Fog Holler European travel blog – part 5

Fog Holler at the Rotterdam Bluegrass Festival in the Netherlands – photo © Kianna Mott-Smith

Fog Holler is a young bluegrass band from Portland, OR with a modern approach to this traditional art form. Or as they like to say, “It’s a new shade of grass.” They include Tommy Schulz (guitar), Lillian Sawyer (fiddle), Noa (bass fiddle), and Casey James Holmberg (banjo). As they complete an extended European tour, the band has agreed to share their experiences in a travel blog, available exclusively here at Bluegrass Today. Kianna Mott-Smith, the band’s manager, will be our tour guide.

After we crossed the Channel back to the mainland, one of the first stops of Fog Holler’s last week in Europe was a festival called Kids n’ Billies. This family-friendly fest in the Netherlands has a rockabilly theme, and attracts an eclectic range of acts: from Hezekiah Procter, a fully immersive 1930s vaudeville experience, to Shannon and the Clams, an R&B/garage psych/surf band. We were all hoping to catch some of the other artists’ sets, but we hit the ground running that weekend with a double show, so as soon as the band stepped off stage we were already packing up into the van and getting ready to head to our next destination. It was a very busy day coming right after our most taxing travel in the UK and Ireland the week before, but that wound up being a blessing in disguise. As a result, we were especially grateful for the experience waiting for us the next day. 

That day came and found us in Wallonia, Belgium. Régis and Astrid run L’Ancienne Fée Verte, a quirky and cozy venue in the tiny town of Habay. Their home and the venue blend into one; you have to cross over the stage and through the bar to get from the bedrooms upstairs to the kitchen. That night, the show was a house concert, a bar show, and a listening room all at once. You could feel that the group gathered to watch the performance was a community, made both more welcome and more gracious to the space by the fact that they were gathering in a friend’s home.  

Folks were sweating and fanning themselves in the heat under the large beams of the old building, yet they happily packed into the space for the band’s sets. It was a full house, with the majority speaking only French, or only a few phrases of English. One audience member quickly became a staple of the band’s banter that night. A former rocker who’d spent many years in Los Angeles, she took it upon herself to translate the band’s jokes and song introductions. After dinner, when most of the audience had left, we were treated to one of the most decadent meals of our trip. Régis and Astrid are friends with a local chef who had prepared creamed salmon with mashed potatoes and chives. It was presented like a parfait, and the potatoes even featured a delicate crisp to make any merengue proud. Dessert was chocolate fondue, followed by tastes of Régis’s favorite new scotch and a local raspberry liqueur. We didn’t have to set alarms for the following morning, and the beds were exceptionally comfortable. In every way, our stop in Habay filled our cups. 

Later in the week, we returned to a venue called Pallieter, a bar in Flanders, the northern region of Belgium. Hans Siongers, Pallieter’s proprietor, often puts up bands, even when they aren’t playing in his bar. This was the third time we’d enjoyed Han’s hospitality, though it would be the first time the band actually played at his venue on the trip. It was a complete novelty to get to return to familiar accommodation, so I was already more comfortable there than in many other places we’d stayed. Beyond that, Hans had hosted the band the last time they toured Europe back in 2020, and it was one of the few places they’d stayed for more than a night. So, for them, returning to Pallieter felt like coming back to a home-away-from-home. 

Pallieter the bar is named after Pallieter the book and its titular character, who, by Hans’s account, is a man ruled by a sense of optimistic nihilism. You get the sense that Palleiter the fictional man lends some of his character to the bar, and maybe even to Hans. Hans never seems to sleep – he’s awake when we crash for the night, and breakfast is always ready before we get up the next morning. He usually greets you with a small, crooked smile and a “good morning,” regardless of the time of day. If you take the time to ask, he’ll happily point out the property lines around Pallieter, talking around the lit cigarette in his mouth while he walks you outside to see the boundaries of his “kingdom.” Here, his rules apply. Here, you have a beer, you smoke a cigarette, you listen to some music, and you accept that all moments are impermanent, the good and the bad. Here, inevitably, you become a little like Hans. 

At Palleiter, we took our last deep breath before the final push. The show went well – the bar was bustling, and it was gratifying for the band to give Uncle Hans a thank you shout out from the stage, and hear the entire bar take up the cheer – Hans is very well appreciated in his community. Then it arrived: the end of our two-month European tour. The final week had gone by in a blur. We’d gotten used to constant motion, always ready to move on to the next place, so the end of the experience snuck up on us. Our tour locomotive – a well oiled machine at this point – chugged its way around a corner and slammed right into the last destination of our tour. 

