There are festivals and then there’s Telluride Bluegrass. There, it’s more about the vibe, a natural occurrence that transpires when you gather the loyal hordes – known collectively as Festavarians – at heights of 14,000 feet above sea level within a natural box a mere stone’s throw (or so it seems) from some of the most splendid peaks in the heart of the Rockies.
That feeling of euphoria is evident on arrival, from the sheer beauty of the magnificent surroundings to the obvious enthusiasm of those who have traveled from near and far to share in the festivities. It also has to do with a storied heritage. While Bonnaroo, Stagecoach and the like tend to extol the virtues of building a legacy that’s lasted a decade or so (if that), Telluride is celebrating its 40th anniversary, bringing it from humble, homespun beginnings, the brainchild of the late Fred Shellman, to one of the most celebrated gatherings on the planet. Only Monterrey Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival come to mind in terms of a longer view.
Still, all that would pale if the music didn’t match the experience and Telluride finds a connection with audiences and performers based in part by the number of times an artist has performed there. Sam Bush, the widely-acclaimed “King of Telluride,” has played the festival 39 years of the past 40 years, a pioneer of the proceedings if ever there was one. Peter Rowan can claim 33 years. Jerry Douglas and Bela Fleck don’t fall far behind. So now it’s on to #this year’s# musical highlights, a formidable tally in itself.
Thursday, June 20: Day One:
While the aforementioned Mr. Bush is the ultimate Telluride royalty, the presumed heir apparent and unofficial Prince of Telluride may well be Chris Thile, mandolin player supreme. Thile, who actually played the Telluride stage for the first time at the tender age of 12 as a part of the seminal Nu-Grass band Nickel Creek, has evolved into a solid showman, exemplary enough to glean the auspicious honor of opening the four day musical event on his own prior to returning on day two with his band The Punch Brothers. Even solo, he held the crowd spellbound, from a semi-gospel-like Gaelic instrumental to a sad but stately Louvin Brothers tune. Thile did what he does best, expanding the parameters of his instrument into unexpected realms. Witness his upcoming individual outing, an album of Bach partitas that may take even diehard devotees by surprise. However, it was the more traditional musical varieties that hit home this particular morning — a vintage Civil War tune entitled “Richmond It’s a Hard Road to Travel,” and a song containing a heartbreaking lyric that went, “It just sucks to hear it on the phone, going from town to town, Knowing you won’t be there when I get home…”
Regardless, there was no suckiness in the joy Thile expressed about being part of Telluride’s 40th, sentiments that would be echoed by every act that followed. “It’s like music Christmas,” he exclaimed.
We couldn’t agree more.
Elephant Revival, relative newcomers compared to most others on the bill, followed next, a modest combo whose main instrumental assets consisted of guitar, washboard, banjo, bass and fiddle. Opening offering, “Go On and Sing to the Mountain” seemed an apt intro, and with the photographers whooping it up and dancing in the pit, it was quickly evident that the music was on the mark. Likewise, the lyric to a song entitled “The Grace of a Woman” expressed best what everyone was feeling. “So Mother Nature, here we are/The greatest teacher of them all.”
The Milk Carton Kids followed next, first-timers and, by definition, Telluride virgins. Their exceptional new album, Ash and Clay, is the first to bring them to the masses, even though their two previous albums were originally available for free downloads. Noting the fact that they were seemingly overdressed in their matching suits, they remarked that crowd seemed, in their words, “half-naked” by comparison. Although their songs and harmonies most frequently bring to mind Simon and Garfunkel, even somewhat freakishly at times, in concert they bring to mind the brotherly harmonies of the Everly Brothers. What’s more, Joey Ryan’s bespeckled appearance and ‘60s era mop top also help inscribe the image of vintage pairings like Peter and Gordon and Chad and Jeremy. On the other hand, his comedic introductions, often offered at the expense of his straitlaced partner Kenneth Pattengale, sometimes find the Smothers Brothers a good basis for comparison. Introducing one song, Ryan remarked that Pattengale had composed it in anticipation of the birth of his daughter. Ha! Never mind that they’ve been singing it for two years and he’s yet to find a mother willing to bring his child into the world.
Beauty and bliss can take many forms, and when Greensky Bluegrass took the stage, the Michigan-based quintet demonstrated that exuberance and exhilaration remain such a vital part of the Telluride template. Suffice it say their rousing performance really got the crowd grooving, an elevation of energy that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Performing their songs at breakneck speed, they define the sound of Telluride itself in a whirlwind of banjo, guitars, mandolin and pedal steel. “This is definitely the most beautiful place to play in the entire world,” one member exclaimed, echoing the sentiments of everyone there, onstage and off. Notably, the Greenskys would be the band most mentioned when audience members were queried about which group on the bill was their favorite act of the day.
