The WinterWonderGrass Festival lured thousands of diehard bluegrass fans up to Steamboat Springs this weekend for what was surely the most frigid event that I’ve enthusiastically participated in. I spent the better part of four years living in Summit County, doing reckless things in hellish weather: partying at A-Basin’s “beach” area in cheek numbing conditions, throwing wild outdoor house parties during snowstorms, staying up all night around bonfires in Montezuma in subzero temperatures, night snowboarding at Keystone when the gondolas are shut down because of gale force winds.
I’ve been cold, to say the least. But WinterWonderGrass ranked up there with the coldest of the cold — and if it weren’t for the all star lineup of bluegrass bands to keep our toes tapping, we would have surely perished. (So dramatic, I know.)
During the event, I’d joked about how I intended to write this review with a sort of Onion spin. I wanted to title the piece something like “Eight Victims Pronounced Dead Due To Head Injuries Resulting From Frozen Bubbles At WWG” or “Support 303‘s Kickstarter To Get Tim Carbone a Pair of Earmuffs.” You get the idea. If we, the spectators, were freezing our butts off beneath all of our excessive layers of scientifically engineered practical clothing (plus layers upon layers of hot and spicy whiskey drinks), how were all of these bands able to continually pick their tightly wound string instruments with such gusto?
Leftover Salmon’s Vince Herman confided with 303 that “After about four songs you stop feeling. Once you stop feeling, it all comes together.” He laughingly suggested they call the festival the “I can’t believe we’re doing this festival.”
Actual brothers Ben and Alex, of Brothers Comatose, noted that “This festival really filters out the weaklings. These people are tough and love music so much and are willing brave this weather.”
The main stage at WinterWonderGrass was scenically situated at the base of Steamboat’s mountain, where a few ski runs leading down to the Gondola Square were lit up well into the evening for night skiing, providing some extra ambiance. Then, there were a handful of smaller indoor stages located inside heated tents where the beer flowed like… wine? The tents (which we endearingly referred to as the “Tent Smashing District” throughout the weekend) provided essential refuge from the elements and a well lit arena to reconvene with friends (or strangers) and thaw out your appendages.
And what’s a bluegrass festival without some amazing covers? Elephant Revival stole the show when they pitched us a major curveball and played Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar” and then, without skipping a beat, proceeded to bring out band members from practically every band that played on Sunday for a hearty rendition of their own “Grace of a Woman.” Railroad Earth ended the weekend with an encore version of the Grateful Dead’s “The Wheel,” The Lil’ Smokies did Zepplin’s “Going To California” to kick off Sunday’s music on the Main Stage, Cabinet played an entire nostalgia-invoking Sublime medley, Sam Bush Band picked on a slew of cover songs (but “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” was my personal favorite) and — of course — there was Pickin’ on Dead, which is self explanatory. The most notably curious cover song I heard this weekend was Paul McCartney’s “Jet,” which I’m fairly certain was done by The Lil’ Smokies in the Soapbox Tent.
Crowd pleasing covers aside, festival highlights also included The California Honeydrops’ cheery as hell Sunday afternoon set (they’re always such a delight), March Fourth Marching Band’s explosive Saturday afternoon brass party in Gondola Square (which I don’t believe was an officially WWG sanctioned event, but it sure was fun) and The Infamous Stringdusters somehow playing their hearts out during their Saturday night headlining set through the blowing snow. I admittedly had to duck out both Friday and Saturday nights without catching the headliners’ encore because the hot tub was beckoning — and I couldn’t feel my face any longer.
Another unique trait of the WinterWonderGrass Festival — aside from the A-list lineup, the pleasant company, the scenic ambience and the bitter, bitter cold — is the fact that most bands played multiple sets. If you check out the schedule from this year’s event, you’ll notice that Gipsy Moon, Pickin’ on Dead, Missed the Boat, Brothers Comatose, The Lil’ Smokies, The Deer, Old Town Pickers, Kitchen Dwellers, Cabinet, Billy Strings, WWG Allstars and Dead Horses (who were probably my favorite new band that I’d never previously heard of) all played two or three sets throughout the weekend. This was super cool, for it allowed festival attendees to discover new bands, have multiple opportunities to see said band again and it let these bands really explore their own musical repertoire, be experimental and play for a diverse (or devoted) audience.
The boys from Brothers Comatose, who are WWG veterans now — having played at all four festivals — told 303 that it’s flattering to be given three unique set times. The brothers respectively describe their musical style as rowdy roots music or rowdy string rock. “Each set has a different crowd, with some competition because music is playing in the other tents. We’ve got (our) other buddy bands playing at the same time.”
So at the end of the day — er, end of the weekend — no one really gave a shit about the cold (despite my fussing), for this is what Colorado is all about. Substituting your cowboy boots for Sorrels, covering your fringe with Gore Tex, pulling your wool beanie down over your ears and bundling up to challenge Old Man Winter to a dance off. There’s truly no better scene in the world than a winter bluegrass festival in the Rocky Mountains. It’s as simple as that.
All photography by Emma Polachek.