Stalking the Next Great Colorado Bluegrass Bands

Colorado string bands have never been shy about having their way with bluegrass. Whether it’s Hot Rize unleashing their honky-tonk alter egos Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, Leftover Salmon throwing ganja-fueled slamgrass hoedowns or the String Cheese Incident fusing glitchy electronica with fiddle runs, Rocky Mountain pickers have never been able to show much restraint when it comes to interpreting Bill Monroe’s high lonesome sound.

“The fans are really open minded to the looseness,” says Mike Chappell, who grew up checking out Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band in high school and now plays mandolin in the up-and-coming Fort Collins-based band, Head for the Hills. “It’s become the Colorado tradition to always take bluegrass somewhere else.”

With a license to explore the outer sphere of a genre many purists back in Appalachia regard as church, it’s no wonder a new crop of High Country renegades is once again reshaping the bluegrass mold.

Elephant Revival

Elephant Revival. Photo: AnneStaveley
Elephant Revival. Photo: Anne Staveley

From the experimental bluegrass breeding ground of Nederland, which birthed Salmon and Yonder Mountain, Elephant Revival has recently emerged with a unique brand of transcendental folk that covers a broad spectrum of the vast acoustic landscape. The band’s live show always delivers a full-fledged gypsy string band carnival with a refreshing mix of male and female vocals. The versatile group switches between dance-friendly fiddle tunes to high-minded newgrass improvisations to new age High Country folk songs to create an eclectic sound that’s all tied together with soaring harmonies that delicately float above the strings.

Oakhurst

Through long nights at the Appaloosa Grill in downtown Denver, Oakhurst built a devoted Front Range following that stomps along to the rowdy string band’s rough-around-the-edges brand of Americana that mixes old-school Appalachian-flavored mountain songs with hints of rockabilly and alt-country.

“We don’t necessarily jam out long extended songs, like a lot of the Colorado scene,” says the band’s mandolin player, Max Paley. “We stay true to the bluegrass form, but we like to add elements of rock and outlaw country.”

When they’re not playing at home or satiating their many fans on the ski-town circuit, the group has begun to embark on some successful national tours. The band recently even let a little Nashville infiltrate their sound, when they visited Music City this past summer to record an upcoming album with producer Joe Pisapia (Guster, K.D. Lang).

“Some of the new material is in the vein of Mumford and Sons,” Paley adds. “We’re not afraid to mix bluegrass with some pop sensibilities.”

Spring Creek

Spring Creek
Spring Creek

Rare bird alert. Spring Creek is a Colorado bluegrass band that largely plays it straight. The young crew taps into the soul of the traditional sounds of genre legends like Monroe and Del McCoury with polished picking and tight, ascending harmonies that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The group gained quick statewide cred in 2007 after winning the band competitions at both the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Rockygrass. The band’s hard-driving, front-porch sound has helped foster a continually growing bluegrass scene in their Lyons hometown, especially at the Oskar Blues Brewery — where they play regularly.

Whitewater Ramble

If you catch a Whitewater Ramble show, don’t be surprised if the self-dubbed “high-octane Rocky Mountain dance grass band” makes you forget they’re playing acoustic instruments. With the pulsing backbeat of Luke Emig’s drums, the band takes a limitless approach to their acoustic strings, often exploding from a bluegrass base into psychedelic rock jams that touch on disco, funk, reggae and even house grooves.

On the band’s latest album, “All Night Drive,” they recruited keyboardist Steve Molitz of trance fusion outfit Particle and saxophonist Pete Wall to add even more layers to the multi-dimensional fiddle sawing of Adam Galblum and the effects-laden mando picking of Patrick Sites.

As a side note, if venue structure permits, watch out for upright bassist Howard Montgomery to play hanging upside down from the ceiling rafters.

Head for the Hills

Head for the Hills
Head for the Hills

With a simple formula of guitar, fiddle, mandolin and stand-up bass, Head for the Hills covers a lot of sonic ground. The young string crew formed back in 2004 as students at Colorado State University and has since grown from playing local dive bars to headlining the Poudre Canyon’s legendary Mishawaka Amphitheatre. A jamgrass outfit in line with successful predecessors like Yonder Mountain, the group is equally adept at picking a straight traditional like “Uncle Pen” or stretching the limits of an off-the-wall cover like Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.”

“We’re open to doing as much as possible on acoustic instruments,” says Chappell. “We tend to call it progressive bluegrass. We love the greats like Tony Rice and Sam Bush, but we also do an Iron Maiden song. It makes it a little hard to define.”

