Tico Time Bluegrass Festival Elephant Revival

After arriving for the Tico Time Bluegrass Festival on Thursday night, I wandered the spacious Tico Time River Resort property. Exploring the various accommodations, attendees, and activities, I mused why individuals come to a music festival. In an enhanced state of consciousness, as I wandered along the Las Animas River, answers flooded my mind.

I was there to cover the weekend’s events, but also because I love live music. Before the previous weekend at the Rise & Vibes Reggae Festival, I’d never attended a camping festival. Tico Time felt like the perfect environment to take that plunge. And it was!

Beyond a love of music, attendees were there to unwind or for networking. I met people whose duty called them to perform or volunteer. Families took advantage of the water-based fun and other recreational activities available. For some, meeting up for the Bluegrass Festival and similar events is a tradition.

No matter your reasons for going to a music festival, you’re bound to have an amazing time and meet new friends. So get out there and be your fest self!

Outdoor music festival crowd under a canopy

Stay Grassy, Las Animas

The music got swinging courtesy of The Robin Davis Duo at the Pavilion Stage. Robin’s wife Jimi told a gripping story that inspired the song “Mushroom Mountain” about a mountain lion encounter. While on mushrooms, she’d witnessed the big cat bounding and climbing a tree.

Pavilion sets offered chairs from Tico Time to keep cool in the shade. At the beach, claims to chairs and blankets were already being staked under the rainbow-colored canopy. With a hot weekend of sun and bluegrass on tap, shaded views were in high demand!

Sticks N’ Thorns pickin’ workshop at the pavilion saw former bandmates Andy Thorn and Jon Stickley showcase their skills. Thorn is a member of Leftover Salmon. He spoke about a banjo he’d won at Rockygrass in 2003. He’d broken the neck several times and cracked the resonator when it fell out of a cab. But it’s his favorite, so he keeps repairing it. Now that’s dedication!

Robin Davis, also a member of that prior band Broke Mountain Bluegrass, joined them. The bluegrass community is close knit, and guest musicians would take the stage throughout the weekend.

Hot Days, Hotter Music

As the afternoon heated up, Lawn Chair Kings from Durango got things cookin’ on the beach. They gave me Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers feels with their “trailer park Americana” sound. A funky cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” blew me away.

A man sits on an inflatable float chair
Stand-up paddle-boarders on a pond

A larger turnout than Rise & Vibes the prior weekend saw the beach filling by mid-afternoon. Temperatures in the low 80s made the cool waters of the float pond refreshing. Festivalgoers used kayaks, paddleboards, and float toys on and in the water. Speaking of agua, staying hydrated in the desert sun was a battle! Convenient fill stations around the property helped accomplish that mission.

The beach hosted Bottlerocket Hurricane from Denver next, incorporating bluegrass, Americana, and psychedelic rock influences. Frontwoman Coleen Murphy said the band realized while playing at an engagement party that their songs are about depression, drinking, and sad stuff. “So here’s a song about nice guys and drugs” she joked, before launching into a lively number.

Silas Herman and Jack Cloonan played high-energy sets together at the pavilion. They doled out intricate arrangements that had the dance floor hopping. Silas, the son of Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon, plays blazing-fast mandolin. Cloonan covered the croonin’ and contributed clever guitar licks.

Groovy Times at Tico Time

The world music sounds of Tierro Band featuring Bridget Law took the beach by storm. With a gypsy meets bluegrass vibe, hips were swaying. The infectious ditty “Morocco” demonstrated Eastern influences. Law, who’s also in Elephant Revival, contributed rousing violin playing. Band leader and guitarist Tierro Lee is a Tico Time staffer, and he dedicated a song to the workers. Local sax player Bob Hemenger from Durango joined them onstage to jazz things up.

A band plays on an outdoor stage
The Tierro Band with Bridget Law

Sticks N’ Thorns ushered in the evening on the beach. After the earlier Q&A at the pavilion, they were all about jamming. Temperature cooled but they brought the heat, and a slew of guest pickers, to the stage. Herman joined them with his blistering mando playing, and Charlie Parker Merkens added bass on a few tracks. Law joined for their final songs, including a rockin’ cover of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses.