Still, North Carolina’s Steep Canyon Rangers managed to maintain that high bar, little surprise considering their proven dexterity in blending various musical forms with the bluegrass that provides their original point of departure. Not surprisingly then, it was the songs from their latest album, Nobody Knows You, that proved the highlight of their set. A newly added percussionist added to the sweep of tempo and melody, but as always, it was fiddler Nicky Sanders that threatened to steal the show.
Richard Thompson, appearing solo, provided a perfect respite, and while his pedigree is in British folk – “pre-grass” as he referred to it – his performance was a singular delight for his many fans and devotees in attendance. His dry wit and somber songs may have seemed out of place, but regardless, the crowd seemed appreciative. “Thank you for dancing,” he remarked to a group clearly caught up in it all, before turning his notorious sarcasm and dissing an audience member attempting to shout out a request. Yet, he also reserved a self-deprecating attitude for himself, noting that “Celtic music is so miserable. You can’t just play it anywhere, unless you were going to simply listen to it on a cruise that only circled Iceland, he insisted. “It’s not a happy sound.”
Indeed, while much of his music carries a dark undertow, the string of songs he performed represented some of the most magnificent music that’s been borne by his singular view – “I Misunderstood,” Vincent Black Lightning,” “Galway to Graceland,” “Persuasion, “Dimming of the Day,” “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,”” “Walking on a Wire,” “Feel So Good” and occasional selections from his recent album Electric. They’re songs of pathos and humanity, eerie circumstance and inescapable irony. In other words, Thompson in top form, and, here at Telluride, again at his best.
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, two other performers recognized as Telluride royalty, proved such an able combination they actually overshadowed themselves on their own. Like June and Johnny, Porter and Dolly, or dare we say, Gram and Emmylou, the pair exuded a royal presence, the Sam Bush’s coronation as king notwithstanding. Surprisingly, even though the two are Telluride veterans in the strictest sense, they had never sung together for a full set on the Telluride stage. Drawing several songs from their exceptional new album Old Yellow Moon, both looked radiant — Emmylou with her massive furrows of gray hair and black fringed jacket, Rodney clad traditional cowboy style with a vest, black polka-dotted shirt and flat brimmed hat. The two exhibited a synchronicity shown since their initial meeting in the early ‘70s, when Crowell was enlisted in one of Emmylou’s early ensembles. Their chemistry allowed for heartfelt harmonies that fleshed out several staples of their individual repertoires – “Wheels,” “Pancho and Lefty,” “’Til I Gain Control Again,” “If I Needed You,” “Red Dirt Girl,” and “The Houston Kid” among them. Even so, a newer song, “Back When We Were Beautiful,” seemed particularly poignant, drawing the two together as partners with a mutual history and remarkable resilience.
Mumford and Sons were to be the evening’s headliners, but a sudden traumatic brain aneurism afflicting bassist Ted Dwane caused the cancellation of all the remaining shows of their tour. Scrambling to fill the void, the promoters managed to get Steve Martin to fill in, even while the Mumfords were welcomed to the Telluride family in absentia with expressions of sympathy and get well wishes to the band and its fans. Although Martin made for a decidedly different type of performance, he and the Steep Canyon Rangers added an extra dose of entertainment to the evening’s proceedings, courtesy of both their musicality and Martin’s sardonic wit. “I’ve always dreamed of playing Telluride,” he remarked. “And tonight I feel I’m one step closer to realizing my dream.” Speaking of his relationship to the band, Martin was quick to define their relationship. “I do not consider them my back-up band,” he insisted. “I consider myself their celebrity addition.” Going on to describe their mutual feelings about their musical collaboration, Martin maintained that they all the musicians had agreed that when it stopped being fun, they would go their own ways. At which point the band promptly left the stage.
Nevertheless, the performance boasted numerous highlights, not the least of which were those featuring singer Edie Brickell who joined the ensemble onstage to perform songs off the album she recently recorded with Martin, Love Has Come For You — among them, wonderful renditions of the title track and the stirring “Shawnee.” Martin’s banjo picking was as impressive as it is on the album (“I think of my banjos as my children,” he told the crowd. “Which means that one of them is probably not mine.”), while his original tune, “Atheists Have No Songs,” a send-up of the many signature songs that are a part of Judeo-Christian tradition, was a singular hoot and a half.
