If you didn’t know, Winter Wondergrass took place in Steamboat Springs this year. I don’t know about you, but I don’t necessarily think, “Oh fun!” when I think of February nights outside on a mountain freezing my ass off just to hear some live music. But I sucked it up and ventured out this year to see what the hype was all about. As it turns out, WWG is absolutely fun and yeah, you are pretty much freezing cold the whole time. But there was a lot of string picking, a lot of banjo bangin’ and mandolin shredding, and a lot of beer and whiskey drinkin’ people having a blast.
On the first night of the festival, people seemed a bit unsure and disoriented, as though they too were wondering what compelled them to come to an outdoor music festival in the middle of winter with temperatures dropping down to, yeah, just about zero degrees. I eased into it by heading for one of the three heated tents on the festival grounds. Gipsy Moon was scheduled to play at the Soapbox Tent, so I prepared myself for a musical journey around the globe while standing in three layers of clothing. They played two sets, so I stuck around for both and kept warm. For the final stretch of the first night I made my way to the main stage for Leftover Salmon. It was my first time seeing them live and I gotta say these dudes are a lot of fun to watch as they made sure to keep people moving.
I couldn’t feel my fingers after taking a few pictures in the photo pit during their set, so I went looking for heat. Right by the SmartWool Tent, there were a couple of propane fire pits, so I posted myself there, still able to see the main stage. You know what’s really cool about a freezing winter music festival? You’ll make room around the fire for your fellow freezing music lovers, meet their acquaintances, and realize you all probably met somewhere in a past life.
Saturday was freezing. It snowed the entire day and night, making for a very winter wondergrass- I mean wonderland- vibe. I got to the festival in time for happy hour beer tastings and Grant Farm on the main stage. I hung out sippin’ some Oskar Blues watching the main stage from the sidelines when my old friend Taj walked by. We chatted for a bit and he told me to check out The Deer, who were playing at the SoapBox Tent in a few minutes. He manages the band, as it turns out. Desperately wanting to find warmth again, I made my way there. The Deer started to play and I wasn’t disappointed. They call their music “transcendental Texas folk.” They’re from Austin, TX and though their lead vocalist Grace Park could front an indie band with her style, she was sandwiched between a mandolin player, Noah Jeffreys, and an upright bassist, Jesse Dalton, which brought the bigger picture back into focus. And that picture was of course bluegrass.
Fruition played the main stage in the afternoon that day, by which time the snowfall gained momentum, crowding the space with fat snowflakes all around. It made for a cozy Fruition set, and by cozy I mean really cold but magical. My girl Mimi Naja (vocals/mandolin/guitars), greeted us on the mic, “What’s up Colorado! You guys are crazy!” And the band proceeded to rock out with all of us freezing fruity freaks.
After Fruition’s set, it was time to warm up a little. The Lil’ Smokies played a short set at the Soapbox Tent, so I hurried over there. Their mando was loud and clear. The crowd could barely move from all the bodies packed in, but I think everyone was in need of heat. Andy Dunnigan, the band’s main vocalist and dobro player, got the crowd going, and people swayed, heating up the tent even more.
Saturday evening rolled around quickly, and it was time for a short interview with Ben Morrison of The Brothers Comatose. They played two consecutive sets at the Pickin’ Perch Tent and I got to chat with him between them.
“We love to see the crowd get comfortable enough to get down and have a great time. It’s more fun that way,” said Ben, after I acknowledged that The Brothers Comatose are known for putting together sets resembling house shows. He went on, “My brother Alex, who’s the banjo player in our band, and I grew up with our mom and her band rehearsing in our living room. We would sit and watch, enamored at the beautiful harmonies they produced. That’s where we got our inspiration to play.”
Alex and Ben didn’t really listen to bluegrass until later in life. In fact, they played punk rock when they started a band as teenagers. So what changed?
“It’s easier when you don’t have to carry a huge amp and drums and shit. There’s no room for that,” Ben laughed, and then added more seriously, “But really what I realized was that I liked to play the acoustic guitar anytime I was writing a song. And my parents always said I needed to learn to play a song on an acoustic guitar before playing it on an electric.”
We ended our chat with an update on the band- The Brothers Comatose are releasing a bunch of new videos and a mini documentary on the recent Horseback Tour they did back in September, and they’re working on some new music with yet to be revealed big names in the bluegrass music world.
The rest of my Saturday night involved finding the fire pit, chatting with the friends from another life, and then heading back to the condo for a hot tub session to defrost. Most of my crew, however, went to the late night afterparty shows that featured some of the main acts at the festival. I attended one of those on Sunday night.
Sunday was a bluebird, clear skies, mimosas-all-day kind of day, for me anyway, since I didn’t have a ski pass. I got to the festival right in time for The California Honeydrops, who played the main stage as the sun warmed up everyone’s spirit. It was beautiful and hopeful. Then the sun set and it turned back to freezing cold again. But it was ok because we had music to warm us up. Oh, and whiskey, lots of whiskey. I think next year (if I dare go) I’ll dress up as a St. Bernard and carry a barrel of whiskey around my neck.
Elephant Revival hit the main stage next. The thing about the elephants is that they’re magical and they’ll suck you right into their fairytale. Their music is so airy and spiritual that you can’t help but stop and listen. The only problem with stopping at an outdoor music festival in freezing temperatures is that you get get- you guessed it- cold. By the end of Elephant Revival’s set, I found myself in the Jamboree Tent with Dead Horses hoarding the heat vent. It was the coldest night yet.
Railroad Earth closed the final evening of Winter Wondergrass on the main stage, but I was too scared of losing my recently warmed body heat to make it out there. Instead, my friends and I rode the gondola to Thunderhead to check out The Infamous Stringdusters’ afterparty. We were met with a warm, crowded room of festive folk. Feet were stomping, music was grassy and people were jolly. It was a great way to end the festival. The final songs of the night at Thunderhead had the Stringdusters playing with Mimi and Jay from Fruition, Andy Dunnigan from Lil’ Smokies and a few others. It was a celebration: we had all made it through yet another wonderful Winter Wondergrass, snow and all.
PS: Did I mention the festival was sold out this year? Yeah- people seem to really love bluegrass in the winter.
Get tickets to Winter Wondergrass in Tahoe, which happens March 31st-April 2nd here.
All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artist featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.