If you go
What: Hot Rize
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 12, 8 p.m. Jan. 13, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 14. All shows sold out.
Where: Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder
More info: bouldertheater.com
Hot Rize made a promise in 1978: The band would commit to one summer.
"People didn't really know much about bluegrass," said the band's Pete "Dr. Banjo" Wernick. "We would warn the crowd that they were about to hear something musically different then find out after the show if they liked it or not."
People liked it. And still do as 40 years later, the legendary Boulder bluegrass band sold out an entire weekend, today through Sunday, at the Boulder Theater.
"It's a big deal, not many things last 40 years," said Wernick.
Wernick and Hot Rize's electric bassist Nick Forster recently recounted some of their favorite memories over the span of four decades. What started as a musical fraternity elevated into a unbreakable bond of friendship and respect.
Forster recalled, laughing, when he was driving the tour bus years back, he stopped in Limon to fuel up and accidentally left Wernick behind.
"All the guys were sleeping in the back," Forster said. "Pete got out to go to the bathroom and didn't tell me, so I took off."
It was later, in Kansas, when police pulled Forster over to break the news that his buddy was still in Limon.
Then there was the time when they parked the giant bus outside of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., flipped on the hazard lights and ran in to browse.
"We had an awful lot of fun," said Wernick. "It's part of what makes me feel so fortunate to be where I am today."
In 1992, the quartet was on stage at the Strawberry Music Festival when the power went out.
"We managed to keep the crowd entertained," said Wernick. "We just played the festival again in September, and still 25 years later, that incident is talked about."
Tales of camaraderie often transcended the musical bond, too, like when Wernick, his wife and son were three of 185 people who survived the 1989 crash-landing of United Airlines Flight 232. The flight from Chicago to Denver crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, where 111 people died.
Wernick said that on the day after the tragedy, he was slated to perform with Hot Rize at a bluegrass festival.
"We had 11 pieces of baggage that had all my clothes and instruments, which were all destroyed," said Wernick. "The band was very low-key with me, they didn't want to upset me, but they were there when I needed them. We got on stage and out came the first song, 'Blue Night,' then the next song and the next song. Then, I stayed up all night jamming with some of my best friends. I was grateful to be alive and won't soon forget that festival."
Wernick said that instead of writhing in what could have been, he did what he knew best: Play the banjo.
Forster recalled the first time he played with Hot Rize. It was a weight-loss conference in Jackson Hole at a Ramada Inn, he said.
"We were getting our sea legs ready, seeing what kind of music people responded to," said Forster.
Then weeks later, the band was featured on "A Prairie Home Companion" and performing at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
The band has periodically performed since it stopped touring full-time in the early '90s, and for this weekend's shows, in the vein of tradition, Hot Rize's alter ego lineup Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers will perform, along with bluegrass-royalty guests, such as Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan. (Del McCoury was scheduled to appear but had to cancel for a non life-threatening medical procedure, Forster said.)
Wernick said it's the collaborations with some of the band's "bluegrass heroes" over the years that was a pure delight.
"There's always a mixture of eager anticipation and fear when I'm playing in the company of literally some of the world's greatest musicians," said Wernick. He and Forster said they are both humbled to have Bush, Douglas and Duncan on the weekend's bill.
Formed in 1978, Hot Rize (named by Wernick after the secret leavening agent in Martha White Flour, a Nashville brand that holds a special place bluegrass) launched with Wernick on banjo, Tim O'Brien on mandolin, Charles Sawtelle on guitar and Forster on bass. Sawtelle died of leukemia in 1999, and in 2002, master flatpicker Bryan Sutton joined the group of all-stars. In 2014 Hot Rize released its latest studio album "When I'm Free," recorded at Boulder's eTown.
Each member of Hot Rize rose to music royalty in his own right.
Forster founded eTown, Boulder's nationally syndicated radio variety show, with his wife, Helen, in 1991. He credits his success and business ideas partially to life experiences he had being a part of Hot Rize.
"I developed this sense that music is a language and it's shared in a community," said Forster, who lives in Boulder. "This eventually became the foundation for eTown. Music is a language that connects across every border and every community and I wanted to build a community around that concept."
Wernick lives in Boulder County, did a stint as the first president of the International Bluegrass Music Association, and he's collaborated with comedian and fellow banjo player Steve Martin. But mainly he teaches the bluegrass ways of the banjo.
"I was the first one to write a full-blown instruction book pulling apart how to learn the bluegrass banjo," said Wernick. "It helped open up pathways for musicians to learn the style."
Hot Rize's main songwriter, Grammy-winning O'Brien, has penned songs for country superstars. His distinct twangy harmonies sit at the front of Hot Rize's sound, and he has an innate ability to carry multiple notes across one word.
"Tim is a great singer, he has a very distinctive voice, it's incredible," said Forster. "We really rely on his vocal talents."
Sutton is one of the most in-demand session players in Nashville, Forster said, and he teaches guitar to hundreds of students online.
"Bryan grew up listening to Hot Rize," said Forster. "When he took road trips with his family when he was younger, he said Hot Rize was one of the tapes they'd listen to in the car. He's done a great job of adding his own unique sound to the band."
Wernick and Forster both reminisced fondly about Sawtelle. They added that Sutton has been a seamless fit for the past 16 years.
"It was a really cool thing, coming together with highly talented musicians," said Forster. "What an amazing coincidence it was. The four of us each had uniquely different skills, which is one of the reasons we were able to stay together as a band."
Wernick agreed, noting that they respected the "delicate balance of bluegrass." The musicians respect and honor the roots of a genre that was heavily influenced by Appalachian music. Tagged as forefathers of progressive bluegrass, Hot Rize updated the age-old style and incorporated the electric bass into the lineup (which helped later blaze a trail for the jamband genre).
"Bluegrass has to be right to work," said Wernick, who calls himself a "retro renegade," as he still plays the same gear that was invented in the '70s. "We try to play in ways that don't disrupt that balance. I believe in bluegrass like people believe in religion. Bluegrass needs to be very cohesive to work, we all had to work as a team and listen to each other very carefully. We have to trust each other to go with the flow. It's a process of human beings doing incredibly skilled things and depending on each other to make sure it's a group effort."
"Take It Home" (1990) was nominated for a Grammy and the band was honored with the International Bluegrass Music Association's first-ever Entertainer of the Year Award in 1991.
Hot Rize can be labeled a catalyst to what is now a thriving Colorado bluegrass scene.
"When I first moved to Colorado, it was a small bluegrass scene," said Wernick, who moved from New York in 1976. "Over the next few decades, so many talented musicians have moved here. There's a wonderful history, and the history has blossomed all over the state."
But when these four musical trailblazers hit the stage, it's that distinct Boulder bluegrass sound.
"If you're in the creative environment, you always want to strive for excellence," said Forster. "You may never get there, but you'll always reach for it. The most you can hope for is that you sound like yourself. If you've done things right, people will unmistakably know your sound. I believe Hot Rize has achieved that, because when the four of us come together, we are unmistakably Hot Rize."