Winter WonderGrass at Lake Tahoe Returns to Deliver Music, Brews, and Spring Skiing
For the second time, Winter WonderGrass from April 1 to 3 brought a distinctive assemblage of mountaintop adventure-seekers to Northern California for a sweet amalgamation of jam-happy roots and bluegrass music, gnarly craft brews, and mountain views. The setting: pastoral Squaw Valley (image below), the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, near Lake Tahoe.
With celebrated live performers Leftover Salmon (Vince Herman appears below, courtesy of FestiAddict), Railroad Earth, and Greensky Bluegrass leading the way with head-swaying and foot-stomping headlining main-stage sets, Winter WonderGrass provided a glorious locale for about 3,500 appropriate-clothing-layered music fans per day, according to Scott Stoughton, founder of the fest that in February celebrated its fifth such annual event in a similarly awe-inspiring winter setting in Avon, Colorado.
Most valuable players, if such awards were given, would likely have have gone to Railroad Earth’s fabulous fiddler Tim Carbone (pictured below) and former National Flatpicking Champion Tyler Grant, both of whom showed up picking and grinning at seemingly every turn.
“They crushed it,” Stoughton (pictured below) said of Carbone and Grant, who appeared with no ego-driven expectations or fanfare, or the need to lead.
Speaking by phone on the road after the fest, somewhere between his Colorado home and the Grand Canyon where he would lead his next adventure, Stoughton, who indicated that the festival will return to Squaw’s Olympic Village in 2017 (tickets go on sale May 17), reflected upon the weekend and talked about musician attitudes.
“The spirit of Winter WonderGrass is humility,” he said. “They <musicians> show up to serve, not to take. They are always looking for someone else to fill the next slot, but not themselves. We have so many great musicians on the site and we had ‘to be announced’ slots and other loose opportunities to let people to play in the pure sense of the art. It lends itself to inspiration.”
Greensky Bluegrass (the band’s Paul Hoffman is pictured below) presented the most stage-sharing moment of all. In a perfect April Fool’s Day spoof, they had a whole different band, mostly members of Lil’ Smokies and Fruition, with Railroad Earth’s John Skehan to boot, come out and lip-synch the first song before swapping personnel and turning the instruments over to the real band.
Fire dancers, a kids activities area, and other enhancements dotted the scene and contributed to Winter WonderGrass’s overall gestalt.
“We appreciate all art forms, like AcroYoga (below) and teaching the kids,” Staughton said. “They augment the other beautiful elements – the snow, rocks, and water. We planned and organize but I give people artistic freedom to go with the flow and create what they feel is right.”
Another, intangible part of the charm here in addition to the obvious magnificent landscapes, both mountainous and musical, was the vibe. Comfortably crowded–Saturday was sold out, Staughton said, but even then there was room to move about–the bowl-shaped venue at the base of Squaw Valley always felt intimate. Water was provided by large water tank fill stations, the dispensing of which was made easier by the metal Kleen Kanteen cups given to fest attendees.
Away from the main stage, gourmet food vendors (a couple are pictured below), more than last year, dotted the perimeter with high-quality provisions, and festival promoters provided three heat-generated tents, two of which offered myriad beer choices while the other served up hot beverages and soup (view below is from inside of the Soap Box tent). The VIP section, which featured outdoor standing heaters, also had a heated beverage and meal tent in which to lounge.
After each day’s headlining performances—Greensky Bluegrass, which followed The Brothers Comatose (trio below) on Friday; Railroad Earth, which came after Elephant Revival on Saturday; and Leftover Salmon, which followed Les Claypool’s Duo de Twang on Sunday (below, with hat, courtesy of Shala Fredson)—the energy continued with two-act, late-night shows at Squaw’s Olympic Valley Lodge, as well as at Moe’s BBQ, on the lake in Tahoe City. (The Shook Twins are pictured below Claypool, courtesy of FestiAddict.)
