Each year, as YarmonyGrass Festival founder Andrew McConathy prepares for the music festival, he begins to scheme about which musicians he might be able to convince to play on stage together.
“(I look for) something that’s never been done before,” McConathy said. “YarmonyGrass is always trying to come up with once-in-a-lifetime sets where you can only see it at the festival.”
In 2011, attendees got to see the first-ever performance by The Transcident, featuring The String Cheese Incident’s Jason Hann, Michael Travis, Kyle Hollingsworth and Michael Kang playing all electronic music.
“They’d played hundreds and hundreds of shows together, but they’d never done that format,” McConathy explained.
At this weekend’s 8th annual festival, taking place at State Bridge Amphitheater and Rancho Del Rio, a similar first will take place when String Cheese’s guitarist Bill Nershi, who bluegrass purists tend to think of as one of their own, will perform alongside electronic duo EOTO, Michael Travis and Jason Hann. The collaboration, billed Honkytonk Observatory, is the festival’s headlining act, scheduled for 12:30 a.m. Sunday.
Though as String Cheese bandmates, Nershi has performed alongside Travis and Hann countless times, it’s never been in the EOTO vein, only as String Cheese.
“The idea was let’s take Bluegrass Billy and throw him in with dub steppers and see what happens,” McConathy said. “Hopefully it’ll be some sort of spacegrace ... Given the situation (Nershi) is probably the guy who would ruffle the most feathers playing with them, and we like that.”
‘Exciting, unpredictable spark’
Travis and McConathy came up with the idea together. McConathy wanted EOTO to perform, despite the festival being more of an acoustic bluegrass fest than the typical electronic-driven festivals you might expect EOTO to play.
“We wanted to play to our crowd, and rather than having them do the normal dub step thing, we wanted to make sure we’re being attentive to our acoustic audience’s wants and needs,” McConathy said. “But at the end of the day, when the sun goes down, people like to cut loose and party. There seems to be this division between the electronica crowd and bluegrass crowd, and really it might be less black and white than that. There might be this gray area when the sun goes down and the grassers want to get their groove on.”
Nershi didn’t hesitate to take part.
In fact, the only time Nershi, who McConathy refers to as the “ringleader and king of the festival,” will perform this weekend is during the EOTO set, McConathy said.
“People have seen EOTO and Billy Nershi as the farthest apart in the String Cheese musical spectrum, so it’s exciting to merge those worlds and show that they’re all the same world,” Travis said.
It’s collaborations such as Transcident and Honkytonk Observatory that really fuels Travis’ creativity, he said.
“I feel this exciting, unpredictable spark coming off of it that I haven’t felt with other sit ins with EOTO. I am looking forward to it. There’s lots of unknowns, lots of excitement to it.”
Earlier this summer, when journalists and friends would ask which show Travis was most looking forward to, the only one he could think to mention was YarmonyGrass, he said.
“I know Billy as a musician so well after 20 years of playing, and I know how he’s really going to take to this environment and flourish,” Travis said.
Crowd favorites, new names
Of course, the festival is more than just this one collaboration.
Twenty bands will perform over the course of three days, including local bands The Drunken Hearts (festival founder McConathy is the frontman for this group), Bonfire Dub, Kevin Heinz & Friends and The Olora Brothers.
Headlining the festival tonight is Drew Emmitt’s Joint Set. Emmitt, one of the founding members of Leftover Salmon, will perform with guitarist Scott Law, banjoist Andy Thorn (of the Emmitt-Nershi band) and bass player Keith Moseley (String Cheese Incident).
There’s also a few names on the bill people might not recognize, like the Kitchen Dwellers, a four-piece bluegrass band from Bozeman, Mont., that’s slated to perform at 1:15 p.m. Saturday afternoon on the Rancho Del Rio stage.
“The Drunken Hearts are getting ready to play a run of shows in Montana with (the Kitchen Dwellers),” McConathy said. “We’ve been hearing great things about them.”
And Missed the Boat, a folk bluegrass band from Steamboat Springs, will perform at 3:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon, also on the Rancho del Rio stage.
“They’ve been nominated for Grammy’s,” McConathy said.
‘Hard to beat’
Longtime festival attendees go for more than the music though, McConathy said.
“There are a lot of people who come back year after year,” he said. “It’s a unique experience to be tubing the river all day and then seeing live music in the moments in between. That’s created a nice community spirit out there.”
Along with the myriad outdoor activities at State Bridge and Rancho Del Rio — fishing, rafting, tubing, hiking and more — there’s a few other things that set YarmonyGrass apart from other music festivals around the state.
“Just the size,” McConathy said. “We’re really limited in how many people can come. It’s a totally different festival experience than going to a Bonnaroo or Wakarusa, which can be really overwhelming for some people. This is more in the vein of get away from it all, but you still get to see your favorite artists perform.”
The musicians also tend to take advantage of the recreational activities.
“You might be floating down the river and suddenly there’s Bill Nershi floating right beside you. It’s hard to beat that,” McConathy said.
High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 970-748-2984.