Whitewater Ramble headlines day one at Snowmass Mammoth Fest
The Aspen Times
If You Go …
What: Whitewater Ramble at Snowmass Mammoth Fest
Where: Snowmass Village Mall
When: Friday, June 12, 7:30 p.m.
The fast-paced, jam-based, rock-infused, bluegrass-spirited style of Whitewater Ramble doesn’t easily fit into any musical box or category. So the Fort Collins band came up with their own, dubbing it “high-octane Rocky Mountain dancegrass.”
Formed in 2004, the band never played traditional bluegrass music – it has had drums in its lineup from the beginning, for one – but they’ve always used the tools of the bluegrass trade: mandolin, fiddle, upright bass and guitar.
“We’ve never been a traditional bluegrass band and we’ve never been a traditional rock band,” mandolin player and vocalist Patrick Sites said from Fort Collins. “We’ve always sat right in that ‘jamgrass’ middle ground.”
The quintet, which headlines the Snowmass Mammoth Fest on Friday, plays sets that are heavy on improvisation – linking songs, opening up at times into long solo jams. It’s a style more reminiscent of String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band than Flatt and Scruggs.
“One of us might say, ‘Let’s play a reggae song!’ or ‘We don’t have any funk songs, here’s a groove – let’s write something around this!’” said Sites, whose jam-friendly approach on acoustic and electric mandolin style pays homage to Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon.
In performance, Whitewater Ramble remains as unpredictable. They might play a tight four-minute song, and then they might ride one out for 45 minutes.
About an hour before each show, the band huddles up and writes a set list – usually a mix of original music from their two studio albums peppered with some cover songs. The spectrum of covers in their repertoire has grown substantially since the winter, when the band did residencies at Cervantes’ in Denver and the Barkley Ballroom in Frisco where they put together full-set tributes to some of their favorite artists. So the band now has a set’s worth of songs by acts like the Grateful Dead, Paul Simon, and Bob Marley in their quiver.
“We learned a lot of music by a lot of artists spread around all over the place,” Stiles said.
The process also improved and tightened the band’s sound. Over the years of touring around the west and gigging around the Front Range, Whitewater Ramble practiced and wrote songs on the road. They’d load into venues early, set up and test out new material during their sound checks. To prepare for the residencies, band members booked rehearsal spaces and did actual full-day practices three or four times a month.
“That does a lot to the band in its creative process,” said Stiles. “We found even with our older material, that’s made things more crisp.”
Sites said Whitewater Ramble will reprise the residencies next year – and are adding regular gigs in Steamboat Springs and elsewhere. The band plans to release some live tracks this fall, with an eye on making a new album for release next year.
Locally, Whitewater Ramble has steadily grown a following over the years with regular shows at Belly Up and gigs early in their career at Stubbies in Basalt and the Golden Nugget in Carbondale.
The boom in popularity of bluegrass and folky offshoots of bluegrass, Sites said, has been a double-edged sword for the band. As pop-oriented artists have picked up banjos in recent years, listeners are more likely to embrace a band like Whitewater Ramble. Yet, there are also an awful lot more musicians picking up banjos and mandolins and competing for ears.
“Those are people that never would have said, ‘I love bluegrass,’ but now they feel like they do because they’ve heard some Mumford songs on the radio,” said Sites. “On the flip side, you have to deal with saturation. There’s a log of bluegrass bands, a lot of folk bands, jam bands – how do you differentiate yourself?”
For Whitewater Ramble, they’ve found a following at the intersection of bluegrass and the fervent Colorado jam band scene, making them a natural headliner for Mammoth Fest. Bringing a drummer along and playing “dancegrass” has drawn the ire of crowds of purists at traditional bluegrass festivals, like MerleFest in North Carolina, said Sites.
“The traditional bluegrass line is a hard one to walk,” he said. “People love you or hate you. It’s pretty black and white, we’ve found.”