At some point all those miles turn into milestones. For four decades and counting, on stages across the globe - from the grange hall to the Grand Ole Opry - all those performances turn into statements of legacy and purpose. The goal was to play their music all over, have people like it, and make a living. And then, at some point, the journey circles back home.
“We wanted to have a party,” says bassist Nick Forster. “We wanted to have a full-out bash!”
To honor their 40 years as a band, Hot Rize had a big party back in the band’s long-time home base of Boulder, three sold-out shows at the famed Boulder Theater, and they invited along some very special friends. As one of the most respected and influential bands in bluegrass music, this brilliantly talented foursome- Pete Wernick (banjo), Tim O’Brien (mandolin, fiddle), Bryan Sutton (guitar), and Nick Forster- captured an incredible weekend of music. Having selected the best of those unforgettable performances, the venerable quartet curated one super-charged, 19-song set for this historic release: Hot Rize 40th Anniversary Bash.
Over the course of 68 minutes of music, their broad appreciation for soulfulness and their conscientious balance between traditional and experimental bluegrass- a Hot Rize hallmark since their inception- are on shining display. That warm and glistening, award-winning sound unlocked in every song by the lead vocals of Tim O’Brien, complemented step for step in sibling-tight harmony from Forster with Wernick and Sutton joining in; their stringed instrumental prowess featuring flat-pick guitar kingpin, Sutton, is no less impressive. Tracing a line from the band’s 1978 self-titled debut to their most recent release, When I’m Free, this collection of classics, fan favorites, and latest hits touches down on every significant entry on the Hot Rize timeline: From their signature nod to Bill Monroe with “Blue Night” and their ‘80s chart-topper, “Just Like You,” through the iconic song-of-the-year “Colleen Malone” from their IBMA Entertainer of the Year run in 1990, up to several tracks from their latest record, including “Western Skies.”
“I love the fact that this is not a nostalgia trip,” Forster says. “It’s a collaborative enterprise still engaged in ways that resonate for us as artists and for our audience.”
Think of this party as a living history; on “Huckling the Berries,” diving back to those four-sets-a-night gigs in biker bars like the Colorado Coal Company, or even deeper for a tender tribute to the late Glen Campbell on “Wichita Lineman,” a tune that inspired the band’s beginning. There is “You Were On My Mind This Morning” from their latest album, and a few nuggets long associated with Hot Rize, like “Radio Boogie” and ““High on a Mountain”. Whether it’s their modern-day standard “Nellie Kane,” adopted into the jamband circle by Phish, or covering the East L.A. roots ensemble, Los Lobos, on “Burn It Down,” Hot Rize remains both the vanguard and torch-bearer of the evolving bluegrass story.
With measured amounts of old-time consciousness and forward-thinking daring, as in the Celtic-tinged instrumental “The High Road” or the new-age gospel “Your Light Leads Me On” and “I Am the Road,” the delicate, almost telepathic onstage interplay between the quartet, uniting beautifully as one or equally supporting each solo, shimmers in the spotlight. Joining the celebration are special guests Sam Bush (mandolin), Jerry Douglas (dobro), and Stuart Duncan (fiddle) on songs hand-picked by the group to showcase their individual and collective virtuosity. “Those are absolutely our top-three favorite instrumentalists as well as our good friends,” says Wernick. “For them to come to Colorado and join us for the music and celebration was as much as you could hope for.”
Bush dazzles on “Out on the Ocean,” while Douglas, owning the distinction of being the sole sideman ever on a Hot Rize studio recording, sets “Things in Life” alight. And on “Angelina Baker” there is Duncan whose masterful fiddle-flames smolder and singe.
For the recording and production of the 40th Bash, the group utilized the experienced crew of Forster's long-running syndicated eTown radio show; one of those critical outside pursuits- like O’Brien’s Grammy winning solo work and songwriting, Sutton’s online instruction and session wizardry, or Wernick’s decades of music camps and development of the Wernick Method- that have sustained the band members’ ongoing individual creative careers. Yet within Hot Rize there has been a perpetual passion and investment spread equally among the four. It’s an elastic and a glue, allowing the sojourns outside the core to pay dividends in return; always with a home to make incredible music together. “Everyone in this band has worked seriously hard to make Hot Rize shine,” declares Wernick.
Naturally, then, it’s on the Boulder stage for three nights in January of 2018, to a sold-out crowd, that these four musicians and these 40 years unite as one; to not only honor each’s contributions, and of course those two decades with their guitarist, the late Charles Sawtelle, but also to further this amazing journey. With respect for the past, gratitude for the present, and ambition for the future, Wernick, the band’s founder, fittingly sums it up. “It’s a really deep feeling of fulfillment when the thing you love smiles back at you.”