Mar. 4, 2008 at 1:05pm

Wintergrass ... a week (or so) late(r)

Coincidental Cultural Confluence

I have been attending Wintergrass for 13 years, trading volunteer hours for access to the performance venues. For the past nine years, I’ve been working with the stage crew, which usually puts me in the happy position of hearing the music, even when I’m on the job. Many people spend the weekend outside those “paid” venues and simply spend all their time jamming with other musicians. It is quite a sight to see, every square foot of the dignified Hotel Murano (formerly the Sheraton) taken over by fiddle players and banjo pickers. (I really mean the “every square foot” thing … the hallways, the stairwells … all day, all night). In order to get in to see the “pros,” you pay or work for a wristband.

Wintergrass is, by choice, not a purist festival. There have been doses of blues, Celtic and other forms of international music, and adventures at the edges of bluegrass, country and rock. I’ve, more than once, overheard someone say, dismissively, “That’s not bluegrass.” Quite often, there are drums and/or electricity involved.

I believe that the blurring of the musical boundaries has contributed to the size and popularity of the event, even if a small percentage are put off. It definitely works for me.

This musical diversity has not always been reflected in the racial diversity of the performers, especially as regards African-American performers. Regional treasure, Laura Love, notes that she is often the only dark-skinned performers at bluegrass festivals. So, she proposed to the Wintergrass promoters that they consider a theme of “The African-American roots of bluegrass music.” The festival organizers were enthusiastic and put Ms. Love to work putting together the Thursday night festival opener.

So, she started with her own band HarpersFerry. The one band member with whom I’m familiar is another northwest treasure, Orville Johnson, who played guitar and sang in this setting, but is also a master of the resophonic guitar, mandolin, banjo and probably more. Laura introduced Orville by saying that he, even though White, was so funky, they’d made him an “honorary Negro.” Laura’s newest CD is named “NeGrass,” so she clearly doesn’t flinch at being playful about racial issues.

But, she was quite serious about showing how a musical form like bluegrass, which is not usually thought of being ethnically diverse can trace some of its roots to the music of slaves and their ancestors. Much of the music performed by HarpersFerry was old blues and back-porch country and, in the grand folk tradition, there were some gospel numbers that had been re-worked lyrically for the civil rights movement and, in a few cases, the current political scene. At least one person left the room, seemingly upset over that political content. I’ll leave for another time the issue of political comment at an ostensibly non-political event. Suffice to say that the band rocked, Laura Love has an amazing voice and presence, and Orville Johnson is a talent to behold.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops canceled, so there’s nothing for me to report. They were replaced by the Ebony Hillbillies. If you closed your eyes (or if you are, like me, functionally blind at that distance), you might imagine you were sitting on a porch in Louisiana. But, these guys all live in New York City and have made most of their music in the New York subways. YouTube has a number of videos of them in the subway station. The washboard, with all its bells and whistles (literally) and the dulcimer, add to the down-home authenticity of their sound. They played at the dance stage the next night, and I imagine it was a hopping event.

The final set was performed by Ruthie Foster, a well-known R & B singer with a soaring and expressive singing style. She moved smoothly between the quieter folk material and the more raucous blues shouters, with some hearty gospel thrown in.

It was a creative and adventurous start to the weekend, with a useful history lesson about some of the lesser-known precursors to the music being played in and around the festival.

So, what’s this “coincidental confluence?”

We were forced to leave the festival a couple of hours before the last set, which was to be one of my favorite groups, The Seldom Scene. The reason we had to leave early was we had tickets for a show down the street at the Pantages Theater, part of the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts. BCPA has been quite active recently, increasing the number of performances, and increasing the diversity of the acts they’re bringing in. This approach is adventurous and hasn’t always resulted in sell-out crowds, but they’re in it for the longer haul, banking on the crowds eventually catching up with what’s being presented.

We were there to see Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. Having fled the civil war in their country, these musicians met in a refugee camp in Guinea, and began to make music together. Their story has been made into a documentary movie. While the Pantages was far from sold out for the show, the audience was enthusiastic and energized. The music centered on the traditional sounds of West African music, with healthy helpings of reggae, and modern instrumentation. The colorful traditional clothes, the gymnastic dance, and stunning musicianship made for a joyous and enjoyable show.

The Broadway Center did not, as far as I know, schedule this event to coincide with the theme of Wintergrass, nor did Wintergrass plan its Black and Bluegrass theme based on BCPA’s scheduling. (If I’m wrong about this, I apologize and congratulate the two organizations for their exceptional planning). No matter … it was a nice way to bookend the weekend, starting with the African-American roots of a mostly White musical form, and ending with African musicians, playing a kind of music that has been admired and utilized (the African musicians, too) by Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, and others.

It was an amazing musical weekend.

comments [2]  |  posted under Broadway Center, Ebony Hillbillies, Laura Love, Ruthie Foster, Tacoma, Wintergrass


by KevinFreitas on 3/4/2008 @ 8:59pm
Wow, thanks for the snapshot. It's awesome to know such great music is happening in Tacoma for special events and [hopefully] constantly.

Oh, and a hearty welcome to you and your shiny new blog!

by izenmania on 3/5/2008 @ 9:56am
Well, we do our best to have good music happening as constantly as we can manage.


Don Izenman ... retired mailman ... occasional musician ... proud father ... happily married (this time for sure!) ... contented non-driver ... interested in all things local and all things Tacoma. Oh yeah ... food, beer, and wine!

Recent Posts