No April Fools — WinterWonderGrass festival is well under way.
When Greensky Bluegrass took the main stage on Friday’s opening night, John Skehan of Railroad Earth was posing as Greensky’s lead singer, Paul Hoffman. Members of Fruition and The Lil’ Smokies helped complete an April Fools’ Day version of “Windshield” during the band’s opening set.
All fun aside, it was a monumental opening day of the festival’s second installment on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe.
With two days left to enjoy the magic, why wait? Head on over to take in some gorgeous spring skiing, and then catch headliners Railroad Earth, with festival favorites Elephant Revival, Dustbowl Revival and newcomers Mandolin Orange slated to open at 3 p.m. on Saturday. Sunday features Leftover Salmon, preceded by Les Claypool’s Duo De Twang, Travelin’ McCourys and Shook Twins.
Friday afternoon’s opening show unfolded beneath gorgeous, sunny skies and spring-like temperatures, on an intimate-sized main stage flanked by two enormous black bears (emblazoned on the California Republic flag, stages left and right) – just to make sure everyone knew they were at the Tahoe event, and not the mother ship held in Colorado.
A warm welcome from an appreciative crowd awaited The Lil’ Smokies, hailing from Missoula, Montana. A powerful rising force in the progressive acoustic sphere, this six-member ensemble featured the melodic, honeyed voice of lead singer and dobro player Andy Dunnigan, alongside fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, guitar and banjo compatriots. From the fittingly heart-wrenching and masterfully picked cover of Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” to the sympathetic harmonies, impassioned jams and final notes of their fine set, The Lil’ Smokies made an indelible mark on WinterWonderGrass’ main stage.
Scott Law and Ross James’ Cosmic Twang took the stage next, blasting through a “greatest hits” set of Americana and rock-n-roll favorites. Featuring guest fiddler Tim Carbone from Railroad Earth, and Fruition’s drummer and bass player, Tyler Thompson and Jeff Leonard, they opened with the blues-rock standard, “Sittin’ On Top of the World.” Trading off lead vocals, James and Law showcased their respective guitar talents, versatile repertoires and storytellers’ voices. A cover of “Get it While You Can” morphed into “Big Railroad Blues,” as the group twanged and plucked, hummed and roared through a high-energy set of psychedelic country-rock. Deceptively simple instrumentation sank into a swampy, deep-Elem kind of groove – for pretty much no one (living) can pick the Dead (Jerry) better than Scott Law. Sure enough, not three songs later, “Deep Elem Blues” sprang from the guitars. Jay Cobb from Fruition then joined the band onstage, as they plowed through rocking versions of “Moonshiner” and “Mercury Blues,” leaving the swelling crowd hungry for more (thank goodness for Late Night shows to satisfy that craving).
Around the festival site, smaller stages featured lesser-known (though no less fantastic) acts, including Gipsy Moon from Colorado, in the Jamboree Tent. (Tip: don’t skip these stages in between the main acts: last year’s side-stage acts landed on main stage this year.) Sultry vocals backed by accompanying guitar, upright bass, mandolin, and viola defined the steaming, pseudo-flamenco, groove this four-star lineup conjured. Jay Cobb (from Fruition) commanded the Soap Box stage with some incredible harmonica playing, boogie-woogie style, knee-scissoring dance moves and all! The guy is incredible – shades of PigPen – with his powerful harp playing and showmanship. Another fine ensemble, Good Time Travelers, kept toes tapping and dancers twirling in between the evening acts. Never a dull moment at WinterWonderGrass.
Food booths galore tempt the palate, from Moe’s Original Bar B Que to local crepes and yummy Thai curries, plus two beer gardens, and lots of open space for kids to romp and play (which they do, and did), as well as hula-hoopers, fire dancers, and a sea of tie-dye all around to soothe and please the eye. A merchandise tent features CDs from all the musicians on site – so don’t miss out on some favorite band body art (T-shirts, hats) and great music to take home as souvenirs.
Back on the main stage, The Brothers Comatose turned in a masterful performance, as ever (one of the acts to move from last year’s beer tent to the Main Stage). All smiles, and jamming at top speed, featuring their gorgeous harmonies and clever, catchy songwriting, these San Francisco locals are now entrenched local favorites. From their new one, “If I Had a Million Dollars,” to the sensitive cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” (which they always dedicate to her), it was a satisfying performance through and through.
Headliners for Friday’s show, Greensky Bluegrass took the stage just after dark, and I’m telling you: we’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy, and this ain’t no bluegrass music, though played entirely on acoustic instruments, without the rhythmic support of a drummer. No matter: these five, mostly self-taught musicians have mastered what Jerry initiated – that fertile cross-fertilization between acoustic and rock music, leading the audience on an inspirational, frenzied journey of improvisation and intense jamming and singing.
Blistering rock and roll, with sensitive, well-crafted melodies and cogent, poetic lyrics, Greensky’s music is as inspiring as it is infectious. Firing through several favorites from their new album, including “Burn Them,” and “Wings for Wheels,” their music is the best of exploratory and genre-melding, with impassioned singers Paul Hoffman (mandolin) and Dave Bruzza (guitar) leading the charge. Embraced in a tight crowd that swayed as one, smiles aglow reflecting stars in the night sky above us, everyone thrilled to the encore, a cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” Hardcore. Like I said, this is and isn’t “bluegrass,” per se, but damn, it’s good. Make that great.