:: Telluride Bluegrass Festival ::
:: Town Park, Telluride :: June 17 – 20 ::
Words by Andrew Martin/photos by Josh Elioseff
Rhythm, groove, and soul. These are all essential elements to any piece of music. Without them, even the most brilliant technical player or beautiful vocalist will fall short of achieving something inspiring and exciting.
These three elements also form the backbone of any successful music festival. When combined masterfully, they act as a silent hand directing the flow of the week. Festival goers easily find their rhythm as they juggle intense weather conditions, erratic eating patterns, a steady diet of cold beers under the blistering hot sun, long days of music, and prolonged periods of sleep deprivation. Over the course of four or five days, the soul of the festival – embodied by the promoters, musicians, and regular returning Festivarians – seeps into even the most casual attendee, making them feel completely at home. Before you know it, you’ve hit your groove and you have the makings of a perfect week that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
Perhaps more than anything else, the people at Planet Bluegrass have mastered the art of cultivating the rhythm, groove, and soul of a festival. Over summer solstice weekend, this became very obvious as Telluride Bluegrass Festival created yet another magical moment for all those who made the trek to the San Juan Mountains.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt when your music festival is located in one of the most awe inspiring backdrops in the country. The main stage is nestled in a valley sitting at about 9,500 feet, surrounded by rugged, snow covered mountain peaks stretching to the stratosphere. In one direction, you can see sprawling adobe red rock formations ornamented with lush treetops that span every spectrum of the color green. In the other direction, you come face to face with a looming, jagged mountain peak. In the center of this peak, a waterfall gushes down the mountainside, accompanied by a zig-zagging stairway of snow that is still glistening brightly after an epic winter. There aren’t too many better places to find your groove for a long weekend.
Telluride Bluegrass doesn’t officially start until Thursday morning, but don’t tell that to all the Festivarians who just arrived in town exploding with energy. The Festivarian community, dormant in Telluride since last June, had returned and was breathing life into this nascent festival.
Josh and I were staying at our friend Tuck’s house up by Lawson Hill. Neither of us had seen Tuck since he and his wife Natalie moved to Telluride last summer. We caught up over a quick beer before heading up to Mountain Village to catch Cornmeal’s First Grass set. As the sun set over the hilltop in Mountain Village, Cornmeal threw down a rocking set that announced the start of the festival with thunderous fury.
After dinner at the Hop Garden, we were off to see Yonder Mountain String Band’s Night Grass kick-off show. Yonder has been hosting the Wednesday night pregame party for 10 years, and they’ve been playing the festival for even longer than that. Telluride Bluegrass is clearly a very special week for the band, and you could feel it in the energy they unleashed throughout the show.
The entire band had shit-eating grins all night long, and they played two inspired sets of music highlighted by some of their crowd favorites as well as a few classic covers. If you’ve never seen Yonder Mountain before, you absolutely have to – if for no other reason than to experience Jeff Austin’s endless repertoire of outrageous facial expressions. His mandolin chop fueled the music all night, and it was only eclipsed by his funny face of the moment: the “fish under water” face, the “I just ran a marathon and I’m out of breath” face, the “Oops, I overdid it on the chili and beans and now I’ve got bad gas” face, the “I ate too many drugs” face, and of course, the “mind-blowing orgasm” face. In an intimate venue like this, Yonder Mountain was at their finest, and the show proved to be a perfect warm-up to help us get our dancing legs back.
It took Josh and me awhile to get situated Thursday. Tuck and Natalie left for Wisconsin in the middle of the night, and it was pretty late before we got to sleep. This carried over into a lazy morning. By the time we got into town, we had missed the first couple of acts. As a veteran of many festivals, I realize that you can’t catch everything. If you accept this fact from the start, you will always be at peace with the choices you make as you find your festival groove.
This set rocked even more than Wednesday’s, and it kicked the festival into high gear after two really mellow acts. Cornmeal isn’t exactly traditional bluegrass. I would characterize them as a hippie jam band with a bluegrass soul. Their music seamlessly shifted from thumping bluegrass grooves to textured, improv jams that touched on a wide spectrum of musical influences. They quickly worked the crowd into a frenzy and kept them there till the very last note. The fiddle player was great – in my opinion, the most talented player in the band. Her soaring solos were both beautiful and haunting, depending on what the song called for.
Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper
Michael Cleveland followed Cornmeal, delivering a set of old-timey bluegrass that was considerably mellower than what we had just heard. I instantly began questioning the timing of this set. Should you really bring the energy down that low after Cornmeal lit a scorching fire under the feet of all these Festivarians?
But then I looked around the crowd, and I began to feel like this was the right placement for Michael Cleveland. It was Day 1, and most people were still finding their festival rhythm. It takes at least a full day to get used a steady diet of beer starting at the crack of noon while the beastly sun beats down on you for hours on end. By placing Michael Cleveland in this slot, it encouraged the crowd to take a moment to attend to their needs, whether it be food, shade, water, sleep, or social gathering. Placing another high energy band in this slot would have encouraged the crowd to keep pushing it, ultimately leading to a crash later in the day. Good call by Planet Bluegrass. While most people probably didn’t even notice, they had created a flow of music that fostered finding your festival groove sooner rather than later.
Telluride House Band
The Telluride House Band is emblematic of the very best that this festival achieves. It is comprised of six good friends who get together once a year to do what they love most, and it always results in some pretty amazing music. This set is where the legends of Telluride – Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, and Edgar Meyer – get to relax and play some of the most freewheeling music of the weekend. They are joined by relative newcomers Bryan Sutton on guitar and Stuart Duncan on fiddle.
At different points, it seems like every player in the band is the best one on stage. In some songs, you feel this way as they pass around solos from one person to the next. These guys are always pushing each other to new heights, and they are always having a blast while they do it.
This is truly a selfless band. At some point in the night, everyone on stage had a few moments to shine, whether it was on lead vocals or laying down a scintillating solo. In Edgar’s case, his major moment came when Sam and Jerry dropped to their knees in homage during a fluid and elegant bowed bass solo.
A late Thursday night led to a slow Friday morning, and I once again showed up too late to catch the first couple of sets. I was beginning to find my festival rhythm, and it was clear that I would not be the early bird this week. When you stay in town, it’s much easier to travel back and forth between the festival grounds and your camp site. When you are staying a little out of town like we were, it becomes much more of a process. The round trip travel time alone can take about an hour, so if you leave, you had better be prepared to miss a good chunk of music. As a result, many people camping just out of town will stay at the festival once they arrive. For me, this led to getting there a bit later so that I could ease into the day.
Infamous String Dusters
There was a light drizzle falling sporadically during their set, but it couldn’t dampen the vibe brought by their ferocious energy. This was an amazing show, marked by first class musicianship, fast picking, and a raucous beat that kept the crowd bumping. There were a few moments where the mandolin and dobro lines seemed completely intertwined, soaring above the driving rhythm with an elegant intensity.
It was fascinating to watch the band move around on stage. No one ever stands in the same spot for very long. They continuously rotate around based on who is singing and who is the featured soloist. Sometimes they were all packed into the center of the stage like a group of caged animals. At other times they were spread out across the stage like a sparse string of pearls. The String Dusters did this effortlessly, and their stage presence provided a great complement to their tremendous playing.
Jerry Douglas, Omar Hakim, and Viktor Krauss
Jerry’s daughter introduced the band. She talked about how special Telluride Bluegrass is to their entire family. This is Jerry’s 27th time playing the festival, and it is clear that he has a deeply felt love for the town and the Festivarian community. As his daughter left the stage, Jerry Douglas came out and opened the set with a beautiful solo dobro piece. Talk about a great way to make an entrance.
Their set was much jazzier than last year and featured a couple of 70s Weather Report and Return to Forever fusion classics, including a great version of Spain. There were also some very beautiful songs. One in particular brought tears to my eyes, which doesn’t happen very often. These pieces were balanced by some very intricate, technical tunes, and even a few rockers.
Sarah Jarosz sat in on a few songs during the set. Jerry Douglas spoke glowingly about Sarah as he introduced her to the crowd. She fronted the band on several songs and showed tremendous poise for someone who is still too young to legally drink a beer. Sarah has a beautiful voice and can play the banjo, guitar, and mandolin. She even took a ripper mandolin solo on an instrumental song. It’s great to see that there is an emerging generation of musicians who will carry the torch in about a decade. Between Sarah Jarosz, Chris Thile, Yonder Mountain, and a few others, Telluride Bluegrass has a bright future.
Trampled by Turtles
The best way to describe their music is furious. They play big, loud, thumping bluegrass that had everyone in the crowd shaking their booty from start to finish. At moments, they would build to a wall of sound, holding the crowd in their grasp before dropping back into their acoustic groove with authority. Trampled by Turtles commands your attention, whether you are in the front row or all the way in the back.
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
This was the first show with the original Flecktones lineup since 1992. Bela, Victor Wooten, and Futureman were joined by Howard Levy on piano and harmonica. He was certainly their musical equal. His piano playing built to intensely cascading runs which proved a perfect complement to Bela’s intricate banjo picking. Levy’s harmonica chops put John Popper to shame, and he is much more tasteful than Popper.
This was the Flecktones at their finest – four musicians with such complete mastery of their instruments that their improvisation breaks into non-verbal musical conversations. They mainly honored their past, featuring music from their first three albums along with a few tunes from their new album, also recorded with Howard Levy. They encored with Sinister Minister, and Victor Wooten laid down a jaw dropping bass solo reaffirming that he truly is a freak on the bass.
I had found my groove for the week by this point. It consisted of copious amounts of whiskey and PBR. By Saturday morning, my body was on autopilot. That meant yet another trip to the Steaming Bean for some caffeine to clear the cobwebs. Unfortunately, that also meant I missed Emmitt-Nershi Band. Oh well. You can’t catch everything. I entered the festival during their last couple of songs. Their booming bluegrass boogies bounced off the canyon walls, reverberating in my ears as I neared the stage. From what little I heard, they sounded great.
Tim O’Brien Band
I always have a lot of fun during Tim’s set. Bryan Sutton and Stuart Duncan were playing with him. With one third of the House Band on stage, the musicianship was first rate. I always look forward to Tim O’Brien’s odd ball stories in between songs. They are as entertaining as they are wacky. During one of these stories, Tim punctuated his lines with this weird Twilight Zone sounding music. At first I couldn’t figure out what was going on, but eventually Tim opened his shirt to reveal a mini flat piano across his chest. He would hit the keys as he was talking, making you feel like you were sitting around a campfire listening to ghost stories.
The King of Telluride delivered a monster show this year. This set had a little bit of everything. He deftly blended beautiful, soulful pieces with romping bluegrass classics, playful instrumentals, and even a few rocker tunes.
There were two highlights for me during this set. The first was a tremendous version of Bananas, a ripping instrumental tune that featured some blistering solos over a change in 11 time. The other highlight was a great version of Sailin’ Shoes. Sam brought Jerry Douglas out to do this one as a duet. Jerry’s dobro solo floated over Sam’s mandolin chop, giving the song a light, bouncy feel.
I was really excited to hear Sailin’ Shoes. The song always reminds me of the movie Scrapple, which depicts a fictional 1970s mountain town patterned after Telluride. My friend Kara and I got into a discussion about the movie with a girl standing near us. She was a local and has seen some of the people from the movie around town (one was standing 10 feet away from us in the press pit). Apparently, they used a lot of locals in the movie. This song hit home for me on so many levels – a true Telluride moment.
Old Crow Medicine Show
A high energy set of janky bluegrass. Loose and freewheeling, with lots of personality. Old Crow Medicine Show brought out a lot of guests, including Emmylou Harris and the guys from Mumford & Sons. There were a few high profile Night Grass shows going on, including Emmitt-Nershi Band, The Infamous String Dusters, and a late night Mumford set. While these shows in town soaked up a good chunk of the crowd, there were still a lot of people rocking out well after midnight when Old Crow Medicine Show played their last note. Those who stayed till the very end caught one of the most fun sets of the weekend.
The energy in the crowd was considerably lower on Sunday. Friday and Saturday were like a whirling dust devil picking up everything in its path. By day four, most people looked like they were running on fumes. While the festival’s rhythm seemed to be slowing down, the early music fit the mood perfectly. Darrell Scott’s Gospel Hour set, Edgar Meyer’s solo set, and Abigail Washburn’s set gave the crowd a chance to recharge for the afternoon and evening, when they would need all the energy they had left to push through.
Abigail Washburn & the Village
A beautiful, soulful set that benefited from the only rays of sunshine we would see all day. After a cold, cloudy morning, we were graced with a glorious sucker hole during this set. The sun’s radiant rays warmed our bones while we basked in Abigail Washburn’s rich, textured vocal lines. She was joined by several guests, including Bela Fleck. He sat in on a really cool song that she sang in Chinese. Very few people could leave their comfort zone as a guest artist and shine on a traditional Chinese folk song. For Bela Fleck, it was par for the course, and he made it seem like he’d played the tune for years.
