Telluride Bluegrass Festival Review


2012 Telluride Bluegrass Festival

By Andrew Martin


By Sunday night my entire body was sore, my feet were killing me, I was so exhausted I could hardly stand up, and the thought of drinking another beer seemed utterly repulsive. These are all signs that once again, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival delivered in epic fashion. Four days of amazing music, beautiful weather, and great people have provided me with what will certainly be one of my highlights of the summer.

The last few years, I have largely roamed solo throughout the festival. It’s been a great experience, and I have met a lot of great friends as a result. But this year, I decided it was time for something different. I recruited several of my good friends to come to the festival with me. Many of them were newbies, and I really enjoyed watching them experience Telluride Bluegrass for the first time.

Yonder Mountain String Band NightGrass Kickoff Show

We finally got to the Yonder show early in the second set. As I was walking in, the band was playing the first few notes to Reuben and Cherise, and I noticed Sam Bush sitting in on fiddle. It was a perfect way for me to start the festival. After a hectic, frazzled day, I finally felt like I was home.

I’m not the biggest fan of the venue. The Yonder NightGrass kickoff show is always held in the Convention Center, most likely due to its ability to accommodate a larger crowd. The venue has the potential to be a bit sterile, but Yonder’s high energy show made you forget that you are hanging out in a hotel convention center.

Once again, I enjoyed this set more than their Saturday set on the main stage. I feel like Yonder really shines in a more intimate setting, and their ability to connect with the crowd makes for a special evening. And of course, there are always the many crazy faces made by Jeff Austin to provide constant entertainment. Some of my favorites this year were “the fish dying outside of its fish bowl,” “the eyes rolling back inside of your head like you are about to pass out,” and the “I’m riding the Gravitron at the amusement park for the sixth time in a row and I’m about to vomit.”

“Anawhacking” in Town Park with Vince Herman

For the past three years, Josh has been my photographer partner in crime. He spends most of his time up front and center in the press pit, soaking up every moment of music he can get. He has also gotten to know many of the longtime Planet Bluegrass people who have told him countless stories about traditions that have developed over nearly 40 years of Telluride Bluegrass.

One of these traditions is called “Anawhacking.” I’m not sure how Anawhacking was started, but this year Leftover Salmon’s Vince Herman made sure it would be continued. Josh was hanging out at a Town Park picking session late Wednesday night. In the middle of a song, Vince Herman stormed into the center of the picking circle unannounced, strumming his guitar loudly and screaming “Anawhack, anawhack, anawhack!” He then stormed off as unexpectedly as he entered. The circle of musicians, which had fallen silent during the episode, now burst into uproarious laughter before resuming the song right where they left off.

Vince repeated this at several other picking sessions, gathering followers at each one (including Josh). The procession ultimately ended up at the restrooms, where Vince ordered everyone – men and women alike – to take over the men’s room. If you were walking by the bathrooms at 3 or 4 in the morning Wednesday night, you most likely heard a large group of Festivarians singing spirituals at the top of their lungs, led by none other than Vince Herman. There’s never a dull moment in Town Park.

“Thelma & Louise” featuring Béla Fleck and Chris Thile

There couldn’t be a stronger way to open the festival than with the two greatest virtuoso musicians in attendance doing a 75 minute improv set. There were no breaks in between songs and to be honest, they didn’t play many songs. Just one long set of stream-of-consciousness music.

Most of it was spectacular. Béla and Chris constantly pushed each other to explore all the boundaries of music – from subtle, intricate melody lines to blistering solos. The dynamics were great. At times you could hear a pin drop, and at other moments they built to furious crescendos.

This set was a true musical conversation between 2 players with great command of their instruments. You could hear each of them reacting to the ideas presented by the other. At times, this led to some sluggish, sputtering moments where neither of them seemed to know what to do next. However, these “grasping at straws” moments quickly built into cohesive improvisational segments that spawned blistering solos with intricate rhythmic support underneath.

It was really interesting to see the contrast in demeanor between the two players. Béla is always unflappable, stoic, and calm. His musical outbursts seem to emanate from a Zen-like focus. Chris, on the other hand, is passionate from start to finish. He rarely sits still in his seat, writhing around with snaky body movements and penetrating facial expressions that mirror the emotion and intensity of his music. If you were not watching up close, you missed a lot of this great interplay.

There seemed to be a larger-than-normal turnout for the opening set of the weekend, most likely due to the star power of this duo. They received a well-deserved standing ovation at the end.

An Intimate Gathering of 10,000 (John Prine)

One of the things that make Telluride Bluegrass Festival truly special is that you can always turn a large gathering of 10,000 people into an intimate moment between you and the band. It is pretty easy to find your way towards the front of the crowd during just about every set, providing an up-close view that creates a connectedness impossible to achieve from the very back.

Some sets can be experienced equally well from up close or far away. But others, like John Prine’s Thursday evening set, are best witnessed in a more intimate manner. He is a masterful storyteller, both through his poignant lyrics and the tales woven in between songs. When viewed from the front of the crowd, you feel like he is talking directly to you.

John Prine played a set dripping in soul and character, and as I looked around the audience, I noticed a lot of people singing along to many of the songs. He was also the beneficiary of a beautiful sunset which added to the magic of his music. My friend Pavel considered this one of his favorite sets of the weekend. It was a highlight for me as well.

Alison Krauss & Union Station

Alison Krauss closed out the first day of music. She played a set of soulful, beautiful music that certainly had its stellar moments. But while this set was very solid, I felt it was a bit too mellow. Thursday was a very mellow day, and most of the people I spoke to were hoping for a higher energy set to finish out the evening.

Late Night Pickin’ in Town Park

My friend Brad came to Telluride Bluegrass for the first time this year. He is a great guitarist, and we’ve played in a funk/fusion band called Jababa together for the past five years. As someone who I have tremendous respect for musically, I was interested to hear what his favorite moment was from the festival. One of his peak experiences was playing music in Town Park every night.

When Brad arrived on Monday, Town Park was already in full swing. At night, the campground has many twists and turns that can easily make you lose your way if you don’t know where you are going. That first night, he wandered through the Town Park labyrinth for hours following the sounds of music. He probably stumbled upon a half dozen or more picking sessions Monday night, many of them featuring high levels of musicianship. His favorite was led by a band called Trout Steak Revival. They are a local Colorado band, and they were all camped in Town Park for the festival. Brad raved about their musicianship, and he was a frequent member of their picking sessions all week long.

Brad was impressed by the inclusive vibe at these picking sessions. Everyone welcomed him to the circle with open arms, making him feel right at home. The leaders of most of these jam sessions were very relaxed if he chose to pass and not lead a song when it was his turn, which is not always the norm at a picking session. He was greatly appreciative of this fact.

I have to agree with this sentiment. For those Town Park musicians reading this review, I was the melodica player that invaded your picking sessions all weekend (a melodica is an air piano).

At a more pretentious gathering, my efforts to join the jam would have been met with mockery and scorn. But in Town Park, most people seemed genuinely excited to have me there with my novelty instrument. As solos were passed around, I was always given one, and I always felt like my contributions were valued, despite the fact that there isn’t much place for a melodica in bluegrass. At one picking session, they even threw me a bone and played Miles Davis’ All Blues. A jazz tune to placate the piano player – what more could I ask for?

Bryan Sutton, Sam Bush & Friends: Doc Watson Tribute

With so many great bands playing the main stage, it’s easy to forget about the music at Elks Park. But don’t make that mistake. You can find some hidden gems there all weekend long. It is a small, intimate area that holds a few hundred people at most. If you get there early enough, you can bask in the sunshine and get a great view of the band. If you are a slacker like me, you may get stuck along the sidewalk adjacent to the park, struggling to hear the music above the bustle and commotion.

I checked out part of the Doc Watson tribute put on by Bryan Sutton, Sam Bush & Friends. The “& Friends” included Jerry Douglas. This was a laid back, informal set that paid tribute to the great bluegrass legend, Doc Watson. Bryan Sutton was clearly the leader of this band. He sang most of the songs and told stories of Doc Watson in between songs.

