Bluegrasser Teen-on-the-Scene – Wintergrass 2012

Written by:

If you’re on Facebook you probably know how sometimes it throws you a “memory,” a post from your past, usually with a photo of a previous Facebook post. So today when Akira Otsuka (of Bluegrass 45) showed up in a smiling pose with 17 year-old me at Wintergrass in 2012, I decided to rerun my column from that time. Here you go:  

Bluegrasser Teen-on-the-Scene – Wintergrass 2012
Saturday, March 17, 2012
“So, what’s the jamming like?” “What can I expect?” “Will I get my money’s worth?” “What kind of bluegrass festival is it anyway?” Ah, the great unknowns of an untried festival venue. Here’s my take on my first indoor festival experience based on my patented and highly scientific rating system of 0 to 5 PICKS.
Wintergrass Festival, February 23 – 26, 2012
Bellevue, WA
JAMMING: Best. Jamming. Ever. Since closed jams tended to stay in their hotel rooms, the rest of us jammed contentedly in the hallways, corridors, balconies, cubbies, elevators, ledges, stairwells (great acoustics!), and the many different rooms and hosted suites of the Hyatt till the wee hours of the morning. Or later. My mom woke up to some irresistible old time jamming across the hallway at 4am, and walked all of four steps, barefoot with her bass, to join them! Good thing she was wearing pajamas right then ‘cuz I don’t think being nekid would’ve stopped her! 5-PICKS
LINEUP: 5-PICKS. Bands of every stripe: traditional, progressive, Americana, Old Time, jazz, old country, edgy, Newgrass, folk rock, 50’s West Coast jazz, you name it. Representing the international community were bands from Japan, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland, and Italy. Like no kidding, there was something for everybody at this festival. Here are just a few highlights:
Bluegrass 45 Japan/DC. The legendary Akira Otsuka, with his signature grin and even more legendary John Duffy mando, jammed til 4am Saturday in the Mandolin Cafe room, and then laid down yet another energetic set on Sunday. Guitarist brother Josh Otsuka (imagine an eternally young Keith Richards on bluegrass) provided comic relief, and mature, wistful, soaring vocals. Saburo Watanabe set hearts a-flutter both with his banjo licks and movie star charm, while brother Toshio (bass) kept the pack within bounds. And Ryo Liao delivered scalding fiddle solos, completely belying his mellow and calm demeanor. Part unruly pack of puppies and part bonafide rock stars, BG 45 delivered music from the heart. Emotional, playful, traditional, ageless, irreverent, and honoring, these guys are wicked sharp. Don’t even try to keep up with them.
The Kruger Brothers. Originally from Switzerland. Jens (banjo) slides effortlessly from one playing style to the next and ABSOLUTELY nails it all, while Uwe (guitar) has one of the most relaxed playing styles I have ever seen. Joel Landsberg on bass supports the effortless virtuosity and helps to blur the line between music and player, performer and audience, in a way that is a testament to the organic ease of their music.
The Deadly Gentlemen drew a full crowd, and I was surprised to see many of my elders in attendance. The Gentlemen uncorked a barrage of mixed Newgrass/Bluegrass/Folk to blaze an entirely new genre. Epic folk and Grasscore, in their words, bit I’d call if BazookaGrass, because brother, you want to screw that saddle down tight! It was like watching the birth of a solar system. Epic indeed…
Vasen. Sweden. Here’s the show where you saw the greatest number of band members in the audience. Newbies to the Vasen experience may wonder, “What the heck is a Nyckelharpa?” upon walking in, but they sure know the answer to that when they walk out in a blissful trance. This is a folk rock band you must experience live to fully appreciate.
And Then. There was Ricky Skaggs.
Boy howdy. He and Kentucky Thunder are an entire festival right there. Ricky has THE best mando face ever, passionate, ferocious, and totally relentless. The set built blazing solo upon even more blazing solo and I could see many a musician in the audience just shake their heads and smile in hopeless admiration.
AWE FACTOR: If you survive the sheer awesome-ness of the live performances from the likes of Joe Craven, Tim O’Brien, The Grascals, Junior Sisk, Frank Solivan, The Wilders, The Anderson Family, and Greensky Bluegrass, prepare yourself for many close encounters. Most likely you’ll find yourself jamming with your heroes in a stairwell or shoulder-to-shoulder in an elevator. Be sure to practice what you might say when up close and personal with a performer so you alone, while everyone else in the elevator is struck dumb, can holler, “AARAGH!! WE LOVE YOU, RICKY!!!” as your door opens and there he is, standing with mando in hand, waiting for the doors to open, just like an ordinary mortal. 5-PICKS.
Okay, so I have to admit having big crushes on Kristen Scott Benson (Grascals, IBMA Banjo Player of the Year) and Betse Ellis (Wilders) like every other Y chromosome walking around. Both these gals are so friendly and kind and generous, and not to mention full-on masters of their instrument. I keep expecting to see flames shooting from Betse’s bow one of these days. Her unique delivery – deep, emotional, and fierce – is just what bluegrass memories are made of.
LOCATION: The Bellevue and it’s environs was fun to roam and easily accessible. Lots of varied dining choices (Red Robin, Cheesecake Factory, Whole Foods) within easy walking distance or across the sky bridge. Once indoors, you never had to worry about climate fluctuations like heat, wind, or rain, and it’s a relief to know your instruments are always safe and never exposed to temperature extremes. 5-PICKS.
LODGING: The Hyatt. A testament to Hyatt standards. But. I just can’t get past having to pay for internet. Just can’t. That said, all creature comforts were fully accounted for. Loads of space for spontaneous jamming, fantastic concert venues, and a highly calming atmosphere. The staff didn’t raise a communal eyebrow with all the ice chests, and let’s say, “non-matching” luggage they were required to tote to our rooms. I know some of you think that twelve cases of beer constitutes matching luggage, and I applaud you for it, but credit is due to the Hyatt staff for good-naturedly handling our wishes and whims. 4-PICKS.
INSTRUMENT STORAGE: An odd category, I know, but these folks rate 5-PICKS because they were the most playful and good natured guys at the whole festival. The fun really started when I misplaced my claim ticket. They required photo identification, and intimate description of my instruments, AND I was required to sing “I’m a Little Teapot.” In front of everybody in line. Luckily for my pride, I wasn’t the only one who misplaced their ticket and you could hear assorted brave souls yowling, “…just TIP me over and pour me out!!” nearly every time you passed by. And yes, you had to do the hand movements (don’t just DO the teapot, BE the teapot!)
ELEVATORS: The BEST place for a jam in the whole complex. I myself partook of the “complete elevator jamming experience” a number of times. Especially memorable is when you hear a joyful noise on it’s way, increasing in volume, and the doors open to a blistering jam with wild man Rushad Eggleston (previously of Crooked Still, currently of the world and universe) standing on the handrails, leaning over the group, ferociously sawing his cello. The doors close and they continue on, and you can hear the music fade once more. Or like when my mom and her new jam pal were headed upstairs with their instruments, singing “Walls of Time,” and the door opened. There stood a mando player and his fiddle-playing girlfriend, already in the groove of “Walls of Time,” and as they stepped in and the door closed behind them, the new group continued the tune without missing a beat. That’s my top favorite “Only at Wintergrass” moment. 5-PICKS.
(Cameron Little is a teen musician who lives in the rural Sierra, where he actually sits on the porch of a little cabin home on a hill, to play music and sing. He has at last been ushered into the Facebook Universe thanks to Roland White’s encouragement!)

Read about: