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A festival within a festival: Ed Helms’s Bluegrass Situation will be at Bonnaroo again

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When Ed Helms did the “Hangover” movies, it seemed the oddest, most unlikely thing about him was that he


That still stands – the tooth thing is just crazy. But here’s another obscure fact, likely unbeknownst to all but the dues-paying, card-carrying members of the Ed Helms Fan Club or those who attended Bonnaroo in the last year or two: He plays the banjo. He’s quite good at it, too – that was really him playing that time in “The Office.”

Helms is a huge fan of bluegrass and roots music in general – so much so that he, with Amy Reitnouer and Cameron Matthews, created a music festival called the Bluegrass Situation. It’s done well in recent years as part of the Los Angeles music scene. Helms plays with his band, the Lonesome Trio, which he formed as a student at Oberlin College with friends Jacob Tilove and Ian Riggs. In addition to the festival, the BGS Web site curates and promotes roots music.

They actually performed on “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross in 2011:

And they also perform as part of Helms’s “Whiskey Sour Radio Hour,” a variety show inspired by “A Prairie Home Companion,” but trippier. For the third straight year, Helms will host the Bluegrass Situation at Bonnaroo, which means he’ll have his own stage at the festival.

Here’s the BGS lineup:

Shakey Graves
Hurray for the Riff Raff
Sturgill Simpson
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn
Punch Brothers
Earls of Leicester
The BGS SuperJam Hosted by Ed Helms and Friends

“I grew up in Atlanta, Ga., and there was some early exposure to it, but it’s not like it was very prevalent in my family or anything,” Helms told Gross, explaining the roots of his love for bluegrass. “But I also spent summers up in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, and it was always a sound that resonated for me and I felt a connection to these places that meant a lot to me. … It just felt authentic and something that I gravitated to. But I do think people who love banjo music are cursed in some way, because most people don’t like it and it’s kind of an obnoxious instrument. But I just get a lot of joy out of it.”

Despite his lifelong love of music – Helms sang in his church choir as a boy – playing banjo on stage never stuck because of his terrific stage fright. This may explain why most YouTube videos of Helms feature him sharing the stage with a crowd.

“I don’t know what it is,” Helms said. “I’ve done stand-up comedy for 15 years, and I can step in front of 2,000 people in a college auditorium and just chat for an hour and a half. But if you put an instrument in my hand, a guitar or a banjo, I desperately want to share it with people, but I do oftentimes, I have some stage fright, and it makes the technical act of playing difficult. And that’s something I’ve always struggled with. Even at piano recitals as a kid I would freeze up.”

Bonnaroo announced its lineup Tuesday – Billy Joel, DeadMau5, Florence + The Machine, Kendrick Lamar, and Mumford & Sons are headlining the 13th annual Manchester, Tenn., music and arts festival. Also worth mentioning: Unlocking the Truth, the metal band of sweet New York youngsters who can’t even get driver’s permits yet, will be playing the festival, too. They just signed with Sony last year, but the festival circuit is old hat to them. They’ve already played the main stage at Coachella.

Here’s Helms, who also plays guitar, and the Lonesome Trio doing their song, “Appalachia Apologia” in 2008: