Behind the scenes as Karina Rykman conquers Red Rocks and Bonnaroo

September 2, 2022
Marty Halpern

There are many unique concert venues across the United States. Some are known for their beauty. Some for their sound. Whichever way your musical ear bends, there is one stage that fans want to see musicians play on – Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

For bassist Karina Rykman, performing on the hallowed stage has been on her mind since age 15, when she committed to becoming a musician. On May 26, 2022, with only a handful of released singles under her musical belt, she crossed playing Red Rocks off her bucket list.

Located outside of Denver CO, the 10,000-seat amphitheater has hosted legendary acts like The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Performing at Red Rocks is a benchmark for any musician – you don’t perform on that stage by accident. Rykman’s band graced the stage as the opener for a show that included The California Honeydrops and The Infamous Stringdusters.

Not to be outdone, Rykman’s next gig was another bucket list item, playing at the Bonnaroo Music Festival. Her introduction to Bonnaroo (also at age 15) was a result of her friendship with Phish front man Trey Anastasio’s daughter. In 2009, the two and a couple of pals went to Bonnaroo. With backstage access, they went into a rehearsal room where Phish was practicing with rock god Bruce Springsteen for a sit in later that night. After watching the performance from the stage, Rykman told herself that she could never return to Bonnaroo unless she was performing.

On June 17, 2022 – for the first time in 13 years – she made her return and crossed another life-changing event off her bucket list; not a bad couple of weeks for Rykman and bandmates guitarist Adam November and drummer Chris Corsico.

Rykman’s quick ascent up the indie music scene seems to have been predestined. The bouncy bassist has that “it” factor. But, that only takes you so far. For years, she has put in the grunt work, carefully plotting her career. Despite having only released six singles, nobody who has been following Rykman is surprised at her early success.

While Rykman and her band prepped for the two biggest shows of their careers, they allowed slideandbanjo.com behind-the-scenes access to document these two life-changing performances. The story picks up a month before Red Rocks in Asheville, N.C.

Photo: Marty Halpern

April 28, 2022
Walking towards The Grey Eagle to catch Karina’s opening set for Too Many Zooz, there was a pressing question: can the band come close to repeating their performance at All Good in the Woods in 2021 – easily one of the best and most unexpected sets I witnessed that year…a seamless marathon set and bold statement – the band is making enormous strides musically.

Starting about two blocks from the venue, Rykman’s unmistakable New York accent becomes clearer and clearer. Soundcheck is over, and the gregarious Rykman is holding court. It takes about ten seconds after walking in The Grey Eagle to pinpoint Rykman’s voice and track her down.

There was a unique vibe in The Grey Eagle that night – like a big change was on the horizon. As I visited with the band before the show, I was stunned to learn that besides never performing at Red Rocks, none of them have ever been there. Despite not seeing the place in person, the lore of the venue and excitement of finally playing the Rocks was not lost on anyone.

Rykman begins, “I’ve been to so many venues across the country. For shows I’ve played or been in the crowd, it’s crazy Red Rocks has passed me by. I’m wildly, wildly excited. It’s a crazy feeling knowing you’re going to play a bucket list venue. The idea that I’m going to set foot in arguably one of the greatest venues in the country to play is overwhelmingly surreal.”

Corsico continues, “I first heard about Red Rocks at some point in high school.  This was perhaps the pinnacle of my love and appreciation for the jam band scene, and I spent hours obsessing over countless live performances of various artists, most notably Phish. Ultimately there seemed to be a trend emerging as I pored over all of these recordings; all of the best bands, whether it be in the jam scene or not, invariably played this venue at one point in their careers.” 

Rykman adds, “I went to my first Phish show in 2009 and got completely hooked. They played Red Rocks later that summer. I had good friends going and was like ‘wow, everyone is freaking out about Red Rocks.’ I was 15 and living in Manhattan. So, I googled it and was like, ‘wow what is this? This is a concert venue? This is the craziest shit ever.’

”When my friends who went came back, they had great pics and stories to tell. That’s when it first came on my radar. Since then, all my favorite bands have played there. I can’t believe the magnitude of those rocks.”