Oh, we also met Mimi Kennedy, one of the stars of the sitcom “Dharma and Greg,” and, more recently, Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” while sitting in the press pit. We even got her to affirm the honor of working with the Wood Man. A couple of nights later, we ran into actor Ed Helm. Sadly, we didn’t get the opportunity to tell him how bad we thought “Hangover 3” sucked.
Appropriately, Thursday marked the beginning of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. The variety of great music made that seem especially significance. Amazingly. This had only been day one.
Friday, June 21: Day Two:
The day began innocently enough, as any day in a parcel of paradise ought to. Arriving toward the end of Sarah Jarosz’s opening set, we caught enough to reconfirm our suspicions that the young Ms. Jarosz, all of 21, is indeed one of those child prodigies that are talented to the point of annoyance when you try comparing them to your own offspring. Her choice of covers — Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” among them — proved that the prerequisite to honing careful tuned youthful skill is to learn from the masters.
Lake Street Dive proved something of a revelation, a heretofore unknown entity that proved quite illuminating. An earnest four piece ensemble featuring a stand-out, stand-up bass player (stand-up bass greatly outnumbers the electric bass at this event, much the same way that fiddles, banjos and mandolins also tend to dominate), the band’s chief mark of distinction lies in the way they alternate their lead instrument between guitar and trumpet. It also gives them a jazzy sort of sensibility which serves their singer’s vampish style well. Covers of George Michael’s “Faith” and the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” show more variation than one might otherwise assume from their unlikely instrumental array.
Tim O’Brien’s band, featuring the equally renowned Bryan Sutton on guitar and banjo player Noam Pikelney of the Punch Brothers (soon to be known by all as the Punch Cards due to a deliberate slip of the tongue by Mr. O’Brien) brought back more of the unceasingly familiar, given that the now hugely bearded O’Brien can claim over 30 Telluride appearances of his own. True to the Telluride template, O’Brien and company varied both the mood and the melodies, tossing in a pair of Dylan covers (“Senior” and “Tombstone Blues”) with their own rugged fare (“Big Sandy River,” “Look Down That Lonesome Road,” “The Water Is Wide” et. al.).
Then suddenly yours truly was stricken by a sudden malady. There’s a reason they urge you to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. At 14,000 feet above sea level, subject to a merciless sun, there are all sorts of ways the unsuspecting might be afflicted. In my case it was the consumption of a single glass of lemonade and vodka that made me suddenly feel woozy while waiting in the water refill line. In an instant I felt weak to stand, forcing myself to take refuge in the shadow of the recycling bin to escape the heat. Generously cared for by my buddy Chuck and a gaggle of kind strangers, it didn’t seem to matter that people were tossing their garbage right above my head, obviously oblivious to my medical condition. With Chuck’s help I slowly made my way to the medical tent where I was accommodated with a cot and a helpful volunteer who asked me a number of pertinent questions, most of which were focused on the amount of my consumption. Ah, the feeling of being cared for. It’s even better than affirmation.
Happily I recovered quickly, although the onslaught of illness caused me to miss Trampled By Turtles’ set. Still, they did sound excellent from the confines of my cot. The lesson once again: hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
Then it was back to witnessing the music. Regaining my focus and immediate intent, I caught a set by another stalwart of the scene, Peter Rowan, who rocked out with more than the usual gusto. Spurred on by special guest Sam Bush (who apparently gets no rest all weekend since he’s in constant demand for guest appearances), Rowan went from reggae riffs to a Native American ballad, obviously unafraid to up the amplitude. The absence of “Panama Red,” a Rowan standard, was auspicious, but by ending the set with his oft-covered classic “Midnight Moonlight,” he all but assured everyone would still be satisfied
The earnestly intent Punch Brothers/Punch Cards followed next, greeting the multitudes with repeated shouts of “Ahoy,” an allusion to the title of their current EP. Several songs from the aforementioned disc were included in their close-kit performance ( a description that could be applied literally as well as figuratively given that the five musicians tend to do a lot of huddling in close proximity), but an unexpected cover of the Beach Boys’ “Surfs Up” stood out as the most dazzling part of their performance, thanks to their straight on high harmonies and the meticulous way they applied their own instrumental prowess to the song’s complex composition. Ahoy indeed.
Ultimately, it was left to String Cheese Incident to close out what had been a harried but rewarding day. Their reggae-infected rhythms caused the dancing to become contagious as the milling hordes now actively engaged in reacting to the rhythms. With fiddles ablaze, a song like “Can’t Wait Another Day” seemed especially appropriate. We, however, would choose to call it a day… until the next one came along.
