WinterWondergrass Festival’s triumphant return to the Sierra Nevada after two years of pandemic delays

Like a phoenix rising from its ashes, WinterWondergrass returned to Tahoe after a three-year hiatus. The festival was scheduled for March of 2020 but was an early victim to the COVID-19 shutdowns. Most of the acts scheduled for the 2020 show returned for this weekend of incredible music set in the Sierra Nevada mountains in beautiful California. 

Keller and the Keels – image courtesy of Will Houk

I had a chance to not only attend the festival but also talk to many of the bands who played. The weekend started out with an interview with Keller Williams from Keller and the Keels. We met in his trailer backstage.  I got about an hour of his time, just before his soundcheck.

We talked about his music, his family, and what it has been like to be a musician during the pandemic. He told me the background to the song “Ocular Invalid,” which is the first song off his most recent release Grit

Williams said of the album, “I want to get back into songs. I want to get back into playing songs with the guitar and the microphone only–and just whatever I can carry on my person.” 

The song “Ocular Invalid,” Williams said, was inspired by his own eye issues. When he was a kid, he was diagnosed with a condition in one eye. Williams told me how the eye doctor told him he’d be an “ocular invalid” his entire life. He used that phrase to imagine scenarios in the song. One of the lines from the song is multi-colored, she soon discovered beauty without using her eye, imagination is the destination, there she’s not compromised alluding to a new way of “seeing” that is based more on perception. 

Toward the end of our conversation, Williams pulled out an acoustic guitar and performed the song using his singular playing style–not just picking and strumming, but also tapping the fretboard with his right hand to create this harmonic sound that is rhythmic as well. 

Jenny Keel, Keller and the Keels – image: courtesy of Will Houk

On the main stage following Keller and the Keels was The War and Treaty, and they were absolutely exceptional.

The War and Treaty – image: courtesy of Will Houk

The band is made up of stalwart musicians who create a rock solid base for their songs. This husband and wife duo have marvelous voices that command the stage. Their presence is undeniable as they work the crowd on both sides of the stage. The music has a great, Gospel feel in general, but they branch out into other areas like rock and R&B.

The War & Treaty – image: courtesy of Will Houk

The side stages at WinterWondergrass host bands that have less name recognition but are nonetheless great. I watched Old Salt Union play their set. They’re a bluegrass inspired band from St. Louis, Missouri. Their version of “You Can Call Me Al,” originally by Paul Simon, was a crowd pleaser that had people singing along. I loved this string band version of the song.

At the same time, Twisted Pine was playing on another stage. Hailing from Boston, Massachusetts, the group got its start with a couple of friends from the acclaimed Berklee College of Music. They told me how they met up with each other playing Bluegrass jams in the local scene. 

Their lineup of musicians is rare in the bluegrass world. Twisted Pine is made up of guitar, upright bass, flute, fiddle, and mandolin. Together, the instruments create a cool, groovy sound. I was really impressed with the musicianship of the group and particularly appreciated the use of vocal harmonies. The flute playing is a welcome addition to the band as well. 

The Brothers Comatose played a few sets, too. This bluegrass-influenced string band has been developing a solid following over the past decade. The group blends beautiful harmonies with the sound of guitar, bass, fiddle, and mandolin. The crowd sang along to a number of the tunes and were clearly really into the band. The tent was packed with dancing fans. 

The Brothers Comatose have a new single out called “Working for Somebody Else,” which is a working-class anthem about doing things on your own and being self-reliant. It’s a fantastic song. 

The highlight of the evening was two sets by rising megastar Billy Strings. I saw the first part of the set from the photo pit and got a close-up view of the band. His band is made of mandolin, bass, banjo, and Strings on guitar. There are so many fascinating things happening when he plays. The music is a unique blend of string band and psychedelic music. It harkens back to jam bands like Grateful Dead, Phish, and Widespread Panic. 

Billy Strings – image courtesy of Will Houk

As a huge guitar fan, I was fixated on String’s playing. His soloing style and guitar tone remind me of Jimi Hendrix but without the amps and electric guitar. 

Strings has incorporated effects pedals into his guitar playing, which is not common with acoustic players. When he plays, you’ll hear a blend of distortion and phaser, as well as Wah pedal. It creates this groovy, swirling sort of sound that is so singular. The other instrumentalists in the band are accomplished players themselves, and, when the band goes into a “jam,” they take their leads with gusto.

Billy Strings – image courtesy of Will Houk

The audience was primed to hear Strings play. He had a show scheduled at South Lake Tahoe last fall, but it was canceled due to the wildfires that threatened the town. 

When he took the stage at WinterWondergrass, the crowd erupted in applause. You could feel the energy in the air. As the band jumped into its first tune, the crowd started bouncing and dancing, packed together in the shadow of the beautiful mountain scenery. 

After the show, Strings and his band left for Las Vegas where he performed at the Grammy Awards and was nominated for Bluegrass Album of the Year.  This was a show I won’t soon forget. 

Saturday started off, for me, with AJ Lee and Blue Summit–a bluegrass group from San Francisco. I didn’t realize at the time, but two of the members had grown up playing with famed bluegrass guitar player Molly Tuttle. Her brother Sully is in the band, and used to play with the Tuttle’s Family Band with AJ Lee. 

AJ Lee and Blue Summit – image: courtesy of Will Houk

I asked Sully about this, and he told me,“We had a family band. My dad taught me and my sister Molly and my brother Micahel how to play. And then, at some point, we brought in AJ. Then we were ‘The Tuttles’ with AJ Lee for six-seven years. When that ended, me and AJ and three friends of ours started ‘Blue Summit.’” 

