Despite their divergent musical styles, bluegrass showcase project WinterWonderWomen and funk/R&B wrecking crew Super Sonic Shorties have plenty in common: Both were formed in the last few years to fill special slots on festival lineups, both bring together a rotating mix of top players from a slew of diverse touring acts, and both are set to perform this weekend (Friday, January 13th and Saturday, January 14th) as part of Denver Comes Alive at Denver, CO’s Mission Ballroom [get tickets].
Both bands also happen to be comprised entirely of women, but both will tell you that novelty factor of their ensemble’s demographic makeup is not their main consideration. In an ever-evolving music world that’s beginning to tilt away from tokenism, WinterWonderWomen and Super Sonic Shorties are focused on serving fans the sort of hair-raising, face-twisting, foot-stomping live shows they crave—gender notwithstanding.
Drummer Nikki Glaspie, who will lead Super Sonic Shorties at Denver Comes Alive on Saturday, January 14th, boasts a world-class resume that spans numerous styles and scenes—from Maceo Parker to Beyoncé to her own touring outfit, The Nth Power. Nikki is a frequent visitor to Colorado with her managerie of projects. Just last weekend, she was in Boulder channeling the spirit of the Allman Brothers Band for a pair of sold-out shows with Trouble No More. She’s excited to get back to Denver this weekend—not just for its top-notch greenery (“I love Denver. Great weed… It doesn’t matter where I am in Colorado, I just find the dispensary and go nuts,” she said) but for its collaborative atmosphere when it comes to music.
“I’m looking forward to seeing my friends,” she told Live For Live Music by phone from Austin, TX ahead of Denver Comes Alive. “That’s the dopest thing about festivals, I think, is that a lot of us musicians, we work so much that we don’t get to see other bands. And first and foremost, we’re fans of music—probably the biggest fans—so it’s really ironic that we don’t actually get to see music all the time because we’re playing it. But I love playing bills like this. I get to see Lettuce and The Word and The Main Squeeze and, like, that’s dope [laughs].”
Fans at Denver Comes Alive not named Nikki Glaspie will also get the rare chance to catch Super Sonic Shorties, the all-woman funk supergroup she formed last year for Funk It Up at the Fred in the Virgin Islands. As Nikki noted, when she initially got that offer—“We want an all-female band”—Nikki had lukewarm feelings about the concept.
“I’ve been in a lot of all-female bands, as you can imagine, because there’s not a lot of female drummers,” she explained. “Well, there used to not be a lot of female drummers. Now there are, which is really exciting to me. But a lot of times female musicians kind of get pigeonholed into that thing. ‘Oh my God, you want an all female band?’ It’s such a novel thing. And for a long time I didn’t want to play in female bands because I had been in so many. Can I just play some music? Why does it have to be a thing?”
She warmed up to the idea when she was given carte blanche to choose the lineup—an opportunity for her to call in players from her eclectic circle and showcase them to the enthusiastic funk and jam band community. “I could choose from the cream of the crop,” she explained. “I have a lot of friends in the industry that do really amazing things that a lot of people in the jam band [scene] have never heard of, [but] they probably heard them on the radio. … I’m excited to bring some fresh blood to the scene.”
“On keys, we have Amy Bellamy, who some people might know because we used to be in the Sam Kinninger Band together way back when, 20-some-odd years ago,” Glaspie explained. “On bass, I have Tonya Sweets, who has played with Lizzo and one of my other favorite bands called Klymaxx, which I don’t think a lot of people know [unless] they were into R&B in the late seventies, early eighties.”
“Katty Rodriguez, also known as Orange Coffee—amazing. Tenor saxophone, alto, bari. She plays all the saxophones, she can play flute. But she also sings, and we’ve worked on some music together that will be released this year under Orange Coffee,” she added. “One of her singles was already released towards the end of last year. It’s called ‘Home’. Go check it out if you can.”
“We have Shirazette Tinnin on percussion, who is someone that I’ve known for a long time out of New York. She’s a great jazz drummer. She plays kit, but she also plays percussion, and I thought it would be great to have her come out and play some percussion with us,” Nikki continued. “We have (singer) Lenesha Randolph, who I’m sure a lot of people know. If you’ve seen Robert Randolph and the Family Band, then you’ve seen Lenesha. She’s also been out with Lauryn Hill and a bunch of other people.”
On guitar, Super Sonic Shorties will field the multi-talented Ella Feingold. “I know a lot of people don’t know Ella,” Glaspie explained, “but we used to play together a long time ago, as well. If you’ve heard the Silk Sonic album, then you’ve heard her play guitar, ’cause she’s all over that album. She also used to play with Erykah Badu and Eric Benét and a bunch of other people. Also, she does orchestrations for video games like Halo. I’m sure a bunch of people have played that video game. Yep, that’s her music.”