Saturday, June 22: Day Three:
I’d really hope to catch Sara Watkins’ morning set, and yet the desire to claim more sorely needed sleep prevented that possibility. Instead, we arrived onsite to her closing strains of “Ripple,” a lovely wake-up call but also a sad reminder we likely missed an excellent set. Still, we were rewarded shortly thereafter by a performance of another of Telluride’s reigning royalty, Jerry Douglas, whose workouts on resonator guitar have dazzled the Festavarian masses for 29 of the past 40 years. This year he added an impressive cast of characters to his travelling troupe, including fiddler Luka Bulla, bassist Viktor Krauss and drummer Doug Belote. Along with various tracks from his recent album, Traveler, he also offered a trio of tuneful instrumentals – “Unfolding,” “The Wild Rumpus” and Hide and Seek” – before eventually going into a most unlikely choice, an intricate cover of a song by “that Bluegrass band known as Weather Report” in which fiddle and dobro somehow recreated the fusion-esque strains of the original. Varying the template even more, Douglas and company ran through an early Ike and Tina standard (“Everything’s Going To Work Out Fine”), Leadbelly Blues (“On a Monday”) and finally, an extended instrumental that resembled nothing so much as a heavy metal strain of Bluegrass featuring Douglas ripping away on what appeared to be a chainsaw version of his signature guitar. The crowd seemed satiated, even though rumors that Paul Simon would appear proved to be unfounded. (Apparently, Mr. Simon had planned to accompany wife Edie Brickell to Telluride the night before but failed to show.) Ironically, the song that was most missed at this juncture was “The Boxer,” a Simon song done in collaboration with the missing Mumfords.
If there was any doubt as to who would keep the energy intact, Yonder Mountain String Band proved themselves well up to the task. The comradery among the foursome was obvious, although there is a mischevious streak that seems to run right below the surface. That was evidenced by bassist Ben Kauffman’s somewhat sardonic commentary, the constant Chelsea cat grin of banjo player Dave Johnston and mandolin player Jeff Austin’s constant mugging. Combination populist pundits, jam band stalwarts and Bluegrass devotees, the Yonder Mountain boys offered yet another in a string of satisfying encounters the afternoon would bring. Being that it was also Kauffman’s birthday, he was greeted with a steady assault of marshmallow missiles tossed by the crowd. “I got everything I ever wanted, being pelted by marshmallows and parched lips,” he declared. Indeed, no sooner had the next song started than he was hit by another one of those sugary delights straight on in his chest, causing both him and the crowd to erupt with laughter and delight.
Austin’s introduction of “a man I’m proud to call Uncle Sammy,” the omnipresent Sam Bush, took the their show to yet another level of sheer intensity as the number of solos shared between the five musicians went far beyond any means of actual counting or calculation. An extended instrumental that began and ended in a haze of feedback wound its way from psychedelia to frenzy, demonstrating yet again why YMSB remain masters of their craft and ongoing icons amidst Colorado’s contemporary vanguard.
Feist, on the other hand, proved a somewhat odd choice for an afternoon showcase, given that her hypnotic rhythms, tribal mediations and strange incantations might have been better served in a morning slot. But where any follow-up the high energy and extreme exhilaration of Yonder Mountain might have proven less than fortuitous, Feist seemed to rouse her own loyal legions, who swayed to her hypnotic hymns as if it was the second dawning of Aquarius. Atmospheric and ethereal, she managed to take the music from meditative to mesmerizing, winning over the rest of the audience in the process.
Nevertheless, the high energy coda brought on by the Sam Bush Band restored the traditional Bluegrass MO, thanks to an expected infusion of exuberance and enthusiasm. The lead-off entry, “Freight Train Boogie,” helped up the ante, but it was the swaying lilt of “Everything Is Possible,” a number Bob Marley might have penned back in the day, that proved the showstopper while returning the crowd to a pensive sway. It was then left to an unlikely medley of “Midnight Rider,” Grand Funk’s “I’m Your Captain” (?!) and a snippet of “Celebrate Good Times” to bring it all home. A more appropriate choice of “Rag Mama Rag” capped off the funkified frenzy in appropriate mountain musical style.
