WinterWonderGrass Festival 2.21 - 2.23.14


Harry A. Nottingham Park
Avon, Colorado

Words, Photos & Video By Nicholas Stock
Additional Video By Evenstev
Audio By Rob O’Brien & Matt Nida

Friday February 21st, 2014:


In only their second year, Winter Wonder Grass announced a top tier bluegrass lineup that would end in three sell out nights. The festival moved from their original location on the grounds of the Crazy Horse Brewery in Edwards, to the much more accommodating Harry A. Nottingham Park in Avon. Fans who made the inaugural event said that wind and the proximity to the highway were distractions to the otherwise awesome show. This year the layout was perfect for an audience that featured equal parts locals and out-of-towners. The lineup was beefed up as well with the inclusion of Colorado heroes Leftover Salmon and the heavily anticipated set from Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers. Our trip had a dual purpose; we were here for the music, but also to celebrate my wife’s birthday. We arrived in the Vail Valley and made our way over to catch the end of the Dead Winter Carpenters set which opened up the weekend. They performed an insanely tight version of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.”

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Two large beer hall tents framed the main stage as you entered the intimate grounds. Food Vendors dotted the back perimeter opposite the stage and VIP area. The tents housed the myriad of microbrews from across the state and beyond. They also contained the Jamboree Stage and the Pickin’ Perch respectively. I never really knew which was which all weekend, but that didn’t seem to be a problem. I found myself at the 4:20 Beer Talk with Vince Herman and Breckenridge Brewery along with managers John Joy and Sean MacAskill. It seemed to be an unofficial welcome of sorts; beers were discussed, joints were passed. The laid-back atmosphere meant that musicians could mingle with the fans without fear of too much attention. Throughout the three days I saw many musicians dotting the audience just enjoying the show.

MilkDrive was perhaps my biggest surprise of the weekend delivering four sets over the first two days of the festival. Starting on the main stage they gave us their brand of self-described “Jazz-Grass.” They got my attention by opening with a beautiful version of The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence.” Their sound was elevated and featured some impeccable instrumentation. They have a class and elegance to their delivery that is simply striking. The instrumental “Devil’s Flame” was as technical as it was unique. This band is an up and comer and I look forward to their return to the Rocky Mountain Region.

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Gipsy Moon and The Old Town Pickers each took a tent so patrons could warm up, grab a beer and still listen to music with much efficiency. Gipsy Moon is a band from Nederland that features Vince Herman’s son, Silas, on mandolin. Beyond their prestigious heritage this band can pick. They are a soulful, gypsy band with lots of heart. They reek of authenticity and their music is a true delight. The Old Town Pickers tend to stand along the more traditional line of bluegrass music complete with five to ten gallons worth of hat. They were a welcomed addition to WinterWonderGrass.

Greensky Bluegrass was up for the first of their two sets. This was billed as a solo show with the band featuring Sam Bush for Saturday’s headlining slot. What followed was ninety minutes of pure bluegrass bliss. This gracious band from Kalamazoo is all business. They opened with their original “Just To Lie.”

Greensky Bluegrass Live at Winter Wondergrass Main Stage on February 21, 2014.



Set One: Just To Lie, The Ghost of Richard Manuel, Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down, Lost My Way, Leap Year, Nine Pound Hammer, Wings For Wheels, Don’t Lie, Not Out Of Control, Wheel Hoss, Walkin’ The Dog*, Can’t Stop Now*

*w/ Drew Emmitt and Sam Bush both on Mandolin

Just looking at the setlist it’s an obvious blend of the new and the unabashedly traditional. The rendition of Charlie Poole’s “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” comes from 1925 and “Nine Pound Hammer” has its roots in the railroad work songs first documented in the 1870’s as part of the a series known today as the “hammer songs.” The new, comprised of tunes from their own catalog, included the epically performed “Don’t Lie.” After a nice rendition of Bill Monroe’s “Wheel Hoss,” fans got a big surprise.

“…What do you do at festivals? … That’s right your friends come play music with you… We got a friend named Drew Emmitt; a lot of what we do is his fault. And we also have a friend Sam Bush, and a lot of what Drew does is Sam’s fault.” - Greensky

What followed was a three-mandolin massacre of Cliff and Tex Grimsley’s “Walkin’ The Dog.” Sam, Drew and Paul traded licks on their corresponding mandolins gracefully. They stayed for the set-closing version of the New Grass Revival’s “Can’t Stop Now.” Sam was obviously at home on this one.

