The leaves are turning color, the air is starting to crisp and the pumpkin beer is on a steady flow. For many across the nation, the hustle and bustle of the summer festival season ends with the setting of the Labor Day sun and they must hibernate until tank-top weather returns. Yet here in the tiny mountain town of Placerville, California, we can still dance to the devil’s music one more time at Hangtown Music Festival.
This weekend, Oct. 20-23, thousands will ascend into the Sierra Nevada to experience one of the most intimate and thriving music festivals in the country. Formerly known as the Hangtown Halloween Ball, it is more of a communal homecoming than a festival. It was founded in part by local Ryan Kronenberg along with producers of High Sierra Music Festival and has grown organically into a mountain party for people from the shores of San Francisco Bay to the shores of Lake Tahoe. With three different stages bringing the heat from 20-plus artists, including coveted late-night sets, and a costume theme for each day (Chromotopia, Hydrofunky, Zoobadooba, HellaStella), Hangtown is a place to live and let live.
The festival always has brought some of the biggest national touring acts together with standout regional artists and this year is no different. Acting as festival hosts, Railroad Earth again tops the bill and will headline three nights with large helpings of its eclectic roots music. Other headliners include the enriching Nahko and Medicine for the People and sax maestro Karl Denson and his Tiny Universe performing Prince’s “Dirty Mind” with Angelo Moore from Fishbone. Other heavy hitters include Infamous Stringdusters, Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, Dead Winter Carpenters (Thursday night and Friday afternoon), Twiddle and TAUK.
It’s an impressive collection of artists from across the many facets of the jam scene. When you sift through the lineup even deeper you realize there is gold to be found up in those Placerville hills, much like there was in 1850. Here are five of those golden nuggets.
Medeski Martin & Mad Skillet, Oliver Wood w/Jano Rix and the Hangtown Allstars
When bassist Chris Wood was sent to emergency surgery early this week, it seemed the much anticipated reunion of Medeski, Martin & Wood and brother troupe The Wood Brothers was doomed. Thankfully, Wood’s surgery went well and festival organizers put together two once-in-a-lifetime ensembles to fill the void. Kirk Joseph of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (tuba) and Will Bernard (guitar) will join John Medeski and Billy Martin to form Medeski Martin & Mad Skillet to scorch some MMW classics and a couple of covers. Additionally, Oliver Wood & Jano Rix of the Wood Brothers will be joined by Ric Robertson from The Rondo Rigs on bass to present Wood Brothers’ tunes and and will feature performances by Nicki Bluhm, Joe Craven, Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth and members of The Infamous Stringdusters. The badass Wood is certainly going to be missed, but you can’t deny the power of seeing all these different musicians play together.
Speaking of the power of seeing super ensembles, Incidental Animals will be on tap this weekend for glorious jams. A who’s-who of jam scene dignitaries, Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz will be joined by ALO mates Dave Brogan and Steve Adams along with String Cheese Incident keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth and Trey Anastasio Band vocalist/trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick. The group has toured in fits and starts since its inception in 2013, but it has always had a dedicated following. Drawing from the diverse catalogs of ALO and SCI, there is sure to be some deep-seated jams and off-the-cuff improvisation that will have the crowd downing pint after pint of the good stuff.
The Brothers Comatose
The coolest people are always in the band. No matter where you go, the people you want to hang out with are the ones slinging their instruments on the porch, toasting beers to the crowd and having the time of their lives. The Brothers Comatose are the cool ones you’ve seen and heard about. The Bay Area bluegrass boys have been stirring up good times for years behind raucous string breakdowns and singalongs that border on screamalongs. The release of its latest album, “City Painted Gold,” captures that spirit in full and will certainly shoot them higher into the musical stratosphere. Their sterling harmonies and playing will echo fantastically across the tops of the trees and you’ll want to be up floating right along with them.
Gene Evaro Jr.
From the alchemous sands of Joshua Tree comes the rattling, desert funk of Gene Evaro Jr. The guitarist and singer is riding a high this year behind the release of his latest album “Too Good To Believe,” which sums up perfectly the way your body will feel when you step in front of Evaro’s wall of funk. A little bit of Sly, a little bit of Joe Walsh, a little bit of Allen Stone, a little bit of mysticism, Evaro has created a potent potion to bring to the Sierra Nevada. His crack live show has found its way to some of the bigger stages this summer, like Lighting In A Bottle and High Sierra Music Festival, and his presence at Hangtown will light a fire in the crowd.
Horseshoes and Hand Grenades
Get you flannel, get your beer and get your dancing shoes ready ’cause Horseshoes and Hand Grenades are going to kick up some dust. The five Wisconsinites are rooted in bluegrass and old-time folk and rag and whoop it up at every stage they come across. Their fiery playing will leave you tryin’ to play catch up, before they slow it down to a nice easy river of strings that you can dip your toes into. Since placing third at the Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition, they’ve shared the stage with Trampled By Turtles, Travelin’ McCourys, Yonder Mountain String Band and more, a testament to the music they are crafting up there in Wisconsin and spreading to the world. The band is just there to enjoy the music and people at Hangtown, exactly what everyone is there for, so get in there and enjoy.
Ticket packages for one, two, three or all four days are available on the event’s website: http://hangtownfestival.com/