A stompin’ good time
By Keegan Prosser
Going to a music festival in the middle of winter may not seem like the most conventional thing to do. But for attendees of Bellevue’s Wintergrass Bluegrass Festival, it’s become somewhat of a tradition. Started in 1993 by a group of bluegrass fanatics, the goal of the first Wintergrass was simple: continue the tradition of traditional Bluegrass festivals by creating a space for friends to play and listen to music – at a time and place not so typical of the genre.
“When Wintergrass started there were no [bluegrass festivals] inside – or during the winter,” says Patrice O’Neill, who helped found the festival and currently serves as Artistic Director. “We were the only one.”
The first Wintergrass took place at Tacoma’s Sheraton Hotel, where bluegrass fans flocked for 14 years. Twenty years and a change of location later, the festival continues to bring an eclectic mix of live, acoustic music to the Northwest.
“If acoustic music is going to survive, it’s because the audience is refreshed,” O’Neill says.
That’s why finding fresh talent and broadening musical tastes is at the core of the festival. O’Neill says this balance is reached by booking at least three bands that have been well-received in the past, and filling the rest of the 130-act line up from a pool of suggestions they collect during the year.
Among this year’s newcomers is Bellingham act Polecat, whom O’Neill decided to book after hearing about the group from friends.
The five-piece, who have been playing locally since 2010 have previously played festivals like the Subdued Stringband Jamboree, Summer Meltdown, and, most recently, Bumbershoot.
Known for their contemporary sound, Polecat’s genre-bending tracks are the perfect example of O’Neill’s goal to book more experimental acts. In a given set you’ll hear one track inspired by old-timey Americana, another with hints of Reggae and a third with funky riffs. While O’Neill admits her booking has been met with some resistance in recent years, she says the audience has been good about evolving.
“They only ask that we surprise them,” O’Neill says. “We can pretty much present anything now – as long as it’s good.”
In addition to scheduled performances, Wintergrass has become just as well known for its impromptu jam sessions (a standard of bluegrass festivals).
Musician Darol Anger, who has been attending and playing Wintergrass for several years, says he still remembers the first time he walked in to the festival:
“It was this extremely exciting moment – when I got to hear all of this stuff happening at once,” Anger says.“It was like a tidal wave of bluegrass overwhelming you.”
Noted for its focus on music education, learning has been a big part of Wintergrass since the beginning.
“It was never a question in our brain that workshops who be a big part of our festival,” O’Neill says.
Previous workshops have focused on string instruments, vocal stylings and the history of bluegrass. Yet the heart of Wintergrass’ approach to education is the Youth Orchestra program, started three years ago by Beth Fortune, who currently serves as the festival’s Director of Education.
A classically trained violinist, who has been helping with festival programming for the past seven years, Fortune started the orchestra to bridge the gap between students who have been classically trained, and those who learn by ear.
“I find it important for students to learn to play not just from reading [notes], but from just following a conductor,” Fortune says.
Each year, Fortune recruits a handful of booked artists to re-arrange one of their songs to perform with the students. She says exposure to live music, and the opportunity to play with professional musicians, are pivotal game changers in the lives of young musicians.
This year, the orchestra will feature students from Washington Middle School (Seattle), Maywood Middle School (Renton) and Kenmore Junior High (Kenmore).
“People [were] skeptical about signing on to do this with kids,” Fortune says.
However, after seeing the finale performance in past years, it’s something artists request to be part of.
Violinist Anger has been involved with creating arrangements for the orchestra since its inception, and will return this year with his band the Furys.
“I just love doing that,” Anger says, about the challenge of arranging music simple enough for young musicians to play, yet still exciting for more experienced players. “It’s like the biggest jigsaw puzzle in the world.”
O’Neill says they try to put a theme to Wintergrass each year, as a way to keep the event and performances cohesive. Last year’s theme revolved around the “father of Bluegrass,” Bill Munroe and the celebration of his 100th birthday. Themed “Bill Monroe 101 (as the festival took place shortly after the late musicians 100-year mark), Wintergrass 2012 served as a history lesson for those who attended.
In this tradition, this year’s festival will look back at the past 20 years by brings back a number of familiar faces to play – the most notable being The Seldom Scene, who played the very first Wintergrass Festival. Other returning acts include Anger, Della Mae amd Laurie Lewis.
More than anything, this year’s festival will build on the concept of sharing, creating and exploring new music.
Wintergrass 2013 takes place Feb. 28-March 3 at the Hyatt Regency Bellevue, 900 Bellevue Way Northeast. Tickets can be purchased at www.acousticsound.org.