Mid-Winter Bluegrass, here we come!

On the Northern Beat

By Jan Peterson

Yes, it is once again time for Ken Seaman’s much-anticipated Mid-Winter Bluegrass Festival, starting today, February 15 and running through Sunday the 17th at the beautiful not-downtown Northglenn Ramada Plaza & Convention Center at I-25 & 120th Avenue, north of Denver. 

Many of us literally count the days until this joyful, musically exuberant experience that I, for one, rely upon to counter my tendency towards seasonal depression. At the other end of the seasonal depressive spectrum, it even keeps (some) skiers away from the slopes for one weekend!

As always, the line-up is a mix of old and new, of famous and not-so-famous (perhaps soon-to-be-famous), of old and young, something for everyone, “a musical extravaganza” as declared on TravelMag.com!  

The headliners are John Cowan with Darin & Brooke Aldridge. Back in the 1970s, John was the lead vocalist and bass player for New Grass Revival. He has also played with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John Prine, Steve Earle, Sam Bush, the Doobie Brothers, Leftover Salmon, Frank Solivan and more

Meanwhile, Darin & Brooke are both highly acclaimed vocalists in their own right. They combine rich harmonies with impeccable musicianship to create the unmistakable sound that has made them one of the hottest acts in bluegrass. And they’ve surrounded themselves with a band of equally amazing young pickers. Darin spent six years as a member of the Country Gentleman and is a highly sought-after multi-instrumentalist, while Brooke has been lauded for having one of the most powerful voices in music of any genre. Now, that’s what I call pedigree!

The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys bagged IBMA’s 2018 Emerging Artist of the Year award. Claiming to take great pride in being ambassadors of their genre, they have brought their music from rural bluegrass festival stages to the rock clubs of Europe. 

“I think to a certain extent everyone is just craving music that they can feel, and any music that feels real will reach any audience” says CJ Lewandowski, the group’s founder. “We want to put bluegrass right where it’s least expected.” Oops, it’s totally expected here! Nonetheless…

Ken tells me Mile Twelve is his pick to be the “buzz band” of the year at MWBGF. “They blew my socks off!”  

And then there’s this from Tim O’Brien: “In recent years, Boston’s Berklee College of Music has added extra fire to that city’s already churning cauldron of traditional string players. Out of this spicy soup jumps Mile Twelve, a group of five accomplished bluegrass musicians who write, sing and play like the wind. Serious players who have serious fun, Mile Twelve is a group to watch in the coming decade.” 

I listened to the complex interlacing rhythms in their song “Onwards” and all I can say is “WOW!”

Jim Hurst is simply a talent that will not be denied. David Morris, writing for BluegrassToday.com, says, “OK, Jim Hurst could play ukulele backed by steel drums and it would probably be somewhere near the top of my list. Here, he’s merely playing some of the best guitar you’ll hear in any genre. (There’s a reason why I called him ‘Three Hands Hurst’ in a review a few years back). That Rice guy is pretty good, but these days, Hurst and folk-rocker Richard Thompson get my vote for the best of the best.” 

The Mike Mitchell Band recently put out their latest album titled Small Town. It debuted on the bluegrass Billboard Chart at #2 for the week of December 8!  From his web site: “Mike’s fiddle has been in Mitchell hands since at least 1890, when his great-great grandfather, DJ, carved his name in the one-piece back. Mike learned his music from the voice of his mother, the sound of her piano, and the harmony of Sunday hymns… it was the most natural thing in the world for him to take up ‘Grandpap’s instrument.’ A wild and unruly boy, Mike would not finish his classical training with Maria Reidstra, or his music major at university. Instead, he found his own voice with the Dead Heads, the Jam Band scene, and the pre-Americana music of the last century. As a young man, Mike moved back to the land and found his home on the Blue Ridge Mountains.”

OK, yet another stellar group of headliners put together by Ken. But our regional bands are pretty good, too! Pete Wernick is, of course, a fixture of the bluegrass world; High Plains Tradition has its own well-known pedigree; as do Blue Canyon Boys; Masontown is a newer group that continues to accelerate into the future; and UNC Faculty Bluegrass Band is a treat not to be missed (comprised of Martin Gilmore, Ron Lynam, Natalie Padilla and Eric Thorin).

The Lonesome Days are a 5-piece, high energy, modern bluegrass ensemble from Denver. They won the 2017 Freshgrass Band Award at the Freshgrass Festival in North Adams, Massachusetts. Listeners can always expect a unique repertoire of original songs, standard bluegrass and other cross-genre covers, but with the recent addition of fiddle (and clogging) to the band, expect an even-more varied new experience.

The Cody Sisters are true sisters (and dad plays the bass) but they’re not just another family band. Fusing so many different influences that it’s often difficult to define them, the Cody Sisters’ experience blends old-time, swing, Gypsy jazz, jazz, folk and modern bluegrass together in a completely unique sound that stays with folks for weeks.

And then there are the Showcase Bands getting their feet wet, so to speak, by putting on performances on the acoustic stage. Ken believes that at least one of this year’s bands is talented enough to already be on the main stage. Check them out and see if you agree. In fact, Ken loves all feedback from festival attendees, no matter what they have to say, so let him know how you feel about all of it.

And there’s so much more than just great stage music! Pickers will ‘adorn’ all parts of the hotel, at all hours of day and night, throughout the festival, although many of them will take a break to participate in The Great Rocky Mountain Band Scramble. Just place your name and instrument in a hat from which a random drawing will establish band members who are given a few hours to practice and then perform in front of the Acoustic Stage audience. With $550 in prize money, it’s a great way to pay for your ‘festival habit!’

There will be a newly established Open Fiddle Contest on Sunday afternoon. Adjust your schedule so you will have plenty of time to participate, or gain insight into who will be the future fiddlers of Colorado. Natalie Padilla will be judging the contest, so you can be sure the winners will absolutely deserve it. And with $750 in prize money, it will be worth it to the participants as well! And yet another new addition to the line-up: a Vocal Duet Contest on the acoustic stage will give folks the opportunity to demonstrate their harmonizing skills, which was very popular at its debut last year.

If you’re just starting to play an instrument, Pete Wernick will be leading the Beginners Jam (in a separate room) on Saturday afternoon. It’s a great opportunity to learn from the very best! This, I think, is one of the most important things that separates bluegrass from other genres of music: most ‘bluegrassers’ are pickers themselves, so they’re more attuned to the music than your ‘average’ music fan. And the great bluegrass musicians are happy to jam with the fans, instead of being ‘fenced off’ from them. 

In fact, the opportunity to meet those on-stage musicians (and purchase their latest musical offerings) is ‘built in’ to the festival experience! Beyond that, there is the ever-popular Vendors’ Room with even more opportunities to find and purchase ‘hidden gems’ that are rarely found elsewhere.

Ken Seaman related to me his experience of being at a BG Festival in Missouri where he got to talking with total strangers and, before the event was over, they had become good ‘bluegrass friends.’  

“No politics or religion, just talkin’ ‘bout music, bands, instruments —there’s nothing like it! As the bumper sticker said, ‘It’s all good!’”

And that, I believe, should be the last word!