The show was packed. There was no place to sit on the field, and lots of people (including me) were crammed along the sidewalk, listening from a stairwell, or climbing trees to get a better view. Unfortunately, it was so noisy and crowded on the sidewalk where I was standing that I missed some of the great interplay between Sam, Jerry, and Bryan. Next year, I’ll remember to get to Elks Park earlier when the band includes players of this stature.

Béla Fleck & the Marcus Roberts Trio

This year, Béla Fleck brought a jazz trio led by pianist Marcus Roberts to back him up. They dazzled the audience with a spectacular jazz set. In fact, it was the only true jazz set performed all weekend.

As you would expect from a band led by Béla Fleck, the musicianship was first rate. The set contained a lot of tunes with great walking bass lines complementing the drummer’s swinging beats. Béla and Marcus Roberts dueled from start to finish, and the interplay between the two was mesmerizing at moments.

John Fogerty

By Friday evening the crowd was ready to rock, and John Fogerty gave them exactly what they wanted. He played all of his hits. In fact, I never realized how many classic tunes he’s written. By the end of the set, he was pulling out songs that I completely forgot were part of the Credence catalog. I would say that at least 80% of his two-hour set consisted of hits from Credence and his solo material. And that is a conservative estimate.

It was an extremely high energy set, possibly the most rocking set of the weekend. And he connected with the entire crowd. As I looked around, I saw people of all ages – from their early 20s to their 50s and 60s – dancing up a storm and singing along in jubilation. This is a true testament to the timelessness of Fogerty’s music.

My friend Pavel was blown away. He was jumping around and stretching his arms towards the sky during every song. It was his favorite set of the weekend, and I have a feeling he wasn’t the only one to feel this way.

Good Times with “The Joy Master” (Leftover Salmon)

I seem to make new friends every time I come to Telluride Bluegrass. Two years ago, I met my friend Kara randomly on a tarp near some mutual friends, and she has become a core part of my Telluride crew by now. I’ve met many other amazing people here, and every year I look forward to adding to my list of “Telluride friends.”

Sometimes you meet these friends in the most unexpected times and places, like during a raging Leftover Salmon set. I was standing in the crowd during the Leftover show when I heard someone behind me bitching about being stuck behind the “tall guy” (that would be me). I turned around and glared at her, and she burst out into laughter. We started talking and spent the rest of the show hanging out, laughing, and having a great time.

Ironically, her name is Joy Master. She told me that while this name was a source of ridicule as a child, she has since grown into the role of being “the Joy Master” as an adult. And there couldn’t be a more fitting person for this name. She certainly spreads her positive energy and good times to all of those around her.

Fueled by my spirited encounter with the Joy Master, I had a great time during Leftover Salmon. The band piggy-backed off the energy in the crowd following John Fogerty and threw down one raucous bluegrass stomp after another. Andy Thorn (banjo) really adds a lot to the band. His fiery solos elevated the music to new levels, providing a great complement to Drew Emmitt on mandolin.

Sam Bush sat in on fiddle for most of the set. At the end of the night, they presented him with a new mandolin for his birthday.

The band encored with “Rise Up, Wake and Bake.” The chorus galvanized the crowd, and there were a lot of people singing along. At the end of the song, Vince Herman encouraged the crowd to keep singing the refrain back to their campgrounds. After a few minutes of silence, I started hearing a few low mumblings of “Rise up, wake and bake!” This slowly grew until the entire audience was singing along as they left the festival grounds. You won’t find too many moments more powerful than that.

Jerry Douglas

Jerry opened with a beautiful solo dobro piece that flowed into Chick Corea’s Spain. It was a great way to start the set. The rest of the band then took the stage. It is the same band Jerry has played with the past few summers (Omar Hakim on drums and Viktor Krauss on bass). However, this year they were joined by Luke Bulla on fiddle.