And all weekend, neighboring Olympic Village, a classy wintertime destination community pictured below, was thriving with winter sport activities, hotels, shops, bars, restaurants, and fun.
On a side note: for the most part, cigarette smokers kept to the designated areas letting the majority breathe free, as opposed to some festivals that still seem to essentially celebrate the cigarette.
The festival’s irresistible promotion band of “beer, bluegrass, and mountains,” was spot on, with each ingredient deserving a deeper look.
Beer: Sure, every festival serves beer. But the added bonus here was that between 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. daily, attendees were privy to free craft-beer tastings, while supporting bands such as The Shook Twins, Mandolin Orange (the band’s Emily Frantz is pictured below, left), and Scott Law & Ross James’s Cosmic Twang (Scott Law is pictured below, right) carried on at the main stage. One was able to have as many three-ounce cupfuls as desired, though lines for each brew and the small sample cups did keep beer intake, and potential boorish behavior, from getting out of hand. Sixteen California craft-beer brewers were present, including Sierra Nevada, Golden Road, Fifty-Fifty, 21st Amendment, Firestone Walker, and Lagunitas. Samples were served from the massive, Pickin’ Perch Stage (“Pickin’ on The Dead” sets were extremely popular there) and Jamboree Stage tents, which simultaneously presented weekend music acts, many of which also played the main stage.
Bluegrass: While this genre was not represented by pure bluegrass pioneer sounds a la Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs, except for the Travelin’ McCourys who themselves did step out of traditionalist bluegrass tradition for a few crowd-pleasing Grateful Dead tunes, bluegrass WonderGrass-style was more aptly a potpourri of acoustic/electric contemporary roots and bluegrass. This is not to say that performances lacked variety. While each band gave at least a nod to bluegrass and some delivered sounds closer to the traditional genre than others, each band’s jammy take on progressive bluegrass, circa 2016, was compelling to behold. It was also a three-revival fest, with Dustbowl Revival, Elephant Revival, and Trout Steak Revival all delivering their unique allures and charms. (Below, top-left: Dustbowl Revival; below, top-right: Aimee Anderson of Paige Anderson & the Fearless Kin; below, middle-left: Scott Law & Ross James’s Cosmic Twang, with Tim Carbone; below, middle-right: Lil’ Smokies; below, bottom left: Elephant Revival’s Bridget Law, courtesy of FestiAddict; bottom, right: Elephant Revival’s Bonnie Paine, courtesy of FestiAddict).
Mountains: An abundance of snow surrounding the bowl-shaped festival site provided an idyllic winter wonderland setting that was fairly missing from last year’s snow-drought-stricken WonderGrass environs. And while the snow allowed top-notch spring skiing and snowboarding conditions for those that purchased a “music and mountain” festival pass–more than 75 open trails on a mountain that received over 400 inches of snow over the winter—daytime conditions at the 6,200-foot festival’s base level were downright balmy. The unseasonably warm weather allowed many festivalgoers to romp around in shirt-sleeves and open shoes, at least by day, and at noon on Saturday, Fruition and the Grant Farm played sets atop one of the ski lifts at about 9,000 feet. At night, the chill did come quickly, with music fans donning additional, and fashionable, insulating garments. (Below, left: Lake Tahoe; below, right: Truckee River.)
“The weather couldn’t have better,” Staughton said. “But people are coming for the music and the experience and that includes me. We prepare for driving snowstorms, and then we would graciously deal with it; we are all in it together. Locals had such a great time last year when it was sleeting and snowing and they were braving the elements.”
More, assorted WonderGrass Tahoe images below:
Photojournalist Alan Sheckter has been chronicling music events for more than 25 years. He has been pleased to have been the California WorldFest staff photographer since 2002. His work can be viewed at www.pbase.com/alansheckter/music and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alan appreciates photo contributions from Marissa of FestiAddict and from Shala Fredson, as noted.