The WinterWonderGrass Festival in Squaw Valley and was an incredible way to close out winter and celebrate the coming of spring in the Tahoe region.
Beers flowed, rugs were cut and beautiful music was made as the sold-out crowd partied through the weekend.
“This festival really is perfect,” said Conor Kantwill, a Virginian who flew all the way out to Tahoe to attend the festivities. “I get free beer, the crowds are small, and I am right in the middle of all this amazing music.”
It is hard to argue with this sentiment. Hopefully the success of the first festival in Squaw Valley has paved the way for many more incarnations of the festival as the years go on.
WinterWonderGrass 2015 was an memorable event that saw many fine bands ignite the crowds on both the mainstage and in the beer tents. Below are reviews of a show from each day that seemed to stand out a little more than the rest.
After a day of festivities, many gathered Friday night to see how Virginia’s Infamous Stringdusters would close out the first day of WinterWonderGrass. Well, it burned the place down in typical Stringduster fashion.
The five members of Infamous Stringdusters are a fist of furious bluegrass passion, able to blend the traditional stylings of the genre with a desire to push their instruments past bluegrass conventions. This leads to many songs that are jammed out and focused on the interplay between different instruments, rather than traditional next-in-line soloing.
“Black Rock” was a triumphant instrumental stomp, led by the quickfire Dobro playing by Andy Hall which stretched into the Squaw Valley night. “Well, Well” was a glorious vehicle for the band’s musicianship and Hall, Andy Falco (guitar), Chris Pandolfi (banjo), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle) and Travis Book (upright bass) each took turns drawing smiles from the crowd.
The joy the band had playing together for the appreciative crowds was evident. They all moved around the stage, crowding around and encouraging the musician whose turn it was to whip the audience into a frenzy with their solo. They were a fluid force who used the crowd’s excitement to add fuel to their fire. Furthermore, in addition to their tremendous abilities on their instruments, all band members have the ability to sing, though Book and Garrett have particularly warm voices. The mountaintop-gospel of “Let It Go” in which the band sang in five-part harmonies, was a powerful moment and one of the highlights of the festival.
The Infamous Stringdusters brought Sam Bush on mandolin to the stage late in the set to enthusiastic cheers from the crowd. Bush was a pioneer in turning traditional bluegrass on its head and it seemed only natural to incorporate him into the Stringdusters’ fold. He was all smiles as they poured into a handful of songs that saw the band weaving in and out of jams harmoniously. With the addition of Bush’s mandolin, the Stringdusters created a giant string instrument sound that could not be silenced. It is not every day one’s sees all the major bluegrass instruments pumping on stage together at once and it was certainly a special moment to behold. At the end of their set, the members of the Infamous Stringdusters took a group photo with Bush and the rest of the festival organizers to commemorate the night. It was certainly something to remember and an amazing way to conclude the first night of WinterWonderGrass.
If you want a no-holds-barred musical fracas, one of the top contenders to play would have to be Oakland’s California Honeydrops. It brought a New Orleans jazz party to Squaw Valley on Saturday afternoon which reflected the sunny disposition of the day.
The Honeydrops are a happy bunch of guys, evident by the constant smiling, laughing, and in-the-groove facial contortions. The leader of this jubilant gang is the soulful Lech Wierzynkski on vocals and trumpet. He led the crowd in a singalong to the group’s flirty anthem “When It Was Wrong” like it was a small house party. His vocals are sprightly and doused in the ’60s soul of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. It is always amazing to note that amazing voice grew up in Warsaw, Poland to Polish refugees.
The music continued as the Honeydrops dipped into their street-party catalog of rumpshakers. The funky “Like This, Like That”, off of the band’s latest release, “Like You Mean It”, moved the crowd in merry unison. The sultry “Carolina Peach” milked those fruity innuendos for all they were worth to a delightful backporch soul rhythm. The band played the Mardi Gras anthem “Do Whatcha Wanna” an extended it into a raucous dance party. Wierzynkski and company soaked up all the good vibes they were receiving from the crowd and happily bobbed along with the growing crowd. The band leader was happy to talk and interact with the crowd and thanked everyone for showing up to the show constantly. It is hard to deny the infectious fun of the California Honeydrops and most of the concert attendants were dancing with the band in front of the stage by shows end.
When the band left the stage after a thrilling extended New Orleans jazz number, the crowd erupted into enthusiastic praise. It was some of the loudest and persistent applause of the weekend and the Honeydrops were visibly appreciative for the crowd’s warmth. It is always the right decision to attend a California Honeydrops concert and WinterWonderGrass made the right decision to include this fun-loving group in the schedule. It may not be bluegrass but it is definitely a good time.
It was supposed to be WinterWonderGrass, but Sunday afternoon brought only rain, not snowy wonder. A balmy and wet day was certainly not what concertgoers would describe as an ideal day, but Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers made the best of the situation and turned it into a wet and wild party.
As rain and ice began to fall from the skies and attendants began to take cover in the beer tents Bluhm strutted out in a floor-length green velour dress like a meadow queen and immediately ripped into the country-soul rock of “Little Too Late,” the hit single off the band’s self-titled debut album. Right away, the energy of the band was potent enough to bring numerous people out from under the tents to sing and dance in the rain.
As the band turned up the volume of their roots rock party, the rain seemed to come down harder. But Bluhm and the band kept the crowd’s spirits high. “Stick With Me” was a rollicking country hoedown duet between Bluhm and her husband and Gramblers guitarist Tim Bluhm. The rocking “Mr. Saturday Night” brought the energy of the crowd up as people raised their beer filled glasses in appreciation. The band also debuted a couple of songs from their upcoming April release “Loved Wild Lost,” including the Tom Petty-esque “Heartache.”
The band played a scorching cover of “Don’t You Want Somebody To Love” before bringing up Sam Bush to add his musical talents to the party. Bush fit right in on fiddle and added a nice bluegrass touch to the organic rock of Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers. By the time the band’s set was over the rain had ceased, for the time being, the Gramblers had turned in one of the highlight sets of the week and earned a couple more fans for their resilience and tenacity.