High-Altitude Colorado Sun

Marching to the beat of ODESZA's drum at Vertex 2016

No one really knew what to expect at the inaugural year of Vertex Music Festival, but excitement filled the air like electricity. The forecast had called for thunderstorms, but fearless music lovers from all over Colorado and the US began arriving at Cottonwood Meadows as early as Thursday morning. What they found was a community that would leave them more whole at the end of the weekend than at the beginning.

Friday

After a very wet and chilly Thursday night, the festival kicked off Friday morning with a beach party. Being a native born Floridian, I didn’t consider it to be beach weather, but I packed up my hammock and headed out anyway. The beach here at Vertex is a man-made lagoon fed by the crystal clear water of Cottonwood Creek. Vintage umbrellas and lounge chairs lined the shore, and a DJ booth in a hot air balloon made of butterflies sat on a peninsula. Attendees were able to come out to the peninsula to dance and get up-close and personal with DJs spinning tracks for the beach parties.

Vertex Festival 2016. Photo by: Samantha Harvey
Vertex Festival 2016. Photo by: Samantha Harvey

As the beach party began to wrap up, my comrades and I decided to check out music at the main stages. However, in order to get there, we had to walk through the Creekside Bazaar, a wooded path along Cottonwood Creek that looked like something out of a fairytale.  Lining the bazaar were tiny, magical houses for guests to explore – each one designed to delight and entertain the senses. One house, for example, was filled with what seemed like hundreds of balloons. People inside were batting the balloons around, lending to the feeling that one was in a giant popcorn maker. Another house, pink and pretty-as-could-be, was the home to two women who looked to be more at home on the vaudeville stage than at a music festival. This was the tickle house. Guests who dared to enter were invited in to sit down and were tickled either by feathers or a spider-like scalp massager by the lovely ladies who inhabited the house.

After finally making it through the wonderful and whimsical Creekside Bazaar, it was time for music. The first act of the day that I caught was Big Wild, a one man show whose electric beats and live drumming combine to create a very danceable show, even for those unfamiliar with him. Next up was Dawes, a folk-rock band with a vintage feel, who looked like they just stepped off Route 66 some time ago. The sun began to set just as Emancipator Ensemble took the stage. Emancipator, joined by an ensemble of musicians including a violinist, captured the minds of the crowd and left spectators in awe.  Headliner, Alabama Shakes, followed and brought an incredible sense of warmth to the chilly crowd with their soulful feel and larger than life stage presence. Closing out the night was Gramatik, who appeared with the Shady Horns and brought the festival to their feet.

Saturday

On Saturday morning, I was greeted by the warmth of the high-altitude Colorado sun. As I emerged from my tent I noticed Mount Princeton, one of the famed Collegiate Peaks, was fully visible, taking up the horizon like a monolith where only clouds had been the day before. The only thing on my agenda this morning was Lettuce’s Beach party with DJ ZJ (aka Jesus Coomes from Lettuce). This was guaranteed to be the funkiest beach party in existence and it did not disappoint.

After leaving the beach, sand still between my toes, I started off the evening with musical legend Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Spread out on colorful tapestries, festivalgoers experienced a taste of Woodstock, with iconic tunes such as “Marrakesh Express.” Next up came Rufus du Sol followed by Duke Dumont, who energized the crowd and got everyone in the mood to dance. However, at 10:45PM came the show I had been most anticipating. Funktastic, Lettuce, took the stage and held no punches. They played some of the funkiest samples from their entire repertoire, and with Nigel Hall on the mic, they had the entire crowd dancing, jumping and singing along to “Sounds Like a Party to Me.” Just as I thought things couldn’t get any better, ODESZA flipped the script, and like a call to action the crowd with their twinkling lights, toys and totems convened on the main stage.

ODESZA gave a stunning performance alongside the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and the CU Drumline to wrap up the evening with one of the most beautiful sets I have ever witnessed.

