Sun, 04/10/2016 - 10:10 am

As I pulled off Interstate 80 and saw the sun shining through clear skies, glistening on the snow filled mountains I knew we were in for a treat with the 2nd Annual WinterWonderGrass Tahoe festival.

3 Day tickets to the festival provided you a Klean Canteen Pint Glass for all your drinking needs and the perfect way to reduce cup waste. Beer in general is a big part of this event, sponsors Sierra Nevada Brew Co. and Golden Road Brewing poured their best brews causing you to want to try a new brew each time you made it the bar. Guests from Stone Brewery from San Diego, 50/50 from Truckee, Lagunitas out of Petaluma, North Coast Brewing out of Fort Bragg, were just a few of the tasty beers being poured during the festival’s complimentary tasting portion. Absolutely nothing beats tasting free beer while listening to great bands play just a few feet away on one of the bands smaller tent stages, a win win for beer loving festival goers.

Each tasting tent held a smaller stage for talented musicians to play for the crowds in between the main stage acts. Friday began with Gipsy Moon, Paige Anderson, and Jay Cobb before the Lil Smokies started the main stage performances for the weekend. This format more or less was repeated every day, making the flow from main stage to smaller stages easy to traverse and kept the music playing non-stop something you typically can’t find at large festivals..

Highlights from Day 1 were the WWG All-Stars and Good Time Travelers. On the main stage the Lil Smokies from Montana warmed it up good for Scott Law and his collection of musicians, Cosmic Twang. He filled the stage with incredible talent and a variety of types of tunes. Next up the Trout Steak Revival, a previous winner of the Telluride Bluegrass Contest, had a beer tent packed and had the crowds moving wildly, they quickly became a finalist in my best of show category this year. As the sun began to set behind the mountain and the gloves went on, San Francisco’s Brother’s Comatose brought crowds from the warm tents immediately the energy of the festival set itself for a weekend to remember. No wonder why this growing band just recently sold out the Fillmore a few weeks prior, the liveliness these guys brought performing old favorites and tunes from their new album had crowds singing along and excited for headliners Greensky Bluegrass.

As Greensky’s hit song “Windshield” began and crowds rushed to the main stage in cheers for another memorable performance, we all sang along to this smash hit until we quickly were confused that lead singer and mandolin player, Paul Hoffman’s hair had suddenly gone grey, where was Dave’s mustache… oh wait, all the band members looked a little off. Oh yes, it was still April’s Fools Day, we were fooled, but happy when the band walked on stage to get the show going.

Greensky Bluegrass has been heading festivals more and more and there no question why. The energy and force to which they play is incredible. They are tight, clean, fast and furious fun. They kept their April Fools going by bringing special guests up with false names, and had the crowd convinced we were singing along to their last song, until they revealed they had several more songs up their sleeve. The show culminated with an encore some of us will never forget, especially in this interesting election time, as they ripped both the vocals and their instruments playing Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” What a first day it was.

Although Saturday’s sunny afternoon skies had our spirits high, we were all still drawn into the beer tents as Gipsy Moon, Good Time Travelers, and the Lil Smokies rocked the tent sessions. We were even blessed with the WWG All-Stars giving us a special performance on the new Soap Box stage. Up and coming band Mandolin Orange, opened the main stage with a roar, and became another finalist in my best of show category. WWG veterans, Dustbowl Revival traveling from LA sure did bring the dancing out on Saturday! As as their infamous horns played, they make it impossible not to dance. There is no question why this band has quickly become a California festival staple.

As the night chill began to roll in as did, it fit perfectly with the elegant and powerfully tender Elephant Revival. The talented instruments only make the unique voices of this group stand out even more, I woke up wanting to hear more which ironically is the way I feel every time I watch them perform. Closing out the night was festival favorite Railroad Earth, noodling us into the darkness of day 2.  Although a mellower set than I have seen in other festivals, there was no denying their incredible talent shined through their ever so fast moving fingers, bringing the fun that they always do. We again got to see legendary Fiddle player Tim Carbone sit in as he did with many bands this year.

