The first annual Waterfront Music Festival, held on opening weekend at the breathtaking Mishawaka Amphitheatre in Bellvue, CO, proved to be an excellent platform for some up-and-coming local and national bluegrass/rock acts — Cornmeal is amazing, Springdale Quartet is a band everyone should know about, Head for the Hills is the real deal and Greensky Bluegrass is plain old fun – while also playing host to some bluegrass/jam vets (members of Yonder Mountain String Band, String Cheese Incident and Drew Emmitt were all in attendance). Over the course of a rather wet weekend, the sold-out festival provided many moments of musical and visual bliss.
The Mishawaka was like a headliner unto itself that played all weekend, collaborating with every band that took the stage. Sitting in the Poudre River Canyon just outside of Fort Collins, the location is perfectly set for mountain seclusion, while also allowing for easy accessibly from Fort Collins and other Front Range cities. It’s a small venue (900 or so capacity) with one stage, sandwiched between rocky, sagebrush and pine tree-filled canyon walls and perched upon the banks of the Poudre River. There is a restaurant/deck attached to the outdoor venue, along with an indoor ‘Dance Hall’ that boasts numerous couches and a working stone fireplace. Also, due to the narrowness of the canyon and the closeness of the venue to the highway, camping is situated at the base of the canyon with patrons being shuttled up the fourteen miles on yellow, electric- kool-aid- acid-test-style school buses. It’s not what necessarily comes to mind when one thinks of a multi-day music fest, but it all lends to a very local and homey feel. The promoters of the festival did a great job of bringing in some of the best and promising bluegrass/rock talent from Colorado, while also adding the likes of Cornmeal (Chicago) and Greensky Bluegrass (Michigan) for out-of-state flavor. Heavy ‘band-bouncing’ and collaborations were seen all weekend, as the bands really solidified that family, brother-sister feel of the weekend.
FRIDAY MAY 14
Friday night, opening night, began with a bit of sobering news. One of the scheduled acts, Gregory Alan Isakov, was forced to cancel due to a death in the family. Because of the unfortunate situation, set times were tweaked a bit and the two other scheduled acts were given more time. The first, Boulder-based Grant Farm, has the foundation of the Emmitt-Nershi Band tandem of Tyler Grant (guitar) and Andy Thorn (banjo), with a rotating cast of Jordan Ramsey, Benny Galloway and Eric Thorin. This set found Galloway (bass) sitting in with Grant and Thorn. The trio worked nicely, and closed with Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” as a light rain began to fall. The rain eventually turned steady and lasted for close to the duration of Head for the Hills’ 3 ½ hour headlining set.
The Fort Collins group was given the headlining slot for Friday night, keeping the tradition of playing the opening night/weekend at the Mish that has gone on for some years now. Head for the Hills has been riding the positive wave of their most recent studio album, the self-titled sophomore release Head for the Hills. Having recorded the album in Billy Nershi’s home studio; along with having Drew Emmitt as producer and Gus Skinas as studio engineer, the band has been gaining widespread respect within the industry.
It doesn’t hurt that their live performances are getting tighter and tighter by each show, either. This night at the Mish was proof. The bursting, bustling crowd didn’t seem to notice the constant rain as Head for the Hills ripped through a two-set, thirty-two song behemoth of a show that produced almost all the songs off the new album; in particular a whiskey-like-fire version of the instrumental “Nooks And Crannies”. Other nuggets off the new album played included “Unchain My Heart,” “If ’n When” and “Solar Bowling Shoes.” At various times throughout the show all three members of the Grant Farm graced the stage, in different pairs or singles each time. As the show came to an end the rain did as well. The band returned to the stage for a two song encore that included covers of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “High On A Mountain Top”.
SATURDAY MAY 15
Another Fort Collins band, Whitewater Ramble, started off the music Saturday afternoon. Under grey skies but dry conditions, the band gave what seemed to be a nod to the headliner for the coming Saturday night by covering the Grateful Dead’s “Deal” and Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane”.
Later in the day Greensky Bluegrass, from Kalamazoo, MI, took the stage before a full house. These guys have a great vibe to them; energetic, playful and jovial. During their set both Drew Emmitt (Leftover Salmon) and Dave Johnston (Yonder Mountain String Band) joined the guys on stage to participate in the fun. One of the ‘artists at large’ for the weekend, Anders Beck, plays squareneck dobro (played like a slide guitar with a metal resonator in the place of the sound hole, the instrument straps around the neck and lays horizontal, producing an almost banjo-like sound) for Greensky, and really showed off his skills during this show, shredding and plucking non-stop. As they were warming the sold-out crowd under light rain, the band provided a cover of “American Band,” at one point producing the line “We’re a bluegrass band.” This is a fun band with some major talent.