The group formed a few years ago and has two full-length records. They’re hitting the road hard right now. The musicianship is outstanding. I was blown away by the soloing and the band’s two stellar guitar players. 

WinterWonderwomen played a few as well. This is an ad hoc group of women who are playing the festival. Members of Della Mae, Twisted Pine, Pixie, and the Partygrass Boys and others joined to sing some songs. They started off with a Shania Twain song, and it was spectacular. Della Mae played as well and sounded really tight. They are an all-female bluegrass group whose lyrics lean heavily on social justice themes.

Image: courtesy of Will Houk

The main stage performances that day started off with Lindsay Lou. She has a beautiful voice, which she used to join Billy Strings the night before for a song on his second set. 

The mandolin player from Fruition joined her for the set. I was happy to hear “Roll With Me,” which is one of my favorite tunes from her. She also did a cover of “Sound System ” by Operation Ivy. It was amazing! Loved that. 

After that, it was Kitchen Dwellers on the main stage. They hail from Bozeman, Montana, and I really loved to experience the Western influence in their sound. I asked the band about this and frontman Torrin Daniels said, “I grew up hunting and fishing and on a ranch, so there’s definitely that outdoor influence. Shawn grew up in Telluride [Colorado], and Joe is from Juneau [Alaska].” 

All members agreed that the outdoors and nature are a huge influence on both the sound of the band and its lyrics. 

Bluegrass is an interesting genre. It is very steeped in history and tradition. And there are certain folk who only recognize traditional bluegrass. But I really appreciate groups that are taking the instrumentation and blending in their own influences. The guys from Kitchen Dwellers are Westerners to the core. Big fans of the outdoors; hiking, fishing, hunting, camping, and things like that. This comes across in songs like “Wise River,” which is based on a place in Montana with ethereal qualities. 

After that, Fruition played the main stage. The crowd was in love with them–singing along with songs. The lead guitar player Jay Cobb Anderson sounded awesome. They have a style of harmonies that beckon back to ’60s folk groups. Their mandolin player, Mimi Naja, adds such a cool layer to the band. The song “Dawn” has a great groove and a very catchy chorus that gets stuck in your head. 

At the end of their set they sang “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” from Crosby Stills and Nash. It was incredible. Their vocals blend in such a gorgeous way. That is not an easy song to cover. 

I asked keyboard player Kellen Asebroek about it. 

“Ever since we became a band, three-part harmonies have been a part of the band,” he said. “When you’re out on the street busking, you have to get people’s attention. Three people singing three-part harmony, that’ll stop ya. We’ve always wanted to do Crosby, Stills, and Nash stuff, but it’s so intimidating because it’s so perfect.” 

Check out the band performing the song

After the sun went down it was time for GRAMMY-nominated Infamous Stringdusters. They took the stage and played the song “Rise Sun,” which is a Gospel-inspired tune about keeping hope in dark times. It is such a powerful song with a gorgeous build to the chorus. The band sounded incredible. 

The Infamous Stringdusters – image: courtesy of Will Houk

I love the dobro playing in this band. The dobro is an acoustic guitar played with a slide. It’s a precursor to the steel guitar and has that sort of a feel. The dobro and fiddle will often double up on licks and melodies, and it creates a blend of notes that is astonishing.  The band is nominated for a Grammy Award for last year’s cover album of Bill Monroe songs. They played some songs from the album and it was great. 

Peter Rowan- image: courtesy of Will Houk

Things got off to a nice relaxed start on Sunday afternoon with bluegrass legend Peter Rowan. Rowan is a bluegrass staple and wowed the crowd with his set. At nearly 80 years old, he still plays guitar like a master. His finger-style guitar picking is reminiscent of greats like Doc Watson. He’s played with musicians like David Grisman and Jerry Garcia and has written countless songs. He had the singer Lindsay Lou come out on stage and sing some songs with him, including the classic “Panama Red.” He also led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to Lindsay, to her delight. 

On the side stages, two other bands played dazzling sets. TK & the Holy Know-Nothings are a Portland, Oregon, based band. They call their music “Psychedelic Doom Boogie,” and I think that sums them up well. 

I had them on my podcast–Roots, Rednecks, and Radicals–last fall when they played the Crystal Bay Club at Lake Tahoe. They have a cool, dark, honky-tonk vibe. The songs are often reflective and have their roots in works by authors like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. 

While they played, the Cris Jacobs band was jamming. His band sounded sublime. Fusing country sounds with rock, he had the crowd dancing and singing along. 

WinterWondergrass Festival California – image: courtesy of Will Houk

WinterWondergrass is a gem of a music festival. I can’t think of another festival that embraces the winter landscape in the same way. The setting is unmatched. You can let your eyes wander the landscape and see people skiing and enjoying the great outdoors while you’re listening to unparalleled music.

WinterWondergrass Festival California – image: courtesy of Will Houk

The stages and start times are impeccably run, when the artist on the main stage is done the three side tents start right up. It’s incredible to see the crowd move into those tents for the bands and then back to the main stage when those acts are done–a truly beautiful weekend of music. 

Will Houk covers the music scene for The Ally.  Will’s radio show, Root, Rednecks and Radicals, is broadcasted live on KNVC 95.1 fm, Carson City Community Radio. Take a moment and support Will’s work here.

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