Winter WonderGrass Fest returns to Avon Friday-Sunday
IF you go ...
What: WinterWonderGrass Festival.
Where; Nottingham Park, Avon.
When: Doors for the festival open at 2:30 p.m. Friday and the first band starts at 3 p.m. The festival continues through Sunday.
Cost: Tickets at the door are priced as follows: $79 today and Saturday, $69 Sunday; or $159 for a three-day pass.
More information: For a full event schedule and band lineup, visit http://www.winterwondergrass.com.
Anywhere else, a music festival outdoors in the snow in winter might be a hard sell, but last year’s WinterWonderGrass Festival sold out, and it is quickly becoming a favorite among locals and the musicians who keep returning to play for new fans. Running Friday through Sunday, the third annual WinterWonderGrass will feature a bevy of bluegrass bands, plenty of local craft brews and even Les Claypool, the former lead singer of the heavy metal rock band Primus. More on how he fits in later. Vail resident John-Ryan Lockman has attended WinterWonderGrass from the beginning and said it’s now his favorite festival of the year.
“WinterWonderGrass differs from other festivals in that it’s not, ‘What are the biggest headliners we can put on a piece of paper to sell tickets?’” Lockman said. “It’s about (having) a really unique vibe, creating this intimate feeling.”
The best in bluegrass
It’s WinterWonderGrass’ smaller, more relaxed atmosphere at Nottingham Park in Avon that makes it easy to either chill out among friends, warm up in the heated beer tent or dance to your favorite jam band. Lockman said this year he’s looking forward to seeing Sam Bush, one of the most revered mandolin players in bluegrass. Bush has performed at WinterWonderGrass before as a guest with other groups, but this will be the first time he’ll headline on Saturday with the Sam Bush Band. Now in his 60s, one might wonder how a mandolin master like Bush keeps his fingers nimble for picking. It seems as though the old adage of practice, practice, practice still rings true, even if you’re a bluegrass idol many other musicians want to emulate.
“I’m fortunate as I age that they still work,” Bush said. “Sure they get tired, but it’s kind of like being an athlete. You have to stay in shape on your instrument.”
For his upcoming WinterWonderGrass set, Bush said his main goal is to keep his “hands warm enough to play,” and is always surprised at how the elements don’t seem to bother the crowd much.
“It’s amazing how enthusiastic the audience is and can follow you musically while standing in the cold weather at night,” Bush said. “It’s unique to ski communities in Colorado, that these kind of outdoor activities can happen in the winter.”
A must-attend event
Another WinterWonderGrass highlight this year will be the Jeff Austin Band, playing on Sunday on the main stage. Formerly of Yonder Mountain String Band, Austin embarked on a solo career last year, and this will be the mandolin player’s first time performing at the festival. With such a long history in the bluegrass world, many probably couldn’t guess where Austin got his start: musical theater. Austin went to college to sing show tunes, but a fate-changing bluegrass concert literally “struck a chord with me,” he said.
“I was down with the pace of (bluegrass),” Austin said. “I was down with the singing aspect of it, and I was down with the way people would react to a bluegrass band.”
Twenty years ago, Austin moved to Nederland, a Colorado hub for bluegrass, folk music and home to fellow festival band Elephant Revival, who will play the main stage tonight.
Because he didn’t grow up listening to bluegrass, Austin had to take a crash course in the genre, practicing mandolin for hours every day and educating himself at a pace that “wasn’t summer school, it was cramming for finals,” he said.
Having heard from other Colorado musicians that WinterWonderGrass is a “you-gotta-play-it” event, Austin is looking forward to the kinetic energy that happens when the flurries start to fall, he said.
“Anytime you add an unexpected element … that’s really exciting for a band and an audience,” Austin said.
New pickers and players on the scene
At WinterWonderGrass, you never know when it might snow, and you also never know when you might discover your new favorite folk or bluegrass band. Lockman suggests checking out Trout Steak Revival, a Denver-based quartet who won the band competition at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival this past summer. Trout Steak Revival struts its strings on the main stage Saturday afternoon and again that same evening on the Pickin’ Perch stage.