_ Wicked Messenger_
The headliner for this Saturday night was Wicked Messenger; a Bob Dylan/Grateful Dead cover band led by YMSB band mates Adam Aijala and Ben Kaufmann. They were joined by Bill McKay (Leftover Salmon), Tyler Grant (Emmitt-Nershi Band) and Jay Elliot (Runaway Truck Ramp), to produce what proved to be one of my personal highlights of the weekend (it also doesn’t help that I’m a total floozy for Dylan & Dead music played right ). The first set was ‘Dylan’ and it started with Aijala and Kaufmann (Kaufmann was dressed in a Roger Daltrey/jimi Hendrix style frilly leather jacket) acoustic and alone on stage. Slowly but surely bandmates would join, adding bodies and electricity. The second set, the Dead set, really blew the hinges off the place. The light rain that had lingered all evening and into the night broke as the second set got under way. The clouds parted, leaving behind cool temperatures and crystal-white, shimmering stars. Messenger opened with “Shakedown Street”>”Tennessee Jed”, affirming the party would be under way from the get-go. Other songs played during the set included “Fire On The Mountain”, “Scarlet Begonias” and “Touch Of Grey”, to name a few. And for good measure, just to affirm they knew they were a Dylan/Dead cover band, the guys encored with Led Zepplin’s “Kashmir.”
SUNDAY MAY 16
Sunday. Let’s call Sunday sunshine day. It felt so good to arrive at the venue early Sunday afternoon with few clouds in the sky, the sun shining and temperatures expected to reach the 70s. This was bloodymary weather. Grabbing a couple, my girlfriend and I made our way to the concert pit. The first band of the day was Springdale Quartet from Boulder. Starting around 1:30 pm, they played to a very sparse crowd (a crowd that was no doubt still buzzing around the campground, recovering from last night and prepping for the closing night). But crowd or no crowd, I was blown away. One of the few non-bluegrass bands playing the weekend, the boys from Boulder brought their version of mostly instrumental funk-rock to the forefront. On top of it all, these kids have a ton of moxie. Playing in front of very few, they were still up on stage rocking and grooving with each other non-stop.
Another band worth mentioning is Fort Collins-based Mountain Standard Time. They put on a good show. Playing in front of a ballooning, early-evening crowd the six gents from the Fort took advantage of ‘all eyes on them’ and kept their set tight and loose.
Following MST, Cornmeal provided another highlight of the weekend. It’s becoming pretty well-know within the scene that these guys absolutely shred. We all know by this point that Allie Kral owns the fiddle and the band as a whole brings it. For a good portion of the set Anders Beck joined the band, and during a particular extended jam traded searing, high-pitched squeals of notes with Allie. Towards the end of the set multiple members stepped to the mic and shared their thoughts with the crowd; “This is our first time here, and it has exceeded expectations and everything we’ve been told, you guys are lucky to have this place…” It was a great way to lead into Sunday’s headliner and the festival’s closer.
_ Billy Nershi’s Blue Planet_
Billy Nershi was into it on this Sunday night. I noticed him tapping beer cans with patrons in the front row while his band, Blue Planet, soundchecked. The band, which included Keith Moseley on bass and Erik Deutsch on keys ran through a cover-heavy set that was high on energy and fun. Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra” the Talking Heads’ “Take Me To The River” a Muddy Waters cover and multiple SCI songs were all displayed. One of those Cheese songs, in particular, was extreme fun. “Jellyfish” provided all the positive feelings of the weekend wrapped into one glorious version. Billy busted out the ‘Santa Fe Rap” midway through the song, and as the rap was ending and the band was transitioning back into an instrumental throw-down, Nershi pulled his infamous run-in-place theatrics. Another great moment happened when Bill stopped the band and the crowd, encouraging – no, demanding – that everyone, including the band, sing along to a cover of the African-American folk song “Down By The River Side.” With Allie Kral and others in tow, the band returned for a two song encore that included the SCI tune “Love Is Like A Train” and the Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup”.
Although my bias lies in the fact that I am a Fort Collins resident, have spent a few summers in a row catching shows at the Mish and love bluegrass, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this was a great festival at a great venue. There didn’t seem to be any apparent logistical issues, and every single band looked and sounded as if they had a great time. While I love big-scale and mid-scale festivals to death, there is something to be said about a single-stage festival with fifteen or so bands…what a blast. Hopefully we will see this festival continue.