Written by Brendan Foster
Photos by Tom Hellauer
The vibes were higher than the Sierra’s themselves for the long awaited return of WinterWonderGrass Festival at Palisades Tahoe in Olympic Valley, California. After three long, weird years, you could really feel the energy amongst festival-goers and performers alike at this jam-influenced roots and bluegrass extravaganza. Fueled by a plethora of craft brews, warm weather, epic mountain peaks, and the excitement that rides along with the first festival of the season, you really couldn’t ask for a better atmosphere to let loose and celebrate life with music loving friends, old and new.
The event called out to a heady bunch of roots music fans of all ages, streaming in from Northern California, Colorado, and elsewhere. The festival attendees seemed to be seasoned veterans and came ready to get down. The Palisades parking lot was transformed into a somewhat familiar “lot” scene as many festival attendees used the space to car camp, mingle, link with friends and party before walking into the venue. Those who weren’t sleeping in the parking lot could find lodging at the Palisades resort or in nearby Truckee or Tahoe City. I could tell people were really stoked to be there and the joy was visibly emanating out of everyone. Inside the festival, a supervised “children’s zone” allowed young parents to be at ease and enjoy the music while the kids played together and danced to the tunes themselves. It really felt like a family affair!
One of my personal favorite aspects of the festival was the layout of the four stages and the way the artists were scheduled among them. The Main Stage was large and positioned so that the entire crowd could gaze up at the stunning mountain faces and peaks that Palisades Tahoe is known for whenever an artist was performing. Surrounding the audience area of Main Stage were three heated tents, Jamboree, Pickin’ Perch, and The Soapbox, that supported secondary stages, large bars, and smaller pouring stations for select craft breweries. The larger acts took to the Main Stage for 60 to 90 minute sets with top tier production. These headliner sets were split by 40 to 60 minute sets at the three tent stages by the remaining acts. The tent stages were a great place to grab a refill, warm up in the later part of each night, and catch some epic vibes from both established and up and coming bluegrass and roots talent. All of the artists that played in these tents were given multiple sets throughout the day, so you could actually catch everyone you wanted to see on the lineup without any overlaps (HUGE).
The sound system and lighting production at Main Stage made for really epic performances by every band that performed there. D&B audiotechnik was brought on for Main Stage sound reinforcement, and the system was tuned fantastically for the space. The lighting rig was captivating but not overdone. Its design was slim enough for the more classic bluegrass vibes, but dynamic enough to really bring the jams to life later in the evening. Additionally, many of the trees that surrounded the venue were accented with blue and white uplighting once the sun dipped behind the horizon, keeping your mind in the mountains when it was too dark to catch the peaks.
The three headliners, Billy Strings, The Infamous Stringdusters, and California Honeydrops, really brought on the heat and absolutely crushed their Main Stage performances.
Billy Strings performed two incredibly fun sets on Friday night, one in the twilight hours and the other once things got a little darker. His first set was 60 minutes long, during which he played some classic originals such as “Red Daisy”, “Away From The Mire”, “Must Be Seven”, and “Hide & Seek”, while also gracing his Dead influenced fanbase with a fantastic cover of David Grisman’s “Ralph’s Banjo Special”. The second set was 90 minutes long and more jam focused with fewer tunes stretched out over the longer set. All but two songs played in the second set were covers of legendary artists such as Frank Wakefield, John Hartford, Gaither Carlton, and an absolutely stunning cover of “Summertime” by George Gershwin featuring Michael Trotter Jr. from The War & Treaty. A truly epic night of music from the band.
The Infamous Stringdusters played a killer set on Saturday, opening with a “Shakedown Street” teaser which ultimately was returned to at the end of the set. They performed multiple tracks off of their newly released album which highlighted the band’s current direction within their jam-grass style. The band also tossed down covers of well-loved artists such as Phish, the Allman Brothers Band, and of course, Grateful Dead.
To wrap up the music portion of the festival, California Honeydrops absolutely crushed their Main Stage performance and brought the soulful vibes we all needed to cap off such a fantastic three days of music. I, personally, had never seen the band perform live, and was far beyond impressed by their closing set. Their horn-driven roots and blues sound had the entire crowd feeling the love and I couldn’t get over the band’s ability to create such a euphoric party atmosphere. Multiple artists sat in with the already immense band over the course of the 90 minute performance. It truly was the perfect way to end the festival, bringing everyone’s crew together for one more dance.
There were also many incredible performances put on by undercard artists in Jamboree, Pickin’ Perch, and The Soapbox tents throughout the weekend between headliner sets. Some of the most notable shows I caught were from Old Salt Union, Brothers Comatose, Town Mountain, Della Mae, Chris Jacobs, and Pickin’ on the Dead.
Outside of the music, there were more than a dozen local craft breweries offering free beer samples to anyone (of legal age) between 2pm and 5pm. This not only further motivated the majority of the festival attendees to show up early, but also created an incredible social aspect I had not yet witnessed at similar music events. Additionally to what was offered by these craft breweries, there were large bars throughout the festival that kept drink lines short and prices down, even after the 2-5pm, five dollar happy hour. There was also a large “alley” of food venders slightly removed from the stages that offered a multitude of gourmet eats without crowding the audience area.
Something I’ll have to check out next time is the mid-day performances hosted in Olympic Village Plaza and up at Gold Coast Lodge. I was unable to ski during the weekend, but hopefully next year I can get some runs in and hit a few of these sets while I stop for lunch.
All in all, the 2022 addition of WinterWonderGrass Tahoe exceeded expectations and had me longing to return. I really was blown away by the festival’s dedication to an all encompassing experience that brought together top notch roots music, local breweries and food venders, and a beautiful crowd of people to an incredibly stunning setting in the mountains. I will be back!