Review/Photos: WinterWonderGrass Festival February 16-17

Photos by Josh Elioseff -DancerProductions
Review by Andrew Martin

Located down-valley of Vail in Edwards, Colorado, the WinterWonderGrass Festival offered music fans, beer lovers and winter sports enthusiasts an opportunity to enjoy all of their vices at once. The event – a combined beer tasting and music festival – featured some of the finest Colorado craft breweries along with some great bluegrass/Americana music.

The weather made the festival’s title more appropriate than the promoters could have ever expected. A huge winter storm dropped between one and two feet of snow on Vail Mountain during the two days prior to the festival, making it possible to shred a powder day all morning and listen to music all night.

The festival goers who didn’t take advantage of the fortuitous winter conditions really missed out. I caught first chair at Vail on a crisp bluebird day. If you knew where to go on the mountain (and I do), you could find up to waist deep powder well into the day. After a morning of epic tree skiing and a glorious run down the Minturn Mile, I was ready to hit the festival.

WWG was hosted by the Crazy Mountain Brewery. They turned a huge parking lot behind their tasting room into a festival ground large enough to accommodate the roughly 1800 people in attendance. It was a great location; with snow-covered peaks from the New York Mountain Range providing a beautiful backdrop as the sun set behind the stage.

For the early part of the afternoon the festival was as much about the beer tasting as the music. Everyone in attendance was given nine free tastings over a three-hour time period. Odell, Great Divide, Left Hand, Crazy Mountain, Bonfire Brewing, Breckenridge Brewery, Oskar Blues, Telluride Brewing Company and New Belgium all brought two to three beers a piece for festival goers to sample.

Some of my favorite beers at the tasting included Odell’s Mountain Standard Double Black IPA; a delicious beer that was very balanced between hoppiness and maltiness. Telluride Brewing’s Fishwater Double IPA is a great beer for anyone who loves to get bitch-slapped by hops. And Crazy Mountain made a blonde ale specially for the festival which was surprisingly good and very smooth.

Of course there was also some pretty good music. The Olora Brothers opened the festival. I was a bit surprised to see an electric band kick off an acoustic festival, but they were a great choice. The band played a mellow, roots-rock/Americana set with elements of honky-tonk and some southern twang. Their soulful jams provided a perfect soundtrack as people entered the festival.

Other highlights included Drunken Hearts, an acoustic alt-country jam band. It was their pedal steel player’s first show with them, but you would never know it. He sounded great and fit in seamlessly with the rest of the band. Head for the Hills played an energetic set featuring tight musicianship and good vocal harmonies. They did a great bluegrass style cover of Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” which brought the house down.

Greensky Bluegrass headlined Saturday night and played valiantly in some really cold weather. It was difficult picking conditions, but they brought a lot of energy. Their set encountered some technical difficulties with the sound system and they lost all sound three or four times. But in spite of it all, they put on a great set that delivered for a crowd that seemed focused on the music from start to finish.

While the first day of the festival was certainly a success, it was clear that organizers were not well prepared to handle such a large volume of people. In fairness, the festival sold about 1,000 tickets in advance and almost doubled that total at the door on Saturday. That being said, I don’t think they were adequately prepared for a crowd of 1,000 people.

There was one bar tent that contained the cash bar (with only 4 bartenders) and all 8 breweries participating in the tasting. This same tent hosted the tweener sets. The end result was a packed room that made it difficult to move around or get a beer. There was also one food vendor; creating an hour-long line for most of the night. When you reached the front you were most likely disappointed to find out that they had already sold out of their signature meal. In spite of these first year growing pains, the festival ran fairly smoothly and offered a great place from which to build on next year.

The crowd was substantially smaller on Sunday, but those who didn’t return for day two truly missed out as the music was significantly better. Grant Farm played a tremendous set. They are driven by a thunderous rhythm section which kept the energy at a high level; but this band is really about guitarist Tyler Grant and keyboardist Sean Foley. Those guys are great musicians; possessing blistering chops tempered by tasteful musicality. My only nit-picky complaint would be that Foley played a little too much accordion. Let’s be honest, no one really likes the accordion.

The Infamous Stringdusters were the only band all weekend to play two sets, and it was an honor they certainly deserved. The musicianship in this band is without a doubt on a completely different level from all the other bands in attendance. This is not a criticism of the other bands, it is a testament to the talent of the Stringdusters.

As their second set started, it began dumping outside. The band got a real charge out of the blizzard-like conditions, and they began asking the crowd for advice on where the powder stashes would be in Vail on Monday morning. As the snow intensified so did their energy. It made for a special moment that will probably be remembered by the band and audience alike for a long time.

The evening snow brought WinterWonderGrass full circle, promising ski conditions on par with what I experienced at the beginning of the weekend. I just hope the Stringdusters had a good tour guide to give them the powder day they deserve.

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