The trio took the stage of The Grey Eagle and ferociously ripped through a set they’d been perfecting as the opening act for the Zooz and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong the previous several weeks, and would continue to road-test at Sweetwater Music Festival and revisit at Red Rocks and Bonnaroo.

The crowd to start the show was sparse, no surprise for an opening act. By the time Rykman got to “City Kids” a few songs in, the club had begun to fill up with people coming to check out the beautiful chaos coming from the stage. Throw in a little bit of Rykman’s profanity-strewn, stream of consciousness musings between songs, and the crowd was hooked. The “it” factor was on full display. 

After the set and with a televised festival show in Atlanta the next afternoon, the night was far from over for Rykman – she’s determined to sell out her merch before she leaves. She happily bounces around the club, greeting fans and selling the band’s remaining t-shirts while deciding what shoes to wear at Sweetwater tomorrow, a show that will be seen by thousands in person and thousands more online.

As we exit the Eagle, Corsico, November, and lighting engineer Jeff Volckhausen gladly brag that Rykman will often use the extra money from selling her merch to splurge on them while they’re on the road. The gang heads off to Atlanta knowing their road to Red Rocks is just a few weeks away.

April 29, 2022
The second the Sweetwater festival live stream kicks in, Rykman is in another world compared to the 500 person capacity Grey Eagle she rocked the night before. A large mid-afternoon crowd has piled in to see if the hype and potential of Rykman is for real. Their questions are answered instantly with another blistering set that leaves no doubt the band is at the top of its game and more than ready for Red Rocks and Bonnaroo. The performance was so well received, Rykman was trending on Twitter. She happily notes “that was a big one for me.” After their set, the band is excited to be staying at November’s boss’s house. It’s a definite upgrade from their living accommodations as an opening act the last several weeks on the road.

I want Karina to become so famous, she stops returning my calls. – Dave Dreiwitz

December 15, 2015
If there’s one day to pinpoint where hard work and good timing crash together to create the foundation of a career, this is it. This is the day Rykman got “the” call that would give her career a major boost. Her mentor Dave Dreiwitz became too busy touring with his bands Ween and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and had to step away as bassist in Marco Benevento’s touring band. Dreiwitz recommended Rykman replace him. He had worked with and seen her play countless times, and the recommendation was all Benevento needed and the offer was made and accepted.

Photo: Marty Halpern

Not to be outdone (again), that night Rykman attended a party at (then stranger) November’s apartment. Impressed by the full band set up in his room, the two started jamming and the beginning of the Karina Rykman Experiment was born. The two pick it up from there.

Rykman, “We hit it off immediately and I was so impressed by his bedroom setup, with a full drum kit and amps and everything. We ended up jamming in his room for most of the night, and then periodically over the next year. I did an all-improv gig with Marco, Billy Martin, John Medeski, and Nels Cline in July of 2017, and in order to practice for that, I called Adam and asked him if we could jam…like, a lot. And he said ‘of course’ and invited his buddy Chris, who I didn’t know at the time, to join us on drums. Throughout the process of our many jam sessions, I think we all realized that though I was ”rehearsing” to play with my idols, the music we were creating in Adam’s bedroom was incredibly special. And we haven’t stopped since!”

November adds, “Karina and I met at a party in 2015. The party was at my apartment building and she had gone to a show with friends of mine before coming back to the party. I had a full band setup in my room at this point. A drum kit, amps, and all that. Karina and I started talking at the party. Next thing you know, we started jamming. This was the same night she got the call from Marco asking her to join his band. I was vaguely familiar with who Marco was so I said ‘congratulations.’ Next thing you know we were playing. It was a blast.

”We kept in touch and jammed a few more times. At one point she got a crazy gig to do an improv set with Nels Cline, Billy Martin, Marco and John Medeski or something like that. She came to me and said she needed some people to spar with a bit to get her improv chops ready. Chris is a friend of mine from college. We played a lot together. We all started playing and jamming for a while. Eventually we booked a couple of improv shows. Karina had a connection to the Freaks Action Network that supported us a ton early on. Even helping us book a couple of gigs.”

