Like a colorful confetti cannon, the array of summer music festivals is increasingly dizzying, brilliant and loud. For those of us whose souls are nourished by stretching out on a blanket in the sun and listening to hours of our favorite music, the options grow each season. Every year seems to bring a dozen shiny new options competing for our gas money, wristband funds and precious vacation days. And it’s increasingly hard to get tickets and find lodging for many of the stalwart destination festivals like Coachella or Sasquatch—especially now that everyone and their kid sister are going too.
Consider our own superb MeadowGrass Festival your first-class alternative—or supplement—to all that madness, as it returns to Black Forest for its eighth year this Memorial Day weekend.
What started as a two-day local shindig with about 150 people a day has grown into a well-curated three-day weekend drawing a combination of local, regional and national talent playing to between 2,000 and 3,000 music lovers from the Centennial State and beyond.
MeadowGrass has good company as an emerging model of smaller, high-quality boutique music festivals popping up to thrill music-lovers across the West, from Doe Bay and Timber Fest in the Seattle area to Treefort in Boise. These festivals blend a handpicked selection of “craft” music and feel more like the best summer camp you ever went to—but with booze you don’t have to smuggle and a way better soundtrack than your Walkman ever played after lights out.
For the last three years, MeadowGrass has been produced by local music nonprofit Rocky Mountain Highway. With a mission to nourish live, original music in the Pikes Peak region, Rocky Mountain Highway has cultivated the landscape that allows MeadowGrass to flourish, drawing increasingly broader crowds geographically and sonically. For both the last two years, 7 percent of tickets were sold to out-of-state festivalgoers.
“I’ve tried to intentionally cross-pollinate the days of the festival because our festival has always been about a number of different people with different likes: cowboy music, blues, indie rock,” says Festival Director Steve Harris. “From the beginning, it was less specific of a market than, say, Telluride Bluegrass or Riot Fest, and I think that’s one of the most rewarding things about it.”
Initially, MeadowGrass was a weekend event with bluegrass one day and indie rock the other. When Harris, an environmental lawyer by trade and sometime-radio host, took over booking the talent in the second year, he immediately started mixing it up.
The eclectic approach immediately began to draw more folks; the second year nearly doubled the attendance of the first. “I do still try to hit those original niches of bluegrass and indie rock, to be in line with the original spirit of the festival,” Harris says. “And we shoot for about a third of the bands to be local, a third to be regional—Wyoming and Colorado—and a third national.”
Harris says he also looks for excellent live performers who really interact with the crowd. “Folks may come for Jeff Austin of the Yonder Mountain String Band, and they don’t know yet that they love the Fruit Bats—but they will,” he says. “My choices are based on me being a musical omnivore too.”
The mix must be working. Crowds continue to grow.
Alex Fenaughty is a 26-year-old legal assistant and comic from Denver who joined his late father, Dan—a steadfast MeadowGrass volunteer—every year for the weekend of music. The father and son were a representative microcosm of the blending of ages and musical preferences that makes the festival so appealing. Their tastes were divergent, but both found something irresistible that kept them returning to MeadowGrass together. The elder Fenaughty preferred the traditional bluegrass, while Alex recalls the redolently sad performance by Seattle folk artist Damien Jurado as one of his favorites.
“The bluegrass scene in Colorado Springs is so tightly knit,” Alex says. “The delineations at MeadowGrass between everyone—the musicians, the festivalgoers, the staff—there just doesn’t seem to be the same pseudo-caste system you see at larger festivals. There’s a bit more sense of community.”
That community aspect has always been a driving ethos behind the festival, Harris says. Americana musician Joe Pug specifically remembers the “community vibe” from playing the festival and leading a songwriting workshop in 2013. “I love a musical environment where there’s kids learning about music, old folks reconnecting with music, and everyone who falls between those two extremes drinking heavily,” Pug says.
Pug plays hundreds of shows in an average year. “So many festivals try to manufacture spontaneous interactions between artists, and it always feels stilted,” he says. “At MeadowGrass, it felt natural that Anaïs (Mitchell) and Jefferson (Hamer) and my band and Todd Snider were closing the Ponderosa Lodge down together at the end of the night.”