The group has received support and mentorship from Colorado bluegrass predecessors, as their recent self-titled album was produced by Salmon’s Drew Emmitt at the home studio of String Cheese’s Bill Nershi.

Jedd Ferris is the senior editor of Mountain Gazette’s sister publication, Blue Ridge Outdoors, for which he often pens music stories. He lives in Charlottesville VA.  

Breweries, Brewpubs and Beer Bars (Oh My!)

Steve Dressler, Head Brewer at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., puts a fine pour on a glass of Life & Limb
Steve Dressler, Head Brewer at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., puts a fine pour on a glass of Life & Limb.

We live in rad times. Proof of this can be found on the shelves of any decent liquor store, where the once homogeneous wall of light, and slightly less light beer, forced from the bowels of some cavernous monstrosity in St. Louis or Milwaukee, has been supplanted by a cornucopia of fresh, locally produced brews in an ever-widening selection of styles. Grab any two bottles of craft beer and you will find that, like snowflakes, each is unique. So too are the institutions that produce and sell these wonderful products.

Variety is the spice of life, and as with the beer they produce, craft brewers tend to create facilities that reflect personal style, creativity and marketing in equal parts. For the intrepid beer aficionado, intent on consuming new styles of beer in different places, the subtleties that differentiate one from the next can best be illustrated by breaking them into four categories, that of production brewery, the stalwart brewpub, the up-and-coming nanobrewery and the beer bar.

Production breweries, the workhorses of the craft industry, are primarily focused on producing volumes of beer for packaged distribution to the consumer. They hide themselves in light industrial areas across the West, in places where loading docks and forklifts are the norm. Despite this, the taprooms that operate in these facilities offer a chance to enjoy the freshest possible pints of product, while taking in the atmosphere of the place where it is made. Across Colorado, the number of these facilities that have evolved is staggering, with giants such as New Belgium, Lefthand, Avery and Odell’s in the Front Range being joined across the state by Ska, Oskar’s, Durango Brewing, Crazy Mountain and Telluride Brewing, to name just a few. I have many fond memories of visits to brewery taprooms, like riding to Lefthand for growlers on Saturday, the old roof-deck at Ska and not being able to find Avery on bike after sitting at Twisted Pine for a couple of hours (it’s just off of Arapaho).

While production breweries dominate annual production of craft brew by volume, by far the widest scope of small-batch beer comes from your favorite local brewpub, an American icon. These span the spectrum of style, but generally pair beer produced on premise (or elsewhere, in some cases) with a restaurant business. This is no easy task, as the two halves of the business, beer and food, operate on different frequencies. With the two in synch, the brewpub can function like the human brain, with each hemisphere specializing in the tasks that it is best suited to, and producing better results as a system than either half could alone. This delicate balance is rare, and finding really kick-ass beer paired with good food and service is not always a given. Style combinations vary widely, from great brew and steaks at Chama River Brewing in Albuquerque, NM, to fine pints and pizza at Amica’s in Salida, CO. Some brewpubs, like Tommyknocker in Idaho Springs, CO, have managed to pull off the triple crown of brewing feats, operating a brewpub and distributing beer on a wide scale. Increasing numbers of followers are coming to market every day, and finding offerings on the shelf from Wynkoop, Steamworks, Pug Ryan’s, Silverton and Eddyline are a real treat.

By far the newest entrant to craft brewing is the nanobrewery. While definitions vary, the “nano” generally produces modest amounts of beer in a few styles on a small-commercial or large home-built system. Run by brewers that may be operating part time, they distinguish themselves by having total freedom as to the styles of beer they produce, the volumes or changes they make from batch to batch. In essence, brewing at this scale represents the freest from of commercial brewing, meeting the requirements for legal sale, while flying under many of the constraints to variation that volume production introduces. A couple of my favorites are the Ourayle House in Ouray, CO, and Revolution Brewing out in Paonia, CO. The number of nanos out there is growing every day, and lacking large marketing budgets, sometimes these are hard for the intrepid beer writer to discover. Any tips as to where I can find these businesses flourishing and their beer flowing would be greatly appreciated.

And last, but certainly not least, for sheer quantity of beer styles on tap, one must give credit to the beer bar owner/operator. Wither an independent like Lady Falconburgh’s in Durango, CO, with 40 taps featuring selections both local and international, or a “captive” beer bar, like the (Breckenridge Brewery) Ale House in Grand Junction, serving both Breck beers and a strong selection of guest taps, nowhere else can whim and fancy for beer in varying style be met on such an uncompromising scale.

