Photos & The 10 Best Moments from WinterWonderGrass Tahoe 2016

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Images by: Sterling Munkgard

Words by: Ian Stone

WinterWonderGrass :: 04.01-03.16 :: Squaw Valley :: Olympic Village, CA

View Sterling’s photo gallery below Ian’s review.

It is extremely difficult to pick only 10 stand-out moments because this year’s WinterWonderGrass festival in Squaw Valley certainly had many more than 10 amazing moments. The 2016 edition seemed to only build on last year’s success, with improvements like adding bands in a third tent, extending free beer tasting hours, and upping the game with even better merch, lighting and talent.

Between main stage sets, each of the three tents which also doubled as bar areas and beer tasting events, bands would play mini-sets to keep everyone entertained and engaged. The event is designed so you have ample time to taste beer from many different areas and several bands play multiple times, giving everyone plenty of options and experiences throughout the weekend.

This was the second annual WinterWonderGrass Tahoe, held at Squaw Valley Resort in Olympic Village, California, the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. In its inaugural year the weather varied, with rain and sleet during Greensky Bluegrass’ closing set, but this year was quite the opposite. Mother nature delivered a healthy dose of sunshine and warm temps during the day, and clear skies with a slight chill in the air – but not too cold to keep the crowds away – at night.

Slushy ski conditions allowed for tank-tops and vests on the mountain. Thanks to El Nino, Squaw had 100 percent of its terrain open during the festival this year and giving winter sports aficionados plenty of things to keep busy. For the non-skiers and snowboarders, the hot tub and bar at Squaw’s High Camp was open, and Squaw’s village provided plenty of other activities, yoga, food options and bars. On Saturday morning, one of the bands from the festival played an impromptu set in the village, one of many great surprises Squaw and WinterWonderGrass and Squaw had in store.

1. Quite possibly the best moment of the entire festival was on Friday, April 1 when Greensky Bluegrass took to a smoke-filled stage. The music began playing, and the band slowly emerged from the rising cloud of smoke – however, much to the surprise of the crowd the musicians were lip-syncing and were actually GSBG imposters. John Skehan from Railroad Earth stood in for Paul Hoffman, notably the most obvious to even casual Greensky fans, as Hoffman has a long dark brown beard and Skehan’s hair and beard are completely white. Others joined in on the prank as members of The Lil’ Smokies and Fruition filled out other spots on the stage, pretending to play and lip sync to the album version of Greensky’s popular single, “Windshield.” The jig was up when the “real” band finally came out and segued from the recording to their instruments, finishing out the tune on their own. The shenanigans continued all throughout the set as Scott Law came out for “I’d Probably Kill You,” but the band introduced him as “Art Garfunkel” continuing the April Fools’ pranking. The set wasn’t all jokes though, as they delivered a seriously jamming performance that included a cover of Phish’s “Julius” and a raging version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” with Jay Cobb Anderson sitting-in.

2. Pickin’ On The Dead played sets in one of the side tents, the Picken’ Perch three times throughout the day on Sunday, April 3 between mainstage sets. Each time their set completely packed the tent, and people would be overflowing outside. They gave fans a healthy dose of Grateful Dead as most filled their two ounce taster cups from a variety of craft brewers. I loved the “Maggie’s Farm” and “Friend Of The Devil” covers, but the crowd seemed pretty fired up during favorites like “Scarlet Begonias” and “I Know You Rider.” Since it was so hard to get around in the tent, I needed a beer and headed across to the Jamboree Tent. I knew I was in heaven at WinterWonderGrass because when I left the Dead tent and entered the Jamboree tent, Horseshoes And Hand Grenades were covering Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Greatness just seemed to be everywhere.

3. Sometimes, you can’t be in all places at once and this certainly holds true at WinterWonderGrass, but fortunately most of the bands play multiple times giving you a chance to see everyone. There were a couple of really unique performances that I personally did not catch, but saw photos and wish I had. On Sunday, Fruition, Brad Parsons and members of Grant Farm joined forces as the “WinterWondergrass All-Stars” and played a set above 8,000 feet on the mountain near the top of the Emigrant chairlift. From the photos I saw, it looked beyond epic. The other was dubbed “Jam In The Tram,” which consisted of a jam session in the aerial tram which transports passengers from Squaw’s base up to high camp at 8,200 feet. On Thursday evening, they had an exclusive dining event at high camp with music on the tram as it went up and down.

4. The WinterWonderGrass All-Stars, with members of Fruition and Grant Farm, also played together on Friday in the Jamboree Tent and delivered a fantastic version of The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek” with Brad Parsons sitting-in. The beer flowed and so did the music, as this was during the final moments of the free daily beer tastings, and everyone dived in to get their final pours (including this author).

