WinterWonderGrass Festival returns to Nottingham Park in Avon, Feb. 19-21 | VailDaily.com

WinterWonderGrass Festival returns to Nottingham Park in Avon, Feb. 19-21

Katie Coakley
Special to the Daily

In wind, in snow, in a veritable blizzard, they play on. No, it's not an ad for the U.S. Postal Service, but it is an accurate description for WinterWonderGrass, a one-of-a-kind festival that combines the best of live music with craft beer in a community setting … during the winter. For those hearty enough to brave the elements in the mountains, the reward is an experience like no other, and it's coming to Avon Thursday through Sunday.

What started as a two-day festival in Edwards has grown to a three-day-plus party in Avon, combining the best in bluegrass, craft beer and community into one long weekend. With a kickoff event at the Vilar Performing Arts Center on Thursday and full days of music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday with late night shows to boot, this year's event promises to be bigger than ever. However, the cozy camaraderie and sense of community that sets this event apart is still front and center.

Evolution of bluegrass

The online description of WinterWonderGrass says the festival "is for the heartiest of souls — those with a deep sense of community, a deep respect for Mother Nature and her magical, wintery moods and a deep desire to shake their ass to bluegrass in a blizzard."

No one is arguing with the possibility that a blizzard may descend during a set: just ask Leftover Salmon, which played while the snow flew last year. However, the idea of this being a bluegrass-only festival is not the full story.

"What we do, and what I think is a good representation of the festival, which is why we go together so well, is we take traditional bluegrass instruments — banjo, mandolin, dobro, upright bass, guitar — and use them to create the context of our own original music, which has a lot of influences outside of bluegrass, be it jam bands, rock 'n' roll, all of these other great influences and genres that are out there," said Anders Beck, who plays dobro in the band Greensky Bluegrass.

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"So, while it's inherently bluegrass and always will be because of the instruments that we play it on, it will also be outside of bluegrass, so I think that's what you can expect from us. From us, in general, and from the festival."

Greensky Bluegrass, which also played at WinterWonderGrass in 2013 and 2014, puts on a huge show, one that is often described as a big party with a light show and noise levels as high as any rock or reggae show.

"This is not your grandpa's bluegrass," Beck said.

It's a sentiment echoed by other performers who will take the stage at the festival.

"Bluegrass as a whole has made an incredible resurgence over the last 10 years, and it is constantly changing," said Kellen Asebroek, who plays acoustic guitar (among other instruments) in Fruition. "A lot of bands on the circuit that are called a bluegrass band, if your grandpappy tried to listen to it on his front porch, he'd be like, 'What the hell is this s***? This isn't my bluegrass.' It's definitely all still rooted in that, but bands are taking it way further than it ever could have gone on the front porch."

Greensky Bluegrass is at the top of the scene in that regard, Asebroek said, using bluegrass as a vehicle to explore sounds and create something new.

"I think, musically, it's an adventure," Beck said. "A lot of focus is on our original music, but the other side of that is the improvisation and musical risk-taking and the fact that each song won't be the same as the last time we played it, which is, I think, why people come to see us, multiple nights in a row and go on tour with us and things like that, because you never expect the same thing twice."

Fruition started in a traditional bluegrass setup, Asebroek said, but never really played traditional bluegrass.

"When we started, none of us really listened to bluegrass, but we got put in a bluegrass scene because of our instrumentation as an acoustic band," he said. "You'd probably say it's not like that anymore."

It's more of a rock band, with blues, soul and R&B, according to Asebroek, but one that still meshes well with bluegrass.

"We can dip our toes in the bluegrass scene but totally turn and do our own thing, which is why I think festivals like us," Asebroek said. "I think that's why people like us, because it's varied."

