Words by Mike Greenhaus & Alex Anderssen, photos by Alex Anderssen – https://www.relix.com.
Now in it’s third year, Ski Jam offers up the chance for visiting music fans, musicians and locals to all come together high up in the Rockies for five days and fours nights of music, snow and pretty much the most laidback partying we have seen. Around these parts, Mountain Time isn’t just a time zone: It’s a state of mind.
*Monday 9th: Welcome back Ski Jammers
With no music scheduled for Monday, the day was perfect for an easy check-in, catch up and afternoon session on the mountain. Returning Ski Jammers made the best of clear conditions to reacquaint themselves with the lay of the land, both slopeside and in the condo village. Noobs quickly found that the trip to Walmart to pick up those thermals they forgot to pack was going to end in disappointment, as the place had been picked over by the locust-like crowds that descended on Steamboat over the New Year weekend.
With over 17 feet of snow so far this season, the mountain offered up every possible run available. This is definitely not East Coast ice carving: A fresh dusting of powder on Sunday night had left a few pockets of pristine snow for those willing to venture off the groomed paths.
*Tuesday 10th: Game on!!
Tuesday dawned bright and clear, with temperatures in the mid 30’s; no fresh snow, but plenty of sunshine. The first music of the festival was scheduled in the slopeside Bear Creek Grill with Austin-based Carley Wolf and Caroline Wonderland set to take the stage for the après-ski entertainment. Unfortunately, the apparently volatile Ms. Wonderland decided the lack of a smoking room was reason enough to jump back on a plane and return to Austin. Unperturbed, Carley Wolf took the stage with members of the Stragglers band to perform a soulful gypsy folk set to an appreciative crowd.
Switching between her battered acoustic guitar, an upright double bass and a borrowed mandolin, Wolf played a solid set of original music and a smattering of covers. Melanie’s “I’ve got a brand new pair of roller skates (You’ve got a brand new key)” elicited smiles from the audience, be it because of the obscurity of the track or Wolf’s whimsical interpretation.
Following Wolf, Jason Boland and the Stragglers took to the stage to replace the departed Caroline Wonderland. A five-piece hailing from points across Texas, Oklahoma, and Ohio, they played a tight set of down-home Texas hillbilly-infused rock. Joined by the fiddle legend Randy Crouch, the Stragglers warmed up the crowd in anticipation of the night’s headliners, Arrested Development.
*Wednesday 11th : Austin City Rocks
By Mike Greenhaus
One of any given festival’s perks is the opportunity to explore its surrounding city and sample its local culture. In certain ways, Ski Jam allows curious “social anthropologists” a chance to double dip and experience two distinctly different geographically-linked musical communities with a single ticket stub. Though based in Steamboat Springs, Ski Jam is, in many ways, just as much an Austin festival as it is a Colorado event: It’s hosted by Texas-based promoters Dickson Productions, held on the heels of popular Steamboat Austin-summit MusicFest and boasts performances from several of the Texas music capital’s rising stars. In more ways than one, it makes sense for these seemingly polar communities to collide. For years, Steamboat Springs has attracted Austin residents to its slopes and baited vacationing Texans with a smorgasbord of Tex-Mex cuisines. In fact, in the near future, travel agents may decide to dub Steamboat Springs Austin’s unofficial vacation club.
While not as outwardly musical a city as Austin, Steamboat Springs still seems to speak in song–and a heady one at that. The ski town’s cab drivers spin the Dead, its equipment rental shops place Phish in heavy rotation and Ski Time Square’s bar row isn’t shy about blasting Dub Side of the Moon through its PA system between bands. So it makes sense that the local Austin acts visiting Steamboat Springs during Ski Jam occupy a similar space, blending Americana, bluegrass and jam-approved improvisation into a single package. After a hip-hop themed opening night, which boasted performances from Arrested Development and Pharcyde’s Tre Hardson, Tuesday night’s entertainment focused on several of the festival’s Austin imports. The evening’s main tent activities began with a performance by festival favorites Reckless Kelly, an Austin alt-country outfit with a jamband twist. Led by brothers Cody and Willy Braun, Reckless Kelly has existed on the fringes of jam nation, performing with John Popper and sharing the stage with the likes of the Yonder Mountain String Band and Leftover Salmon. In its decade of existence, Reckless Kelly has also placed a number of feathers in its festival crown, including appearances at MerleFest, JazzFest and, of course, Austin City Limits.
After a short, high-energy set, Reckless Kelly gave way to Stoney Larue. Since migrating from Stillwater, OK to Texas in 2002, Larue has quickly made a name for himself on the Austin circuit, first with the Organic Boogie Band and currently as a solo performer. At Ski Jam, Larue’s set flirted with the country-rock which first turned Austin into a national attraction, an acoustic-based mix of storytelling, blues and Emmylou Harris-style ballads. Larue’s set geared both Colorado locals and visiting fans up for Wednesday’s final main tent act.
