Wintergrass 2015 Reflections

2015-03-02 18.19.50
Been there, done that, got the T-shirt–and it’s a good’un!

Let me explain. No, there is too much–let me sum up.

The Wintergrass music festival in Bellevue is over for another year. I wish I could really convey the Wintergrass experience–days of hanging out in a big hotel with hundreds of your closest friends and favorite performers, listening and jamming and talking and learning–but you really have to be there to fully understand it. They do an incredible job.

A few highlights of the weekend, in no particular order:

1. For one thing, I strengthened my musical crush on Sarah Jarosz. I first encountered this phenomenal young woman at Wintergrass a few years back, and loved her instantly. She’s a great musician (on mandolin, guitar, clawhammer banjo, and octave mandolin), she selects and writes great songs, and her effortlessly beautiful voice just kills me. She has a knack for adapting her phrasing to fit each song (or the people she’s singing with–witness her final encore duet with Aoife O’Donovan). You can also understand every single word she sings, which may sound like an odd compliment, but…

Here’s a link to her singing “Ring Them Bells.” I highly recommend checking it out.

A funny moment: Saturday she performed a cover of The Decemberist’s “Shankill Butchers,” apologizing ahead of time for the song’s spookiness. A few verses in, just after a particularly dark line, a baby (too young to actually understand the lyrics) suddenly broke into noisy tears and had to be carried out. Without missing a beat, Sarah said, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” and then continued on with the song.

You maybe had to be there, but we all just lost it.

2. The West Coast Fiddle Summit workshop was something else: Darol Anger, Brittany Haas, Tristan and Tashina Clarridge, all just doing what they do best. They’d start with a fiddle tune–or even just a concept: the last tune started as an ode to a hardboiled egg–and morph into total improvisational craziness, then back, over and over. It was glorious. At points it was, as a friend said, like listening to a Salvador Dali painting. There were familiar elements, but reassembled in ways that made you sit up and say “Huh?” in a good way. I loved it. Toward the end, Tristan Clarridge got out an octave fiddle, so you had three fiddles dancing above a throbbing, blossoming bass line. So cool, especially their take on Midnight on the Water in the middle of it.

3. Surprise new favorites: there’s always at least one at Wintergrass! For me, it was Cahalen Morrison and Eli West. I went to see them on Thursday because they sounded vaguely interesting, and I LIKE THEM SO MUCH. Love their voices, their harmonies, their instrumentation and musicianship, love the way they blend old timey sound with poetic lyrics.

On Saturday night, I went to their live broadcast show at the Cedar Stage, which is a much smaller venue than the bigger halls. I got there fairly early, but the room was packed, and I ended up being one of the people standing in the back. But! After about the first song, someone in the very second row right on the aisle got up and left. (Whoever you are, I don’t understand you, but I do thank you.) One of the ushers spotted this and asked me if I’d like to sit there. Yessss! So I saw the rest of their set from just a few feet away. So cool.

You can hear full tracks from their album here (I’d particularly recommend James is Out, Down in the Lonesome Draw, and Off the Chama):
I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands

4. I’m not sure if this counts as a highlight, but it’s a powerful memory. We stayed late enough to catch Dale Ann Bradley‘s Sunday performance. She was great, as always. Toward the end, she performed “The Piney Rose,” and it just caught me hard. Ended up sitting there bawling my eyes out in the darkened auditorium. Without any tissues, of course.

5. Little things: morning jams with friends, one particular jam at the Washington Acoustic Music Association (WAMA) suite where I mostly made a fool of myself but still had a good time, donuts from Top Pot, many trips to Tully’s, playing fine instruments from various vendors, watching hallway jams, so many more things I just can’t name them all.

Regrets (I have a few):
1. I apparently need to go into Wintergrass training several weeks beforehand, because I had a really hard time staying up late enough for a lot of the shows. A lot of the best concerts didn’t start until well after nine or even ten or eleven, and I just wasn’t even human by then.

2. This also meant missing the showcases in the WAMA suite, since those didn’t start until after the main shows.

Then again, I’m not sure I could have handled those anyway. The cool thing about having showcases in a hotel room suite is that it’s a small space, and you can see the performers up close and personal. The downside is that it’s a small space, and small spaces (especially when filled with people) make me want to claw up over the top of everyone’s heads and flee for the mountains.

The best local jam back home (in good old Monroe, NH) was held in a small barn/workshop with a wood stove in the middle and benches set around the back and sides. On a good night, it was standing room only, with more people standing around the door or looking through the windows from outside. But there, we’d always get there early and I had a particular spot right by one of the vises on the workbench, beside an open window, so it didn’t *feel* crowded . It’s possible I just need to try to find my vise, so to speak.

3. Sadly, I did not win the Deering Goodtime raffle. I’ve been bitten rather hard by the clawhammer bug (it’s an idea that’s been long a-growing, truth be told), and I kinda hoped…. But I guess I gotta get me one the slow, honest, old fashioned way.


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