Enthusiastic homebrewer Erich Hennig lives and works in Durango, CO. Drop him a note at beer@mountaingazette.com  

Bob Chamberlain’s Mountain Vision #183

At the Mad Dog. Aspen, 1966At the Mad Dog. Aspen, 1966

Here’s Pierre, taking stock of his life: He’s got the job on the Mountain, with plenty of time to ski, a place to live, and his “Honey” to take out dancing when he wants, and enough change in his pocket to have a beer or two in the bar. This is it.

So here he is, contemplating the seasons still to come, and wondering how long he can continue to do this, how long before too many people make it impossible. And what about Taos, when will it be time to move on? To keep this happening, this life. Because this is “The Life.”

Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley.

Bob Chamberlain’s Mountain Vision #182

Bob Chamberlain's Mountain Vision #182Bell Mountain, Aspen, 1964

It’s hard to get anyone to ski with you when you first start carrying a camera, because they think it slows them down, and makes them do things right, which it does.

Deiter was the only one in the ski school willing to give up his morning coffee break with the other instructors in order to ski the last of the powder on Bell Mountain with me, and have his picture taken doing so, as well.

Anyone who aspires to be a ski instructor needs to know how to do this, and what it looks like, in order to understand what he or she is trying to teach, and how to realize it on film. Otherwise, he is left in the realm of the “New School,” with nothing to teach, and nothing to learn. Too easy.

Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. 

Steep Edge Online Film Rental

Films: Steep Edge online film rental

If you’re familiar with Netflix and you’re a mountain person, you might know that the Web-DVD and streaming movie service has “The Eiger Sanction,” the Clint Eastwood 1975 climbing-murder movie, available to stream directly to your computer. Aside from that and a handful of ski and snowboard porn films, the selection of mountain movies is somewhat limited. If you’ve ever sat at home and wished you could watch a climbing or skiing movie without having to pay $29.95 to own it, you’ll want to check out SteepEdge.com, where you can stream, or buy digitally, hundreds of films on kayaking, mountain culture, climbing, adventure racing, mountaineering, mountain
biking, polar adventure and other topics. Films can be rented for three days of watching for $4-$6, or purchased for $12-$25. The selection is mostly British and European films, and is heavy on climbing — but my hope is that someone in the U.S. would be inspired by the idea and start a similar business on this side of the Atlantic — kind of like we did with “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” Steep Edge was imagined as “virtual mountain film festival” by seven British founders who are climbers, hikers, cyclists and entrepreneurs, some of whom founded the Kendal Mountain Film Festival in the U.K. in 1979. steepedge.com

Off Belay Podcast

Podcast: Off Belay Podcast with Chris Kalous and Jamie Lynn Miller

Chris Kalous and Jamie Lynn Miller have a lot to say about climbing, and almost none of it is about sponsored athletes, the newest, flashiest gear, or news in the world of climbing, The Off Belay Podcast is a candid discussion of the important stuff. How candid? Well, maybe your dog doesn’t belong at the crag. Or your kid. Maybe you should stop bitching when you show up at Indian Creek, the most-famous crag in Colorado (oh, it’s in Utah?), and there are dozens of other people there. Chris and Jamie have had a few guests on the show, but the highlight is their own banter — whether it’s about online climbing forums, guns, hung draws or whatever. Between the two of them, Chris and Jamie have written for Climbing, Rock and Ice, Elevation Outdoors, Women’s Adventure, 303 Magazine, Men’s Health, the Snowmass Sun and others. And oh yeah, the Mountain Gazette, where Chris was the gear editor for a number of years. Jamie Lynn is also an on-air personality at Aspen Public Radio’s Sonic Byways. The Off Belay Podcast might be the most fun you’ll have listening to two people you don’t know talk about climbing you haven’t done. offbelaypodcast.com

Climbing Dictionary

“Climbing Dictionary: Mountaineering Slang, Terms, Neologisms & Lingo,” by Matt Samet