“And then, of course, everyone knows Natalie Cressman (Trey Anastasio Band). It’s always amazing to get to play music with her because she’s an absolute beast. I think that a lot of people kind of get caught in the image of what we as women are, playing instruments, that they don’t even listen half of the time. Natalie is one of the greatest singers and trombone players that I know. I call her for gigs because I want to play with her, not because she’s a female, which is the same for every person in this band.”
“I love playing with all these women, so it’s a win-win in this situation,” she added. “I’m just excited to bring new faces to the scene, some fresh blood. We’re going to play some funk and R&B for the people.”
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While Nikki formed Super Sonic Shorties to introduce funk fans to new players in a festival slot designated for women, bluegrass supergroup WinterWonderWomen followed an inverse path in its earliest iterations, serving as a platform for the many talented women who were already involved in planning a fan-favorite Colorado festival.
The concept came together in late 2018/early 2019 when fiddler Bridget Law, best known for her work with Colorado folk staple Elephant Revival, and Megan Letts, who sings lead for bicoastal indie-soul outfit Mama Magnolia, were exercising the back-office halves of their multi-faceted music lives as part of the planning staff for WinterWonderGrass.
“Megan and I were hanging out at the staff party for WinterWonderGrass,” Law explained to Live For Live Music via video call. “[Festival founder] Scotty [Stoughton] had mentioned that we wanted to do more to empower and highlight women in music. We were like, ‘Let’s do it.’ Then, the name was pretty obvious, and we just started rolling with it. Lindsay Lou had just gotten on board, and the three of us were feeling a lot of chemistry musically, jiving and singing. Then, a couple years into it, we started really trying to stick as much as we could to an all-female cast, just rotate around, uplift and empower each other, and feel all the joys of being in sisterhood on stage.”
Law finds that playing in an all-woman lineup brings a noticeably different energy to a performance. “There’s a lot of really cool nuances to that dynamic—sonically, emotionally, energetically, all of it,” she explained. “We’ve had some really rad, euphoric, fun moments and some ‘oh, sh–’ moments, too. But it’s been a really wonderful journey.”
“I’m in a couple other all-femme bands,” Letts added, “and something that I’ve noticed in those projects [is that] most of us are coming from places where we haven’t been able to have the loudest voice often or [been] able to shine our brightest light. I do believe that is changing, and this is a really beautiful thing. But I think that especially in its first conception, it was a little bit like, ‘Wait, I’m allowed to be a badass here?’”
Many acts—including Elephant Revival, Mama Magnolia, and the rest of the bands whose members make up the rotating project—feature a mix of men and women. Festival stages in the bluegrass world at large have long been disproportionately populated by men, but that fact has never phased them.
Law finds a certain beauty in the difference in creative energy fostered by men and women. “I’d say that I actually love the masculine and feminine dynamic,” she reflected. “I think ultimately it’s probably my favorite because there’s this very full yin [and] yang. It’s got all the elements going on, and I really do love that. I’m not trying to shy away from that at all. But I think that having only women on stage is a rare occurrence. There is something about it, this nuance.”
Returning from a brief pause to respond to her young child in the background, Law continued, “There’s a sensitivity to it. Even just with my kid, there’s a nuanced set of obstacles that women in general are working with, even just showing up to the gig. … I think that has limited a lot of women or created a point where historically, women have had to make a choice whether to have a family or be on the road and show off their badassery,” she considered. “I’m at that moment where I’m making that choice to be with my kid right now. Luckily, the pandemic happened and slowed the world way down. Then my band hit this pause button and is now slowly bubbling around. So it lined up pretty well for me, but a lot of women just say, ‘Bye, I’m pregnant.’ I think that is a key component in why the numbers are so different, that the lifestyle itself doesn’t really lend to being able to be a parent, a mother. … [WinterWonderWomen] is a space that we’re holding to just be supportive in the unspoken element of that, then layering the angelic harmonies and all of that—taking the unspoken and turning it into sound together. It’s really special.”
“I don’t come from the bluegrass world at all,” Megan explained. “I come much more from the soul and jazz world. In that space, women have mostly been just the singer. Not that being just the singer’s a bad thing, but being able to show up and play a badass set with an amazing female drummer, an amazing female bass player, I think that adds shock value. It maybe shouldn’t, because women are magical. It should be like, ‘Of course they slay that.’ But I think it does add a bit of shock, too. People are like, ‘Oh my gosh, those women slayed.’ Of course, we did. But we haven’t been given the opportunity to slay as often or as long as a lot of our male pals.”
