Wintergrass: A Hard Place to Suffer
By David Siegel, contributing writer to
Photos © Bellevue.com
As I exit the elevator coming up from the parking garage and make my way across the vast, bright Wintergarden with its dome skylight, the sweet twang of a banjo is barely audible as I climb up the staircase. That sound continues to get louder and clearer until I am enveloped in the vibrant sounds coming from every nook and cranny of Bellevue's swanky Hyatt Regency Hotel. This is the Wintergrass Bluegrass Festival; housewarming its new Eastside home after making the move from Tacoma, where it had spent its first 16 years.
Wintergrass is a multi-dimensional music festival in that not only does it have an expansive lineup of professional musicians playing in one of seven music venues, but many of its attendees tote in an assortment of acoustic instruments in hopes of joining one of the hundreds of spontaneous jam sessions that materialize in any and every available space within the Hyatt. While making your way from one musical set to the next you will pass a smorgasbord of busker-like musicians. From the group of senior citizen, blue hairs jamming out to a Bill Monroe classic to the teenage cellists improvising to one of Edgar Meyer's orchestral compositions you can't help but feel alive and exuberant with the beauty that surrounds you at every corner. Additionally, what makes Wintergrass really special is an entire educational component with countless workshops covering any number of topics including songwriting, instrument instruction, clog dancing or even yodeling, and a separate youth academy for children.
Without a doubt, the music was certainly everyone's main focus this weekend (as it rightfully should be!!!), but Bellevue and its Hyatt Regency Hotel were a close second. Despite a heavy dose of skepticism leading up to the festival's start and incomprehensibly, even some hate mail directed towards festival organizers, both Bellevue and the Hyatt received high marks across the board. After last year's festival in Tacoma, the future of Wintergrass was in jeopardy. Bob Evoniuk, President of the Wintergrass Board of Directors, told Bellevue.com, "Last April at the annual board meeting we put all of our options on the table including shutting down the festival which would have eventually led to Wintergrass going out of business. Then in May, the Hyatt came up and it was the perfect solution. They had the rooms, they had the space and most importantly they had the willingness to work with us in a real, true partnership."
Seemingly, Wintergrass was a winning proposition for everyone involved; organizers got to keep their festival and stay in business, the Hyatt Regency sold out all of their 350+ hotel rooms for the weekend, local businesses benefited from added commerce brought into the city, festival attendees got to enjoy the music, workshops and vendors in a beautiful, modern, state-of-the-art space and musicians benefited from having all of the venues under one roof. Terry Enyeart, bassist for Seattle's beloved Downtown Mountain Boys put it succinctly, "Nothing against Tacoma, but this is just a beautiful venue. It's really laid out nicely, all the surrounding area is easily walkable, lots of great restaurants, plus we don't have to leave, get our instruments wet and drag them up and down the streets. Tacoma was good, but Bellevue is great." Most of the musicians we spoke to had similar sentiments. Numerous acts even spoke on stage about how much they liked the hotel and how much better all of the music venues were acoustically with their drop ceilings, sound dampening walls and thick, wall-to-wall carpeting.
With all of the associated growing pains of moving to a new venue, it was surprising to see a lack of operational problems. Sure some of the workshops started late as attendees and instructors alike aimlessly wandered the halls looking for the Cedar Ballroom, only to find that they were in the wrong tower, but overall everything I witnessed ran smoothly. The only aspect of the festival that needs some improvement is the coordination and execution of performances at venues outside of the main festival; mostly those at Twisted Cork Wine Bar and Stir Martini & Raw Bar attached to the Hyatt. I heard multiple accounts of confusion and awkwardness at Twisted Cork as festival attendees felt pressured by wait staff to make an additional purchase in order to listen to music and experienced first-hand confusion and chaos at Stir. Customers who had supposedly been waiting hours to procure a table in anticipation for an upcoming performance had their sight lines blocked by the eager, last-minute standing room crowd who were struggling in their own right to get a view of the stage while avoiding serving tray toting waitresses trying to deliver sushi and martinis to their customers. It is great to see these bars seeking involvement in the festival and I would love to see that continue with some modifications. Whether it be rearranging the stage layouts to aid in traffic flow and improved sight lines or perhaps limiting capacity to only allow seated capacity, I hope festival organizers can come up with a solution. Personally, I would prefer to be told a venue is sold-out rather than enter only to get pushed and shuffled around like cattle.
Musically there were too many shining moments to discuss all of them, but here are a few of my personal highlights:
- Numerous sets from Boston's Crooked Still, especially their Saturday evening set in the Regency Ballroom which saw perennial Wintergrass favorite, violinist Darol Anger sitting in on multiple songs.
- Sticking with Darol Anger, I was eager to see Anger mix it up with Vasen, an acoustic trio all the way from Sweden. One member plays the Nyckelharpa, a traditional Swedish instrument with 16 strings and keyboard-like keys that is held like a guitar and is played with a bow similar to a violin or cello. It produces an extremely deep, dynamic, ethereal sound that adds a classical, symphonic element to the group's traditional styling.
- A packed set from the amazingly talented multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Sarah Jarosz and her trio. Their music stands up for itself, but is even more astonishing when you consider their ages; Sarah the eldest is 18, fiddler Alex Hargrove, 17 and miraculously, cellist Nathaniel Smith is only 16! Sarah, who earned a Grammy nomination for her debut album "Song Up In Her Head," was one of the most buzzed about artists at this year's festival and she definitely did not disappoint.
- Wintergrass newcomers One Horse Shy hailing from Ashland, Oregon. They play an interesting mix of old-time country with a modern, rockabilly sensibility. Vocalist Manda Bryn has quite the pipes, falling somewhere between Patsy Cline and Alison Krauss. They just came out with their second album "The Better Life" that deserves a good listen if you are into good, local danceable music.
- The unique, diverse styling of Absynthe Quintet from Northern California. They play an interesting mix of gypsy jazz, bluegrass and funk. They appear to still be searching for their signature sound, instead choosing to emulate others but something tells me that once they do discover their own identity, you will likely see their name often.
Quite appropriately, this year's festival had acquired an official slogan "A Hard Place to Suffer," a line from the song of the same name by Kristen Grainger and Dan Wetzel that won the festival's "Bluegrass in Bellevue" Songwriting Contest. Indeed Wintergrass and Bellevue as a whole were a very difficult place to feel downtrodden this weekend with such access to so much amazing music. This is a very good thing, as Wintergrass is set to return to the Hyatt each February for the foreseeable future. At least through 2018.
Published: March 2010
Photos © Bellevue.com
David is a freelance writer.