Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Getting jazzed for Wintergrass

The first big event on my "bluegrass-plus" roots festival calendar this year will be the great Wintergrass Bluegrass Festival February 22-25 indoors in multiple venues in Tacoma WA. I had an incredible experience blogging from there a year ago, and this year the lineup looks even better. In addition to marquee acts like Tim O'Brien, the Jerry Douglas Band, and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, the festival will present almost every leading member of the genre's "youth movement," starting with the consensus choice for most innovative player in modern bluegrass, Chris Thile, but also including breakthrough stringbands The Greencards, Uncle Earl, The Infamous Stringdusters, Crooked Still and The Mammals. Wow!

The festival's publicity is spinning the lineup as "the changing face of bluegrass," and who could argue with that? Not that lovers of mainstream bluegrass won't have plenty to cheer about as well. Lawson's band is the standard-bearer for vocal-oriented bluegrass gospel and Blue Highway--with superstar instrumentalists Rob Ickes (dobro) and Tim Stafford (guitar) --is widely seen as one of the top contemporary bluegrass outfits. Add to that some of the most promising emerging acts from the traditional end of the spectrum--Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike, 3 Fox Drive, and The Gibson Brothers--and you have a lineup that would satisfy the most hard-core of traditional bluegrass fans.

But to me the big story is the confluence of bands that are leading the rebirth of old-timey string-band music and fusing it with a modern sensibility. A few months ago, the New York Times highlighted this trend in an article featuring Uncle Earl, The Mammals, Crooked Still, and a few others. And here they are all in a single festival, along with several other bands that could easily have been grouped as part of the same movement. In particular, The Greencards have opened lots of eyes and ears over the past several seasons and The Infamous Stringdusters are on track to become the next youth-oriented breakout band. Also, Hot Buttered Rum will be on hand ably representing the vibrant jam-band bluegrass set.

But the star of the youth movement has to be Chris Thile and his new ensemble, The How to Grow a Band, including Noam Pikelny, Gabe Witcher and Chris Eldridge (also in the Stringdusters), and for this appearance featuring one of the world's best guitarists Bryan Sutton. Of course, Thile is the wunderkind who made his name as the virtuoso mandolinist in Nickel Creek. That band is on hiatus this year (although it will reassemble for a few dates during the festival season) while Thile branches out with his improvisational new project. How to Grow a Band will be a major fixture on the circuit this season, and I'm expecting great things from them.

Here I am five paragraphs deep into the post and have yet to mention names like Joe Craven, the jack-of-all-trades musical personality who brings a unique presence to every festival he is a part of; Darrell Scott, John Cowan, and Pat Flynn, three veteran superstars of the progressive bluegrass scene who began performing as a trio last year; or Mike Marshall and Hamilton de Holanda, who amazed the Wintergrass audience last year with their multicultural virtuosity. In addition to playing their own duo set, Marshall and de Holanda will be joined by Chris Thile for a special midnight show on Friday that is certain to be extraordinary.

Finally, Wintergrass does a great job of showcasing the best of Northwestern regional talent. This year, 10 regional bands including local favorite Jo Miller & Her Burly Roughnecks will be mixed in the lineup among the headline and other national acts.

The performances are presented on four stages in downtown Tacoma, two in ballrooms at the Sheraton and Marriott Hotels, an adjacent conference center pavilion, and a nearby church. The Sheraton is the headquarters, where lobbies, elevators and every available niche fills up with impromptu jams. The festival also presents a rich menu of workshops, youth and adult music academies, and an impressive showcase of craft and other vendors.

If you've never been to a Wintergrass and can manage to get away for the long weekend, this is one not to miss.

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