Telluride Bluegrass 37th annual festival re-cap

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by Andrew Martin
Photos by Josh Elioseff/www.dancerproductions.com

I have been to many music festivals over the past 10 to12 years. Each one creates its own unique vibe and culture, fueled largely by the artists performing, the crowd in attendance, and the natural surroundings of the area. While I have had my share of memorable experiences at these other musical gatherings, I can honestly say that there is something very special about the Telluride Bluegrass Festival that sets it in a class all its own.

There are a variety of factors which coalesce to make Telluride Bluegrass a truly unique experience. There couldn’t be a more beautiful backdrop to hold a music festival. The stage is nestled in a valley surrounded on all sides by looming, dramatic mountain peaks. Varying shades of green spiral around the mountainside as the sun highlights the treetops. Once you hit tree line, these dazzling shades of green fade into jagged, rocky, snow-covered peaks. Basking under bluebird skies for four straight days, you have the makings of one of the most inspiring landscapes for musicians to create their magic.

However, this setting alone would not make Telluride Bluegrass the special event that it is. What truly sets this festival apart from many of the others I have attended are the tradition and community that have developed over the past 37 years. Many of the performers are long time veterans, having attended and/or played for 20-30 years (even more for some – Sam Bush has been there 36 out of 37 years). Furthermore, the Festivarian community has developed a strong bond over the years as return attendees reunite every June for their annual bluegrass fix.

The splendor of Telluride Bluegrass goes way beyond the performers on stage, and to truly experience this event in its full glory, you must venture beyond the confines of the festival grounds and absorb the tradition, culture, and community that have developed over the years.

Day 1

Day 1 actually began for me Wednesday afternoon when we arrived in town. Before setting up camp in a grassy lot overlooking the mountains, we wandered through Town Park, the lifeblood of the Festivarian community. This is the main campground adjacent to the festival, and it has become home to many longtime Festivarians (the Planet Bluegrass term for the attendees of their events). If you miss out on the Town Park culture, you are not experiencing Telluride Bluegrass to its fullest.

By 5 pm on Wednesday evening, Town Park had become a bustling community. It was a full-fledged tent city, packed with elaborate shade structures to provide respite from the bruising sun. If you travel along the main path for a few hundred yards, you will reach a clearing facing a raging waterfall that empties into a creek by the mountainside. The roar of the water pouring into the creek reverberated through the canyon, drowning out the din of Festivarians milling about behind me. A strong gust of wind blasted me in the face, rousing me from the doldrums that had set in after nearly 8 hours in a car.

Sarah Jarosz

I couldn’t think of a better way to open the festival. At the ripe old age of 19, Sarah was primed to make her mark on the Telluride musician community this year. I would describe her music as folky singer/songwriter. She plays the mandolin, guitar, and banjo, and she has a beautiful voice. Yet perhaps the most charming part of Sarah’s performance was watching how much she was truly enjoying the experience. Unlike many of the veterans, Sarah was obviously still relishing every moment of her opportunity, and the excitement radiated from her face all weekend. This might have been Sarah’s official induction into the Telluride musician community; she was a regular guest on many of the weekend’s sets.

Alison Krauss & Union Station

Alison Krauss is one of the big stars of Telluride Bluegrass, and there was a huge turnout for her performance. She has a beautiful voice, and her set was by far the most soulful of the day, if not the entire weekend. Jerry Douglas was the star on dobro, making the music come alive. Yet, while this was a beautiful, soulful set, it was very mellow. There were many times when I would have liked for her to pick up the pace and bring some energy. At my first Telluride Bluegrass five years ago, Alison Krauss was spectacular. This time, she was a little more ordinary.

Tim O’Brien Band

This was probably the most fun set of the day and an excellent way to end the night. Tim O’Brien is a quirky dude with some odd songs (one talked about the produce he finds in the grocery store). Josh commented that he looks a lot like Harry Anderson from Night Court, and I can see the resemblance as well. The musicianship of his band was very strong on the whole, although the drummer seemed a bit comatose from time to time. Yet, his shuffle beats were enough to keep the crowd buzzing and on their feet after a long day of music.

Recap

It was a good overall day of music, but nothing spectacular. I was hoping to be wowed at some point during the day, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Thursday’s performances were strong enough to set the tone for a great weekend, and they also left a lot of room to raise the bar in the coming days.

Day 2

I had a pretty late night Thursday hanging out in Town Park. There were some fun picking sessions already underway by the time I had arrived. One featured about 10-12 musicians at its peak, producing some very inspired music. Bluegrass melodies bounced around the tent as mandolins, guitars, and banjos traded solos late into the night. The biting cold didn’t seem to affect the players or the large group of spectators watching. I met some great people there, many of whom were long time Town Park veterans. After two nights, I was beginning to feel like part of the Festivarian community.

Cadillac Sky

Cadillac Sky took the stage around noon as the sun was beginning to float high above in the sky. Festivarians were slowly meandering in, still a bit bleary-eyed from a long Thursday night. The band played a folky brand of bluegrass with excellent songs and strong musicianship. While I realize that many bluegrass purists would tell me this was far from a traditional bluegrass set, it seemed like one to me. The conventional instrumentation, relaxed vibe, and skillful songwriting fit the lazy mood of the crowd.