Leftover Salmon has been featuring Little Feat’s Bill Payne on keys quite a bit recently. With little fanfare prior to the show he again appeared on stage with Salmon at Winter Wonder Grass. In the interest of beating a dead horse I would like to once more post my petition to make him a full time member of the band. However as time goes on it’s looking that is becoming less and less necessary. It seems only a matter of time before Mr. Payne is not a special guest but rather a full fledge member of the band. Sam Bush too made his way to the stage this time with his fiddle. He would alternate between mando and fiddle for the entirety of the hour and half set. They opened with “Rag Mama Rag.”

Leftover Salmon Live at Winter Wondergrass Main Stage on February 21, 2014.



Set One: Rag Mama Rag, In A House, In a Home, Gulf Of Mexico, Aquatic Hitchhiker, Liza, Here Comes The Night, Powder Day, Two Highways, Past On the Mountain*, Fat man In The Bathtub

Encore: Sam’s Song, Up On the Hill Where They Do The Boogie

w/ Bill Payne on Keys and Sam Bus on Mandolin and Fiddle (entire show)

*Unknown crewmember on rap vocals

Leftover Salmon continues to be one of the most exciting and intriguing bands touring today. The inclusion of Andy Thorn on banjo and now Payne on keys has invigorated this once sleeping giant. Their musical output has an encouraging and vibrant tone that basically bullies the listener into having a good time. Vince has evolved from the ‘big fat party animal’ into the bandleader with focus and panache. He was all smiles as he delivered the goods on guitar and vocals. “In A House, In A Home” showcased the most recent permanent addition to the band Alwyn Robinson on drums with a big solo. The beautiful title track to their latest album “Aquatic Hitchhiker” was a huge highlight as was Drew’s electrified “Here Comes The Night.”

“Powder Day” was a nod to all those that took a few turns earlier in the day. “Pasta On The Mountain” took on its most experimental form with a record scratch intro and rap vocals from an unknown assailant. Vince sang a series of lyrics that equated to a ringing endorsement of both Amendment 64 and the current state of greenery in Colorado. They closed the set with a Drew-sung version of Little Feat’s “Fat Man In The Bathtub.” Creator of Winter Wonder Grass and owner of Bonfire Entertainment Scott Stoughton gave a heartfelt thank to the crowd. Salmon along with Bush and Payne returned with a very appropriate rendition of John Hartford’s “Up On The Hill Where They Do The Boogie.”

Saturday February 22nd, 2014:

Late night options were available in multiple venues across town and at several different price points. This weekend also being my wife’s birthday party we opted to hang out and avoid the madness. We arrived fresh and ready for action at Nottingham Park on day two. The 3:00 PM start meant that fans would filter in throughout the day. When Tyler Grant and Scott Law took the stage for their opening set, there were only a few already on the lawn. Again it was a slightly overcast day but definitely warmer than Friday. Grant is a National Flatpicking Champion and Law too Flatpicks. Like Grant, Law has also played with just about everyone. Their set was fairly unassuming with a wide range of songs including Grant’s “One Town One Tune At A Time” and a hopeful version of Willie Nelson’s “Uncloudy Day.”

“It never occurred to me that we would be playing outside.” – Scott Law

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MilkDrive again took the tents with three sets including a show billed as the Winter Wonder Grass Special!, but we’ll get to that. Colorado Homegrowns WhiteWater Ramble were up on the main stage next. This band seems to have finally found their proper footing after years of struggling with changes in lineup and inconsistent performances. WhiteWater Ramble has emerged from the fog of uncertainty and become a real contender. Their set at WWG was a powerful statement of what this band can do with its current personnel firing on all cylinders. They gave us seventy-five minutes of sweat inducing jamgrass, delivered with passion and prowess. It was a solid performance.

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Law and Grant also emerged in the tents for two more performances. One of which included Fruition mandolin player Mimi Naja. This gave everyone the opportunity to see several more sets throughout the day. These ‘tweeners’ only lasted thirty minutes, but that was plenty of time to grab a beer and get down for a song or three. Finally, the moment had arrived. The Gramblers took to the stage for a quick sound check before Nicki Bluhm appeared draped in a full body parka for their opener “Burnt.”

Nicki Bluhm And The Gramblers Live at Winter Wondergrass on February 22, 2014.