Making the hard choice to forego Leftover Salmon in favor of encore performances from the Sarah Jarosz trio and the ever-enchanting Elephant Revival at the Palm Theatre was not without remiss, but opting for more intimate environs offered its advantages. Indeed, sitting in the third row and meditating on Jarosz with her violin and cello accompaniment seemed something like witnessing a chamber orchestra recital if, that is a cover of the Beatles’ “Drive My Car” and Colin Melloy’s creepy “True Tale of the Shankhill Butcher” could accommodate a classical motif. Nevertheless, once the hordes opted to occupy the orchestra pit and turn it into more of a mosh pit, we decided to retreat from our up-close vantage point to the back of the house so as to enjoy the show relatively undisturbed. However once the aisles began filling up with revelers, we chose to withdraw entirely in order to catch the final gondola going up the mountain and delivering us to the guarded serenity of our condo environs.
Sunday, June 23: Day Four:
The problem with multi-day festivals is that they always seem to fly by too quickly. Elation turns to exhaustion. Anticipation becomes the realization that all things, concerts included, must eventually come to an end. It becomes anticlimactic in a very real way; after witnessing great music for three days straight, it’s hard to achieve a new bar so late in the proceedings.
Not that the Telluride troopers didn’t try. An early morning set by a solo Bela Fleck reflected all the man continually accomplishes with a traditional stringed instrument, stretching the banjo’s parameters into realms heretofore unimagined. Indeed, who would ever have dreamed that he would single-handedly tackle side two of #Abbey Road# and so effectively capture its melodies all on his own. Likewise, a spirited set by the Infamous Stringdusters offered another cause for revival, what with the band’s excellent five part harmonies and integrated instrumental interplay. Here again was a further elevation of the intensity.
Still, it was the fiddle frenzy of Natalie MacMaster and husband Donnell Leahy which proved to be the unequivocal highlight of the afternoon, thanks to the duo’s remarkable instrumental prowess, a pair of pianos played in support and some high-kicking Celtic dance steps borne from their native Nova Scotia. Trading their licks back and forth while clogging and keeping time, the four piece ensemble went from studied recitations of age-old Scottish airs to breathless high octane work-outs, winning the crowd’s affection in the process. Leahy, won of eleven siblings in a family of musical devotees has obviously passed the tradition onwards, given the fact that he and Natalie have sired five children in seven years. Not surprisingly then, when they brought out their seven year old daughter for a fiddle solo and a high-stepping jig, both parents seemed particularly proud. A standing ovation from the crowd led to another wave of appreciation once the set concluded, earning the group the only encore of the entire afternoon.
A return to old-school Bluegrass was prompted by Telluride traditionalists Hot Rize, a breezy ensemble that includes founding member Tim O’Brien and new recruit Bryan Sutton. While their well-suited ways befit the Telluride tradition, a spin-off in the form of alter-egos Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers proved a real hoot, right down to the cornball narratives, classic cowboy garb and honky-tonk hijinks.
Jackson Browne’s much anticipated headlining gig came on the heels of his previous evening’s cameo with Leftover Salmon, a showing that suggested his voice might have been a bit strained. Fortunately, there was no evidence that he was any the worse for wear, although it did seem the hour and a half allotted for his performance went by much too quickly. “We’re going to attempt a six minute song in the five minutes we have left,” Browne remarked when reminded of the time. Fortunately, he also managed to squeeze in several of his standards, among them “I’m Alive,” “The Naked Ride Home,” “These Days,” “The Pretender,” “Redneck Friend,” “Running on Empty,” “Before the Deluge” and, of course, “Take It Easy.” Sara and Sean Watkins, Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush comprised the obligatory roll call of special guests, but surprisingly, it was backing guitarist Val McCallum and a reading of his own “Tokyo Girl” that proved both an unexpected highlight and equal incentive to track down his solo album, At the End of the Day.
Indeed, the end of the day had arrived with the festival’s final offering, the all-star ensemble comprised of Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Edgar Meyer. Traditional Telluride closers, the house band’s affinity for their audience and especially one another was evident at the outset. With Bush acting as the de facto musical director, the musicians shared jokes, egged each other on, and traded licks with rapid-fire efficiency. Of course, there were the obligatory guest appearances, among them the Watsons, Noam Pikelny (a contender who could claim almost as many guest appearances throughout the festival as Bush himself), Jackson Browne (who unfortunately forgot part of the lyric to his featured song, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”) and Chris Thile (whose masterful mandolin duet with Bush proved another standout of the set.
Sadly though, the time had come to give the Telluride Bluegrass Festival our farewells as the 40th anniversary pomp and circumstance came to a close. Four days of fortuitous circumstance made this Rocky Mountain high an experience that will be readily remembered for years to come.