Making festival magic at WinterWonderGrass in Steamboat Springs

Julia Ben-Asher Steamboat Today

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Otherworldly lights of every color dance their way in intricate patterns over the main stage, the crowd of thousands and the falling snowflakes.

The acoustics emphasize the best part of each chord, beat and lyric, sounding like the grandest of concert halls. Within the festival boundaries are more food and beverage options to choose from than in some small cities, and there’s better infrastructure — power, running water, WiFi, heating systems — than in some small cities, too.

But only a few days prior — before WinterWonderGrass’ first attendees checked in at the ticket table and stepped into the festival — the entire wonderland didn’t exist at all. It was just an asphalt parking lot adorned with street lamps, and it was sketches and spreadsheets, absurdly long chains of emails and text messages, days of phone calls and meetings. It was optimism and sweat and not much sleep.

The whole physical world of the WinterWonderGrass festival in Steamboat was built in three days in a whirlwind by a clever and hardy team of invisible magical festival fairy gnomes, also known as the operations crew.

There are stages to build, tents to erect, fences to place, heaters to position, power sources to hook up, bars and kitchens to install, port-a-potties to organize — all during the potentially frigid, blizardous conditions of winter in Northwestern Colorado.

“You don’t see many festivals outside in February, for darn good reason: it’s harder to do,” said Michael Welle, director of operations for Bonfire Entertainment.

“You always have the elements working against you,” said Jeff Swager, of Denver-based production company Symbiotic Event Services. “The weather gods do what they want.”

There’s constantly the possibility of intense precipitation and subsequent weather-related issues.

“Timing is a big thing,” Welle said. “We get all these different moving parts coordinated and ready to execute with major weather delays, in a community that’s three hours from a major metropolitan area.”

Then there’s the trickiness of heating. The on-stage musicians and their fingers need to stay warm and limber enough to be able to play, but if the backstage instrument storage spaces get too warm, those string instruments can get out of tune.

“There’s a lot to take into account for a winter event, especially with bluegrass music,” Swager said.

The production team strikes a balance with a stage design implementing wind walls, strategically-placed stage heaters in the back and on the wings and heaters through a grid-system in the stage floor that directs heat upwards and forwards towards the musicians.

Potential problems are plentiful. Power can go out; toilet pipes can freeze up; the Internet can go down.

If a tent’s lights blink for a millisecond, then resume providing steady light, you can bet there’s a pack of staffers a stone’s throw away who jumped on the issue before most other people even noticed anything awry.

And with enough preparation, the operations team can prevent most potential issues by being three steps ahead.

“We’re constantly putting out fires before they even become a problem,” Welle said. “We spend so much time combing through the details of the show to anticipate everything beforehand, and we’re able to head off a lot of stuff before it happens.”

There’s even a secret road built into the festival site that allow the crew’s and trucks’ movement and operations to happen efficiently and practically invisibly.

Everything gets done and very nearly flawlessly.

Welle calls it The Disney World Effect.

“All the magic is happening, but you can’t see all the moving parts,” Welle said.

And there was a lot of magic for this year’s 5,000 festival attendees to look forward to.

Lighting designer Andrew Lincoln, who’s been working with Greensky Bluegrass for years, designed the lighting for this year’s entire festival lineup on the main stage.

This year, Symbiotic brought in Brown Note, longtime partner audio company based in Denver, to supply the lights, and the sound production company Nomad Sound brought in their brand-new L-acoustic K2 audio rig.

“That’s a serious sound system,” Swager said. “The sound system will be crisp and clean no matter where you are standing. It’s also going to be a phenomenal lights show, visual eye candy, if you will.”

WinterWonderGrass, of course, isn’t limited to living inside the boundaries of the fencing around the Upper Knoll Lot. It’s stretched its wings and grown — a lot. The festival continues constantly, up the ski mountain, downtown and every which way in about a dozen venues over the course of the weekend.

Equipment was uploaded via the gondola to Thunderhead Lodge during the cover of pre-first-tracks hours, and a full fleet of musicians, instruments and gear were snowcatted up to the Rendezvous deck for on-mountain lunchtime shows, which heppened at the same time as the Public Pick sessions down mountain.

“You’re firing on all cylinders,” Swager said.

There’s coordinating the late-night shows and the free community kick-off party.

“Bringing the momentum from the resort into the town, to Schmiggity’s and the Chief Theater, rounds off the festival with more of a community feel,” Symbiotic’s director of events Kristen Sommer-Swager said.

Welle, Swager and Sommer-Swager agree that the logistical Tetris-rubix cube-juggling act couldn’t be done without without full support and enthusiasm of everyone working to making the festival happen — Steamboat Resort, particularly senior sales manager Larry Young, the Steamboat community and business owners, artists, vendors, production crews, volunteers and fans.

At the core of it all are those faces who usually stay out of the spotlight.

“There’s an army of unsung heroes behind this show who people will likely never meet and never see because they’re crawling around in the snow, putting out fires,” Welle said, “but they’re the lifeblood of the whole thing.”

And finally, once the last show of this year’s festival has come to a close, the striking of the set has been finished and the planet of WinterWonderGrass has transformed back into the Upper Knoll lot?

“Then we’re left exhausted and fulfilled, and our heads are filled with new ideas for next year’s festival,” Welle said.

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