Bluegrass in the ‘Boat | SteamboatToday.com

Bluegrass in the ‘Boat

WinterWonderGrass music festival comes to Steamboat to celebrate mountains, music, memorable moments

Julia Ben-Asher/For Steamboat Pilot & Todayr

In the midst of a churning sea of knit-hat pom poms and unicorn horn-adorned hoods of onesies, my brain kept wandering back to the same thought: Taking a bluegrass festival and putting it in the dead of winter changes things.

At every music festival on the planet, there will be the cool baby with sunglasses and earplugs and a giant gummy grin, loving every second; there will be the group of older ladies at the front of the crowd, putting the rest of our dance moves to shame. There will always be the first brave souls to break free of the reservation of the first few songs of the day, who boogie on out to the front of the pit without a care in the world, bringing the rest of the audience with them. There will be the excitement rippling through the crowd as a musician or two start walking toward the center of the stage to take the next riff. There will always be ephemeral, sweet moments between people, occurring constantly and countlessly.

Leftover Salmon's Drew Emmitt plays the mandolin Friday at WinterWonderGrass.
Matt Stensland

But at a festival in February in the High Rockies, I think things are heightened even more.

It's more than the hoot of wearing snow pants and toe warmers to a show, then canceling out the warmth with an icy beer, and it's more than the thrill of the stage backdrop being ant-sized skiers skiing and the gondola, chugging its way up the mountain. It's more than how gorgeous everything looks through a silent curtain of chubby snowflakes and alpenglow, and later, under the stars.

It's when your mittened hands are already numb and you notice the bassist on stage breathing on his cupped, bare fingers between notes, empathy smashes the crowd-stage barrier and you feel for the guy as a human. As the sun drops and so does the temperature, and as the cold begins to bite, the bands' frozen breath is highlighted in a cone of colored spotlight. We toss away the idea that we should all carefully keep a polite distance apart; we all huddle a degree or two closer — penguins, unabashed. People share sips of hot drinks and tiny hot donuts and group hugs. Everyone is breathing the same cold, smoky air.

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I think that human connection reverberates through the rest of the event, as strongly as the bass through our snow boots. It doesn't matter who's inside that fantastic 80s neon ski onesie — their sense of humor and fashion to wear it was what got cheers and Klean Kanteen toasts. Encased in puffy jackets, what might have been an inconsiderate jostle becomes an acceptable or even friendly high-five of body parts; when someone's elbow collides with your throat, it's only because they were aiming to bop that glowing balloon back up into the air! In the anarchy of porta-potty organization, strangers let each other go first, and no one cares what gender the person next to you identifies with.

Any self-consciousness of dancing or standing alone evaporates.

The tiny, round, snow-suited toddler who stood in the middle of the grooving crowd with his face aimed toward the sky, eyes squeezed shut and stretching out his tongue as far as it would possibly go to catch a snowflake, completely candid and contributing so much to the crowd in his own tiny, charming way — we were all that kid.

There's the vague notion that everyone you pass by, you might pass by again, but even if you don't, they're still a part of this.

Strangers become pals, familiar faces finally say hello and friends of friends become friends. There's a palpable, toasty-warm trust that we'll all be good humans.

"Keep each other warm out there, folks!" musicians called from the stage, again and again. "Take care of each other!"

And I think we did.

Of course, the festival is a mosaic of thousands of different perspectives and experiences, but I hope each of them included that same strong feeling of safety and solidarity. From the pieces I got to be part of, that keeping-each-other-warm, taking-care-of-each-other feeling was sparkling everywhere.

Now, on the final day of this festival, we have dozens of songs and endless memories replaying through our heads, and maybe there are some late Sunday blues starting to settle in; we're at the crossroads of what to do with that sense of community. I think the difference between that feeling of solidarity being shallow versus meaningful is what we do with it once the last band heads off the stage, and once the last packed-full bus has dropped off its last load.

We can leave that sense of community lying on the pavement of the Knoll parking lot, or we can all take a piece of whatever it is that we built this weekend and bring it back into the real world. Whether it's the friendliness of actively looking someone in the eye and saying hello as your paths cross, or the eco-friendliness of actively bringing your own thermos to fill during your morning commute coffee stop, or a million other things we can do to make the world a little bit better, there's so much value to be reproduced, day to day. Maybe it's supporting a new musician by buying their CD or picking up a stomped can on the sidewalk. Maybe it's in the chairlift line, maybe in a classroom or maybe in a subway. Where and how don't matter.

Maybe we created this special thing at the festival, or maybe we had it all along and just needed a reminder that it was there.