5. Beer tastings were free each day during the festival from 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and there were many breweries providing two ounce pours of everything from double IPA’s to blonde ales. My favorite of the weekend was Bay City Brewing’s California Pale Ale with 7.7 ABV and brewed with Simcoe hops. The beer tents flanked the sides of the main stage area, giving everyone a tasty reprieve during set-breaks, and also had many great bands while the delicious beers were consumed. Other notable breweries in attendance were Lagunitas, Golden Road, Fifty Fifty Brewing, Rubicon, and Knee Deep Brewing. They even had some cider for the non-beer drinkers. When tasting hours ended, the festival offered discounted beer if you had your own “Kleen Kanteen” cup, which was provided to three-day pass patrons.

6. Scott Law and Ross James led Cosmic Twang, which really got things going on the first day during happy hour. They brought out Tim Carbone from Railroad Earth, and played a fantastic version of “Big Railroad Blues,” which they segued straight into another crowd favorite “Deep Elum Blues.” Just when you thought things couldn’t get better, they took it up another notch for a cover of the New Riders of the Purple Sage tune, “Somebody Robbed The Glendale Train” which had everyone old and young singing and dancing right along.

7. Saturday afternoon the sun was shining, people wore tank tops, t-shirts, and/or capes while The Dustbowl Revival played a ripping set with acapella-esque harmonies and fast picking. They then busted out a cover of The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” definitely winning the prize for the best version of that song played all weekend, which also happened to be the most covered song.

8. The Travelin’ McCourys got things heated up on Sunday afternoon as the sun began to make its way back behind the mountain ridges, filling the sky with orange hues and cotton candy shaped clouds. The asphalt started to shake when Ronnie McCoury came to take the lead for “Cumberland Blues” and kept the Dead vibes going with covers of “Loser” straight into “Deal” to close the set.

9. Les Claypool is always a character, jumping around stage with funky hats and antics, and although he didn’t have costumes or hats, he certainly didn’t leave his strange and witty comments at home. Things opened strong and hard with a Primus song, “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver,” after which he commented on, “How many amazing seasoned bluegrass musicians are here” – but noted that he’s not one of them. He would poll the crowd on various topics like skiers vs. snowboarders, told stories about Oysterhead tour and their stop in Vancouver where they met Mr. Stompin’ Tom Connors, and much more. But he backed up the stories with playing, busting out one of Stompin’ Tom’s songs infused with elements of Canadian lore, and his Johnny Cash-esque style called “The Bridge Came Tumbling Down.” The stories were all relatable, and quite funny. He also busted out one of my favorite Frog Brigade tunes, “Buzzards of Green Hill,” and closed things out with a cover of “Stayin’ Alive” by Bee Gees which really got the crowd dancing.

10. Leftover Salmon rounded out the Main Stage on Sunday night as the final headliner, busting out favorites like “Aquatic Hitchhiker” which was very intense and got the crowd quite riled up (despite being less packed than the previous night). They also played songs like “Breakin’ Thru,” inviting Jay Starling to play dobro, who wound up staying for the remainder of the set. Things just got better and better as each song saw LoS add a special guest until the end of the set. Out next came Jason Carter from The Travelin’ McCoury’s on violin for “High Country.” They really kicked it into high gear when Silas Herman from Gipsy Moon came out on mandolin for “Lonesome Weary Ramblin’ Highway Man,” a Great American Taxi song, to close the set. They figured we were hungry after a long weekend, and sent us off with a “Pasta on the Mountain” encore and it sure was delicious. Salmon also played a rocking show at the Olympic Village Inn, just steps away from the festival grounds late night Saturday. The line was out the door and around the block, and left ticketless fans waiting in the cold in hopes of scoring a ticket.

11. Because a Top 10 list just simply isn’t enough for WinterWonderGrass, here’s the honorable number 11. Railroad Earth played to likely the biggest crowd of the three days on Saturday evening and gave us a wonderfully segued set of tunes starting with “The Forecast” – which might possibly have been the best song of the day. They went straight into “The Hunting Song” and from there kept going straight into “Chasin a Rainbow.”

Beard Mafia
Brothers Comatose 1
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Cosmic Twang 1
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Crowd 1
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Duo De Twang 1
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Dustbowl Revival 1
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Dustbowl Revival 4
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Elephant Revival 1
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Festival Sights 1
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Firedancer 1
Gipsy Moon 1
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Greensky Bluegrass 1
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Greensky Bluegrass 3
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Greensky Bluegrass April Fools Band 1
Greensky Bluegrass April Fools Band 2
Greensky Bluegrass April Fools Band 3
Horseshoes and Hand Grenades with Tim Carbone
Jay Cobb and Friends
Leftover Salmon 1
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Railroad Earth 1
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Shook Twins 1
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The Lil' Smokies 1
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Travelin McCoury's 1
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Tyler Grant and Tim Carbone
Winter Wondergrass 1
Winter Wondergrass All Star Jam