Thanks to Harris’ eye for booking rising talent, it’s not surprising to see MeadowGrass alumni go on to do big things in Colorado and beyond. Luminaries like Gregory Alan Isakov and Elephant Revival have both graduated from the striped MeadowGrass tent to headlining the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre this summer. Two MeadowGrass bands this year, Barr Brothers and Fruit Bats, will also open for My Morning Jacket at Red Rocks.
More on MeadowGrass
Get the details. Plan your musical weekend.
When: May 27-29. Gates open for general access at noon Friday.
Where: The historic La Foret Conference and Retreat Center on 460 pine-forested acres that narrowly avoided catastrophe in the Black Forest fire of 2013.
What Else: Morning yoga in the Ponderosa Lodge. Mandolin and flat-picking workshops, and activities for the kiddos. The popular late-night shows return for all three nights; the campfire song series might as well if fire bans allow.
The Vibe: Family friendly, and kids age 12 and under are free.
How Much: Weekend passes before May 8 cost $100 without camping, $130 including standard camping. There are premium camping options, RV spots, rustic cabins and yurts. Limited VIP packages combine unique food and alcohol pairings. This year, a $20 early entry option allows campers to arrive Thursday afternoon, and there may be some special secret musical programming for those early arrivers.
Local musician Mike Clark spends much of the year on the road as well, both as part of notable Colorado folk outfit The Haunted Windchimes and with his various side projects, including the Sugar Sounds, the Jack Trades and The River Arkansas. He’s played MeadowGrass three different times, including the first year of the festival when The Haunted Windchimes and the Jack Trades shared the main stage. “It was pouring,” Clark recalls. “But the whole crowd was out dancing in the mud and the rain anyway.
When asked what makes Meadow-Grass special in the local musical landscape, Clark answers, “I love the community feel of MeadowGrass—having quality local bands sharing the stage with great national acts really helps to shine a light on the Front Range music community.”
Despite all the eclecticism that has become a hallmark of the festival, it’s accomplished on a modest budget. “We’ve never had huge amounts of money to throw at performers,” Harris says. But this year, on the heels of an Indy Give campaign that brought in some community funding to augment the festival budget, Harris is hopeful for the most successful MeadowGrass to date. He laughs over his cup of Wooglin’s coffee and says, “I think this is the year. And if not—I’ll go back to being a lawyer.”
Artist Highlights, MeadowGrass 2016
The band headlines the festival on Friday night, with frontman Eric D. Johnson’s catchy ’70s AM radio-influenced stylings casting an expansive sound perfect for sonically floating off into the early summer night with toes tapping. Formerly on Sub Pop records, Johnson has also toured with The Shins, Vetiver and Califone, and has a new independent record, Absolute Loser, forthcoming in 2016.
The Barr Brothers
Returning to MeadowGrass for the second time from Montreal, The Barr Brothers’ lush, layered music is augmented with a gossamer backbone of harp from Sarah Page and the type of harmonies that siblings sing best. Their songs shimmer and waver, an intricate addition to the Saturday evening lineup.
The wry San Francisco bluesman has a wicked edge. In “Honey, I Been Thinking ’Bout You,” he delightfully wails, “I don’t really care about your hot-blooded sister/I’m sure there’s a man for to love her and miss her / I didn’t mean nothin’, I just happened to kiss her / but honey, I was thinkin’ bout you.” He’s played with the likes of Phil Lesh and The Black Crowes, developing an avid following of his own. He headlines Saturday night.
David Wax Museum
The joyous husband-and-wife David Wax and Suz Slezak play their Mexican folk-influenced songs on Sunday afternoon of the festival. Expect some of the coolest percussion you’ve ever seen: rattling shell-anklet bracelets, cajon box drums, even a donkey jawbone.
Judah & The Lion
Following their sold-out album release party at the Ivywild School in 2014, this foot-stomping bluegrass-influenced band returns to the hometown of banjo player Nate Zuercher, who graduated from Air Academy High School and whose parents perform with the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. Judah & The Lion share a sonic vibe with Mumford & Sons or The Oh Hellos, and will close out the mainstage and the festival on Sunday night.
—Heather Powell Browne