Features, Print December 13, 2019

Breaking the Cycle – UPLIFT: FOCO Plucks For a Good Cause

by Dan England

Andy Whilden knew exactly who to turn to when he was putting together a house band for his first music festival: He called a bunch of bluegrass players.

Whilden is a sound engineer (the founder of Treeline Sound) and bluegrass is his speciality, so he knows the players. But he didn’t just call them out of convenience. He wanted a unique concert with a killer backing band and four singer/songwriters doing their own set. Bluegrass pickers fit that bill. 

The result will be Uplift: FoCo, a fundraiser for the The Matthews House, an organization based in Old Town Fort Collins that works to break the cycle of poverty by empowering families and young people through resources that may not otherwise be available to them. Whilden began volunteering for Matthews because he enjoys working with children.

Whilden once put together a similar benefit for a friend doing good work in Kenya, but that was mostly a jam with chili, beer and mutual friends who raised $1,000. This is his first big festival, and it started with finding a lineup worthy of a show at the Aggie Theater. 

“I just asked Eric, ‘Who do you want to play with?’” Whilden said. “Which players excite you and who wouldn’t you normally get to play with?”

Eric is Eric Thorin in this case, a local bass player, producer and faculty member for the University of Northern Colorado’s new Folk & Bluegrass Program. Thorin agreed to act as Whilden’s music director, although Whilden calls him his “musical anchor.” He toured with Thorin for a sound engineering job back in 2015. “He’s a musician’s musician,” Whilden said.

Bassist Eric Thorin will play the role of Bandleader for UPLIFT: FoCo’s house band on stage at The Aggie December 21.

Thorin, for his part, did pick a dream team of players who are each masters of their instrument, including Dusty Rider, a pilot who moonlights as a pedal steel and banjoist; fellow UNC faculty member Jordan Ramsey, the 2016 national champion on mandolin, Eric Wiggs, a guitarist with deep jazz roots but also the 2016 Rockygrass flatpicking champion; and Joe Lessard, a violinist and songwriter with Head for the Hills and Whiskey Blanket. Thorin, for his part, has hundreds of compositions and orchestrated songs to his credit and will help arrange and write for the concert. 

Bluegrass musicians are used to gathering together and hammering out good music, even great music, and that’s what Whilden needed for the show. “They’re all used to putting something super obscure together,” he said. “It’s a great genre for collaboration and improvising.”

But he doesn’t want to call the show a bluegrass concert, and neither does Thorin. 

“We are all pretty versatile,” Thorin said. “I have a pretty strict definition of what bluegrass is because I’ve played so much traditional music. This isn’t what I’d call bluegrass. I’m just really looking forward to playing with all these great musicians. The lineup looks fantastic.”

Eva Holbrook’s project Lady Moon will open the UPLIFT: FoCo event.

That lineup includes an opening set from Lady Moon, a new project from Eva Holbrook of the popular sister group SHEL and solo artists Alysia Kraft, Courtney Hartman and Bethel Steele. Thorin will arrange unique renditions of each artist’s songs for the band. 

Alysia Kraft of FoCo trio Whippoorwill will join Thorin and band on Stage at the Aggie on December 21. Photo by Backstage Flash

“I was really going for who has a good name locally,” Whilden said, “but also who fits as an acoustic songwriter. I was just lucky my first four choices were all stoked about it.”

Hartman is the most bluegrass-based songwriter, but even her songs aren’t strictly bluegrass, Whilden said, even if she’s a great guitarist. Holbrook’s project intrigues Whilden, given that it promises to explore folk music around the world, and Kraft plays as much rock as she does acoustic. “There’s some similarity,” Whilden said, “but all four have their own thing.”

Courtney Hartman’s contribution to the benefit concert for The Matthews House is expected to be the most bluegrass based.

There will be a more traditional bluegrass jam at the end, possibly with more than a dozen on stage at once. They’re calling that portion The Clusterpluck. It could be the most traditional and predictable thing on stage that night despite all the improvisation. Whilden hopes the show does well raising awareness and resources for The Matthews House, the goal being to bring it back next year.

“It will be a unique show full of surprises,” Whilden said. He’s excited to offer to the Aggie’s audience that night the same thing The Matthews House offers those who need it: life-affirming positivity through a vibrant community.

Uplift: FoCo, a benefit for The Matthews House, hits The Aggie Theater Saturday, December 21, presented by Treeline Sound. The event features house band Eric Thorin, Joe Lessard, Eric Wiggs, Jordan Ramsey and Dusty Rider with performances from Alysia Kraft, Courtney Hartman, Bethel Steele and a very special opening set by Lady Moon (Eva Holbrook of SHEL). Tickets and info at www.upliftfoco.com