There's something about seeing music outside. Maybe it's the bigger crowds or the fresh air or the fact that you can spill a few drops of your beer on the ground without feeling too bad about it. Over the past three years, the music at WinterFest has become one of the biggest draws of the annual event - which is worth noting, given that WinterFest also includes ice sculptures, motorcycles and skiers/snowboarders launching into the stratosphere.Last year, temperatures well below freezing didn't discourage folks from crowding in to the Old Mill to see performances from acts like Sweatshop Union and Dirty Dozen Brass Band, among others. Without WinterFest, we in Central Oregon would be looking at a gap in outdoor live music as long as seven months, which explains why folks are willing to bundle up and head out in the middle of February.
But of course, the acts themselves have a draw, and perhaps this year more than others, considering the lineup you'll see this weekend. The two nights are divided stylistically with Americana dominating Friday night and Saturday taking on more of a rock vibe.
Two years ago, one could make the argument that The Gourds (Friday, 8:30 p.m.) were Bend's favorite out-of-town act. And maybe they still are, despite a year-and-half absence. This Austin, Texas, alt-country rock band has played Bend more than a few times over the past few years. Although many fans of the quintet, which is fronted by the twangy voice of Kevin Russell, arrive at a Gourds show knowing the band only by its now-infamous cover of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice," they leave enamored by the band's slightly honky-tonk and funky spin on country music, which is heard best on its recent album, Haymaker. While other Gourds shows have been in front of sizeable Domino Room audiences, this WinterFest appearance should give the Gourds a chance to really shed that "Gin and Juice cover band" label.
Also on the bill Friday night is Leif James and the Struggle (Friday, 7:00 p.m.), the local blues and Americana rocker (and his band) who subscribes to the "anywhere, anytime" ethos, gigging everywhere from bars to cafes here in town and all over the region. Kicking off the music portion of the festival is Moon Mountain Ramblers (Friday 5:30 p.m.), Bend's longstanding and entirely acoustic, mostly bluegrass band.
Come Saturday night, you'll want to retire your dance moves for some fist- pumping action (you can bring your dance moves, it was just a metaphor) for a night headlined by Hell's Belles (Saturday 8:30 p.m.). This all-female Seattle band is a veteran of WinterFest '08 and as those who saw them there remember, they only play AC/DC songs. You name it, they can play it - well, we're not sure how much of the newish Black Ice album they've gotten down, but you'll hear the classics for sure. And you'll also hear some wailing guitar from the dreadlocked Adrian Conner.
The bands leading up to Hell's Belles keep the rock theme on track with Ashland's Brynna Dean and Her Sympathetic Strings (Saturday 7:00 p.m.), a soulful rock band whose namesake front woman is a dead-on ringer for Janis Joplin. Seriously. The night begins with a set from The Dirty Words (Saturday 5:30 p.m.) one of Bend's most promising indie rock acts that can go from emotive ballads to surging almost-punk sounds within their time on stage.
While many Bendites will be up front for these bands, there's a good faction that will let the music serve as background music as they watch the skiers and boarders gyrate through the winter sky. And that's just fine. Just remember to dress warm. It's still winter.