted with people who’d come from near and far, including Santa Cruz, San Jose, the Bay Area, Sonora, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, British Columbia and of course, Tahoe-Truckee locals dedicated to the event. For many, the main draw is Saturday night’s headliner, Greensky Bluegrass. But obviously, three days of truly excellent music and camaraderie with new friends and old is the real banner WinterWondergrass Tahoe waves.
Of particular note from Friday’s lineup was the WinterWondergrass debut of Trout Creek Revival, a quintet from Denver. Featuring Travis McNamara on banjo, Steve Foltz on mandolin and guitar, Will Koster on dobro and guitar, Casey Houlihan on stand up bass, and Bevin Foley on fiddle (all members perform strongly on vocals), Trout Steak Revival feels like the (re)reinvention of modern progressive bluegrass music. Alive, bright, vocally resonant and musically consummate, this five-some delighted the thick crowd in the Pickin’ Perch tent with their two-set performance (split around Yonder Mountain String Band on the main stage), dancing and clapping till coats came off and voices strained the tent flaps in joyful unison.
Carving deep grooves characterized by superfine, fast synchronized picking, filled with sonorous and melodic vocal skill, songs such as “Take Heart” and “Wind in the Mountains” felt like home, like here; I think their Colorado hearts must echo our own lives in this Sierra Nevada terrain. Each of these fine musicians played beautifully, majestically even, with a close attunement to one another and their incredibly happy crowd of listeners, whose smiles could not leave their glowing faces. Many knew Trout Steak Revival from previous shows, while for others, word had simply spread to check out this band: the packed tent was jamming to high-energy, lightning precise licks, flawless musicianship, and lyrical sensibility imbued with hopeful sensitivity and realism.
Their second set highlighted Foley’s fierce, fevered fiddle playing and powerful, clear voice; Foltz also belted it out on vocals, but in truth, all five have fantastic voices and use them to fine effect on beautiful, melodic tunes and well-stacked harmonies, huddled in close together the better to play in such tight entrainment. With topical, poetic songs, their music ripples like a mountain river in winter sunlight full of promise, hope, and stories yet untold. In a stunning version of the great classic “Sitting On Top of the World,” the band pretty much took off the tops of our heads (and the tent roof, I think, too!), shredding it like no other, while harmonizing perfectly on the title track from their new album, “Brighter Every Day.” With Trout Steak Revivial’s positive, upbeat and uplifting message, and their tight rhythmic and melodic changes, the ecstatic tent full of music lovers was having so much fun we didn’t want their set to end. But the rest of WinterWonderGrass calls, and so . . .
Back to the main stage, for Yonder Mountain String Band’s (unbelievably.) debut performance at WinterWondergrass. Proud to host you, Yonder! Blessed by incredible stage lighting of the crisp late afternoon sunshine giving way to a bright crescent moon in a cobalt sky overhead, their performance played out against the best panoramic backdrop in the world. (Don’t change a thing, Andy Wirth and KSL Ski Holdings. You hold a gem in your hands: Be good stewards now!)
Featuring Adam Aijala (guitar), Dave Johnston (banjo), Ben Kaufmann (bass), Allie Kral (violin), and Jacob Jolliff (mandolin) – all trading off vocals – Yonder delivered a satisfying set of progressive, bluegrass, experimental music, originals and select covers aimed to light this crowd’s fire. (I think it worked.)
By now, it was freezing cold, and the band joked they should huddle close like the packed crowd so as to stay warm – and in truth, the warmth of friends and fast-pickin’ kept us warm enough, as long as they kept playing. Fast-paced, methodical but not predictable, rhythmic and danceable, their suped-up bluegrass sound sounded like a high-speed chase on the interstate, played out with instruments instead of cars. Kral’s fiddle would start a jam, with the others in hot pursuit; changing over to a mandolin escapade, then a funky bass solo, where Kaufmann got into some experimental feedback a la Hendrix, and morphed into strains of Iron Maiden, before dipping into some delicate strum and bass. Delightful banjo meanderings turned the jam a different direction, before it swept into a full-blown searing (alternating with lilting) description of yet unfathomed precision and prayer, skill and sublime sensitivity to nuance, note, rhythm, and – occasionally – rest. Suggestions of the Dead’s “Help On the Way” played throughout the next song in their non-stop set, moving from the last note of one long jam into the first note of a new song. Night falls, couples embrace, friends fine one another in the crowd, and everyone was irresistibly dancing, bopping, toe-tapping and shaking their bones to the good old new timey music of Yonder Mountain String Band.
Closing out the main stage for Friday were The Infamous Stringdusters, hailing from Charlottesville, Virginia. Whew-ee, no wonder these guys were the headliners! Yet another fabulous quintet (in a day of fine quintets), the Stringdusters are Andy Hall (dobro), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle), and Travis Book (double bass), led by Andy Falco on guitar and Chris Pandolfi on banjo. With sweet, incredible jamming, at once ephemeral and deeply grounded, watching Andy Hall rocking his dobro, silver mane and beard glinting in the stage lights, was truly a sight to see. Jumping into a rendition of Buffalo Springfield’s timeless anthem, “For What It’s Worth,” the band rocked a flying fiddle and dobro jam as the crowd chanted the lyrics of resistance: “Getting so much resistance from behind, ya gotta Stop, Children, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down….”. Tell it to us straight, Stringdusters.
The jam further unfolds, glides, into a cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Wanna Take you Higher:” oh baby, light my fire – these guys are serious about having some fun, and taking us all the way with them. Boom-shocka-locka-locka, Boom-shocka-locka-locka, a psychedelic light show accompanies Kral on fiddle and Book on his stand up bass, who is running around and dancing on stage, antics his middle name, while all five are earning their namesake by literally burning those strings down to dust floating through starlight. Pandolfi’s sporting a big ole grin while straddling the stage and plucking his banjo, psychedelic jams unfolding to match the light show, and the string of timely, topical songs (including highlights from their new album, Laws of Gravity, their 7th), and yet another sweet cover, “Norwegian Wood.” What a night. Leaving only the next two days to be desired.
Looking forward to Saturday’s line up with Sam Bush with his full band, Dustbowl Revival, more Fruition, Brad Parsons Band, Head for the Hills, Dead Horses, John Stickley Trio, Ghost of Paul Revere, The Bluegrass Generals (featuring Chris Pandolfi & Andy Hall), and headliners Greensky Bluegrass closing out the main stage.
On Sunday, come out to Squaw Valley for Peter Rowan, local favorites the Dead Winter Carpenters, Mandolin Orange, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades (supposedly funny, as well as great fun musically!), The Railsplitters, Pickin’ On the Dead, and Leftover Salmon to close out another great year at WinterWondergrass Tahoe 2017. Don’t miss the rest of this great weekend in the sun with the shiny, snowy backdrop of magnificent Squaw Valley.