Festival season kicks off early and with style at Lake Tahoe
Words and Photos by Alan Sheckter
The Winter WonderGrass festival’s first foray into California, outdoors at Squaw Valley at Lake Tahoe, came through with flying colors, March 20-22. The boutique festival that boasted many of the West’s hottest pickin’ and grinnin’ Americana jam bands attracted about 4,000 clothing-layered music fans per day, according to festival founder Scott Stoughton.
While the dry winter left a surprisingly sparse amount of snow clinging to the surrounding mountaintops, the unseasonably warm weather allowed many festivalgoers to romp around in shirt-sleeves and open shoes, at least by day. At night, the chill came quickly, especially on Sunday as the final acts performed during a wintry mix of precipitation. Away from the main stage, festival promoters provided heat-generated tents, two of which offered other musical acts, and one that served up hot beverages. The VIP section, which featured outdoor standing heaters, also had an additional heated tent. Local gourmet food and coffee vendors provided fine onsite provisions. Following the fest’s closing performances—Infamous Stringdusters on Friday, Trampled by Turtles on Saturday, and Greensky Bluegrass on Sunday—the energy continued with two-act, late-night shows at Squaw’s Olympic House, as well as at Moe’s BBQ, on the lake in Tahoe City.
Back at his office in Midtern, CO., Stoughton, who indicated that the festival will return to Squaw’s Olympic Village in 2016, reflected upon the weekend, and was proud that his vision for the fest came to pass.
“I wanted to curate artists not just to play but to participate in the fest,” Stoughton said, “doing the ‘jam on the tram’[in which several musicians gigged together high atop the festival village], skiing, and being in the village. They didn’t just play and leave.”
Stoughton also gave kudos to his team of organizers, many of whom have worked for the successful Avon, Colorado, version of the fest.
“They are all like-minded and passionate about leaving no trace,” he said. “They take ownership of this, which elevates the feeling of being mindful, which permeates throughout the crowd and artists.”
The festival’s irresistible promoted band of “beer, bluegrass, and mountains,” was spot on, with each ingredient deserving a deeper look.
Beer: Sure, every festival serves beer, often of the gnarly, craft ale variety. But the added bonus here was that between 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. daily, attendees were privy to free samples, as many tiny cupfuls as desired, from several hip brewers including Sierra Nevada, Golden Road, 21st Amendment, Two Rivers Cider, Great Basin, Stonyhead, and Lagunitas. Samples were served in the massive, aforementioned heated Haystack Stage and Jubilee Stage tents, which simultaneously presented weekend act, many of which also played the main stage.
Bluegrass: While no one should begrudge original bluegrass pioneers like Hank Williams and Flatt & Scruggs their due, bluegrass WonderGrass-style was more aptly a mélange of acoustic/electric contemporary roots and bluegrass. While each band gave a nod to bluegrass and some delivered sounds closer to the traditional genre than others, each band’s jammy take on progressive bluegrass, circa 2015, was compelling to behold. And, as luck would have it, one of the fathers of contemporary bluegrass, Sam Bush, himself a founding member of the New Grass Revival more than 40 years ago, was a smiling artist at-large, fiddling about with the Infamous Stringdusters, Elephant Revival, and Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers.
One of the musical highlights came during Elephant Revival’s early evening set. The brilliant five-piece Celtic-flavored, psychedelic-lite-tinged folk ensemble filled the valley with its own special sounds sublime aural tapestry, but musician friends began joining onstage until, at set’s end, the stage included Bush, California Honeydrops front man Lech Wierzynski, the T Sisters, and festival staffer/musician Jake Wolf.
Mountains: Oh, the mountains were there alright, at picturesque Squaw Valley in the mighty Sierra Nevada, the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. The alpine setting, along with the classy Olympic Village set a really nice backdrop for all of the fun and there were a few ski trails open. However, the lack of snow in the Sierra this winter, a story in itself that has been sufficiently documented elsewhere, made for a lacking of extra icing on the cake, so to speak.
Stoughton said that the Tahoe community was very supportive of the entire endeavor. Like the Colorado Rockies, he said, people in this neck of the woods “like to live and be passionate, entrepreneurial, and athletic, free to debate without judgment and come together from all walks of live. We’re all the same and we can share.”