As the festival grows, so do the lineup and the opportunities to discover new artists and sounds. This year's festival includes returning favorites such as Greensky Bluegrass, Leftover Salmon and Fruition, to name a few, as well as some new faces like The Wood Brothers and Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds. Some, like Nahko and Medicine for the People and Andy Thorn and Larry Keel, have performed in Vail before, but this is their first appearance at WinterWonderGrass.

There's no shortage of great music, regardless of the genre with which it might identify.

"We just want to play music, and if people like it, they can call it whatever they want," Asebroek said. "At the end of the day … we just call it good music."

Even more music

This year's festival brings even more music to the valley — some of it indoors. The weekend starts off with the official kickoff party at the Vilar Performing Arts Center today. Beginning with a cocktail reception with beer tastings hosted by the festival's brew partners, attendees will have a chance to meet and mingle with WinterWonderGrass artists during the reception.

The music starts with a performance by Mandolin Orange, Fruition and The WinterWonderGrass All Stars featuring members of Leftover Salmon and special guest Peter Rowan will close out the night.

"It's a hugely amazing, humbling thing for us to be a part of," Asebroek said. "Peter's a living legend; he's written some of the classic songs in bluegrass and folk history and is just an all-around badass. It's a really cool opportunity to get to share the stage with him."

Also new this year is another stage for music, the Soapbox.

Wanting to connect people and take down the walls between not only the audience and bands but people in general, festival founder Scotty Stoughton came up with the idea of the Soapbox stage to get people talking. It's meant to be a place where people can interact and have an open conversation, something that Stoughton feels doesn't happen often enough anymore.

Musicians such as Paul Hoffman, Drew Everett from Leftover Salmon, Dave Simonett and Dave Carroll from Trampled by Turtles and Noam Pilkeny from Punch Brothers will all be playing on this new stage.

"We want people to sit in here and catch up on life, to slow down," Stoughton said. "You'll actually be looking into the eyes of the performer while they look into your eyes, and you can connect on a level that we're just not connecting at anymore."

The Soapbox will feature 30-minute sets on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Other stages include the Pickin' Perch, the Jamboree Tent and the Main Stage.

The beer

Listening to good music can create a mighty thirst, especially when booty shaking is involved. Craft beer has always been a part of WinterWonderGrass (the inaugural event was in the parking lot at Crazy Mountain Brewing Co. in February 2013), and Stoughton said that partnership was deliberate.

"There were some great beer events, but the music element was always in a dark corner," he said. "Or it was a great concert, but the beer was just … mainstream. We wanted to bring the best of the two together."

Crazy Mountain was happy to host the first event and continues to be a part of WinterWonderGrass as one of the presenting brew partners, along with Great Divide Brewing Co. from Denver. What started small has grown: There are more than 15 breweries pouring in the beer tent this year, and a homebrew competition is also part of the mix.

In addition to the pilsners and porters being poured in the beer hall, there also will be creative cocktails that incorporate local, sustainable and organic elements, such as a Yerba Mate cocktail with Breckenridge Distillery bourbon, sustainable wines from Napa Valley and High Country Kombucha, as well as fresh juices from Green Elephant Juicery and handcrafted sodas from Rocky Mountain Soda Co.

So pull out your layers, lace up your dancing shoes and get ready for a weekend of music and libations.

Perhaps Beck put it best: "It's the only festival crazy enough to be in the middle of the winter. It's awesome, and we love it."

WinterWondergrass schedule

Thursday, Feb. 18

6 p.m. — WinterWonderGrass Kickoff Concert, with Fruition and the WinterWonder Grass All-stars, featuring members of Leftover Salmon and special guest Peter Rowan, Vilar Performing Arts Center, $25

Friday, Feb. 19

2 p.m. — Venue opens at Nottingham Park in Avon

2 to 5 p.m. — Happy hour

2:30 p.m. — Main Stage: Horseshoes & Hand Grenades

3:15 p.m. — Pickin’ Perch: Way Down Wanderers; Jamboree Tent: Town Cavalry; Soapbox: Drew Emmitt