There was no going to bed after such a visceral experience, and I made my way up to the Starfield Observatory, a giant telescope which has its origins at Burning Man. Through this telescope, attendees were able to view deep space objects such as Jupiter, the earth’s moon, and various star clusters. At Vertex, a gathering which seems larger than life, it was incredibly humbling to be reminded of just how small we are.

Sunday

Sundays at festivals are all about restoration and rejuvenation of the mind, body and spirit. Sunday began with an hour long restorative yoga practice, which encouraged those who attended to get in touch with themselves physically and mentally and to care for themselves. After our final namaste, we made our way down to the beach and it was hopping! Giant unicorn floats, rafts, canoes and swimmers filled the lagoon. Under the hot sun, the cool water brought refreshment which seemed to wash away the exhaustion that a days-long party can bring. By this time, everyone at the beach was family, and this event felt like the pool party of the year.

Lennon Claypool Delirium, a trippy collaboration between Sean Lennon and Les Claypool of Primus, was the first set I caught of the day. However, I am a full believer in Sunday bluegrass at festivals. Colorado-based Trout Steak Revival brought a taste of the mountains to the Hacienda Stage during their two sets and Allie Kral of Yonder Mountain String band shredded the fiddle with Fruition for complete bluegrass satisfaction. Finally, as the sun set on Vertex, it was time for Trey Anastasio to begin to play. The crowd began to gather, some dancing, others lounging in hammocks, and Trey’s music filled the air.

If you missed Vertex this year, don’t fret! Madison House and AEG are already cooking up plans for Vertex 2017. On Sunday, the festival held a rubber ducky race down Cottonwood Creek to benefit Chaffee County music in schools. The winners collected two VIP tickets for next year, so the festival is all but guaranteed.

Soaking it all in at Vertex 2016

Trout Steak Revival

Trout Steak Revival at Vertex Festival 2016. Photo by: Samantha Harvey
Trout Steak Revival at Vertex Festival 2016. Photo by: Samantha Harvey

Interview with Steve Foltz of Trout Steak Revival

Sam: So last time I saw you guys, you were playing with Yonder Mountain String Band at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall this winter, what have you been up to since then?

Steve: We’ve been writing a lot of new songs and touring a lot ourselves, and when we’re not doing all that we’re just trying to be home.

Sam: Anything you’re really looking forward to for the remainder of festival season?

Steve: Good question! The festival season has been awesome. It goes so fast. It’s like the seasons, particularly since we’ve become a touring band. If we’re gone for 2 weeks, and this is so true in Colorado, the seasons change so quickly. Like the Yonder Tour – when we left it kind of still felt like the fall and when we got back it was definitely winter, and here we are and it’s almost the end of summer. Yeah, for the rest of the festival season, there’s a really cool one down in Pagosa. It’s called Four Corners Folk Festival. It’s Labor Day weekend, and it’s going to be a lot of fun. And this one – this one is awesome because we’re all really familiar with the area.

Sam: Oh yeah, it’s a beautiful area.

Sam: How did you guys get your start playing music? Do you come from musically inclined families?

Steve: For all of us I think we were lucky to have musical families that encouraged us, and that was a big thing. For me, I have music in my family because my grandpa was a singer and a ukulele player. He was actually in the choir in the army in WWII and afterwards he went and bought a restaurant up in the north woods of Wisconsin and sang and played at his restaurant. His quartet from the army stayed together and in all the get-togethers growing up I remember his quartet, like these old guys, would sing these barber shop songs in harmony. And for a little kid, it was like, “Wow, this is the coolest thing I have ever seen.” So that was one of my first musical memories, as well as my mom playing the piano.

Then when I was a little kid, I had an older sister, and I used to go with her to her piano lessons and I would play with our piano teacher’s dog and shoot hoops and stuff while she took lessons. Then I think when I was about eight, I started taking piano lessons and then started taking guitar lessons when I was nine, so I started kind of young. My mom always encouraged me. I remember I was obsessed with Jimi Hendrix when I was a kid, and he has this sweet version of the Star Spangled Banner with like apocalyptic feedback and stuff. So I had this electric guitar and I was in third grade, and I remember I learned the national anthem and every guitar lesson my instructor would help me figure it out. Then we had a Christmas program at our school and I played the national anthem as part of the Christmas program. Looking back on it it’s so funny, because it’s not exactly a Christmas song, but oh well.