Set One: Burnt, Go Go Go, I’m Your Woman, Stick With Me, Deep Water, Til I’m Blue*, Leave The Leavin’ Up To You*, Baarbary Blues, Ravenous, I Wanna Go Home, Somebody To Love, Little Too Late, Jetplane, In The Mountains

*w/Scott Law with just Nicki and Tim Bluhm

Reed Mathis of Tea Leaf Green was filling in for regular bassist Steve Adams. Reed is an absolute monster, enough said. Tim Bluhm went from keys to electric guitar several times throughout the show. Nicki the consummate performer commanded the attention of all those in attendance. At one point she merely unzipped her parka a few inches and the crowd went nuts. She discarded her puffy protection revealing a white lounge suit that seemed more appropriate. Musically this band is awesome, though it felt a little weird watching them on stage and not in a van… but seriously the entire group was mesmerizing. Their song choices at times seemed a bit slow, but as the set built before it exploded on the Jefferson Airplane cover, “Somebody To Love.”

“That’s a little San Francisco for you, that’s where we’re from.” –Nicki Bluhm

Nicki’s vocals danced with Ney’s lead guitar on “Little Too Late” which mostly stayed in the pocket. They closed with a fitting “In The Mountains.” Go see this band. They are absolutely worth whatever they are charging you at the door. Fire tossers and acrobats seemed to randomly materialize throughout the weekend. However, the Winter Wonder Grass Special! was taking off on the Jamboree Stage so I headed over to see what that was all about. I found Bonnie Paine and Bridget Law of Elephant Revival sitting in with MilkDrive. This was a hidden gem of the fest and the fans that crammed into that tent found themselves in the middle of a string filled shred fest.

The headlining set of Winter Wonder Grass, Greensky Bluegrass featuring Sam Bush was also the longest of all three days coming in at just short of two hours. They again took on a bluegrass traditional “I’m Working On A Building,” which is based off
an African Spiritual to open up their set.

Greensky Bluegrass Live at Winter Wondergrass on February 22, 2014.



Set One: I’m Working On A Building, Same Ol’ River, Bottle Dry, White House Blues, Fist City*, Jaywalking*, Gumboots, Howlin’ at the Moon, WWG Breakdown> Worried About The Weather, All Four Wheels

Encore: Coming In From The Cold

“I’m a lucky boy I get to play with Greensky Bluegrass tonight.” – Sam Bush

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This was a musical high in the valley of a mountain range. Winter Wonder Grass is a grassroots festival that cultivates the type of musical collaboration and interaction that real fans crave. This set was just what the doctor ordered. Sam took the reigns on “Same Ol’ River” before they went back to the catalog of Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers with “White House Blues.” Greensky invited Nicki Bluhm up to sing a couple songs with the band. And honestly why not? She sang a perfect version of Loretta Lyn’s “Fist City” before taking on Greensky original, “Jaywalking.” Bush added his flourishes throughout the night and his incredible ability as a picker was evident with each new song.

Sam came to the microphone on the classic “Howlin’ at the Moon.” Anders announced they wanted to do something special for the festival, and so he wrote the next song, “Winter Wonder Grass Breakdown,” as the Ski Patrol was towing him down the mountain on Thursday. Luckily he was alright and this jam was well worth any injury he might have sustained. This tune was complete with a Sam Bush style “Smoke On The Water” tease as well. The instrumental melted into their original “Worried About The Weather” before they closed with a sublime “All Four Wheels.” They encored with “Coming In From The Cold,” which all in attendance were ready to do. The fans drifted out into the night with the only dusting of snow we received all weekend. Winter Wonder Grass may have lacked the fresh powder, but that was of little concern to the music fans that braved the cold to hear bluegrass magic. Head For The Hills hosted the late night with sit-ins from members of Greensky. By all accounts it was the best after show of the weekend. Two down, one to go.

Sunday February 23rd, 2014:

For the first time in three days, attendees of Winter Wonder Grass awoke to sunshine and a genuinely picturesque day. Day three would feature a completely fresh lineup, which began with a main stage set from Portland’s Fruition. The day started a little earlier and would end at 9 PM to keep the neighbors happy on a Sunday night. Cheers to Scott for filling out the marquee with such strong supporting acts and really making Winter Wonder Grass a top-notch experience. Fruition invited Bridget Law to join them on a new song possibly entitled, “Still Both Around” about half way through their slot. This band is definitely distinctive and incredibly engaging. They kept Law up for the remainder of the set and wrapped up their main stage show with the bubbly “Just Close Your Eyes.”