Sunday it felt only right to get a day on the slopes before the fun began. Sunny skies, light winds, and bluegrass piping through the speakers made for the perfect way to start day 3. We even boarded through a short set at the top of the mountain for the video crews of WinterGrass…Again, can it get any better?

The day got even better when the Shook Twins took the stage. My second time seeing them and can already predict them to climb up the festival line-ups towards the top, as they did not disappoint. The “Pickin Perch” stage had smiles going all day as Pickin the Dead, played us a collection of Dead tunes all day long. The other small stage featured a new band for me, Horseshoes and Hand Grenade. After hearing from another fan they opened for Greensky Bluegrass I could see why and look forward to hearing them again. One of my new favorites Mandolin Orange continued to wow me between sets of the Travelin McCourys’ and Les Claypool’s Duo De Twang.

As longtime fan of Del McCoury, hearing the Tavelin McCourys’ play is always such a treat. The traditional sound mixed with a bit of jam is just what I love best about the band. Tight would be a loose term for how well they play, razor sharp would be more accurate and their traditional bluegrass sound mixed with a bit of jam played through the mountains for a dynamic performance. Legendary bassist Les Claypool and Bryan Kehoe followed by bringing the stomping back in. Les to me, is an enigma and an incredible musician. His duo reminds me of roadhouse rock and roll with a thick stench of that good kind of Claypool-umph. Closing out the night in the most eclectic musical fashion was Leftover Salmon. The influence of the band is undeniable. They can go from bluegrass to Cajun to rock and back again in the blink of an eye and make it all sound so smooth. Drew Emmitt on mandolin is a pleasure to watch and will always be one of all-time favorite mandolin players.

WinterWonderGrass Tahoe is an intimate festival in the best kind of way. The gorgeous mountain scenery and sunny skies only set the background for the feeling of togetherness and fun that was being had. From dancing children all around you to tasty beer warming you up, there is truly something for everyone. The staff not only executed the festival logistics perfectly, but their careful selection of great musicians is what will keep me coming back. If you get the chance to make it up the Sierras to Winter Wondergrass in Tahoe or even in Colorado, you will be in for a real tasty treat.

Check out more photos from WinterWonderGrass Tahoe.

Sat, 11/05/2016 - 5:16 pm

Sitting at the base of the mountains in Placerville, California, High Sierra’s sister festival Hangtown Music Festival covered 4 days of festivities which included beer tasting, meditation, yoga, costumes, but most of all, for the rock solid line up of diverse musicians. El Dorado County Fairgrounds opened its door with a freshly titled, Hangtown Music Festival. They may have dropped the Halloween Ball from their name, but that certainly didn’t slow down the party of twirling costumes under sunny skies and cool mountain air all weekend long.

Our plan to start the festival with the indoor shows on Thursday quickly changed when a bomb threat and an RV Fire completely shut down two highways in the Bay Area. We didn’t make it in time, but word on fairgrounds was it was the perfect warm up for the fun to come. Plagued by rain over the years, the warm Indian summer skies had us toastier than planned this year. Having missed last year, the addition of a 3rd stage in the main area was an unexpected treat as there was no room for silence with a constant transition from one band to next greeted our ears each day.

Friday, Pink Talking Fish took to the main stage for a fusion of Phish, Talking Heads and Pink Floyd songs. What a fun band to see live and make everyone feel at home. Tight playing and good energy had everyone revved up for more. Horseshoes & Hand Grenades followed with a full throttle set of new and old bluegrass through just one centered microphone. A special shout out to their ripping harmonica player, holstering several harmonicas and yet never missing a note.

Pimps of Joytime and Dead Winter Carpenters shared set times next. The Brooklyn based Pimps are always welcome sights and sound in California as their funk never stops and brought endless smiles and grooves to a very packed crowd. Tahoe’s own Dead Winter Carpenters shined their greatness and beautiful voices through Friday afternoon. While their newest band member sure was showing but wasn’t quite here yet, they continued to hit it out of the park and I can’t wait to see what’s next for them.