After rest and recovery, I returned to the beach in the cooler evening air. Larry Keel was onstage, accompanied only by his wife Jenny. The Electric Larryland full-band performance was waylaid by members’ travel woes. Friends from the bluegrass community joined them instead. Thorn, Stickley, and Herman helped them out of… or was it into, a jam?!? Hemenger returned to lend his saxophone to the groove. The beach filled as dusk set, and things were getting festive.

I crossed the bridge to catch Alex Graf‘s Bluegrass Super PAC and was immediately drawn to the sounds of upright bass. A charming rendition of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonely I Could Die” was a crowd pleaser. As the pace picked up, so did the action on the dance floor. Couples spun each other about, toes tapped, and heads bobbed. Accompanying the strings, a flutist added flair to their final song.

Friday Night Lights Shining Bright

The beach was packed for the Kitchen Dwellers. Bringing a trippy take to bluegrass, they’d have fit in at Rise & Vibes. Psychedelic screen visuals entertained onlookers. Adjacent fire spinners dazzled the crowd, wielding objects like a flaming sword, fiery jump rope, and blazing ball and chain. Amazing dancers and aerialists gave the scene a circus atmosphere.

A band plays on an outdoor stage at night
Kitchen Dwellers
A female fire spinner performs
Fire Spinning Performance

Mandolin player Shawn Swain couldn’t be with the Dwellers, but guest performers helped fill his void. A righteous jam with Stickley and Keel on guitars hyped up the crowd. Seth Yokel from High County Hustle joined on mando. Banjo player Torrin Daniels hilariously referred to him as ‘Young Sexy’ several times. Later, a 15-minute star-studded collaboration included Herman’s mando, Thorn’s banjo, and Jake Simpson of The Lil Smokies on fiddle.

Tenth Mountain Division closed out Friday night on the Pavilion Stage with a bang. More of a rock band, their lively set had the late-night crowd singing and dancing along. Giving things a grassy feel, they welcomed guests during their set. Fritz Boniface of The Deer Creek Sharpshooters showed off his dobro skills. Patrick (Patty) Storen from Liver Down By The River added mandolin. When introducing Kaya McKenzie on fiddle, bassist and singer Andrew Cooney quipped: “I guess that’s bluegrass?!”

After the pavilion shut down each night, there were a slew of private pickin’ parties among the campsites. Many attendees are also avid players — more on that in chronicles of my night two adventures!

Starting Saturday in Style

A gentle Saturday start included daily yoga in the event tent. I caught a Celtic music in Bluegrass workshop hosted by Dennon Jones and Jack Cloonan at the ‘Pickin’ Pavilion’. They provided helpful tips for newer players throughout the session. As Herman joined them, one joked “You may have caught him with… Every band last night!” The lively strings made me want to dance, but my body was not yet willing.

A group doing yoga acrobatically

Denver-based Mighty Holler kicked off the Beach Stage. Comprised of a pair of couples, the band features Elle Michelle on banjo and Brandy Ray (AKA Brandy Wine) on mando. A fast-paced rendition of Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” was a highlight of my weekend. For their closing cut, Cloonan and Herman added their strumming skills.

The Foggy Memory Boys took over the beach next. With mixed clouds and a breeze, a large crowd enjoyed the comfortably cool day. A bonanza of strings provided a rich, country-grass sound. Yokel and Pete Barbaro from Pick & Howl joined them on mandolin. Three Hagerty mandolins were playing during that song, hand-crafted by Jacob Hagerty of FMB. He fielded numerous requests throughout the weekend to build mandos.

Hailing from Taos, the Foggy Memory Boys play around Colorado frequently. The band’s merch includes rolling papers to help keep your memory foggy! Make a note so you remember to catch their masterful picking and playing.

Starting up Pavilion Stage action, Rachel Melby and Friends brought sweet sounds to the mid-afternoon. Blazing banjo, fiery fiddle, and soft-spoken upright bass blended beautifully with her guitar strumming and singing. Delighting the fans, Hemenger added sax swag to a couple of tracks.

Saturday’s Silver Linings

The beach crowd was hoppin’ and howlin’ to the swingin’ southern grass sounds of Pick & Howl. During their set, my beach chair neighbor joked: “Best pregnant fiddle player I’ve seen this weekend!” as Melissa Stube tore through a song. I’m sure she appreciated the moderate weather the clouds afforded! Thorn joined on banjo for a groovy jam. He served as an “artist at large” throughout the weekend, on call to play with bands when needed (and available).

