You’re not a true Coloradan if you haven’t been to at least one outdoor music festival or concert. But have you been to one in the snow? Braving the elements to experience some great music is a regional rite of passage, right up there with getting first chair after a huge snowfall or getting a bit too tipsy at 3 p.m. in the afternoon during apres ski.
The second annual WinterWonderGrass Festival will give you a chance to dance outside during freezing weather and maybe even cross another off that local bucket list by partaking in the beer tasting during the day. Just make sure you sober up enough by the evening to see all of the amazing bluegrass and folk bands that will be playing, including Leftover Salmon, Greensky Bluegrass, Elephant Revival and The Infamous Stringdusters, just to name a few.
After a successful inauguration in Edwards last year, the festival is adding more bands and expanding to Nottingham Park in Avon this year. Organizer Scotty Stoughton initially started WinterWonderGrass after hearing that locals wanted more outdoor music events during the ski season. In addition to moving to a larger venue, Stoughton wanted this year’s three-day bluegrass-and-brew bonanza to be a completely Colorado affair.
“We’re not accepting corporate sponsorships,” Stoughton said. “(It’s all) Colorado brands, Colorado foods and organic and fair trade products if we can.”
Stoughton also said the festival’s goal is to be zero waste, a commitment both brewers and bands are on board with.
“Kudos to them for making it happen,” said Dango Rose, double-bass player for Elephant Revival. “It’s hard for us to go to a festival that doesn’t try to be zero waste. It’s almost like going back in time. (Now) it doesn’t make any sense to not be going in that direction.”
“Let go … sink in”
Elephant Revival will close out the festival on Sunday, Feb. 23. The band just returned from selling out shows in the U.K. During one set, Rose said he noticed two people dancing and getting into the music more than most. Afterwards he found out that they were actually from Colorado. It’s this high-spirited energy and the willingness to let loose that sets local fans, and the bands that play for them, apart from the crowd.
“(In other places), there’s just not as many kids hula hooping and dancing in the same way,” Rose said. “That’s something we find in Colorado especially, the ability to let go and really sink into the experience. (We’re) excited for this bill and to be playing for all our friends.”
Garth Brooks may have friends in low places, but at the WinterWonderGrass Festival you’ll find plenty of friends at high altitude, both off and onstage. Many of the bands have played together at a different venue before, and there’ll be some special collaborations everyone’s excited about, particularly the Greensky Bluegrass set with bluegrass legend and mandolin player Sam Bush on Saturday night, Feb. 22.
“Sam Bush is a mandolin hero for me,” said Paul Hoffman, of Greensky Bluegrass. “He’s a very spirited mandolin player. He brings a lot of emotional commitment to his playing.”
If you’re a bluegrass fan, then there’ll be no shortage of pickers and players to choose from. Starting off the festival on Friday, Feb. 21, will be Leftover Salmon. Considered one of the bands that ignited the Colorado bluegrass and jam-band scene back in the late ’80s, this is one piece of salmon that may be leftover, but still tastes pretty good. Even the younger bluegrass fans are eating it up.
“We’ve been together for 25 years,” said Vince Herman, guitarist for Leftover Salmon. “You would think it would be (only) old fogies at the show, but it’s music that’s suitable for all ages to consume. I think it’s the energy thing … There’s a lot of youngsters in the band now, like Andy Thorn on banjo. They bring a great pile of energy to the band.”
You won’t find any of the bands on this year’s bill phoning it in like a rock band at the Super Bowl (whose name we’ll refrain from mentioning). Whether you call it bluegrass, folk, string dusting, acoustic or just good music to hula hoop to, each band is planning on bringing their own take on the genre.
“We’re pretty bluegrassy,” said Andy Hall, dobro guitar player for The Infamous Stringdusters. “I think people here (in Colorado) like authentic experiences. And that’s what’s so cool about bluegrass; it’s authentic. People (play bluegrass music) because they love it. No one gets into it because of fame or money.”
Old favorites and new surprises
In addition to the big-name acts headlining the festival, Stoughton has also peppered the festival with a few up and comers that are worth wandering away from the main stage for.
“My goal is ultimately to provide everyone with any amazing experience with one of their favorite acts and introduce them to a band they haven’t seen that I know will provide an incredible live experience,” Stoughton said.
Newly plucked for both the main stage and beer hall stages will include musicians as diverse as So-Cal folk soul singer Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers, Gipsy Moon, who sounds just as old-timey as their name suggests despite their young, fresh faces, and emotional crooners Fruition. When not on stage, some of the musicians will be tuning their instruments, which can be delicate in colder temperatures, while others will be imbibing on craft brews along with the crowd. Both Hall and Herman will participate in a Brew Talk with Oskar Blues Brewery and Breckenridge Brewery, respectively, but only one of them actually knows what they’ll be talking about.
“I got an email that said, ‘Hey, want to talk about beer?’” Herman said. “I said, ‘Sure, I’ll talk about anything.’”
Maybe it’s best to leave the craft brew conversation to the actual brewers. For those who bought tickets to the festival just for the commemorative mug, there will be plenty of pouring and tasting in the two beer halls adjacent to the main stage. Crazy Mountain Brewery in Edwards is back with their festival-only “WinterWonderGrass” blond ale, while Great Divide Brewing Company from Denver will be featuring their Orabelle Belgian-style ale. In addition, 15 other Colorado breweries will join them during the daily beer tasting event from 3 to 6 p.m. Event coordinator for Great Divide, Kate Kingsbery, said that like the bands themselves, the festival gives breweries a chance to connect with their own loyal fan base.
“It’s fun for our brewers and our staff to get out of the brew world,” Kingsbery said. “The festival side is where we get to see the one-on-one interactions.”
It’s this collaboration, commitment to sustainability and community-like atmosphere that makes WinterWonderGrass more than just a music festival. It can be hard to pinpoint what it is about the bluegrass style that allows bands to form a strong bond with their fans, so much so that they’ll even want to see them play in the freezing cold. Does listening to bluegrass remind us of Colorado, or does the view of the mountains just seem better when accompanied by an acoustic soundtrack?
Elephant Revival’s Rose knows that even when we travel across state lines, our love for both sneaks into our backpacks with us. Rose moved to Colorado from Chicago after attending NedFest in Nederland back in 2001. He fell in love with the festival there, decided to move to the state 12 days later, joined a band on Day 1 and eventually became a part of Elephant Revival in 2006.
“We’re giving our soul,” Rose said. “And that’s not that different from any other band out there that’s working really hard. We’re just being as authentic to each other and as authentic to the music as we can.”
Bluegrass may not have it’s true roots in Colorado, but with the popularity of festivals like WinterWonderGrass, this is one musical tree that’s standing tall and growing strong.