3:45 p.m. — Main Stage: Travelin’ McCourys

4:45 p.m. — Pickin’ Perch: Way Down Wanderers; Jamboree Tent: Town Cavalry; Soapbox: Mandolin Orange

5:15 p.m. — Main Stage: Larry Keel’s WinterWonderGrass All-stars

6:15 p.m. — Pickin’ Perch: The Drunken Hearts; Jamboree Tent: The Grant Farm; Soapbox: Mandolin Orange

6:45 p.m. — Main Stage: The Wood Brothers

8 p.m. — Pickin’ Perch: The Drunken Hearts; Jamboree Tent: The Grant Farm; Soapbox: Mandolin Orange

8:30 p.m. — Main Stage: Leftover Salmon

WinterWonderGrass After Dark: live music at three different locations in Avon after the show; tickets sold separately

Agave: The Travelin’ McCourys with special guests and Old Salt Union

Loaded Joe’s: Horseshoes & Hand Grenades with special guests Hardscrabble

Montana’s Smokehouse: Grant Farm with Town Cavalry special guests Vince Herman and Jay Starling. Downstairs: Gipsy Moon and Way Down Wanderers

Saturday, Feb. 20

2 p.m. — Venue opens at Nottingham Park in Avon

2 to 5 p.m. — Happy hour

2:30 p.m. — Pickin’ Perch: Drew Emmitt and Andy Thorn; Jamboree Tent: Horseshoes & Hand Grenades; Soapbox: Billy Strings

3 p.m. — Main Stage: The Lil’ Smokies

4:15 p.m. — Pickin’ Perch: Drew Emmitt and Andy Thorn; Jamboree Tent: Horseshoes & Hand Grenades; Soapbox: Billy Strings

4:45 p.m. — Main Stage: Peter Rowan and Friends

6 p.m. — Pickin’ Perch: Larry Keel; Jamboree Tent: Dustbowl Revival; Soapbox: Dave Carroll and Dave Simonett

6:30 p.m. — Main Stage: Fruition

7:45 p.m. — Pickin’ Perch: Larry Keel; Jamboree Tent: Dustbowl Revival; Soapbox: Dave Carroll and Dave Simonett

8:15 p.m. — Main Stage: Greensky Bluegrass

WinterWonderGrass After Dark: Live music at three different locations in Avon after the show; tickets sold separately

Agave: Fruition, Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds

Loaded Joe’s: Lil’ Smokies & Billy Strings

Montana’s Smokehouse: Dave Simonett & Dave Carroll, plus Jay Roemer Band (downstairs); Drunken Hearts with Andy Thorn & more (upstairs)

Sunday, Feb. 21

2 p.m. — Venue opens at Nottingham Park in Avon

2 to 5 p.m. — Happy Hour

2:30 p.m. — Pickin’ Perch: WinterWonderGrass All Stars; Jamboree Tent: Surprise Set; Soapbox: Beard Mafia

3:15 p.m. — Main Stage: Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds

4:15 p.m. — Pickin’ Perch: WinterWonderGrass All Stars; Jamboree Tent: Surprise Set; Soapbox: Paul Hoffman

4:45 p.m. — Main Stage: Dustbowl Revival

5:45 p.m. — Pickin’ Perch: The Lil’ Smokies; Jamboree Tent: Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line; Soapbox: Noam Pilkeny

6:15 p.m. — Main Stage: Nahko and Medicine for the People

7:30 p.m. — Pickin’ Perch: The Lil’ Smokies; Jamboree Tent: Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line; Soapbox: Noam Pilkeny

8: p.m. — Main Stage: Greensky Bluegrass

WinterWonderGrass After Dark: Live music at three different locations in Avon after the show; tickets sold separately

Agave: Dustbowl Revival, WinterWonder Grass All-Star Jam plus special guests Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line

Find tickets and more information at http://www.winterwondergrass.com.