WinterWonderGrass Takes It To Another Level In the Snow

WinterWonderGrass Tahoe
Palisades, Tahoe
April 5 – 7, 2024

Photos by Paul Piazza

The 8th WinterWonderGrass Tahoe music festival took place in Palisades, Tahoe recently. It had all the elements one would desire at an early spring outdoor music festival in the mountains. Lively crowds, amazing music, and some beautiful fresh snow. It snowed for two out of three days at this year’s event and that extra mountain ambience tied in with the winter motif of the entire affair, while also causing the need to plan for warmer evening wear.

The Devil Makes Three

This annual festival is part of a family of four festivals that includes a celebration in Steamboat, Colorado as well as a five day river rafting music experience on the Yampa River called River WonderGrass, and even a Baja California event called called Baja WonderGrass.

Jay Cobb Anderson and Mimi Naja Winter WonderWomen

The talent selections at Palisades were certainly curated with inspiration. It was a fantastic blend of newer talent, established acts, and artists on the verge of breaking through as well as some lively creative collaborations.

What an Audience!

The Saturday and Sunday night headliners The Devil Makes Three and the Infamous Stringdusters were in top form, while festival newcomer Paul Cauthen kicked things off with a rousing Friday night set that introduced many to his rowdy stage presence and beautiful baritone vocals, which have earned him the nickname “Big Velvet.” Cauthen is a talent to watch as he blends ribald humor with earnestness in an old-fashioned, big Texas kind of way.

Sierra Ferrell

Perhaps some of the crowd’s biggest expectations were focused on the Saturday night set by Sierra Ferrell. The West Virginian has caught many off-guard with the evolutionary beauty of her music which incorporates elements of folk, bluegrass, gypsy jazz, and even tango and calypso music. Like a sweet mystery, she has unfurled from the seed when she planted herself in Nashville and has bloomed to garner nationwide acclaim with her spellbinding voice and time bending sensibilities. She is a unique songbird and the world is taking notice. She and her excellent band enthralled the WinterWonderGrass crowd.

Sierra Hull

There was another Sierra in the lineup, who also played a highly anticipated set. Mandolinist/vocalist Sierra Hull has been a sensation in the bluegrass world since she was signed to Rounder Records at the age of thirteen. Now 32, Hull has become a highly regarded player in the world at large and she has recorded with Molly Tuttle, Allison Krauss, and Rhiannon Giddens. Charming, talented, and a wizard on the mandolin. Not too shabby for a young lady who hails from Byrdstown, Tennessee, a town of about 900.

Winter WonderWomen

Another band that made a big impact everywhere they appeared at the festival was the WinterWonderWomen. This group of inspired women was led by Lindsey Lou, a perrennial festival favorite, who has co-written for Sierra Ferrell. The group also featured guitarist/mandolin Mimi Nanja of Fruition,  bassist Emma Rose (Big Richard, Sound of Honey), fiddler Bridget Law (Elephant Revival) and keyboardist/vocalist Megan Letts of Mama Magnolia. They were joined a couple of times (they played four sets at the festival) by Fruition’s Jay Cobb Anderson. When I ran into Anderson, he was on the way to join them in one of their tent sets and he told me that he was “an unofficial WinterWonderWoman.”  This fantastic group played a number tasty covers but also played a fair amount of tunes from Lou’s great recent record, “Queen of Time,” during one of their sets.

Andy Frasco

Andy Frasco and the U.N. caught everyone’s attention with raging, high energy late afternoon set that at one time had most of the crowd circling into numerous pods to do the hora dance. His skillful band is a high energy physical attack on the senses, with Frasco as the ringmaster in the center of it all. His boundary pushing (and always engaging) commentary is tempered by his humanity and humor. It’s a good blend and creates levity.

Boot Juice

There were a number of younger bands that made an impact during the tweener sets that were spaced out in three separate tents and ran for approximately 30 minutes between the acts on the big stage. Diggin’ Dirt brought some James Brown style funk while Boot Juice had a hint of bluegrass in their vaudeville-like, high energy performance that seemed to gin up the crowd.

Broken Compass Bluegrass

One of the groups that really stood out were Broken Compass Bluegrass, a jam grass sensation from the California foothills who grew up steeped in the bluegrass community and are emerging as one of the great hopes for the future. They are well on their way. The group played a pair of tweeter sets and then was paired as the opener with The Infamous Stringdusters for their Grass After Dark set.

Diggin’ Dirt

“WinterWonderGrass was such a dream come true for us,” said Kyle Ledson, who plays a wicked mandolin and also plays guitar and handles many of the vocals with the group. “The festival really treat their artists like family, new and old. It was such an honor to get to open for the Stringdusters to top it all off!” The young group are set to release their second studio record later this spring.

Megan Letts and Emma Rose-Winter WonderWomen

Another not to be missed set was performed by The Sam Grisman Project. Grisman, an exceptional bassist, is the son of David “Dawg” Grisman. His band reinvent many of his father’s classics with their “Retrograss” take on things that can go in many different wonderful directions. Each time around, they seem to get better and better. A personal favorite in this stelar set (they played two tweener sets) was a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come.”

Enthusiastic Festival Goer

And although it snowed on a couple of days, this festival is largely weather-proof with fans decked out in snow gear and three big tents to duck into if one is succumbing to the elements. Besides the excellent tweener sets on three different small stages, there was also complimentary beer tasting during the afternoon throughout the festival. Patrons seem to enjoy this and it was a great way for brewers and distributors to promote themselves. It was also a good place to take a pause for some in-festival camaraderie, and many people became instant friends or reconnected with long unseen festival friends.  People travelled from all over to be a part of this festival and justifiably so. After this year’s event, one can only see that happening for years and years to come.