December, 2021
With the band soaring musically at all time heights and a steady schedule of live gigs, Rykman got another of “the” calls from her manager. “My manager was like hey, ‘Red Rocks May 26 opening for the Stringdusters and Honeydrops. This is the offer. Do you want to do it?’ I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ I had to text the band to make sure there’s not a wedding or some shit. God forbid something ridiculous that prevents you from playing. They were like ‘Oh my god! We’re available! We’re available!’ I told my manager we’re good to go on that. You try not to get too excited until the t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted. A few short days later they were.”

Rykman continues, “When I got that call, I was thrilled beyond belief. The best feeling was having the group band chat. I was like ‘guys, guess what, guess what? We’re playing Red Rocks.’ Then everyone shits their pants. That’s a good feeling. When you can be the person to deliver news like that.”

March 15-17, 2022
With the life changing Red Rocks scheduled, and not to be outdone (again), Rykman got another call from her manager. “I was asked if we were free on June 17. We were on tour at the time so I asked everyone and they were like, ‘we’re free. For what?’ My manager said, ‘I don’t want to jinx it. I’ll be right back.’ We all started speculating on what gig it could be.”

She continues, “I have no imagination when it comes to stuff like that. Chris said, maybe it’s Bonnaroo. I laughed. I was like, ‘ha, ha, ha, Bonnaroo that’s hilarious’ Bonnaroo, there’s no way.’ I never thought I’d play a mainstream festival like that. Especially at this stage in the game when I have no record out. This is formative Karina. I’ve got so much to work up to as a solo artist. I never thought we’d get that type of offer with only six singles out. I thought, when my record comes out, maybe it will be a different story. Two or three days later I was sitting in a coffee shop in Bend Oregon. She called and said we got an offer for Bonnaroo. I was like, Chris was right. Of course, we were like confirm, confirm, confirm!”       

With two career defining gigs on the books, Corsico recognizes how far everyone had come since their “rehearsal band” beginnings. “Both Red Rocks and Bonnaroo are by far and away the biggest milestones in my career thus far.  Not to discount any of my previous experiences or specific shows, but both of these events are something that I have dreamed about ever since embarking upon this path.  It is utterly surreal and overwhelming that we have the opportunity to play on these stages and I do not take it for granted for a second. I am so incredibly grateful to get to do this with Karina and Adam, two of my best friends, and I hope that enthusiasm translates to the people in the audience.”

May 23, 2022
Literally hours from her Red Rocks debut, Rykman is equally nervous and excited. Usually as laid back as they come, it’s obvious she fully appreciates the importance of what lies ahead. “This is going to be crazy. Yes. This is going to be crazy. I’m trying not to get too inflated. This is a moment I’ve waited months for and I’m wildly excited about. I’m trying to take things hour by hour until the show.

”Tonight, I have rehearsal with the fellas and I’m really excited about that. Every moment I’m doing something to make sure Red Rocks goes off without a hitch. What am I going to wear? Where’s my suitcase? Where’s my pedal board? How do I get everything from here to rehearsal? It’s literally minute by minute and hour by hour.”

If the pressure of just performing at Red Rocks wasn’t enough, the concert will be broadcast live. Another huge opportunity for Rykman to increase her exposure. She explains, “Whenever things are being filmed, there’s an added level where you have to make sure you’re on point. I’ve had plenty of technical issues, but this makes you extra cognizant of that. I have a great crew – my boy Julian Booker doing sound and my man Jeff Volks on lights. I’m so grateful I’ll have my team of experts with me to make sure the night goes off without a hitch.”

Photo: Marty Halpern

Rykman continues, “The most important part is taking it in. There is a 45-minute soundcheck, which is a luxury. When the show starts, I’ll be nervous and jubilated at the same time. I try to do my best to take every moment in and this is a big one. You’ve got to remember to breathe and look up as much as possible.”

The last piece of Red Rocks business Rykman has to deal with is an important one: the guest list. The number of friends and family wanting to witness her debut performance far exceeded the number of passes allotted for her band. Fortunately, the always humble Rykman was able to accommodate her pals.

“I’m telling people, you really don’t have to make the trip to Colorado just to see me play for 50 minutes,” she said. ”But everyone was like ‘No.’ They’re super stoked.”