Interlude – Into Town

I took a break mid-day and wandered into town with a new friend I had met earlier in the afternoon. One of the nice things about Telluride Bluegrass is that the town plays an important role in the festival culture. It is a true mountain town in the purest sense, and it was a lot of fun to catch a little local flavor while I avoided the beastly sun. Unlike some of the other Colorado ski towns, Telluride retains a lot of its old school feel. A-frame houses painted funky shades of yellow and purple dot the sides of the street, and the signs on the storefronts were worn with age, giving them a certain sense of character. I would imagine that Telluride didn’t look much different back in the 70s.

My friend Kara wanted to buy an authentic cowboy hat, so we went to Appaloosa Trading Co., where all of their hats are hand crafted in-house. There were two older men working in the store. They were both gray-haired and soft-spoken, and their faces were weathered from a lifetime under the mountain sun. They were artisans in the purest sense, and they took a great deal of pride in their workmanship. We talked at length about the local Telluride culture, and I was instantly taken back to my days living in the Vail Valley. For the first time an awhile, I found myself longing for the mountain town life.

Lyle Lovett

I only caught the second half of the set, but it was amazing. I’m not sure if this was due to Lyle Lovett’s prowess as a performer or to the fact that he brought out all of the heavy hitters to sit in for the entire second half of the set. With Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, and Jerry Douglas on stage, the music soared to heights I never would have expected from Lyle Lovett. With the three guest musicians, Lyle Lovett had a very large band. There were probably 8-10 musicians on stage laying down beautiful harmonies and trading tasty solos on every song.

Leftover Salmon

This show was a rocking good time and a great way to end the night. The band was definitely in top form throughout the set. After two days of fairly mellow music, they raised the energy level substantially. Looking out into the crowd, I saw a sea of bodies getting their groove on from start to finish. Sam Bush came out for a few songs on fiddle, and his countermelodies danced around Drew Emmitt’s mandolin lines, elevating the music to peaks I have rarely heard from Leftover Salmon. The “King of Telluride” made four guest appearances Friday, and this might have been one of his best.

Recap

Friday was a really good day of music – better than Thursday. It was more rocking and more soulful. You could tell the festival was just starting to hit its stride. Still, after two days, I had not been wowed once. I had seen many strong performances, but I was still waiting to get my mind blown.

Day 3

The dog days of the festival were beginning to take their toll on me. I wandered into town early in the morning with a friend in search of a coffee shop. We were both in need of some caffeine to clear the cobwebs. The coffee shop was buzzing with Festivarians, and in my sleepy state, I felt like I was moving in slow motion. Unfortunately, my beverage didn’t do much to rouse me from this lethargy. I still felt like I had been hit by a truck.

We then made our way over to the Lost and Found in search of my friend’s back pack and credit card (her two main casualties during Friday’s debauchery). We hit the jackpot on both. It was a good omen, and we instantly knew we were in for one hell of a day.

Jerry Douglas with Omar Hakim and Viktor Krauss

After waiting patiently for two days, I was finally blown away. This was without a doubt the best set I heard all weekend. The band featured three world class musicians and guest appearances by legends such as Bela Fleck and Sam Bush. This was definitely not bluegrass. Fueled by the stellar dobro playing of Jerry Douglas and Omar Hakim’s spectacular drumming, I watched in awe as they played a ripping set of instrumental music featuring a great blend of intricate songwriting, blistering slide solos, and soulful pieces. As a musician who plays in an instrumental band myself, this set was right up my alley. It was great to see the band stretch out and take some chances – this was easily one of the most adventurous sets of the weekend.

Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain, and Edgar Meyer

I’m sure I’ll receive quite a bit of backlash for this review, but this set just never really delivered for me. I was watching three musical virtuosos, and the level of musicianship was probably unparalleled by any other act of the weekend. However, this was not one of Bela’s finest shows. It was sprawling, introspective, and noodly – very intellectual music that just never really developed the strong underlying groove that was needed to support the litany of solos flowing from Bela and Edgar. At his best, Bela Fleck is able to create an environment where all of the musicians on stage engage in non-verbal, musical conversations. While he and Zakir Hussain flirted with these moments a few times, they never really established the type of musical communication that makes a Bela Fleck show reach spectacular heights.

Sam Bush Band

There’s a reason Sam Bush is the King of Telluride. He put on one of the best performances of the weekend. It had a little bit of everything – ripping bluegrass, soulful ballads, and even a few rocker tunes featuring Sam on an electric guitar. There is no doubt that he is completely at home at Telluride. In between songs, Sam would tell us tales of his favorite moments from previous years’ festivals, taking on the role of Telluride sage.

The highlight of the show was an epic version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Sam Bush brought out just about everyone for this tune, including Chris Thile, Drew Emmitt, Tim O’Brien, and Edgar Meyer. There must have been at least eight mandolin players on stage for this one, as well as a bunch of fiddle and banjo players. Almost everyone got to take a solo, and with each soloist, the feel of the song gradually shifted in style. The seventh inning stretch will never be the same again.

Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros

While many people were downtown catching Drew Emmitt’s Nightgrass set, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros put on a tremendous show. I had never heard of this band, and I was not expecting the roller coaster ride that was about to ensue. From start to finish, their performance was passionate and inspired, with surprises at every turn.

They are a ten piece band featuring a lead singer that looks like a disheveled, modern-day Jesus with a bit of a Jim Morrison vibe, several multi-instrumentalists, an accordion player who looked like Alice from “Alice in Wonderland, and lots of layered, textured, harmony vocals.

The band has a bit of a vagabond gypsy vibe. They have a full sound with soulful, dark, theatrical music. Their singer is a very charismatic front man, although he’s also a bit of a freak. But that is part of their allure. At the end of the show, he jumped into the crowd and had everyone sit around him in concentric circles while he sang with just a guitar and some light percussion in the background. It was very powerful, and you could see that some of the crowd members were having a spiritual experience. All in all, their set was one of the greatest points in an excellent weekend of music.

Recap

With all of the major players performing, this was by far the best day of music. I was blown away by several of the bands, and the Edward Sharpe set was truly an unexpected gem. Overall, Saturday proved to be one of the most diverse days of music, with sets encompassing driving bluegrass, intricate instrumental compositions, punk, and theatrical art rock.

Day 4

No discussion of Telluride Bluegrass can be complete without an explanation of “The Running of the Bulls.” This event has become a huge part of the Telluride tradition, extending back to the early days of the festival.

Here are the rules for The Running of the Bulls:

  1. At the beginning of the final set of the day, you may place your chairs in line for the next day (although many people are waiting in an unofficial line as early as 2 pm).
  2. You can have people in your group take shifts manning the chairs, but someone must be there at all times.
  3. You are not supposed to sleep in line, although many people bend this rule. However, sleeping in line may jeopardize your spot in the tarp running order.
  4. Sometime in the middle of the night (generally between 4-6 am), the tarp runners will receive a number based on their order in line. After the numbers are given out, the runners can return to their tents for a few hours of sleep.
  5. About 10 minutes before the gates open, the tarp runners return with their number to claim their place in line. Once the gates open, it is a free-for-all to get your tarp down at your favorite spot before someone beats you to it.

The tarp runners take this ritual very seriously, and it is not uncommon for various groups jockeying for position in line to get into heated exchanges. They represent a micro-community among the Festivarians, and many of them have been participating in this tradition for decades. It is definitely an integral part of their festival experience.

Carolina Chocolate Drops

They were one of the best bands of the weekend. Hailing from the Carolinas, this three-piece plays a blend of southern hillbilly stomp music, bluesy roots music, and freaky African American “porch music.” They predominantly played guitar, fiddle, and banjo with a few home-made instruments thrown in for good measure. In one song, the female vocalist/fiddle player broke out a kazoo. I’ve never witnessed someone play a tonal kazoo solo that fit appropriately within the key center of the song. It was pretty wild. The band had tremendous energy, and they captured the entire crowd. It was hard to find anyone sitting down for this rollicking performance.

Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile

The Punch Brothers are an awesome band, although I can understand why there were a lot of people in attendance who did not love the set. This is truly musician’s music, filled with intricate lines, complex rhythms, well-arranged hits, and elaborate chord progressions. If I had to describe their music, I’d call it progressive bluegrass. They are all phenomenal musicians, and they produced some of the most complex and technical bluegrass of the week. As a musician, this set spoke to me. It was one of my favorites, and I relished all of the subtle nuances in their music.

Telluride House Band

The House Band was the perfect way to wrap up the festival. All the big stars were present: Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Bryan Sutton, and Stuart Duncan. After collaborating at Telluride Bluegrass for decades, these musicians have clearly developed a deep friendship and mutual appreciation for one another. This came across loud and clear throughout their set. It was obvious that everyone on stage was having a blast. While the rest of the weekend consisted of focused, serious performances, this set was loose and free flowing. They played some very memorable bluegrass tunes with world class musicianship and tasty solos. They even got Bela to sing a little bit. This band should close out the festival every year.

Recap

As far as the music goes, this day came in a close second to Saturday. Once again, I was blown away several times throughout the day. There was a true arc to this festival, and it came to its completion on Sunday. I thought it would be difficult to follow Saturday’s performances, but the musicians certainly delivered in a big way. Telluride Bluegrass is a special festival on many levels, and the performances on this final day provided the symmetry and closure for a nearly perfect week.

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3 Comments

  1. Irene Martin on

    What a beautiful review of what must have been a phenomenal 4 days. I felt as if I was actually at the festival and the pictures complented the prose beautifully. Great job!

  2. Meredith Bourke on

    Thanks for the recap. Great descriptions of the bands…I really feel like I can tell which ones I’d enjoy. Starting to do some research to see if I can catch some of their shows closer to my own hometown.

    This makes me want to check out the festival next year – I’m already starting to look at plane fares and lodging!

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