WINTERGRASS: THE POWER OF INTERACTION AND COLLABORATION
by Percy Hilo
Once again it’s time for one of the finest bluegrass festivals anywhere, and right here in Puget Sound as usual. Yes, ‘grassniks and all other interested parties, Wintergrass will begin its third decade of arts and entertainment in the beautiful, spacious and accommodating environment at the Bellevue Hyatt Regency Hotel from Thursday, February 27th thru Sunday, March 2nd and will provide more than enough good times for everyone. Many of you already know this, but there’s always room for new bluegrass lovers to climb on board. And with so many new performers this year we’re expanding our universe and offering much more for Wintergrass veterans to enjoy as well as providing newbies a wide variety of past and future favorites. BUT FIRST, let’s get some basics out of the way.
The website is www.wintergrass.com, and it’s there that you can get answers to some of the questions that may be on your mind. The Hyatt is almost certainly sold out for rooms (this is true every year – you’ve got to be an early bird) and the website will have a list of various other possibilities. It’s also the place to go to buy tickets (which are probably going very fast, as usual), register for an intensive or register a child for youth programs (all educational programs require an additional fee) and preview the schedule of performances and workshops. Of course, you’ll also find contact info in case you still have a question or two.
SO HOW ABOUT A HELPING HAND, FRIEND?
Another area of the website has volunteer applications, and I’m mentioning them separately because our volunteers are so very important to the success and continuation of the festival. In a very real sense, Wintergrass couldn’t possibly exist without all the helpers in every area imaginable. The on-line application lists all the jobs available and the hours they’re needed as well as the amount of hours required to be a volunteer and gain access to the entire festival. If you love Wintergrass and want to help out, or if you’re poor and still want to get cultured up, or if you have specific skills that would benefit the festival we’d love to hear from you. If you have a need to be included and haven’t been receiving enough yeses in your life, applying to be a Wintergrass volunteer will serve as a temporary remedy and also enable you to meet kindred spirits with whom you may find other endeavors in common and form relationships that go far beyond a simple weekend of good culture and enjoyment. I’ve found in my 16 years of volunteering that it’s more than a job, it’s a joy and has always made its own contribution to the high quality of my experience. I believe the same will be true for you.
A FESTIVAL WITHOUT SPONSORS? FORGET ABOUT IT!
A large attendance goes a ways toward a successful festival, but in almost all cases (including ours) sponsors are an integral part of the equation. We need them, and fortunately we have them. Better yet, most are already bluegrass admirers and active in the local music scene above and beyond the mere business of providing for our musical needs. D’Addario, Rayco Guitars and Northfield Mandolins are helping us out, so when you’re shopping for products that they carry why not give them the business and let them know that you appreciate their contribution. We’re also proud to have Orvis Sporting Goods and Hale’s Ales on board, so now you can buy that uniform, glove or whatever from Orvis to play with (or have your kid play with) and after playing or watching go to Hales and relax with a brew. We’re also most humbly grateful to the City of Bellevue for being with us and the Hyatt for more than just the accommodations – they’ve been into our mission from the beginning and have always made us feel right at home.
Of course you would, and we couldn’t possibly be more in favor of that. It’s not a folk festival of any kind unless there are ample spaces and opportunities to join with old and new friends and share the pleasure of the culture while making your own good time. This jamming is exactly what separates folk cultures from classical, jazz and other forms in that not only can you do it too, but including the common folk picker and singer is what our culture is really about. There are plenty of performances and we know you’ll catch (quite) a few, but it’s a more complete weekend when you make your own music as well as watching the pros do it. For myself, as I ramble about the hotel I notice that the overall atmosphere is always higher when there’s lots of jamming in the lobbies along with the scheduled performances. And the instrument check is open long hours so you can ditch that thing when you want to. So why not travel from workshop to lobby to venue and receive the full treatment?
It’s not enough to simply enjoy a festival. We always want to take something new home with us, and not just CDs or good memories. We want to learn something new, however small, that will help us expand our house of music and open the door to possibilities beyond what is currently in our bag. This is a universal desire, and Wintergrass has been on board since the get-go. Let’s start with little people! The Youth Academy is for 7-14 year olds, focuses on beginning and intermediate players and culminates in a main stage performance on Friday evening. The Wintergrass Youth Orchestra is for middle and high school string orchestra players and provides them the opportunity to play alternate styles of music under the direction of American Strings Association President Bob Phillips. They will learn arrangements from Vasen, The Kruger Brothers and Rushad Eggleston and will perform with them at the Sunday morning concert. PintGrass is for 4-6 year olds who are musically inclined, and Youth Academy Teacher Training is for skilled players ages 14-21 to encourage showmanship, ensemble work and prepare for teaching possibilities. The children are always the future and we do what we can to prepare them for it. As previously mentioned, these classes require an additional expense and all information is available at www.wintergrass.com.