Returning again this year is Fruition, a band who sounds at home in Colorado with songs like “Meet Me On The Mountain,” but they actually hail from the Northwest. Fruition started on the street, busking in Portland for “money and beers and ice cream,’” said Mimi Naja, singer and mandolin player for the group.
Although Fruition is a string quartet, Naja said at times she feels like the group doesn’t get booked for certain clubs or venues are too quick to put them in the bluegrass-only category, when their music is really a mix of folk, Americana and acoustic rock.
“We get pigeonholed because I’m holding a mandolin,” Naja said. “I’d love the chance to play for indie rock fans and see what they think.”
Still, the band does feel at home in the bluegrass community.
“We based our band around singing three-part harmonies, traditionally that’s pretty important in the bluegrass world,” Naja said. “The bluegrass fans are the ones we’ve connected with the most. The bluegrass and jam band scene seem to be the most dedicated. They find a band they love and stick with it forever.”
Like the fans themselves, Naja plans on doing a bit of her own bluegrass celebrity-stalking while at this year’s WinterWonderGrass.
“I’m looking at you Wood Brothers,” Naja said. “That’s our new favorite band that I don’t think has been active in this music community in Colorado yet.”
Made up of Chris and Oliver Wood, Naja said the Wood Brothers are able to craft beautiful melodies that are both intricate and simple, and are “very soulful singers just having fun up there. You can tell they enjoy what they’re doing, and that goes a long way.”
‘Twangify-ing my tunes’
The Wood Brothers play the main stage on Saturday, followed by Les Claypool. As mentioned earlier, Claypool fronted the alt-metal band Primus for nearly 20 years, playing music that no one would mistake for bluegrass. However, a few years ago, Claypool went acoustic, forming Duo de Twang with Bryan Kehoe, putting their own strum on classic Americana records, covering pop songs and reinterpreting Claypool’s own repertoire.
“This (sound) represents what I personally listen to these day,” Claypool said in an interview with Rolling Stone in January 2014. “Guys like Johnny Horton, Jerry Reed and Vernon Dalhart are the soundscape of my world as I’m boiling up crab in the backyard or working on my old Chryslers, so the notion of ‘twangify-ing’ my tunes seemed like a damn good idea.”
Today, festival favorites The Infamous Stringdusters will headline the first night of WinterWonderGrass, with Colorado jam-band Leftover Salmon closing things out on Sunday evening. On top of all the talented musicians, another big part of WinterWonderGrass is the brew tastings, held in the heated Beer Hall tent from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. daily. Featuring 16 Colorado craft brewers, the tastings are a chance to sip a few session ales while listening to some newcomers on both the Jamboree and Pickin’ Perch stages.
Lockman recommends getting the Eco Mug, which you can use throughout the festival and will give you a discount on brews. One of WinterWonderGrass’ goals is zero waste, so bring your own water bottle which you can fill up for free, as there will be no plastic bottles to buy on site.
Music to the ears
As part of WinterWonderGrass, the Late Nights Series is held at various venues around town and features after-party performances from many of the bands playing at the festival over the weekend. You must have a festival pass to purchase Late Night tickets, or single-day pass holders can buy tickets for that same evening.
Organizer Scott Stoughton said last year, the 3,000 festival passes sold out well before the start of WinterWonderGrass, so it’s best to purchase tickets in advance. Stoughton also said this year they’re adding a Bonfire Lounge with hot espresso drinks, hot cocoa, desserts and tea, which will be a warm place for festival-goers to sit and relax. WinterWonderGrass is a kid-friendly festival, with children younger than 12 admitted free and a kid’s tent from 3 to 7 p.m. every day.
Festival fan Lockman reminded attendees: Don’t forget to dress warm and “come ready to have a good time with a smile on your face and get ready to hear lots of great music.”
For those who’ve never experienced the “wonder” that occurs at this annual bluegrass and brews festival, this year is your chance to partake in what feels like a big campfire sing-a-long in the snow.
“The kindness is infectious,” Stoughton said. “There is no better crowd I have ever promoted than the crowd of friends and family here.”
With the combination of great bluegrass, craft brews and more than one way to stay warm, WinterWonderGrass isn’t such a hard sell after all. In fact, many fans and musicians might say it sounds like the perfect weekend, playing tunes among friends while trapped inside a real-life snowglobe.