Brookdale Bluegrass and American Roots Festival
Jam sessions, like this one on Sunday afternoon, were a hallmark of the 24th Brookdale Bluegrass and American Roots Festival, which took over the Brookdale Lodge over the weekend. (Drew Penner/Press Banner)

The Brookdale Bluegrass and American Roots Festival held its 24th incarnation at the Brookdale Lodge over the weekend and was blessed with lovely weather—a stark contrast with the no-power edition of 2023.

Doreen Heath, a woman walking around with fiddle in hand, said she’d made the trek from Modesto.

“We stay in the hotels and we jam all night,” she said, adding she’s been to similar such events in Grass Valley and in Lodi. “It’s been great.”

In fact, people came into town from much further afield, thanks to word spread by the California Bluegrass Association and the Northern California Bluegrass Society.

“You make friends every time you go,” Heath said. “A lot of people here are from Southern California.”

Heath certainly enjoyed seeing headliner Peter Rowan perform, and she loved the talk he gave on Sunday morning.

“It was fabulous,” she said. “They put these things together so musicians can come together.”

Brookdale Bluegrass and American Roots Festival
John Michael’s “Paddy’s Murphy” launches into some rockin’ Irish-influenced numbers. (Drew Penner/Press Banner)

Wafting from several yards away was the smell of juicy tri-tip, near the entrance to the lodge, with Eduardo Velasco, a Brookdale employee, cooking up a storm.

Sitting in a chair not far from the barbecue was Eric Burman, a Bonny Doon resident, who founded the festival in 2000.

“It started as a wedding,” he said. His wedding, he meant.

His wife Barbara confirmed the story, noting that was back in their Felton days.

Eric said he thought this year the bands were “the best we’ve ever had.”

It was certainly a completely different atmosphere from last year, when they had no electricity.

“In the middle of a total disaster we were having the time of our lives,” he said. “There were 19 trees laying down on Highway 9 that year.”

The package, including a room at the Brookdale Lodge, sold out in February.

“We packed all of the hotels up and down the road,” he said, estimating attendance at somewhere north of 200. “We were blessed with good weather.”

Barbara loved the talk by Rowan, too.

But one of the more memorable episodes from the weekend, she says, was when he invited first-time performer Brianna Colliard on stage to sing an impromptu duet.

“She has a fabulous voice,” she recalled.

There were plenty of artisans sprinkled in and around the lodge.

Amber Engfer, owner of Santa Cruz-based ARE Creations, showed off cyanotype art prints.

“It’s an alternative photographic process,” she said. “I collect plants and put the plants on top of the paper. And then I put it out in the sunlight.”

And while business was slower than she’d hoped, she said she enjoyed mingling with the other vendors.

Brookdale Bluegrass and American Roots Festival
Vendors offer food and crafts during the 24th Brookdale Bluegrass and American Roots Festival. (Drew Penner/Press Banner)

Megan Gnekow, owner of 7 Ravens Studio, came all the way from the Pinnacles National Park area.

The former Santa Cruz resident, who has been doing illustration professionally since 2009, jokes about how she was displaced by the high cost of living.

“I don’t do a lot of music festivals,” she said. “So, this was like a test.”

She’s had a print for sale in support of the recovery for those affected by the fires in Hawaii.

“I have family in Lahaina—well, not anymore,” she said, noting those family members are originally from Santa Cruz. “Everyone’s affected by it.”

Gnekow said it’s been interesting to watch how communities like Lahaina and the San Lorenzo Valley have been learning so much about how to become more wildfire resilient.

It’s something that Kathy McCarney, 65, has been thinking about too. She used to live in Bonny Doon, but now resides in Santa Cruz.

“My house burnt down,” she said from her seat on the patio near an ongoing jam session.

McCarney was in Brookdale spending time with her friend Yolanda Garcia, 70, for the first time since Halloween. They’d arrived to watch their musician friend, Keith Graves, perform.

“He produces, and he does everything,” Garcia said.

She adds she’s a massive fan of bluegrass.

“It’s really uplifting,” she said. “It makes you wanna dance. It makes you wanna jig…. It makes you feel like spring’s here.”

The jammers ramped-up their pleasant rendition of “In the Jailhouse Now.”

Brookdale Bluegrass and American Roots Festival
Kathy McCarney (left) and Yolanda Garcia attend the festival March 17 to watch their musician friend, Keith Graves, perform. (Drew Penner/Press Banner)

Inside the Brookdale Lodge, not far from the bar, sat 66-year-old Sam Toney, alongside Emi, a 4-year-old chihuahua-terrier mix (he thinks), and Betty, an 11-year-old shih tzu-terrier mix.

“I’m here with my wife, because she loves bluegrass,” he said, explaining they live in Martinez. “She found this deal online for the weekend.”

He said they liked the venue, loved the music, and thought the price was right.

“I suspect we’re probably going to do this again,” he said. “I’d be surprised if we don’t.”

On the indoor stage, John Michael’s “Paddy’s Murphy” launched into some rockin’ Irish-influenced numbers.

Julie Horner, one of the event organizers, was gearing up to offer even more authentic Irish music later in the day.

“We’re doing a dance—and it’s also a seisiun,” she said, giving a preview of what to expect for the Crooked Road Céilí Band & Friends set. “We’ve got a dance caller coming down from San Francisco.”

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


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