“I think a lot of it is historical,” she posited about the reasons behind that disparity. “A lot of it is time. A lot of it is we are transitioning out of the era of token female into the era of just female badassery, I think, in music. It’s cool to watch that happen. I think we’re on the forefront of something really beautiful.”
“I remember when it was a shocker when [Elephant Revival bandmate] Bonnie [Paine] and I sat in with Leftover Salmon,” Law recalled. “We were like 20, and it just was a total shocker. It was a shocker to the men, too. … We’re really young and have no idea, all we know is that Bonnie is the ultimate badass on the washboard, and I can take a decent solo. It was fun for us to be there. That’s all we really knew. But there were so many more layers coming at us. I understand a lot more now on the other side of it. … That was 20 years ago at this point. That was definitely a pivot point for women in bluegrass.”
An intimate understanding of the bluegrass fanbase factors into WinterWonderWomen just as much as the band members’ shared experiences as women in a male-dominated scene. “If we’re talking specifically about bluegrass, the fans, what they’re looking for,” Law explained, “they want this high-energy drive situation. I think Megan and I have worked now for a couple years on curating sets that are both meaningful to us—songs that we really want to share and think will sound really beautiful with this group of musicians—and music that will keep a beer tent happy. We’ve learned how to navigate that a little bit and still hold onto the femininity within that.”
Still, Law added, WinterWonderWomen command “a different type of audience, or we’re trying to at least. We want people to get into the music with us. Hush up, listen, go with us, come with us.” Echoing similar themes in the contemporary bluegrass world at large, the members of the Denver Comes Alive WinterWonderWomen lineup—Law, Letts, mandolinist/vocalist Mimi Naja (Fruition), bassist/vocalist Emma Rose (Big Richard), and drummer Michelle Pietrafitta (Banshee Tree)—mostly fall on the margins of the genre’s traditional parameters.
“Mimi [Naja], Lindsay [Lou], and I are… we’re the rock and roll chicks of the bluegrass scene, I would say. Mama Magnolia is so far away from bluegrass. I’d also say the same about Fruition. I haven’t heard Fruition sound like bluegrass in seven years, probably. Lindsay’s music, similarly, has really grown into this much more indie space. The three of us, and then Michelle [Pietrafitta], who plays with Banshee Tree, [are] very soul oriented. … Then, Emma [Rose] being in Big Richard—absolute bluegrass crushers—[but] her solo project is called Sound of Honey, and it’s moody bedroom pop. Knowing that was what we were working with, I won’t give any spoilers, but a lot of the songs [for Denver Comes Alive] are really catered to very soulful roots music… [it leans] more Americana than it does bluegrass.”
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“To me, it’s more about the bluegrass fan than it is the sound of the bluegrass,” Letts reflected. “The bluegrass fan is one of my favorite fans of all time. They are so excited. They go to every show. They almost act like a Phish fan, where they’re just so emphatically excited. There is a beauty there, there’s a community element there that not a lot of other genres really hold in that space.”
“I feel like we’re the fringe girls,” she continued. “This WinterWonderWomen iteration is totally like we’re like the fringers. But the fans love all of us and are going to support all of our individual bands, even if none of us are playing bluegrass.”
Letts feels that the ever-evolving Colorado bluegrass world—a scene that encompasses events like both WinterWonderGrass and Denver Comes Alive—has done a good job in recent years of fostering “fringe” artistic identities like theirs. “I use this word very carefully, but it gives us ultimate safe space. I don’t mean that as a coddled space, because it’s certainly not coddled, But it is a space where we are fully and unapologetically ourselves and feel very safe and confident to do so.”
“The molds, the confines, the thinking that it has to be a certain way,” Law added, “we’re all going, ‘Hey, there’s so many more options here.’ [Now,] we’ve all found a way of actually listening and making space for those options. WinterWonderWomen is a platform for some alternative options there, and we’re stoked on that.”
The members of Super Sonic Shorties and WinterWonderWomen have all put in time as “token women,” but in the worlds of both funk and bluegrass, they’re starting to notice the same thing: As more and more instrumentalists continue to expand the theoretical and stylistic boundaries of their respective spaces, the novelty that once surrounded women in music is giving way to an exciting sense of possibility.
Catch WinterWonderWomen (January 13th) and Super Sonic Shorties (January 14th) performing at this weekend’s Denver Comes Alive at Denver, CO’s Mission Ballroom alongside Yonder Mountain String Band, Lettuce, Kitchen Dwellers, The Word, Maggie Rose, The Main Squeeze, and more. Tickets are available here.
For those who can’t attend in person, Denver Comes Alive has partnered with nugs.net to offer free livestreams from the two-day event. For details on the Denver Comes Alive 2023 livestreams, head here.