Jam groups are the core of the Wintergrass experience.
Wintergrass 2017 was held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Bellevue Washington, part of Greater Seatlle. Ostensibly a bluegrass festival, this year's festival had a classical music undercurrent as exemplified by Mike Marshall & Caterina Lichtenberg peforming under the title, "Bach to Bluegrass." To make a long story short, it worked marvelously well.
There has always been a natural tension between classical music, which was developed with no small measure of assistance from the royal courts of Europe, and folk music, which was usually performed by commoners. Hence classical music tends to be much more dignified and formal, while folk music tends to express what people really feel. As an amateur musical scholar I was a been concerned about trying to mix the two genres. Let us say, however, that these fears proved to be groundless, as they overwhelmingly approved of the Classical/Bluegrass fusion.
Marshall and Lichtenburg played Bach on mandolin and mandocello, much to the delight of the audience. They also showed the ability to incorporate blues and bluegrass into their playing, but their forte is certainly classical music. This was maybe not what a hard core bluegrass fan would expect to hear, but this audience loved it.
Marshall and Lichtenburg presaged the finale which was played by a youth orchestra playing alongside famous Bluegrass musicans like Tim O'Brien. Truthfully, I thought Rocky Top played in an orchestral arrangement was way too tame and lacked the energy of the bluegrass version. But, I was in a distinct minority, as the audience was completely delighted to hear some of their old favorites played by a talented orchestra. Definitely talent and love overcame whatever musical inconsistencies may have existed.
Nevertheless, I'll issue the following challenge to the youth orchestra leaders. If you REALLY want to let the kids experience the folk style, you have to let them play without written music and without a conductor. Just play by ear and improvise. I dare you to invite jam-meister Keith McManus to be the alpha fiddler for a jam with a classical orchestra. They need at least one workshop to understand what a jam is and how it works (i.e., the AA/BB pattern; when to tone down to allow the vocalist to be heard; where the instrumental breaks come in and so on). In fact, I double dog dare you. I think it would be incredible to let the kids actually experience a jam on stage. It would definitely work, and will be a big success. I triple dog dare you!
Wheeling's Tim O'Brien was one of the featured performers and definitely a highlight. Tim is a bit of a throwback in that he uses the Old Timey full voiced style but combined with original lyrics and fresh music ideas. Not very many people could realize that soul artist James Brown can be played on a clawhammer banjo, but it's true. Tim took turns on fiddle, guitar, mandolin and banjo (clawhammer style on a bluegrass instrument no less). He's not only a brilliant musician, but also a wonderful commentator and story teller. That was the best part about seeing him live, because he helps his audience to feel the song and the lyrics.
Sierra Hull wowed the auidence with her powerful vocals and insane talent on the mandolin. Her set was backed up only by a double bass. I'm not sure if that is simply the way she chooses to perform or whether she might have been short a band member or two. I did think that I would prefer to hear other instruments in addition to the mando, though I must admit I haven't heard anyone play the mandolin like that in a long time, if ever.
In addition to the featured performers, festival attendeeds bring their instruments and play in ad-hoc jams all up and down the hallways. This music tended to be very standard fare; a lot of Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe. Let's just say that the musicians in Bellevue are extremely talented and love bluegrass. They are well worth listening to even if you don't go to the featured performances at all.
Now some words about the venue are also important. Most of the festivals I have been too are held in campgrounds, and cost very little money to attend. I've been involved in organizing a few festivals, and the organizers have tended to be very concerned about meeting the needs of very poor folk musicians. For example, the Worley Gardner Music Fest is held in Morgantown WV in a junior high school building every year, and there is no admission charge for musicians. This causes the organizers to struggle to get volunteer labor and make money on concessions as a way of paying expenses. I would rather just charge 5 or 10 bucks for admission which would cover expenses much more simply, but so far the organizers have succeeded in keeping free admission for musicians.
That is an entire universe away from Winterfest, which is held at a five star hotel venue at the Bellevue Hyatt Regency. Admission is going to run you over $150 dollars if you're a local, and if you're staying at the hotel, you're investing several hundred dollars. But on the other hand, if you're a bluegrass fan, there are not a lot of opportunities to attend festivals in February. This is a way for thousands of people to become rejuvenated musically the heart of winter. It's also a perfect climate controlled venue for instrument vendors turn out in force with instruments that can cost thousands of dollars. They might not be anxious to bring a $5000 hand made guitar to an outdoor festival and have it get rained on. I thought it was a major plus just to see the instruments even if you don't buy anything. In particular, I struck up a conversation with Matt Thibeaux of Rayco, which specializes in resonator guitars and--get this---resonator banjos. I was also shown a Hawaiian guitar which is played like a slide guitar. To me that was a clear positive.
On the other hand, Bluegrass has always had a bit of a working person's edge to it. To me, it's “three chords and the truth,” part of the social fabric of the commnity Back before there was TV and air conditioning, neighbors would just come together after work with whatever instruments they had and make music for each other. It was coal miners, ranchers, steelworkers and farmers rather than trained court musicians. It may not have been great music, but there was a lot of love there. I worry that perhaps a little might be at risk of being lost when it gets a little too monified. For example, in Morgantown I'm used to the musicians sometimes randomly handing out musical instruments to people in the bar just so that they can get the feel of the instrument, and take an impromptu lesson even if they have never played in their life. We just do that as a way of introducing people to the music. By contrast a while back I went to a jam in Seattle which is held in a restaurant. But rather than perforrming for the people in the restaurant, they get a private room in the back to preserve their privacy. Nevertheless, it was a terrifically talented jam. I was very excited by that, and some months later got in touch with the jam leaders to see if someone could arrange for me to borrow some kind of guitar. I was told very pointedly that I should go to a music store and rent an instrument and even though I was flying 2000 miles to attend their jam with my 90 year old father, they would not help me participate. That's fine, it's their jam and I'm the visitor, so they don't have to share anything or even open it to the public, but that's when I finally realized it was a much different culture than I was used to. And I never went back.
But with that cautionary note, Wintergrass is definitely a rich musical experience, and it's a great musical mini-vacation. It's also a joy to see young people involved in it, and discovering a rich musical tradition. In some ways, it's a bit unorthodox, but somehow a magical formula seems to have been discovered, and it works.
Tim O'Brien was his usual spectacular self, with powerful vocals and an authoritative guitar backup