Sam: So did you grow up on bluegrass, or was it something that you found later on in life?

Steve: I was just thinking about this last night. This festival, particularly, is really thought provoking in this sense because this festival, Vertex, is so diverse. There are so many different styles of music and I love it.

Sam: That’s why I was drawn to it.

Steve: Nice! I just can’t believe it.

I loved Emancipator’s set, I loved Dawe’s set and I got into Alabama Shakes set. And the entire time I was like, “Wow, why do we play bluegrass?” Not why in a negative light, but sort of, what happened? Because there’s a lot of different ways to go about this whole music making thing. Really I can attribute it mainly to moving to Colorado. The bass player in our band, Casey, was the first guy that showed me bluegrass. He had a couple of CDs in his Jeep, and he and I moved within a few months of each other. We trickled out here. We went to college together in Minnesota. When I saw Casey out here he was listening to Yonder, and at the same time I went to my first Bela Fleck and the Flecktones show and I was blown away by watching. I remember they did a blues tune, and it’s all instrumental music you know, but it’s amazing. Bela played banjo on the electric banjo and he played a blues song, and I recall thinking that he’s the best blues guitar player that I’ve ever seen that doesn’t even play a guitar. He was making those sounds that I was familiar with like Stevie Ray Vaughn or Jimmy Paige or Eric Clapton, but he was paying a banjo and I was like “Wow, What’s going on?” It was amazing.

The thing is, the Yonder tour last winter was like a pinnacle moment, like the top of the mountain kind of thing, because Yonder was part of the reason we got drawn in. Their style of bluegrass was very accessible to someone who did not grown up listening to bluegrass. I recall the second bluegrass CD I listened to as Bill Monroe, who is the founder, creator, father of bluegrass is what they call him. That’s traditional bluegrass, and all the recordings are quite a bit older. And it was like, listening to Yonder and listening to Bill Monroe, you could hear where Yonder drew from, probably two levels or two decades away from that at least.  It took time. It was kind of like coffee, like when you first try coffee you’re not in, then after a while you get addicted to it, so that’s kind of like the bluegrass wave.

Sam: What do you like to do in your free time while not touring and playing shows?

Steve: Well, I also have a business doing 3D modeling for architecture. It’s a business I’ve had since 2012 and it’s what I went to college for. It’s what my professional life has been up until 2015 when Trout Steak became a full time touring band. Up until then to a large extent my time was spent doing architecture and 3D modeling. Now that I have my own business doing it, the projects come in fits and starts and I may go three or four months without having a project and then I will have something come in. Recently, I got a project doing a model of the Zephyr Lodge at Winter Park. It was really neat. It was cool to get up there for that, but having said that, that’s not where my heart is. Music is.

I’ve been so lucky to have something that’s flexible to the extent that it has allowed me to play music and keep practicing. So a lot of my time daily is spent working, if I don’t have other things going on. I have two dogs, so sometimes they need exercise and I take them hiking. I’m also engaged.

Sam: Congratulations!

Steve: Thanks! Yeah, yeah. So there’s all kinds of stuff that pulls me in different directions in good ways, but I try to set aside at least a couple of hours every day working on guitar or mandolin or voice, and I try to make a steady commitment to my personal skills, not my interpersonal skills, but my musical skills just for me and bring them up. I also do a lot of songwriting and working in Ableton, which is a piece of software that a lot of electronic artists use and I’ve been getting into that. The funny thing is, when you start working on all that stuff on an individual basis, you can feel all of that seep into your playing with the band and you can also feel your bandmates working on those skills as well and you can feel the bar raise higher and higher.

Sam: OK, well thanks so much for taking the time out of your day to talk to me. I’m really looking forward to seeing your sets on Sunday!