Both November and Corsico are looking forward to an extended cheering section as well. November begins, “My whole immediate family is coming with my girlfriend. We’ll have a nice crew. A lot of Karina’s friends who are my friends now will be there. My family is really excited. It will be the first time they’ve traveled to see me perform. They haven’t seen a lot of Karina gigs because we don’t play in New York that often. When we do, we usually play so late. I think we’ve come a long way since they’ve seen us last.” his unique list included, “My girlfriend, our dog, my sister, and a family friend and her husband.”

May 26 2022
A glorious sunny day greets the band and crew as they make their inaugural drive to Red Rocks. Finally, the time has come. There’s no need to have friends and family describe the beauty of the area anymore– they’re smack dab in the middle of it.

There’s also plenty of work to get done before their set. Starting with a mid afternoon soundcheck. Rykman has been agonizing for weeks about how the band’s gear will fit on the stage. One look at the massive stage dug between the legendary red rocks, and those concerns evaporate into the mountain air.

Soundcheck goes off without any major hitches, and all that’s left to do is take a deep breath and soak everything in. Everyone makes the cardio-challenging hike to the top of the venue, where the view is unforgettable. Several pictures and moments of personal reflection later, and it’s off to their green room where a surprise awaits courtesy of the Stringdusters.

Photo: Karina Rykman

Rykman, a seafood aficionado, continues, “One of the coolest things that’s happened to me, which was completely over the top and uncalled for…The Stringdusters got me, knowing I’m a seafood addict, 300 oysters backstage. They also got me a custom branded oyster shucker with my name and logo on it. On the back it had the date, 5/26/22 Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

”Talk about making your opener feel welcome. That’s so above and beyond what anyone has ever done. While appreciated, it was so unnecessary and a beautiful gesture from an incredible band full of lovely people. Everyone who works for them have to be the nicest people on the planet. I’ll never be able to thank them enough for having me. Bending over backwards to make me have the best night. And it worked.”

With no introduction or fanfare, Rykman, November, and Corsico walk onto the hallowed Red Rocks stage. The moment of truth has arrived. The band jumps right into the unreleased “Joyride” which has been the set opener for several months. The synergy of the band is noticeable. There’s no chance they will succumb to the huge moment at hand.

The setlist for the night includes fan favorites “City Kids” “No Occasion” and “Elevator.” There’s also the unreleased instrumental, “Atom Dance” – probably the best song in the band’s repertoire. Throw in covers of “Psycho Killer” and “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” and the band’s first gig at Red Rocks is a complete success.

Rykman’s night isn’t finished. She’s been invited to sit in with the Stringdusters at the end of their set. Until then, friends and family have come together backstage to celebrate their momentous day.

Rykman reflects, “After my set we hung out and celebrated. We watched some of the California Honeydrops set, which was awesome. The Stringdusters gave me their setlist so I knew when to come out. I was paying attention to that. My managers were there making sure I was where I needed to be. When the time came, I posted up side stage. It was me and all of the California Honeydrops.  We did “I Shall Be Released” by The Band and the Stringdusters original called “Rise Sun.” It was absolutely crazy to look out on the Rocks in the dead of night. A full crowd of people standing ear to ear. Yep – it was definitely crazy. It’s a different perspective when you’re on stage. I saw the video of the show and was like Oh my god, it looks nothing like that from the stage.”

Red Rocks has a tradition where performers sign their name on a tunnel that weaves around the backstage area. As you can imagine, the venue has collected some heavy hitter signatures over the years. For November, picking the right spot to sign was a tough choice.

“The tunnel where everyone has signed their name is something else. You feel like you’re walking through a museum or through music history. I was incredibly blessed to sign that,” he said. ”One of my best friends is a manager for electronic acts. He’s signed the tunnel. So, I signed my name next to his. That was really cool. Then I saw where Wilco signed. It was just a couple of feet away and I was like ‘Shit. I should have signed there.’”

Photo: Karina Rykman

The once in a lifetime moment wasn’t lost on Rykman either, “It’s incredibly special. There’s the tunnel everyone signs. I was thrilled to sign it with my band mates. To see the incredible acts that have been there and left their mark. It’s amazing to see all that.  You can never prepare yourself for what it feels like when you’re standing there. I never thought I’d get the privilege to play those Rocks. It was absolutely everything I could have imagined and more.”

