As a busy student balancing a part-time job and homework on the weekends, it can be really challenging to make time for anything else during the Friday to Sunday recess. But, this weekend was WinterWondergrass’ 4th annual festival at Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe, so I decided to make a night of it.
WinterWondergrass is a bluegrass and acoustic roots music festival that features national, regional and local artists. Beside the music, the festival offers beer tastings and local food and merch. According to the WinterWondergrass site, tickets for the festival have sold out for the past three years. However, the producers, Bonfire Entertainment, say they don’t plan on expanding the site in order to keep the experience intimate and focused on quality over quantity.
Pulling into the parking lot of the ski resort, I saw exactly what you could expect from a bluegrass festival in Tahoe — funky ski suits, Patagonia jackets, beanies of all kinds and the Burning Man culture styled over winter clothing.
My first impression as I hopped out of my car to join our friends was refreshing — I hadn’t been up to Squaw Valley since last summer at least, and I had forgotten how truly beautiful the place is. I’d been up to the ski resort in the past for hiking, the Wanderlust festival and WinterWondergrass last year, but I was still dazed by the backdrop of the mountains, snow, and the tall pines.
After a bit of mingling and cuddling against the cold in the parking lot, people started rushing back to the stage to see the headliners for the festival, The Devil Makes Three.
The Santa Cruz group’s Wikipedia page describes them as an Americana band that blends bluegrass, old time, country, folk, blues, jazz and ragtime music. After listening to their live show, I would have to say the latter rings true. However, the group’s lead singer directly stated that they pride themselves as a band that doesn’t fit into a specific label or genre, because they like to keep their style fluid and ambiguous.
The live show itself was definitely worth the the last-minute trip from Reno. The crowd was true to Tahoe style and remained balanced between the energetic folks and the mellow, chilled-out ones. The Devil Makes Three played over a two hour set full of their fluid style of music, full of great banjo, bass, violin, drums and vocals. As someone who had never listened to them before, I was sincerely impressed with their performance.
The Devil Makes Three, and any artist that plays on the WinterWondergrass stage, have location playing in their favor, though. As I mentioned before, Squaw is undeniably a prime spot, but if you toss in live music, colorful lights, beers and wine, and Tahoe’s hippie culture, it’s difficult to be disappointed.
While I enjoyed dancing to the band’s music, the most notable moments of my night consisted of noticing the surrounding elements that played a silent, but critical, role to everyone’s good time.
The lights from the stage lit up the snow that was falling onto the crowd and it brought a contrasting sense of stillness to the loud performance. At times, the wind would blow the smell of the pine trees into the crowd, too, ushering me back from thoughts of responsibilities and into a reminder of where I was at that present moment. There was still a lingering taste of tequila on my tongue and I could feel the beat of the bass thumping through the crowd.
It was then and there that I realized how important it is to have experiences that reinforce your sense of presence and general well-being.
WinterWondergrass’ founder, Scott Stoughton, originally from Vail, Colorado, was featured on TahoeTopia’s website in an article on the festival, expressing the overall sense of culture.
“There is really nowhere on Earth like Squaw Valley, a space where we are instantly reminded of our place in time and within Mother Nature,” Stoughton said. “The entire WinterWondergrass team humbly appreciates the opportunity to light up the existing magic, layering in waves of natural and authentic melodies and inspiring the gathering of the community. It always feels like coming home.”
While I’m typically one to be skeptical of the “good vibes only” culture, I definitely fell into its trap last night. I’m sure it presented me with the same tempting escape that any music festival presents to any of its festival-goers — an escape that begs you to release all of the bullet points on your to-do list and anything else that takes your attention away from what’s happening right in front of you.
I’m also not one to go to many music festivals — the only reason I attended this past weekend’s, or last year’s and Wanderlust, is because I have good friends who are willing to slip me their festival bracelets or jump over fences with me. But, WinterWondergrass feels like a well-kept secret amid others like Coachella or EDC, making it more authentic, maybe. I think it may be for this same reason that the performance felt like a sincere, mutually beneficial exchange between the audience and the band, whereas bigger festivals may be prone for a greater disconnect.
Regardless, as the performers played, I sat there amazed, thinking about how everything that I was listening to was created from scratch by people who simply knew what they were doing and had failed enough times to make something worth sharing.
WinterWondergrass may not share in the size or national popularity that SnowGlobe has amassed in the past eight years, but it also has a few years to catch up, and its chances are looking promising.
“I’m gonna send this song out to everybody who’s doing what they want to do, especially all you musicians and artists out there,” The Devil Makes Three lead singer, Pete Bernhard, said in encouragement before playing their last song for the night.