Want to talk like a real climber, but don’t want to make a faux pas at the crag by misusing the word “pinkpoint” in a sentence? Fear not. Longtime climbing writer (and former editor of Climbing magazine) Matt Samet has you covered with the new “Climbing Dictionary” from Mountaineers Books. Not just a reference for newbies — although it is, explaining hundreds of basic terms from abseil to Z-clip — Samet provides plenty of entertainment explaining less-familiar terms like “aggrosheen” (n., profuse perspiration dripping from a climber) and “satchel therapy” (n., mental training learned by doing long runouts). Usage examples abound, i.e., G-climbing (n., alpine groveling, a play off sport-mixed or M-climbing): “The Emperor Face of Mount Robson is mega for G-climbing: Shattered limestone and shale plastered in snow and rime. Might I suggest the 5800-foot House-Haley, a WI5 M7?” More than 650 definitions are covered in the book’s 250 pages, with accompanying illustrations by veteran climbing artist Mike Tea. The “Climbing Dictionary” would make a great gift for a climber close to you when you don’t know what kind of gear to buy them, or a great addition to your bathroom shelf if you are a climber. $15, mountaineersbooks.org

Crafting the Stoke

Dude in neon bodysuit pounding it circa 1988, prior to the Craft Brewing revolution. Greg Stump – The Blizzard of Aahhh’s

I’ve been waiting for the snow to fall. I’ve been waiting for the snow to fall, and cover us all!” If, like me, those simple lyrics by the String Cheese Incident cause a stir deep inside as the fall colors fade and the nights become crisp in the High Country, you too may be feeling the onset of the stoke for another winter season in the mountains.

At Crazy Mountain Brewing Co., located in Edwards, CO, the stoke is on not only for winter, but for the exciting developments afoot this season. A production brewery founded a little more than a year ago in the Vail Valley, Crazy Mountain is the brainchild of Colorado native Kevin Selvy and Marisa Aguilar. Kevin honed his brewing chops at the venerable Anchor Brewery in San Francisco before returning home to set up his own shop. Since pouring their first beer last January, they have opened a tasting room, begun distributing six packs locally and will begin shipping a wider range of beer styles packaged in 22-ounce bombers this fall. The Vail Valley has been rough on breweries, with several closing doors or changing hands in the last few years. When asked about this, Kevin stated that the local market has been fantastic, and the support they have gotten, as well as the exposure to travelers from all over the country and the world, has been a huge factor in their early growth. With distribution deals pending in four states, a 10,000-square-foot expansion planned for the fall, and with the beer now served at most fine-dining establishments and at Vail Resort this season, Crazy Mountain is way out ahead of the game, and is hopefully in the early stages of becoming another mountain brewery success story.

If you will be lucky enough to get in some days at Vail Resorts this season, I am happy to report that they will be offering several quality craft brews from the aforementioned Crazy Mountain, as well as the Breckenridge Brewery. The standard selection of Euro-fizz lagers and other InBev/Anheuser-Busch products round out the bill, with the addition of Coors products to please the home-state crowd.

While I’m on it, I’d like to give a shout-out to Coors (or Molson-Coors now), for their long-standing contribution to Colorado brewing history, and for making one of the best hangover cures out there, Coors Light. Yes, along with sex and guacamole omelets, nothing staves off the agony of the morning after like an ice-cold Silver Bullet.     

While ascending the lifts towards the back bowls at Vail or on the chairs at the Beav this season, it is probable that, amongst the flocks of families and tourists, you may glimpse a rare and fabled creature, descending the slopes with gusto, knees tightly locked together, resplendent in all his radiant neon grandeur. Yes, you know the man of whom I speak. He is member of an elite group of holdouts, skiers who hit their prime in the late-’80s, and, though ravished by time, are still able to pound the slopes like the pros of yore, and still fit inside the glowing cornucopia of faded glory that is their original-issue neon body suit.

Some may deride these veterans with terms such as “Manther” (this being the male form of “Cougar”) or “Plake.” In their defense, I offer only Greg Stump’s 1988 cinematographic masterpiece, “The Blizzard of Aahhh’s” as their raison d’être. Fashion being circular, all indications are that the 2011-12 season will witness the widespread return neon to the slopes. Facing the distinct probability of a new batch of body suits being manufactured in this palate, take heed. For those thinking that you have the skills to roll the excess of style that is a neon body suit, think again. The man that can rock the neon body suit is a lot like Tom Selleck and his moustache — Selleck belongs to the 1% of men that own and operate a truly “lady-killing” mustachio. Yours, on the other hand, represents the other 99% that vary in lady-killing ability on a scale ranging from Burt Reynolds to those of Freddy Mercury. Before taking the plunge on the neon body suit, heed the guiding principle of Socrates and Know Thyself.

Erich lives and works in Durango, CO, where he generally rocks it. Drop him a note at beer@mountaingazette.com