The new picking sounds of an old bluegrass favorite will roll through the mountains of Keystone on Saturday, as Hot Rize headlines the 17th annual Keystone Bluegrass and Beer Festival at River Run Village.
“In 1978, we started the band, and we went for 12 full-time years with the same four people,” said Pete “Dr. Banjo” Wernick, one of the founders of Hot Rize. “We worked from ’78 to 1990, then we went into an occasional mode where we played a handful of gigs every year. We did one tour in there, once, then our guitar player, Charles (Sawtelle), who had leukemia, passed away (in 1999).”
The band was resurrected a few years later with the three remaining musicians — Wernick on banjo, Tim O’Brien on mandolin, fiddle and lead vocals and Nick Forster on electric bass — and a new guitar player, Bryan Sutton.
“He joined us in 2002, and we’ve been the same group now for this is our 12th year playing with Bryan,” Wernick said. “It’s still very part time, but in the past few years, we stepped it up a bit and decided that we wanted to make a record and put Hot Rize in the 21st century of bluegrass bands and not just play our hits — which we don’t mind doing, but we want to be a living, breathing group instead of a tribute to ourselves.”
New material, old sound
To give the band’s repertoire that new breath of life, Hot Rize went back into the studio to record some new tunes, a few of which were premiered at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June and will be brought to the stage for the concert in Keystone.
“Everybody in the band has been writing stuff,” Wernick said. “We’re excited bout the new material. … The kinds of songs we mostly do are of the traditional nature, whether they are 100 years old or just sound like they are 100 years old.”
Hot Rize went retro when cutting the music for the new album.
“We abandoned the way of recording that’s been used the last 30 or 40 years, which is everybody sitting with headphones in an isolated place so that whatever they did wrong didn’t get into someone else’s microphone,” Wernick said. “That’s an artificial environment that feels weird. It’s hard to do when you are playing music that is usually played in a circle.”
Wernick said the band decided to sit in a circle — “as much as four people can sit in a circle, some people might say it’s a square or a rhombus” — and record all at once in the same room, so the band members could see and hear one another.
“That’s a much more natural way to make music, so that made this recording process a little different from any other time we’ve recorded, going back to ’78 or ’79 when we first cut a record,” he said. “Now we have a whole bunch of new repertoire to work on and it represents our latest creativity, so it makes it more appealing for us to be explorers and not just be revisiting things. I think everybody found that refreshing.”
Hot Rize has matured over the past 30-plus years, and so has its sound.
“It’s funny because I’m the only one of the three of us that looks so different you’d have to look twice to know it was the same person,” Wernick said. “Tim and Nick, both have aged from their early 20s to late 50s without any dramatic change in their appearance. It’s parallel to Hot Rize. There’s more to us as individuals and as a group than when we started. But when we play the songs that we do from our old music, it’s still the same recognizable sound, but you hear more maturity in the voices.
“It’s hard to describe. … It’s very much the same tree, but it’s grown.”