At the very last second, everything worked out for me to go to Wintergrass this year: the huge indoor bluegrass festival held at the Hyatt in Bellevue every year. These are some of my thoughts and experiences on the concerts and workshops. Buckle your seatbelts, this is going to be a long trip. It’s the closest thing I can manage to taking you to Wintergrass 2017 with me!
True North: a semi-local bluegrass/Americana band. Took us for a ride through all sorts of emotions. I think my favorites were the song they’d written about the festival’s move from Tacoma to Bellevue and how it’s a tough place for bluegrass songs (chorus: “it’s a hard place to suffer, and that really gets me down”), and this tear-jerker:
Be Here Now
Kruger Brothers! As I recall, they started out with a portion of Jens’ Appalachian Concerto. At Wintergrass, of course, it was just the three musicians–Jens Kruger, Uwe Kruger, and their bass player Joel Landsberg. But somehow they *still* sound like an orchestra. Exceptional musicians in every way. And a beautiful composition by Jens.
The Kruger Brothers & Kontras Quartet – Appalachian Concerto
Uwe also did People Get Ready, which is a crowd pleaser. We were pleased.
Kruger Brothers – People Get Ready
Darlingside – not entirely sure how to categorize these guys! Eagles meets Simon and Garfunkel meets I dunno? They sing tight harmony around a single mic, but are more folk rock than bluegrass. They used a kick drum and a loop pedal and build their songs up to a swirling crescendo that will drag you in. I’m not sure I entirely get their lyrics, and that usually means I don’t care for the band/artist, but their sound is so pretty!
Darlingside – White Horses
John McEuen did an audio visual presentation on the history and backstory of the famous Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, starting with the history of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and continuing through the recording of the album itself. There were all SORTS of archival photos and clips and anecdotes, interwoven with live performances of some of the songs by the John McEuen Trio. So, so well done. Some people asked hopefully about a DVD version, but it sounds like it might not be possible. John McEuen *is* however working on a book covering the information, with lots of the pictures and all. It will hopefully be out next year.
Mollie O’Brien & Rich Moore Family Band. I’d heard Mollie and Rich before a few times, including at little ol’ Traditions down here in Olympia, WA. Man, what a voice she has! Powerful. And he’s pretty nifty on guitar and harmony vocals. This time around, they had two daughters with them, leading to some tremendous family harmonies. I don’t see any of their family performances out there on the Interweb, but they do have an album! It’s called Daughters. Anyhow, here’s Mollie and Rich: Mollie O’Brien + Rich Moore – Train Home
Jeremy Kittel Band: these are one of the groups that helped support the whole “Bach to Bluegrass” theme this year. For any who loved The Goat Rodeo Sessions–taking bluegrass or Celtic tinged music and classical-fying or jazzing it up a bit, you need to check this group out. Virtuosos. Also one of the few hammered dulcimers I’ve seen at Wintergrass, and who doesn’t love that?
The Jeremy Kittel Band – Irish Tunes
Hot Rize: What can I say? This was my first time seeing my favorite ever bluegrass band live, and they didn’t disappoint. So much fun. Also, Bryan Sutton may be the best flatpicker in the world.
Hot Rize – Western Skies
Caitlyn Canty: wasn’t entirely sure how to take her stage presence/persona. Great voice. Her songs are lyrically rich–so many vivid images crammed in. Overall, not entirely to my taste, but she’s talented and I’m glad I saw her.
Caitlyn Canty – Get Up
The Kruger Brothers, Part Two: they were ON for that performance. Joking around, pushing one another, taking everything as far and as high and as deep as it would go, and it was magical. Every Wintergrass has a few moments that take on mythical proportions for me. This year, this was it.
Kruger Brothers – Beautiful Nothing
We were in the Cedar ballroom where they were broadcasting live via Concert Window. Now I really wish I could go back in time and tell ALL THE PEOPLE to watch. C’est la vie.
The Kruger Brothers ran late because they could (as Uwe pointed out with a big grin, they were the last act on that stage for the night), but as soon as they got out, I jogged over to the WAMA suite to hopefully catch at least a little of Kathy Barwick and Pete Siegfried‘s act. I was hoping against hop that they’d to “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” when I was there, and when I walked in, Pete was introducing it. Further proof that someone loves me. I’ve heard a lot of people do that song, but I’m not kidding when I say their version is my favorite by a good bit. Pete has a marvelously expressive voice, nicely completmented by Kathy’s tasteful guitar picking and his own mandolin. I don’t think it’s out there in YouTube land. You’ll have to buy their Long Time Gone album. But here’s something of theirs to tide you over.
Barwick and Siegfried – Dusty Diamonds
Turtle Island Quartet: They can’t really be categorized, but essentially they are all fabulous classically trained musicians who do everything from classical to jazz in the form of a fairly traditional classical quartet: first and second violin, viola, cello. (This is the only thing traditional about them.) I am surprised we didn’t listen to them growing up, honestly–I think Dad would enjoy them if he doesn’t already know about them. Very fine musicians.
Turtle Island Quartet – All Along the Watchtower
Flatt Lonesome: this was about as traditional bluegrass as I went all weekend. As they put it, mostly a family band: twin brother and sister (he on guitar and she on fiddle), their older sister (mandolin), her husband on banjo, and then Dobro and bass. The Robertsons did the vocals, and man oh man, what vocals!
Flatt Lonesome – You’re the One
Mike Marshall and Caterina Lichtenberg: these two were a big, big pull for me. I’m a big fan of classical music, and Caterina is one of the very best classical mandolinists in the world today. Mike Marshall, for his part, has brought classical music to a lot of bluegrass musicians. The two of them met and fell in love at a Mandolin Symposium a few years back, have two adorable little girls, and despite very, very different musical backgrounds, make beautiful music together. Which I enjoyed tremendously. As I said at the time, it made me want to play classical mandolin SO MUCH, but I think it would take decades to get there. Very complex music.
Caterina Lichtenberg and Mike Marshall – Bach Gigue in D Minor
Sierra Hull. She is so young, and yet has been a known musician so long, it’s hard to get your head around it. She’s a powerhouse. I got to see her live at Traditions a few months back. I confess, I think my favorite song of hers this time was Mad World, during which she fingerpicked a ’64 Mandocaster. What this says about my taste, I dunno. But man, this is good.
Sierra Hull – Mad World
Tim O’Brien, as in lead singer/mandolinist from Hot Rize and brother of Mollie O’Brien. Very good performance. Do wish he’d played more banjo, but ya know, you can’t have it all, but YouTube does, pretty much.
Tim O’Brien – You Were on My Mind
Oh, and at the end of Tim’s set, a bit of a dream come true for me: I love Mollie and Tim’s voices together, but I’d only ever heard them in recordings. For years I’d hoped they’d sing on stage together when I was there, and finally it happened!
The Wintergrass Youth Orchestra closed things out. Such a cool concept. Mostly they are local middle schoolers, and they work all year to prepare for this performance. Some of the performers volunteered their time to perform with them, so they did music with The Turtle Island Quartet, Mike Marshall and Caterina Lichtenberg, Tim O’Brien…and some others after we took off, though they were winding down. Really neat to see!