By Larry Carlin
Over the years I've been to countless music festivals as well as to the IBMA World of Bluegrass blowout in Louisville for five of the past six years. But one festival I'd heard about for a long time but never made it to before was Wintergrass in Tacoma, WA. The old adage, "Too many festivals, too little time," was the reason. Until this year.
I arrived with my partner Claudia Hampe at the site of the festival, the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Tacoma, around 2 p.m. on Friday the 25th of February, and instantly we felt at home. There was bluegrass pickin' going on in the lobby, and the first people we saw were from California - Suzanne Suwanda, Zeke Griffin, Larry Kuhn, Hal Johnson, James Kemp and the guys from Homespun Rowdy.
It was a busy day. There were four stages - three of them in the Sheraton, and one three blocks down the street called the Gibson Church - so on Friday there was non-stop entertainment going on from 5 p.m. until after midnight. After schmoozing some, the first thing we did was go to the main showroom, The Pavilion, at 4 p.m., for the sound check for The Bluebirds, who were to play the closing set on Sunday. This is the all-star band of Linda Ronstadt, Maria Muldaur, and Laurie Lewis, backed by Laurie's band Guest House plus Ron Stewart on fiddle. (We know some of the members, so this is how we got in there for the check.) It was plain to see that this was going to be one special show. We then saw a bit of King Wilkie on the stage before we had dinner with Linda and Maria at the Altezzo Restaurant at the top of the Sheraton, with great food and a gorgeous view of Mt. Rainier. From there it was back down to the lobby to cruise the vendor booths, looking at countless fine guitars and hanging at the Tricopolos Music Store booth. More Californians were spotted, including Steve Pottier, Elena Corey, Mark Varner, Bob Blanshard, and Alec Oyung. We saw Korby Lenker play some in the Copper Hollow lounge, and then enjoyed a rousing set by the Reeltime Travelers in the Pavilion. Then we caught the free shuttle van back to our remote site hotel by 1 a.m.
Saturday was even busier than Friday. The music started at 12:15 p.m., but we did not arrive until a little after 1 p.m., where we saw the amazing young band called Pupville, which features the Chris Thiles of tomorrow - Sam Grisman on bass, and Frankie Nagle on banjo - just to name two of the members. Jaws could be seen and heard dropping throughout the audience. From there it was a walk down to the church to see The Peter Rowan/Tony Rice Quartet. The church, while a wonderful venue for music, was packed, with a line out the door of folks waiting to get in. Back to the Sheraton, where a cacophony of banjos, fiddles, mandolins, basses, and guitars greets you the second you walk in. The Seldom Scene played a smokin' set in the Pavilion, followed by the David Grisman Quintet, then Dawg and Tony Rice plus guests closed out the night. Before their set was over we saw our neighbor and friend Peter Rowan near the back of the hall, and we went out into the lobby to chat some. Before long a steady stream of people came by to ask for his autograph, and he was ever so gracious to everyone. When the show was over on the stage, someone handed Peter a guitar to test out, and within seconds about ten other players with instruments surrounded him, and just like that a jam broke out. It was getting into high gear when sleep beckoned for us, so back to the motel we went by 2:15 a.m.
On Sunday the music started at 10:30 a.m., however we did not make it back to the Sheraton until the early afternoon, in time to see most of Mountain Heart's energetic show. Then it was backstage some to visit with The Bluebirds before they went on stage. There was an air of excitement and nervous anticipation, as the band had only met with the singers on Friday, so there was little time to rehearse. The Pavilion was packed, and the emcee said, "This is the most well-attended Sunday we've ever had." And the Birds did not disappoint. The three voices were magical together, with Linda still belting it out just as clear and strong as she did 30 years ago. It was a possible once-in-a-lifetime performance by this ensemble, and if so, the folks who were there won't soon forget it. Backstage after the set, Laurie brought young Frankie Nagel back to meet Linda, and Linda went right over to Frankie to tell her how much she enjoyed her performance in Pupville the day before. You could see stars circling around Frankie's head. That show was the end of the festival, and after jamming a little bit with Suzanne Suwanda and friends in the lobby, there was a staff and performers' dinner at Altezzo that we got to attend, and it was a great way to end the day and the fest.
Wintergrass, for this first-time attendee, was a blast. The festival had a great selection of bluegrass, and Steve Ruffo and the folks - mostly volunteers - are a friendly, energetic and well-organized group. If you've never gone to IBMA but would like to experience a similar, yet smaller and smoke-free, situation, you can be there in less than two hours on a plane. Plan now for next year, as tickets are on sale now and you can get into the lottery to get a room at the Sheraton. You won't be disappointed.
Misses: Didn't get around to seeing The Wilders, Old School Freight Train, JD Crowe, The Lynn Morris Band, The Grascals; the "Tacoma Aroma"; overcrowded church; little personal jamming; not being able to just hop on an elevator to go to our room.
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3 decades of bluegrass in CA
Int'l. Bluegrass Music Assn.
Formerly the Santa Cruz
One of our favorite venues