Oh my god. Karina’s just starting. I really can’t wait to see what else she’s going to do. She’s impressing herself as well as everyone else out there. Her music is so “Karina.” It’s super positive and funky. Great production. Great songwriting. – Marco Benevento

June 17 2022
With Red Rocks and a quick trip to Mexico in the rear view mirror, Rykman is ready to cross off another bucket list item. She’s made the trek to extra balmy Manchester TN for her debut performance at Bonnaroo, fulfilling the goal, she set for herself 13 years earlier. While playing Red Rocks and Bonnaroo are equal achievements for Ryman and crew, they’re extra juiced for their set at Bonnaroo. They’ve got a nighttime slot, and with full confidence in their playing abilities, are ready to kick down the door and announce themselves to the audience in attendance and/or watching the live stream.

The band’s set is hot, both literally and figuratively. Rykman recalls, “I’ve never sweated more. It was insane. I saw Chris playing. He had sheets of sweat dripping off him. Right on the cymbals. It was crazy. He completely sweated thorough his outfit. It looked like he just jumped in the pool. It was wild. Epic, Epic time.”

November will not forget his first experience performing in the Tennessee summer heat, “All of us were soaking wet. I posted a few pictures online. If you look carefully at my arm, you can see trails of sweat running down my guitar. It’s quite disgusting.”

Photo: Kendall McCargo

Musically, the performance was as locked in as ever. Rykman maximized her opportunity, and the exposure the set provided. Rykman continues, “I had the best time. It turned out we had a great set. They said it was the most attended set on that stage for that day and night. I was super thrilled about how it went. We had such a good time.

”I would have been happy if 15 people showed up. A whole lot more than that came. It’s an honor for people to come to your set over somebody else’s. I don’t take it lightly. I was dying to put on the best show possible for people who I was sure didn’t know who I was. People just walking by and got entranced by our music and checked out the tent. You want to win them over and show them a moment of bliss and joy. I really hope I did that. It was so fun. Just a blast.”

November also noted the Bonnaroo setup helped maximize the impact of their performance. “At Bonnaroo we got a really great nighttime proper set. We played at 9. Our light guy Jeff got to do his thing. It’s a much smaller stage than Red Rocks. That forced Karina and I to be in each other’s faces. That’s great for us. Sometimes when we play bigger stages I feel like I’m 30 feet away from them. It’s like, ‘What are y’all doing over there?’ Bonnaroo was a more intimate, punk rock type of energy. It was dark. The people were more packed in. People are partying and going crazy. It was more concentrated. That jam band cesspool type of vibe.”

June 18, 2022
After months on the road prepping for and playing the two biggest concerts of their careers, you’d think the band would head off somewhere to stop and reflect on the significant milestones they’ve created in a very short time. That is not to be. The road doesn’t stop for this crew. They’ve got a 5 A.M. flight from Nashville to Newark, where they’ll drive another three hours to play at Marco Benevento’s first Follow the Arrow festival.

Rykman and Corsico have double duty, both also playing with Benevento in the headlining set as well. Both sets are live-streamed, so the day provides another opportunity to build the Karina Rykman brand. Still in total control musically, both performances provide Rykman more ammunition for what’s to come. This stream, and countless others she’s been part of, give her a perfect on-demand audio/video recording for fans to check out anytime on YouTube, a major benefit for Rykman as she utilizes all avenues to continue to build her fanbase.

When she joined our band, I was like, ‘Ok. She’s already a legend.‘ She’s a total city kid. She’s on fire all the time. Witty, funny, and very smart. An amazing bass player. A pleasure to have on the road. We have the best time. She went on the road with some band. I forget which one. When she came back, she was like, we have the best touring band ever. I didn’t have as much fun with those guys as I do with you. We all get along and know life isn’t perfect on the road. We always have a great time with what we got.” – Marco Benevento

Now that they’ve crossed playing Red Rocks and Bonnaroo off their bucket lists, it’s time for the band to replace them with new venues they hope to conquer. For Corsico, his list is short and simple: Madison Square Garden. Rykman, as only she can, has a unique wish list.