Interlude – Adventure into Town
As Abigail Washburn wrapped up her final song, we were faced with the undeniable truth that our sucker hole was gone for good. In its place stood looming, thick rain clouds, coming together like a pack of hungry wolves ready to feed on its prey.
I went into town with Kara and her friends. We stopped by Appaloosa Trading Co., a family-run business specializing in intricate leather work with an old west flavor. The shop is filled with ornate leather belts, cowboy hats, cowboy boots, and tasseled leather jackets – first rate craftsmanship with a strong sense for the aesthetic. The man who runs the place remembered us from last year, when Kara spent several hours in the store buying a cowboy hat.
Like last year, we hung out for awhile, talking with him about all things Telluride. He is extremely friendly, and it is clear that there is deep wisdom in his rugged face. Earlier that afternoon, Robert Plant had visited the store. The owner spoke glowingly of Plant, depicting him as a humble, affable guy who is not afraid to take pictures with the fans he met in the store. Robert Plant liked the craftsmanship at Appaloosa Trading Co. so much that they are going to make a custom leather guitar strap for him. I would love to see the finished product. It will probably go down as one of the all-time greatest Telluride souvenirs.
As we left Appaloosa Trading Co., the sky roared out in anger, unleashing a tidal wave that would last for hours. We quickly found shelter and a well-needed meal in a local bar, hoping to wait out the storm.
As I returned to the festival, the Punch Brothers were in full swing, captivating a huge crowd of people getting pounded by the torrential rains falling all around. While there were definitely some people taking cover, most were crowded in front of the stage, hanging on every note erupting from the band. The weather was putting a beat-down on the Festivarian nation, and the Punch Brothers matched this ferocity with a relentless set that served as a rallying cry to everyone in attendance. With the Punch Brothers in control, it was impossible for this monsoon to deflate the crowd.
In 20 years, when Chris Thile is the reigning mandolin king of Telluride, people will still be talking about the epic 2011 Punch Brothers set underneath this vicious downpour. Legends are made during moments like these, and the Punch Brothers firmly established their legacy with one of the most inspired shows at a time when the crowd needed their energy the most.
The rain continued to intensify during the Mumford & Sons set, and for awhile it looked like it would come down all night. But right as Mumford was playing their last song, the storm broke. Looking out at the mountains in the distance, there was a clear, calm sky for the first time since Abigail Washburn played five hours earlier.
While this wasn’t the most vibrant sunset to grace Telluride, it will probably rank among the best. Low-hanging, misty clouds spread their tentacles across freshly snowcapped peaks, providing a window into winter rarely witnessed during the summer solstice.
Robert Plant & Band of Joy
This was a crucial moment. The crowd was pretty worn out form the storm. If Robert Plant came out flat or mellow, the people may not have had the energy to wait for him to get warmed up. But this is Robert Plant, one of the most legendary rock stars of all time. These moments were made for people like him. He walked out on stage and sang the opening lines of Black Dog, setting the tone for what would be a tremendous end to a long and tumultuous day.
There are very few songs which could have galvanized the crowd at that moment the way Black Dog did. Plant and the Band of Joy played a funky, swamp rock version of the song that was a serious departure from the classic Zeppelin arrangement. A surge of adrenaline pumped through me, and I quickly forgot how cold, wet, and tired I felt.
Robert Plant did a great job mixing in old Led Zeppelin classics with songs from his Band of Joy album and his collaboration with Alison Krauss. He put a fresh interpretation on the Zeppelin tunes, rearranging them to reflect the roots rock sensibility of the Band of Joy. Robert Plant still has that magic, and his voice still captivates and takes over the way it did back in the day. I haven’t heard too many singers that can command an audience the way he does.
While I loved his entire set, my favorite moments were the reinterpretations of the Zeppelin classics. He treated us to quite a few, including Misty Mountain Hop, Ramble On, Houses of the Holy, What is and What Should Never Be, and Gallows Pole. Throughout the set, he raved about Telluride Bluegrass, declaring his desire to return again. He even promised to bring his friend “Jonesy” (John Paul Jones) next time, “But he’ll only play on one song.” I’d love to be there when it happens.