WinterWonderGrass is Sierra Nevada’s shining festival

Duo de Twang
Les Claypool’s Duo de Twang was a WinterWonderGrass highlight.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Larry Sabo

The final day of the second WinterWonderGrass festival at Squaw Village saw a fun-loving crowd basking in the warm spring sunlight, surrounded by snowy peaks as four widely varying musical acts took the main stage throughout the day.

First off were the Shook Twins, a young band that presented folk sensibilities with a pop twist. Identical twins Katelyn and Laurie Shook held down center stage on acoustic guitar and banjo, with Niko Daoussis on electric guitar and mandolin and Josh Simon on bass.

The Shook TwinsThe Shook Twins made for an excellent opening act, warming up the gathering crowd with an array of sounds, from haunting and eerie slow grooves to up-tempo, stomp-worthy tunes that felt right at home at a bluegrass festival. The musicians made regular use of percussion loops and other effects to build a trance-like layer under their live instruments. Katelyn Shook used a telephone microphone on certain songs, her compressed, tinny, faraway voice adding a further level of the surreal. Daoussis’ electric guitar, while certainly not grassy in any sense, provided a rock-like edge in both the rhythm sections and in his soaring solos.

Multi-instrumentation is clearly a point of pride with the band, as there was a near-constant rotation of instruments. Laurie Shook would alternate between her banjo and an acoustic guitar, also pulling out a glockenspiel for some songs. Daoussis abandoned his electric guitar in favor of a mandolin for “Earth is Gonna’ Shake,” a fast-moving tune with soaring dual harmonies from the Shook sisters. The guitarist whipped out a pair of hand drums for the rumbling finale, introducing one more sonic element into the widely varied show.

Several hundred people had gathered by the end of the Shook Twins set, and one could sense that these folks were ready to see some pickin’.

The Traveling McCourys took the stage in the late afternoon, bringing a family legacy of high harmonies and fast, fast bluegrass to the Squaw Valley festival. Sons of bluegrass great Del McCoury, Ronnnie and Rob McCoury sure know how to put on a hoedown. Before long, the crowd was swelling to full as the high lonesome sounds cascaded off of the surrounding peaks.

The Traveling McCourys played a nicely rounded set, including a number of well-known favorite tunes. Bill Monroe’s “Body and Soul” made for some lovely meandering harmonies, sounding straight out of the golden age of bluegrass. The string band busted out “New Cumbraland Blues” by the Grateful Dead, a surefire favorite for a festival crowd, as well as “Old Train” by Seldom Scene, one of my family favorites.

This was all straight-ahead bluegrass, with Ronnie and Rob McCoury shredding away on the mandolin and banjo, respectively, while regularly hitting the high, soulful harmonies of the traditional genre. Guitarist Cody Kilby, formerly of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky The Travelin' McCoreysThunder, showed how well he knows his way around a six-string, reeling off blazing runs that kept feet tapping and shoulders shaking. The National Flatpicking Champion took lead on “Big Mon,” joined in for lightning-quick instrumental leads by the rest of the band in turn. Jason Carter’s fiddle was a searing presence above the rest of the band, with the diminutive fiddle player singing lead on a tune or two as well.

Swelling columns of cumulonimbus welled up the valleys on either side of the peaks above the stage, with the afternoon sun sinking low as Carter crooned out the vocals to John Hartford’s “Back in the Good Old Days.” After an hour of grooving to the delightfully traditional Traveling McCourys, my feet needed a quick rest. It had to be a brief one however, as I certainly wanted to get a place in the front row for the next act.

Les Claypool is known as the frontman, bassist and main thrust of the wickedly wild ’90s band Primus, as the voice and sound of the South Park theme song, and just generally as an insane and eccentric musician and pop culture figure. Joined of late by M.I.R.V. guitarist Bryan Kehoe on resonator guitar in the Duo de Twang, Claypool’s mad genius has been making the rounds on the bluegrass festival circuit.

The finger-tapping bassist strode out onstage in the late afternoon, with cowboy-hat sporting Kehoe at his side. Claypool teased the crowd as they warmed up their instruments.

“Oh shit, Bryan, look at that guy,” Claypool exclaimed. “He looks like a box of Crayolas exploded all over him.”

Duo de TwangThe Duo kicked off with “Wynnona’s Big Brown Beaver,” a motley, bluesy assemblage of rippling, tapping bass overrode by Kehoe’s screeching and screaming slide guitar. This is most definitely not your grandpappy’s bluegrass; unhinged, virtuosic, and deeply primal, Duo de Twang does something that no one else does. It has to be seen and heard to be believed.

Along with their beautifully bizarre original tunes, Claypool and Kehoe rolled out a number of classics for the crowd, including Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” and one of my personal favorites, “Amos Moses,” by Jerry Reed. Claypool enjoyed riling up the crowd, at one point quizzing the gathered music-lovers as to whether they rode snowboards or strapped on skis.

“I used to be a snowboarder, but now I’m an old crusty bastard, and so my knees are old crusty bastards,” he said. “It calls my name, but I can’t answer anymore.”

“Me, I just like to go a whomping down the hill on my belly,” the portly Kehoe roared.

The two make for a lively combo, mind-bendingly absorbing when playing their unique brand of string music, and moving the crowd to hilarity in between tunes.

“You know, people have been asking me for years ‘Les, how come you never got that Metallica gig,’ ” Claypool called to the crowd at one point. “And it’s shit like this.”

Duo de Twang then launched into a double-time, swing-step version of “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees, ending the rendition with a few distinct opening lines of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.”

“And shit like that,” Claypool said as the audience cheered. “I didn’t want that gig anyway!”

The odd-natured bassist spoke at length about politics, shouting “Hulk Hogan for President,” and dedicated a few songs to audience members, including a bearded man in a full length blue bunny costume. At least, he tried to dedicate a song to this particular character, but it was not to be.

“I was going to dedicate this to the big blue rabbit over there, but he’s not even paying attention,” Claypool said with a sigh.

After an hour and a half of Duo de Twang, it was my brain that needed a rest, ambling over to a restaurant for an attempted meal aborted by some truly terrible service.

“Not to worry,” I told my grumbling tummy. “We’ve got some Leftover Salmon still.”

Leftover SalmonThe beloved Boulder jam-band, Leftover Salmon, stepped onstage for the final set of the festival, with the crowd roaring as twilight stole over the valley, the surrounding walls of rock and ice awash with deepening hues of blue and purple.

The self-described poly-ethnic Cajun slam-grass group provided the perfect cap to a wildly varied day of string band music. The signature Salmon groove had concertgoers of all ages dancing, twirling and grooving in the cool evening air. With steel drums, piano, banjo, keyboards, guitar and  low-thumping bass all melded into a musical miasma, it was the perfect time to get lost in the groove.

A campfire burning to the right of the stage filled the air with the comforting scent of wood smoke, furthering the intimate festival atmosphere. Colorful and capering festy kids danced alongside Patagonia and Marmot clad resort-goers; families and strollers were abundant, and there were quite a few four-legged friends in attendance. Just a few years in, WinterWonderGrass has all the makings of the perfect festival: a heady lineup of artists, an awe-inspiring natural setting, and a small-scale atmosphere that feels like home.

An inflatable dolphin danced over the sea of hands (a common sight at Leftover Salmon shows), as lights of blue, orange and red soared over the audience. Vince Herman stepped up to the microphone before launching into Salmon’s “Gulf of Mexico.”

“WinterWonderGrass, are you having a good time?” the bearded guitarist called out.

Anyone care to guess the answer?

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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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