Nahko and Medicine for the People had always been the band I knew of, but unfortunately missed at High Sierra the past few years due to conflicting schedules. Immediately the positive energy this band released was felt through the crowd.  Within minutes fans were smashed up against the rail singing every word and beaming with smiles. As expected, TAUK brought their funky unique mix of electronic yet jazzy instrumental music to the stage. Their sounds will always remind me of STS9 or Big Gigantic but with a thick UMPH of noise that is unforgettable.  

Karl Denson, who also plays with the Rolling Stones, had a special guest Angelo Moore from Fishbone join them for a Prince influenced set. There is something undeniably fun about Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe music. It wouldn’t surprise me to see this group headlining festivals across the country in the very near future.

Rounding up Friday was Medeski, Martin and Mad Skillet. Missing was Mr. Wood, who had to undergo emergency surgery. Luckily he is okay and recovering, the band was able to still make some really great sounds in his absence. Having Chris Wood gone was a big bummer but it didn’t stop these guys from jamming us into the night and closed it down in style.

As campers awoke on Saturday, Whiskey Shivers took them right into the day on the main stage following their kick off performance on Friday.  Vermont’s finest Twiddle, had us grooving with our bloody marys, waking up for whatever lie ahead.

The Wood Brother, self-titled with the missing spot of Chris, didn’t miss a beat. Their fill-in guest artists were able to play our favorite Wood Brothers tunes as if they’d played them all along. From there we hopped on over to see Carolyn Wonderland was belting out her infamous Texas blues. She rocked her insane vocals and her shredding guitar skills which ended up making her one of my most memorable performances for the weekend.

Gene Evaro Jr. was another stand out for me. A fellow music lover had told me not to miss him and I was surely glad I didn’t. He had an incredible voice, a unique yet fun sound, and had quite the look to get everyone rocking. This was the most packed I had seen the middle stage all weekend and people were certainly moving and shaking their creatures of the sea costumes loud.

Incidental Animals, which is super group of ALO and String Cheese, were impeccable. Their set was a great blend of all the things we love about ALO and SCI but with their own twist of unique and raw talent. Jen Hartswick absolutely killed it on vocals and had the crowds roaring for more. Their high energy and perfect sounds made this my overall my top show of the weekend.

Dressed as Wolfs, the festival hosts, Railroad Earth, closed out the night as they took to the stage on the spoken words of the talented emcee, Joe Craven. We shared a moment of silence for those no longer with us, before a blast of music roared over us all. Starting with a long jam their familiar waves and meticulous bounce in sound sent all into an immediate twirl. With Saturday closing down on a very high-high, Sunday was still around the corner, loaded with names ready to rock.

Being a San Francisco local, many of the Sunday bands grace stages here often, but rarely do we get to see them together. Which reminds me to remind you, never miss a Sunday show for fear of the Mondays, Mondays will always be there.  The Brothers Comatose opening set went perfectly with my eggs and bloody mary. Their metal band attire was not the only thing rocking out on stage, they played tight, strong and better than ever. Guest sit-ins from members of Infamous Stringdusters, Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, and Railroad Earth had us primed for what would follow in the rest of the day of collaborations.

It had been awhile since I’d seen Nicki Bluhm and her Gramblers but it was so great to see them back at it sounding better than I remember. As we sung along with Nicki, the crowds came in and Sunday afternoon was surely feeling lovely, especially because they followed up with a stripped down performance in the Sierra Nevada Tasting taproom. As we were treated to Infamous Stringdusters sitting in with the Gramblers, they returned the favor with Nicki & other guests joining in their killer performance. Their joyous sounds had us stomping our feet from the start and their big smiles shined fun down to all who were lucky to attend.  

As we wrapped up the weekend with big yawns and cool air in the mountain skies, Railroad Earth sung us home with so many of our favorite tunes. Thanks to all involved in Hangtown for giving us the perfect ending to another fantastic festival season. I’ll be back next fall to watch the musical talent flourish in an intimate, dreamy setting that only Hangtown can bring to those magical Northern California October nights.

Check out more photos from Hangtown Music Festival.