As for you big people, workshops on a wide variety of instruments, vocals, songwriting, forming bands, business acumen and so forth will be held all day Thursday the 27th and Friday all morning and early afternoon. If you desire more than just a general session, a number of intensives will be held on Thursday and be taught by some of our excellent performers. Among them will be vocal harmony with Tim & Mollie O’Brien, mandolin with Emory Lester and Nyckelharpa with Olov Johansson. The regular workshops are part of your purchase of a festival ticket; the intensives cost $55 for 6 of them and $100 for harmony and songwriting. And of course the website will reveal times, prices and rooms, etc. So we hope that as many of you as possible will add a new piece of knowledge to your festival experience, and in doing so become a more complete player and cultural practitioner than before.
I know, I know. You’ve been reading paragraph after paragraph wondering when I’d get to the stage acts, but it was worth the wait. Our theme, The Power Of Interaction and Collaboration, relates to several acts that have been prepared solely for Wintergrass or are a partnership of various players who are on vacation from regular bands. Chris Thile received a large genius grant and has taken time off from The Punch Brothers to compose and form a temporary duo with fellow mandolin giant Mike Marshall, which should be delightful. Another temporary act will be Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, who will present a songwriter/singer/instrumental set. Another Punch Brother, Chris Eldridge, will team with Julian Lage for a jazzy set with two guitars. Beats Workin’ (Prairie Home Companion’s Peter Ostroushko with locals Mike Dowling, David Lange and Cary Black) will present new works commissioned by Wintergrass specifically for this festival, and Ramblin Rooks is a 4-piece configuration featuring already renowned players such as Don Rigsby and Kenny Smith. These are all “temporary” acts and will give attendees the privilege of enjoying some music that may never be played anywhere else. This is a rare blessing and could make for unique memories.
Another way of making sure that scheduling doesn’t get stagnant is to invite new bands to the festival and I can’t recall a year when so many new musical spirits have been with us. Town Mountain is a young ‘grass quintet that has been named the IBMA’s (International Bluegrass Music Association) best emerging artist of 2013. Dailey & Vincent are graduates of the Doyle Lawson school of gospel and tight harmony and will bring a 7-piece band with them. Elephant Revival is a youngish band of guys and gals who bring a washboard and clogs, among other treats. The Milk Carton Kids are two young singer/songwriters who have wonderful harmonies and a Simon and Garfunkel-like feeling. Mark Johnson & Emory Lester are a banjo/mandolin duo and we will get to hear Clawgrass, an original banjo style that Mark created. Front Country is a California 5-piece that features fine originals, excellent versions of standards and includes the likes of Utah Phillips in their repertoire. The Lil’ Smokies are a jamgrass band from Montana who take a bluegrass base and have fun going so many places with it. The Scott Law Band is a 3-piece featuring David Grisman’s son Sam on bass and Jack Dwyer on mandolin – they play Scott’s originals. Ricky Gene Powell & Acoustic Laboratory present a set of mixed ‘grass and swing. And finally, Top String (three of them named Top) are a 4-piece family band who are former Youth Academy students who’ve graduated to our stages and give evidence of the purpose and quality of our Wintergrass Youth Education Programs. It’s hard to imagine how you’ll be able to wrap your head around all this new, beautiful and exciting music but we’re sure you’ll find a way!
And of course we always welcome back our many veteran musician friends who’ve brightened up our stages for all these years. The aforementioned Mike Marshall/Chris Thile and Darrell Scott/Tim O’Brien are already worth the price of admission. Vasen with its beautiful Nordic tunes and The Kruger Brothers’ instrumental originals with a ‘grassy feel are always a welcome change of pace. So is the incredibly unique Rushad Eggleston with his solo cello (vet of several Wintergrass bands), made up languages and dancing; he’ll be doing workshops as well as Youth Orchestra. Joe Craven is another amazing multi-instrumentalist whose stage setup looks like a garage sale; he is always entertaining as well as a fine teacher of our youth programs. The Duhks are a high-energy band that features many originals and powerful lead vocals in a stage act that is just plain fun. Modern Grass from Nova Scotia plays traditional ‘grass and swing and was well-received in their 2012 Wintergrass debut. Matuto, who was also a success in last year’s debut returns with high-energy Brazilian songs with a ‘grassy feel. Mollie O’Brien is always a vocal delight and has Rich Moore in tow (also a workshop on harmony with brother Tim). The Cleverlys offer humorous and entertaining ‘grassy versions of pop songs. The Barn Door Slammers are a 7-piece swing band from Oregon who’ll play the dance stage only. Downtown Mountain Boys are a local first-rate, high-energy quintet with great vocalists and soloists who always entertain. And Kevin Pace & the Early Edition are a 5-piece from eastern Washington who’ll play a gospel set at the Sunday morning concert. To find out just who’ll be on which stage at which time, all you have to do is go to www.wintergrass.com and it’s all there. And as usual, you can close your eyes and point to anything on the schedule and know that it’s first-rate and up to Wintergrass’s exacting standards for bluegrass and all-around excellence in entertainment.
So there you have it – an unbeatable weekend of bluegrass and related cultures that will make for a jolly good time and many a fine memory. Save your money, make sure your instrument is in shape, get on the website, get there early and stay late. We look forward to seeing as many of our extended family as possible for our musical/cultural gangbang and social, and we’ll be doing all we can to make everything as convenient and wonderful as possible.
(All comments welcome. Percy Hilo, email@example.com and 206-784-0378206-784-0378.)