A bluegrass band performs onstage
Liver Down The River

Liver Down The River began by wishing everyone a Happy Caturday, and members wore cat ears throughout their animated beach set. Their Rockygrass sound is fueled by the energy of Emily Winter on fiddle and Storen on mando. A spirited number featured a squad with water-sport paddles cheering and dancing onstage. Hula hoop spinners, a juggler, and an aerialist added to the amusement.

Denver’s Tonewood and their adorable giant stuffed giraffe won everyone over. Tonewood was one of two bands who performed on both stages during the weekend. Their fun country-grass sets at the pavilion included numerous covers. They played a set of primarily originals on the main stage on Sunday afternoon. If you caught both days, you noticed there were no repeats!

All Killer, One Filler

A bluegrass band plays onstage
The Lil Smokies

Getting Saturday night cookin’, The Lil Smokies brought ’70s rock vibes. Their set overflowed with fantastic moments. A grassy version of the Stones’ “Paint It Black” fired up the crowd, and their cover of Zeppelin’s “Going to California” was epic! Fiddler Jake Simpson welcomed Lindsay Lou onstage to perform a song they wrote together. Pairing with the magical music, an aerialist performed on silks. Fans danced, sang and soaked in the amazing environment.

The highlight of a sold-out Saturday night was a once-in-a-lifetime moment with Railroad Earth featuring Lindsay Lou. She filled in for guitarist and singer Todd Sheaffer for a few festivals as he tended to health matters. Going by Railroad Earth Revue, they included a balanced mix from both artists. Knowing this would be a special gig, I bypassed the second Tonewood set to secure a spot on the rail with friends.

It provides a unique perspective to “ride the rail” at a concert. The intimate moments witnessed were delightful. There were sacrifices involved, though. My ears couldn’t take many more hours directly in front of a speaker. Thankfully I brought earplugs — a festival must. I got amazing stage views but missed the fire-spinning action on either side.

Female singer and guitarist
Lindsay Lou
A band plays on an outdoor stage at night
Railroad Earth Revue with Lindsay Lou

All things considered, it was worth the tunnel vision. Seeing musicians’ facial expressions as well as the passion and joy exuded while they cut loose was priceless. A spontaneous conga line formed behind me in the pit during a jubilant cover of “Higher and Higher.”

Drunken Hearts closed out Saturday with a party at the pavilion. They brought unmatched energy and a free-wheeling, psychedelic spirit. Popular additions all weekend, Hemenger on sax and Thorn on fiddle joined them in delighting the dance-happy gathering. Whether it was planned or they were feeling the late night, Drunken Hearts’ Sunday set was more reserved. For my money, I prefer the groovy, animated version!

A band plays at night
Drunken Hearts
View from onstage as a band plays
Wild crowd during Drunken Hearts

Pickin’ the Right Late Night Jam

After parties hit differently at a bluegrass festival. Between the talent of artists and attendees, the jams kept going after the stages shut down. Private picks around the sites kept campers up late, and I needed to see what it was all about. After Drunken Hearts, I immersed myself in the culture and camaraderie. I grabbed a beer, nibbled some fungi, and set off, seeking adventure.

Wandering past several gatherings, I found my way to a talent-rich group playing beside a large RV. As players took turns showcasing their skills, I befriended the RV owners. One of the talented musicians was their teen daughter, who held her own with seasoned players.

Familiar faces around the pickin’ circle included Rachel Melby and Jacob Hagerty. Hagerty grooved with a grassified version of Snoop Dogg’s hit “Gin & Juice.” I chatted with him and his adorable doggo on the beach on Sunday about the fun song selection. We agreed that the gathering had the chops to throw down on any track.

Late night bluegrass party
Late night bluegrass party
View of Tico Time River Resort at dusk

After the RV party dissolved, I wandered back to get a little sleep. Another smaller pick kept me occupied on the way, and shut-eye finally came as dawn broke.