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The Winter Wonder Grass House Band was in full effect throughout all of Sunday. This group appeared to be the bluegrass love child of The Olora Brothers, Skin The Rabbit, and whoever else happened to be walking by with a stringed instrument. Over the course of three sets there were multiple formations, sit-ins, and a general air of collaboration. The groups could have easily dissolved into a disorganized clusterpluck but in reality everyone played nice. The result was some strong musical output from a diverse group of pickers.

My Hometown Heroes, Head For The Hills followed and I can’t help but be impressed every time I see them perform live. Not only was this by far the warmest set of the festival, but also a really solid chunk of music from this Fort Collins group. They eased in with a very tight “Light The Way.” After an instrumental, Joe Lessard, with the help of his trusty bassits Matt Loewen, crushed the forceful track “Never Does” off their most recent album, Blue Ruin. Adam Kinghorn gave us some classic H4Th throughout the show, but Joe gave us a brand new song that is still as of yet untitled. Overall this was just a really pleasing show, that featured the new and the old alongside the massive instrumentals they are known for. Head For The Hills is by far one of the best Colorado string bands touring today.

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Fruition gave us two more short sets on the Jamboree Stage. The long awaited main stage set from Elephant Revival was upon us. Again demonstrating the Winter Wonder Grass commitment to bands born in Colorado, by giving them the sunset slot on Sunday. Their brand of intricate Americana is hard to put into words. Elements of folk, traditional bluegrass, indie, and rock seep into their sound, but they never pigeonhole themselves by focusing on one style. They are utterly original and their ability to have a real and visceral impact on their audience is unmatched.

Songs like “Go On” and “Hearts And Tongues” dotted their set. At one point the acrobats who had been performing throughout the grounds all weekend appeared on stage followed by an artist named Rainbow Michael. The obvious highlight of the set beyond the rainbow spandex clad unannounced addition was “A Woman’s Grace” that included members of Fruition sitting in.

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After another round in the tents it was time for the principal affair of the evening. On the last night of an epic Ski Tour that stretched throughout the Rockies over the course of a couple weeks The Infamous Stringdusters took the Winter Wonder Grass stage. The run contained several two night runs including two nights in Fort Collins the weekend prior. They opened with a rowdy “It’ll Be Alright.”

Infamous Stringdusters Live at Winter Wondergrass on February 23, 2014.



Set One: It’ll Be Alright, Well Well, Try Try Try, Rivers Run Cold, 17 Cents, Time To Part, Middlefork, Blockies, I’ll Get Away, Once You’re Gone, Get It While You Can, Black Rock, Fearless, Fork In The Road, Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright, Heady Festy

Encore: No More To Leave You Behind, Let It Go

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After catching the Dusters for two nights in Fort Collins, this felt like a proper end to the 2014 Winter Wonder Grass Festival. This band is all energy and their performances conjure a real connection to the music they are performing. Songs like “Try Try Try” are comprised equally of whiplash inducing string grinding and sophisticated songwriting. The Infamous Stringdusters opted to give a clean performance un-muddled with things like guest performers. “17 Cents” was a dance party, but “Time To Part” was a launching pad for the rest of this rowdy set of music.

The short but energetic “Once You’re Gone” segued nicely into their original “Get It While You Can.” They treated fans to rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t’ Think Twice It’s Alright” before they closed with the instrumentally poetic but relevant “Heady Festy.” Their encore had two teeth with “No More To Leave You Behind” into “Let It Go.” This was an absolutely perfect close to what can only be described as a perfect festival.

The Winter Wonder Grass House band joined Elephant Revival for some late night shenanigans at Agave. We decided to head back to our chalet in Beaver Creek basically buzzing from three nights of epic string music. This homegrown festival has earned the right to be in the same ring as the Rocky Grass and Telluride Bluegrass Festivals. The ‘only in Colorado’ element of hosting this event in February, in the mountains, and outdoors only adds to the mystique. Sure I wore long johns each day, but that was a small price to pay for this utterly original experience. I can definitely say I’m already thinking about next year.

Nicholas' Night One Photo Gallery

Nicholas' Night Two Photo Gallery

Nicholas' Night Three Photo Gallery

www.winterwondergrass.com

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