“I’ve never played a note of music on the stage at The Beacon and would love to. I’ve played a note at Radio City Music Hall. I’ve played a note at Madison Square Garden (at Soundcheck with Phish). To play a full show there would be a dream.

”I really do have a pipe dream if I want to stretch my imagination,” Rykman quip. ”I’d love to play on a Late Night talk show. I don’t care if it’s Colbert, Fallon, Meyers or Gordon, I think the idea of late night tv is so awesome.” (Editor’s note: Rykman was invited to perform with Seth Meyers’ band in early September, 2022)

November will cross another dream gig off his list next year. “I’d love to play the Gorge. There are some festivals I’d like to play. We’re booked on Jam Cruise coming up next year. I’ve never been on Jam Cruise. Since I was a kid, I’ve been wanting to play there. I heard stories and was like, they let that kind of stuff go on there. I need to get on that somehow.”

While anxiously looking forward to the amazing things in front of them, both Corsico and November took a moment to reflect on the unforgettable last couple of months.

Corsico begins, “This is a perfect culmination of the past few years we’ve spent getting to know each other musically. Through our time as a purely improvisational act, we’ve been able to really dig in and explore different avenues of communication/listening in a live context. After playing, traveling, and hanging out with people, something unique emerges over time. At this point, when we step out onto a stage, it truly feels like we are a single organism. Each person is a crucial system with a certain degree of autonomy that supports the overall functionality and life essence of this being.”

November adds, “Red Rocks was completely surreal. It’s an un-describable space. The things I’ll remember the most is the hours during sound check. We were walking around sitting at the top of the stands, watching the Honeydrops soundcheck where you can see Denver in the distance. Hanging out up there was a special moment. It’s just incredible. What can you say? Sitting at the top of the Red Rocks bleachers with the band before soundcheck and taking in the whole space. The pictures of just the three of us standing there. That hour of us just sitting there. I made a couple of calls up there to some of my friends who had been to Red Rocks and stuff like that. That was a really special moment. I’ll remember the Bonnaroo set forever. That was such and run and gun day. It’s different. There wasn’t a sit down and take it all in kind of moment. But it was amazing.”

Photo: Adam November

August 10, 2022
It’s been a ground breaking year for Karina Rykman. The last couple of months have provided memories that will live forever. She still hasn’t released her debut album. In a perfect world, a late-2022 announcement for an early 2023 release would be ideal. She’s going to have released so many songs by the time her first album comes out, it could be called “Greatest Hits.”

It’s not lost on Rykman that despite playing two “all time” venues, she’s got a long way to go on her road to success.

“I believe in the process way more than the end result. Gigs can be fly by night. You can play Bonnaroo one day, the next a coffee shop. I do it for the love of the game,” she states.

”Bonnaroo and Red Rocks are milestones but not trophies. They’re markers along the road. I feel like the same person with some really sweet gigs that just happened. I’m so grateful I got to do those two things back-to-back. That’s crazy, surreal, and humbling to now have those under my belt.”

She continues, “I have tunnel vision. To me, it’s about staying measured, humble and in the moment. You have to enjoy the ever-loving fuck out of every single moment you get to play in front of people no matter how many are in the audience. That’s way more important than thinking about how big I’m going to get or what the next big thing is. Then you become a junkie for this. Which I am. But I’m a junkie for the reality not the dream.”

Rykman concludes, “I’m super-confident in our set now. In a big way. Super-confident in my playing. So proud of how far my band has come. It was just three years ago we opened for Khruangbin at the Capitol Theater. We barely had a song to our name. My song “Plants” came out four days before that. We had seedlings of songs. But we were anything but a refined band in terms of having practice or experience under our belts.

”I was watching those videos thinking, ‘omg this is terrible.’ And now, I’m so proud when I look at the videos. I’m like damn this is a rock band. This is different. I’m super-proud of how far we’ve come musically. It’s only the beginning. I’m wildly excited for my record to come out, and for things to congeal. On a personal level, I feel like how far we’ve come is unbelievable. I’m so proud of the boys and the work we’ve done together.”

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