Superb Sunday Scheduling

Festival planners were wise with a later Sunday start, and the extra sleep was a blessing! With a hot forecast, staying out of the morning sun helped. After crawling out of bed after ten, I prepped for one more day of exhilaration.

Steezy Strings got the music going on the beach. Featuring skilled youth along with band leader Dennon Jones, it was a family-friendly affair. There was a ton of talent, and each artist showcased their abilities with a song they chose, including a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Stick Season” by Noah Kahan. Another highlight was an original about a love of horror movies. Her clever lyrics and explanation showcased the songwriter’s thoughtfulness and talent.

The pavilion got movin’ with Derek Dames Ohl and Friends. Ohl plays bass in Flash Mountain Flood but handled guitar and vocals during the set. A bevy of buddies graced the stage, entertaining the afternoon crowd. Cloonan lent his mando playing to a foot-stompin’ cover of “Hey Good Lookin'”.

Reprise appearances by Tonewood and Drunken Hearts came next at the beach. Tonewood’s set included danceable tunes and amusing moments. Their giraffe joined the party and featured in an audience poll. After gauging cheers for Team Edward or Team Jakob, guitarist and singer Evan Shely expanded the choices beyond Twilight. Team Godzilla was popular but Team Giraffe won by a landslide! Later, during the Sunday night headlining set, a Giraffe Revival joke had the crowd in stitches.

A bluegrass band performs on an outdoor stage
Tonewood String Band

I caught the first half of Drunken Hearts’ set from my beach chair. It was a bit relaxing for my sleepy soul, so I listened on the move. I trekked back to camp, got dinner, and changed clothes for the cooler night. Even with alternating start times between stages, nonstop music meant that sacrifices had to be made.

Ready for the Closing Night

Arriving back refreshed, I was met by the sweet sounds of High Country Hustle. Their high-energy performance was one of my weekend faves. Jones and Yokel are members of the talented group. Bass player Charlie Henry invited his “brother from the same mother” onstage for funky flute jammin’. The vibes reminded my beach neighbor of seeing Jethro Tull in the ’70s while tripping on acid.

I caught Magoo at the pavilion and was sad to have missed their first set. Young and hip, the Denver-based group rocked a toe-tapping session. After calling for guest Danjo Harris early in the set, he joined later for a couple of hot numbers that had the crowd cutting a rug.

Revival of the Fittest

Sunday’s headliner was worth the weekend of waiting! Elephant Revival is hard to define musically. Often defined as folk, they play instruments associated with bluegrass, but there’s so much more. Lead singer Bonnie Payne played a wearable washboard, cello, djembe drum, and the peculiar musical saw during the set. She was the center of attention on a raised platform, and she joked about finally performing on a pedestal.

Female performer singing and playing tambourine
Bonnie Paine of Elephant Revival
Female violinist performs while elevated by a dancer
Bridget Law of Elephant Revival

Elephant Revival has an Eastern feel to its music, which was the perfect soundtrack for a choreographed dance. Demonstrating strength and grace, dancers twirled about the stage with elegance. Later, male dancer Danimal elevated violinist Law with his feet. While playing from the acrobatic human throne, she mentioned she was living out a lifelong dream.

The star-studded group split up in 2018 but helped fans live out their own dreams when reuniting this year. Seeing them for the first time was a transcendent experience. Known for iconic live covers, they gifted us a cover of “Schism” by Tool. Paine also received a present after that rockin’ remake: a birthday cake! She joked: “The guy that runs the place said we can play as long as we want.” I’d have taken another hour or two!

Aerialists perform as a band plays
Elephant Revival with Aerialists

Playtime is (Almost) Over

Before catching the last act, I hauled my chair back to camp. I felt exhausted, exhilarated, and woeful that the weekend was ending. Instead of pouting, I pocketed a beer and headed to catch Birds of Play. Their music was melancholy and playful, an appropriate mix for the moment. Those who were still around after the music said goodbyes gave parting hugs and prepared to return to normal life.

While the days and nights of Tico Time are now memories, the good times I had will last a lifetime. Between the lessons learned, old and new friends, and seeing familiar and fresh bands, I’ll cherish these experiences.

Next year’s Tico Time Bluegrass Festival will be held May 16th-18th and promises to be a blast. Whatever calling you’re heeding as you prepare for your next (or first) festival, have fun!

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