‘Yulegrass’ brings a nice present to The Gorge

Dec. 12, 2009

When I got the e-mail from Madison House publicity last month, I almost fell out of my chair. I mean, really. I couldn’t believe it. Here was an announcement that not only said there was going to be a top-notch string band forming for the sole purpose of jamming on some holiday music, but the band would be making a stop right here in Hood River.

I had to read this e-mail two or three times before it finally sunk in that this was not a spam-pyramid scheme-third-world country bank loan scam e-mail. Nope. It told me that musicians Darol Anger, Sharon Gilchrist, Billy Nershi and others had formed a band called Yulegrass and would be doing a handful of shows in the Northwest. And as luck would have it, Hood River was scheduled to be the first stop on the tour.

I couldn’t help but think how considerate this was of this band. I thought to myself “I don’t even have to drive to Portland to see these guys play.” I mean, for a band this big, I’d totally expect to be getting tickets for the Aladdin, or Roseland, or even the Wonder Ballroom, But nope, they’re making a stop right here in the Hood on Dec. 16.

And that got me to thinking about one of the “things” about the bluegrass scene. The people who play it are remarkably accessible. They’re never surrounded by body guards and whisked away in limos before and after the show. They’re not hounded by paparazzi and reporters (well, I guess some reporters try not to hound these guys too much…. J) and they never seem to be tired of meeting folks and signing CDs after a show. These folks are out playing music for the sake of playing music, and the size of the stage or the size of the crowd is not the main concern. They know the music matters first and the rest will eventually follow.

Let me just give you a sense of why I’m so glad Yulegrass is coming to town. The band features people I’ve seen over the years at festivals and venues in Northwest and beyond. I saw mandolinist Sharon Gilchrest with Peter Rowan in Portland a few years ago. When I say her playing is exquisite, I’m not kidding. She was also onstage last year at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which I attended.

Darol Anger was a member of the David Grisman Quintet for years and works with the likes of Mike Marshall, Mark O'Connor, Tony Rice, Bela Fleck and the Yonder Mt. Stringband. I’ve seen Darol at the Wintergrass festival in Tacoma, at the River City Bluegrass Festival in Portland (which by the way, is not happening this year but returns in January of 2011 at a new venue), and at the NW String Summit. His playing is steeped in jazz and bluegrass, and I get the feeling he’s kind of an inventor/experimentalist in music. I think he likes to throw things together, just to see how it all turns out. And this band is certainly one example.

Guitar player Scott Law has been on the Portland scene for a long time, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him. I keep hearing good things about him, though. And Bill Nershi was a member of the iconic String Cheese Incident, a Colo.-based band that’s been on the scene since the early 90s.

What’s exciting to me about this band is that the formation is so new; I can’t even find a picture of the ensemble online. And you know why? It probably doesn’t exist yet. I looked at Darol’s online schedule and this week he’s in Portland, Maine with some kind of holiday concert gig. Sharon’s web page says she’s performing in Santa Fe, NM this week. Bill Nershi — I have no idea where Bill is. I submitted a question to him for my interview — but he never answered. Bill apparently played a few months ago at Madison Square Garden in celebration of Pete Seeger’s birthday. He may still be there.

Scott Law, I discovered, is actually on the road with Darol. This, I hypothesize, is the first concrete evidence that at least two band members have met up and are actually playing music together in preparation for Yulegrass.

And I also think the River City Saloon show on Dec. 16 may be their first official “band practice.”

I can’t wait!

Cascadia Yulegrass brings its Acoustic Holiday Bluegrass Celebration to the River City Saloon on Wednesday, Dec. 16, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18 at the door or at Ticketswest. (21 and over)

Interview with Cascadia Yulegrass:

1. OK, tell me how the heck did this band get together? As far as I know, there are at least 3 different states involved, and a lot of miles in between. What do you guys do, e-mail rehearsal tapes to each other?

Scott Law and I have been playing together for about 3 years now. And I’ve known Billy, Keith and Sharon from the festival circuit since forever. Ever since the Windham Hill Winter Solstice thing petered out, I’ve been looking for a fun situation for me and some musical friends, playing xmas music. The band NewGrange was a blast, but everyone’s so busy now. This is a great opportunity to play music with people I really like, and have a good time.

2. How did Hood River get chosen as the starting point for this limited date tour?

This being the first installment of this particular project, we though it would be nice to stay close to home. The folks in Hood River basically courageously stepped up, stuck their necks out and made us an offer we didn’t refuse!

3. Can you give me any heads-up on what we can expect musically?

We're looking at traditional bluegrass instruments all played by people who can probably play any style on-demand. What is the show going to focus on? Jamming? Re-working of traditional songs? Originals?

The term “traditional bluegrass” is an oxymoron to me. But we’re going to be re-interpreting a lot of traditional Xmas and holiday music, putting it through our collective filter, figuring out how we can make it relevant and fun. And really (focus on) making a beautiful sound with these wonderful string instruments, and our voices. There will be a bit of jamming, there always is. But we’re basically going for beauty and groove.

4. You've all been in bands touring with huge names in the bluegrass world (David Grisman,Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, Sam Bush). Tell me a couple of stories from the road - what really goes on behind the scenes at a big festival?

Behind the scenes at festivals, for this kind of music, is mostly ABOUT the music. That’s what I love so much about this community. Nobody’s gonna get THAT famous doing this stuff, except maybe Alison Krauss, and she’s basically a music geek still.

We talk about how aggravating it is to get that G# in tune on the D string and stuff like that, where to get bows re-haired, whose version of a traditional tune we like best, tell lots of bad jokes on each other.

Most of the people in this community are what I would describe a “fully individuated,” so there’s a lot of idiosyncratic behavior to discuss. Sharon’s totally gorgeous, so she always has some funny weird fan stories. Fortunately, she’s also one of the kindest people I know, so the stories are always gentle.

Scott does a lot of Rock and Jam Band stuff, so with that you have weird gig stories, etc. and Billy & Keith have great families, so it’s just about our lives. We’ll have some extremely funny folks on stage, though, and you might get some good stories at the show.

5. Is there/will there be any recording for a Yulegrass CD?

I’m sure at some point we will record this aggregation, but we need to play some shows first and figure out the musical ecology.

6. With all of your different musical influences, how on earth do you guys decide what to listen to in the van?

Dueling iPods... It’s music, so everyone knows how to share.

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