Perhaps best described as Ski Jam’s unofficial houseband, the South Austin Jug Band closed out the evening’s main tent festivities with an extended set featuring popular numbers like “”Dark and Weary World” and “Motor City Man.” A purebred bluegrass/jug band from, as its moniker suggests, Austin, the quintet ran through a number of traditional, old-timey themes before concluding with a “safari” instrumental written by bassist Will Dupuy’s uncle while in Africa. One of the few holdovers from last week’s country themed Music Fest, the South Austin Jug Band is, indeed, more rooted in traditional singer/songwriter motifs than hippie-rock. Yet, the group flirts with current jam-grass styles and, um, humor. Before introducing a new number, Dupuy made a point to mention that it was written on “the ganjala,” later reminding fans that his uncle’s abovementioned African adventure was navigated by a troupe of “mushrooms.” Musically, the two-pronged fiddle section of Dennis Ludiker and Brian Beken pushed the South Austin Jug Band into its most extended workouts, also succeeding in getting a ski-weathered audience into a full-workout (a harder task than it seems). Without the aid of a drummer, bassist Dupuy accounted for the group’s rhythmic anchor, allowing the group’s four-man string section ample room to solo. But, as a testament to leader James Hyland’s focused songwriting skills, the South Austin Jug Band never drifted too for away for its theme, resulting in a tight, high-energy performance throughout. In fact, the South Austin Jug Band seems to embody everything Ski Jam is searching for, resetting Austin’s native sounds in a hippie, snow covered town.
*Friday the 13th: Bright Days, Dark Nights.
The last day of Ski Jam saw the lower slopes crowded out by an influx of families determined to make the best of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. While the mid-week slopeside population had at times seemed ghost town-like, the gondola area Friday morning more closely resembled a multihued Penn Station during a NYC transit strike, only with skis and boards. And yet the wait times were never extreme, the best plan to get away from the maddening cluster chuck at the bottom of the mountain was best to head high and do it early. At least one Relix staffer was seen heading into the wilderness of the Morningside black runs. According to sources, even a collision with an uncontrolled snowboarder didn’t stop our intrepid reporter’s iPod from providing him his own personal soundtrack for the downhill scramble to retrieve his skis.
Other kids headed for the bluer runs and spent a good chunk of the day hitting the hill. For less extreme activities it was time to strap on those snowshoes and head up to Ragner’s Pass for some calorie-burning high mountain hiking. Not for the faint hearted, and not to be dismissed, snowshoeing in a foot and half of pristine powder for 3 hours is a workout to make even strong men cry.
With food in the belly and a beverage or two under the belt it was time to hit up the main tent for the festival closer. After a long trip via van from Fort Collins, Medeski, Martin and Wood took the stage to finish up what had been another fantastic festival. Even without oxygen the trio was on fire.
*Spooky Spooky Spooky
It’s long been clichéd to say that Medeski, Martin and Wood play best under spooky conditions. But, in truth, an element of voodoo has always guided MMW’s sound, personifying those dark nights spent experimenting on New York’s Lower East Side. So it makes sense for the trio to close out Steamboat Spring’s superb, week-long music gathering: not so much because they embody the rustic, free spirit of Ski Jam, but because this evening’s performance happened to fall on Friday the 13th.
Performing on a frigid night at the base of Steamboat Spring’s north star-like gondola, Medeski, Martin and Wood arrived like aliens at Ski Jam’s high-altitude setting. And, as it tends to in uncomfortable situations, the trio immediately leaned on its jazz-funk influences, seemingly leaving its downtown, acid experiments back on the East Coast. A somewhat typical festival set, offering a blended mix of trance, jazz and funk, MMW also arrived in a dancing mood, allowing drummer Billy Martin to stay in the pocket while organist John Medeski and bassist Chris Wood exchange bubbling solos. While at times the trio nodded to its more hip-hop oriented late-’90s work and its more recent Dust Brothers experiments, MMW’s Ski Jam set came closest to capturing the free-form funk of its Shack Man era popularity. Even after a decade since that disc’s release, MMW still feels misplaced in the tents of jam nation. While the group achieved its most widespread fame by playing jazz-inspired funk, MMW has shifted into darkness, writing and recording increasingly experimental material. At Ski Jam, MMW offered two full, energetic sets. Yet the trio’s collective head seemed to be in another place–as if each member of the trio secretly wished he was part of an avant-grade jam session in another location. But, ironically, MMW’s attempt at laziness often results in its most accessible material and the trio kept the crowd dancing from start to finish.
Stage configuration also played into MMW’s collective sound. While Arrested Development spread its equipment around Ski Jam’s festival-size stage, utilizing its entire space, MMW performed in a huddle, cramming its equipment near its crowd. More than a misapplied stage plot, the trio’s cluttered feel symbolizes the intricacies of its dialogue–a conversation between three men who have performed together for well over a decade. It’s the small gestures which makes the group sound so tight–the moments when Medeski will pick up on his bandmates subtlest riffs and bring the trio’s sound into another funky dimension. When the group did drift into space, the trio’s interaction remained so grounded that MMW never really lost its groove. MMW has spent the past decade running away from its inner funk. But, in reality, it’s the contrast between easily danceable funk and more intricate experimental jazz that defines Medeski, Martin and Wood’s sound. It’s the reason MMW still opens each of its shows–including this Ski Jam performance–with a bit of free-form space before working its way towards the simultaneously more aggressive and danceable beats which have entertained fans in all manner of settings.
MMW first entered the jam scene after Trey Anastasio endorsed the trio as music that made him want to “drive fast.” Perhaps, after this weekend, Anastasio should amend his quotation to music which makes you want to “ski fast” instead.