Though it was only a few songs in to the second band to grace the main stage on Day 1, Steep Canyon Rangers frontman Woody Platt summed up the fourth Winter WonderGrass Tahoe Festival in Squaw Valley.
“This festival always has the heartiest fans. It’s usually raining sideways or freezing cold, and this year it’s both, but you’re always here.”
Though technically it’s still winter, the weather leading up to WWG at the site of the 1960 Olympic games had been spectacular if not unseasonably warm. But an outdoor music festival coming to town it seems was the perfect recipe for three days that would have no doubt pleased Vivaldi, with all four seasons descending upon the venue to enhance the 72-hour experience.
Friday dawned cold and wet with slashing rain that prompted organizers to post on social media that extra tents had been erected and 2,000 free ponchos were available in the merch tent because the show must go on. The three beer and music tents kicked off on schedule to modest crowds at 2 p.m. when Horseshoes & Hand Grenades took the main stage an hour later, they were greeted by some 500 of the heartiest souls who chose to brave rain and wind, with temps about 40 degrees that by nightfall would be closer to 30. Truth is there were a lot more people who chose to stay in the relative warmth and safety of the Jamboree, Soap Box, and Pickin’ Perch tents since they could see and hear plenty from there.
All of the artists on day one really seemed to kick things into high gear to show their appreciation for those that chose to brave the elements. The tents all contained multiple standout 30-minute sets meant to bridge the changeover between artists on the main stage. The afternoon wave saw The Good Bad, Rapidgrass, and Leftover Salmon’s Vince Herman and Friends in particular. They cranked up their collective energies to warm the atmosphere as much as possible.
The evening tent festivities continued as the beer flowed and The Jon Stickley Trio, Shook Twins and Grant Farm entertained. The crowd progressively grew to near capacity at the main stage, presumably due to the amount of anti-freeze ingested throughout the day. Fans were rewarded with outstanding performances delivered by Fruition and capped by Friday headliner The Infamous Stringdusters.
While Saturday began cooler, snow — not rain — was in the forecast but there was a sense as the gates opened to cloudy but calm skies that dodging any atmospheric nastiness might be possible. That hope lasted about 3 minutes into the Shook Twins’ opening set on the main stage, as snow flurries accompanied their lovely vocal stylings. While chillier, the festival grounds would fill to capacity. The hearty mountain folks greeted multiple corn snow downpours with whoops and hollers. The first three lines of the Winter Sonnet captured the spirit: “To tremble from cold in the icy snow, In the harsh breath of a horrid wind; To run, stamping one’s feet every moment.”
The Lil Smokies stoked the fire and had feet stomping, to be sure.The California Honeydrops, whose latest record dropped the day before, delivered an inspired set in celebration. Finally, the heat coming from the stage as The Devil Makes Three, who reminisced a bit about starting off in the tiny Catalyst Club in Santa Cruz, but also brought the fire that made the fourth line of the sonnet, “Our teeth chattering in the extreme cold,” obsolete.
Keeping the fires burning in the tents — on National Beer Day, no less, that included as many free three ounce pours as you could wait in line for and imbibe — were The Drunken Hearts, Rumpke Mountain Boys, Lost Whiskey Engine, Old Salt Union, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, and Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys. Not only were the tents jammed packed with great music and enthusiastic fans, but also one of the best collection of band names in one day I’ve ever seen.
Spring and Summer
“Led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes, nymphs and shepherds lightly dance beneath the brilliant canopy of spring.”
Crisp air and bright sun greeted Sunday, removing all memory of the rain and snow of the previous 48 hours before most festival attendees groggily arose. Morning skiers and boarders packed the parking lot and slopes of Squaw Valley, giving way to concertgoers as the warming sun turned the snow on top to mashed potatoes. Inside the festival gates the Jon Stickley Trio’s progressive bluegrass jams woke up the crowd as it trickled in from another round of late-night shows.
The beer lines were a little shorter, but the music was just as ripping as the prior two days. Rapidgrass and Friends, The Kitchen Dwellers, and Pickin’ On The Dead would occupy the tents between main stage sets. The latter, in particular, made a case for perhaps some larger structures in future years as folks were spilling out of all three entrances trying to take part in what was a full-on electric Deadhead party for 30 minutes at a time.
Regular Lake Tahoe visitors The Brothers Comatose brought their friendly string-only quintet sounds on what felt like a nearly summer, shirt-sleeve afternoon, before a special treat. It was with a bit of melancholy that Winter WonderGrass mainstays Elephant Revival took the main stage as the temps cooled around the dinner hour.
Most in the crowd knew that the band they had come to love was essentially no more with plans, after just a few more shows, to go on indefinite hiatus. Understandably, everyone soaked up their bittersweet 90-minute performance, since for most it would likely be the last time. Scotty Stoughton, founder and CEO, made a point to come on stage near the end and thank them for being an integral part of WWG and invited the entire festival crew onstage to take a photo with the band, with the crowd behind to mark the moment.
Closing the 2018 edition of Winter Wondergrass Tahoe was Railroad Earth, which hosts Hangtown Music Fest less than 100 miles away in October. The crowd remained large as the weekend drew to a close amid the mandolin, fiddle, and banjo jams of the ethereal bluegrass rockers. They were also, really for the first time, able to enjoy the efforts of the stage lighting director bouncing shapes and colors off the glorious looming landscape that the venue is set in.
Facing a lengthy walk to my car in the dark, and temps that dropped once again to freezing, I exited a couple songs before the end of the set. As I movied along under the stars alone in an inky black parking lot, the music drifted over the top of me and down the Olympic Valley toward the Truckee River. As I unlocked the car nearly a mile from the stage, the faint echo of music stopped, as did I. A few moments later, the stillness was replaced with the faint roar of collective voices rising in appreciation of a memorable weekend.
– Michael Smyth