As I’ve said in previous blog updates, this tour was planned around a series of festivals, and the largest fest of the whole tour was scheduled as our last stop before heading home. Rotterdam Bluegrass Festival is a three day festival in the Netherlands, and it claims to be the largest bluegrass festival in Europe. In 2020 there were approximately 18,000 people in attendance! The weather behaved like it knew we were coming, with several days of rain clearing up into a gorgeous, sunny weekend just in time for the festivities. 

Here are some of Noa’s thoughts about their first day at Rotterdam Bluegrass Festival:

“It’s amazing how long and short these past two months have been. I got on a plane in the beginning of May ready for this European marathon, and in the blink of an eye I was at the finish line in Rotterdam. Every day felt like a new adventure, an epic saga filled with kebab, frites, new stages, and new faces, but somehow the grand conclusion to this tale had unexpectedly arrived. Rotterdam Bluegrass Festival was the perfect final chapter, a culmination of everything we had worked toward in the earlier days of the tour.

Before our first set I met Madalitso, a brilliant, high energy duo from Mawali consisting of guitar, bababtone (a homemade bass instrument), and drums. They had just performed at an adjacent stage. Yobu and Yosefe were fascinated by my Chadwick folding bass, and I was intrigued by the bababtone, as well as Yosefe’s gloves that he wore while he played. I thought they were part of his technique and guitar setup, but he just laughed and said they were for style. 

Cheered by their music and their energy, I got on stage for our first set, and it was every bit as phenomenal as I had anticipated. I felt immediate interest, excitement, and most importantly, warmth from these listeners. It feels good to play for a big crowd, but it feels sublime to play for folks that are so present and so emotionally generous, even before we had properly played for them! Just like our tour, it felt like it was over just as it started, but I remember being caught up in the heat of euphoria as I waded into the sea of faces I was standing above seconds ago.

From here, it all becomes a blur. There was sweat and sound and dancing and drinking and an overwhelming sensation of pure fun. I jammed as long as I could until they told us to stop, I slept at some point, and then I did it all again for our final performance the next day. I pushed myself to the limit, played my heart out, tried to take all of this kaleidoscopic experience in, and then, finally, rested. I slept the sleep of the truly exhausted, and it felt so good.”

After the band’s first set, we had several hours to explore the festival, jam, and meet with friends and fans. Eventually, it was time for the festival grounds to close, and crew shooed out final stragglers and shut the gates. We brought Fog Holler’s instruments to the pub across the street where the band was hosting one of the fest’s midnight jams. It started off feeling like a performance, since the majority of the bar was watching rather than participating, but as more folks trickled in, they were joined by various festies and fellow festival performers. Towards the end it got quite lively, and someone who’d been at Fog Holler’s earlier set called Horndog for the jam, a Fog Holler original. The band had never had someone call one of their own songs at a jam before. It was a very flattering first.

The next day breezed by. Our van rolled into the festival a few hours before Fog Holler’s set that afternoon, and since it was our second day there, familiarity made everything easier. The band dispersed to pursue jams, snacks, and space to warm up, and then it was their turn to play again. Taking pictures from backstage, I had a unique vantage point to observe the crowd, looking out past the band over a sea of heads. I recognized some faces from previous gigs and the set the day before. One fan even wore the Fog Holler tshirt that he’d purchased about a week earlier in the tour, prominently displayed from his first row position. It was a surreal moment that stuck with me – it felt like the band had been climbing a hill since we arrived in Europe, and at that show, from my perch backstage, I could finally see over the top to the other side. 

I wrote a portion of this final blog post on the plane back to our dear old States, with some of the photos and videos I’d taken up for reference. I keep coming back to the photo I took from backstage at Rotterdam, because it feels like one of those snapshots that captures both an image and a feeling. It brings me back to the moment I took the photo, of course, but also a moment several hours later. That night after the band’s final festival set and the last show of the tour, we shared a cheers out on the terrace of our floating boat hotel, or “the Boatel,” as the band called it. We were celebrating being done – reminiscing about the high points, chuckling about the low points, and savoring the prospect of sleeping in our own beds. As we were sitting out on that Rotterdam canal, enjoying the view of the water, I think everyone felt what I’d felt earlier in the day: that we’d reached the top of a very long climb. We’d have many more climbs before too long, but, for now, it was nice to sit at the top in peace, soak in the accomplishment, and survey all the opportunities yet to come.

Well, Bluegrass Today readers, this is where I leave you. It’s been great fun being your fly on the wall for all of Fog Holler’s European exploits! If the ending of this blog series leaves you feeling bereft, you can always send me an email at and ask me to add you to Fog Holler’s mailing list (we’re working on getting online signups setup). You can also follow Fog Holler on social media, or, even better, come to a Fog Holler show! Don’t be a stranger, y’all. 

Auf wiedersehen!