I hope Jerry brings these guys back again next year, because they put on one of the most dynamic shows of the weekend. This set contained one of the best mixes of stellar musicianship, good grooves, and soulfulness of any band I saw all weekend.

Bela Fleck came out for several tunes. His blazing banjo solos and strong rhythm playing elevated the music to levels rarely equaled throughout the rest of the weekend.

A Sunset for the Ages

Half way through the day on Saturday, a serious forest fire ravaged Southwest Colorado. During the end of the Jerry Douglas set, you could faintly see the smoke across the Telluride sky. But by the start of the Yonder Mountain set, the entire sky was covered in a thick haze of smoke. It was the first non-bluebird sky of the week, and it provided a well-needed respite from the punishing sun.

By sunset, the smoke was starting to clear out a little, creating varying layers of haze in the sky. This led to one of the most spectacular Telluride sunsets I’ve ever seen. Each layer of haze produced a different color in the sky – bright iridescent red, warm fiery orange, vibrant blue/purple, and pastel layers of purple, red, orange, pink, and charcoal that gradually got fainter along the horizon. This was all framed by a V-shape made by the mountain peaks coming together in the distance. As Pavel said, it was a “milkshake of color.”

Amid this picture perfect backdrop, Sam Bush took the stage…

Sam Bush

Very few sets were able to create the flow achieved by Sam Bush on this beautiful Saturday night. It started out mellow and soulful as the crowd admired the final moments of the sunset. As dusk set in, the music transitioned into a block of up-tempo bluegrass tunes that got everyone up on their feet and dancing.

Sam then deftly broke the set down by bringing out Jerry Douglas for a soulful duet that kept the crowd rapt in attention. John Cowan eventually joined Sam and Jerry, and the three of them went into a spirited version of Sailin’ Shoes. This was my favorite moment of the set.

From here, the rest of the band returned to the stage and the set transitioned into a high energy rock segment highlighting the musicianship of Sam’s band. There was even an instrumental tune in 5/4 time that kept the crowd dancing in spite of its odd time signature.

The end of the set turned into an all-star jam featuring numerous special guests including Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, John Cowan, Jeff Austin, and many others. They performed an epic version of Cripple Creek in tribute to Levon Helm. For the encore, Sam returned to the stage with his drummer, Bela Fleck, and five bass players to do the “bluegrass classic” (Sam’s words, not mine) Big Bottom. That’s right, a Spinal Tap encore.

Bruce Hornsby

Bias warning: This review was written by a piano player at a four day festival featuring string instruments. That being said, I fully stand by my assessment of the music.

As much as I enjoyed the Jerry Douglas set that afternoon, it came in a distant second to Bruce Hornsby on my list of favorite artists this weekend. On Saturday night, Bruce Hornsby delivered a Telluride Bluegrass set for the ages.

The set started out with tremendous energy and groove, and it kept picking up steam as the night went on. Hornsby was at his best, playing upbeat songs that captured the crowd and kept everyone dancing.

Several special guests sat in. The first was Chris Thile. He played the entire second half of the set, starting with an amazing version of Great Divide that featured great interplay between Thile, the drummer, and sax player. Thile and the sax player traded solos while the drummer kept a furious groove.

Béla Fleck came out for the next song and sat in for almost the entire rest of the set as well. Thile, Béla, and Hornsby kept trading solos, dancing around each other’s melody lines until they reached a monstrous crescendo. This would be a recurring pattern throughout the rest of the set.

Just when you thought the music had reached its peak, Sam Bush joined them on stage for the last few songs. Just to recap – Bruce Hornsby, Chris Thile, Béla Fleck, and Sam Bush all on stage together. Unbelievable!

Ahoy! (Punch Brothers, part 1)

The energy on Sunday didn’t really pick up until the Punch Brothers took the stage late in the afternoon. By then, I was ready to settle into one last night of great music. For some reason, the band decided to make “Ahoy!” their mantra for the festival. Anytime they would speak in between songs, it was punctuated by a mighty “Ahoy!” Eventually, the crowd joined in. I think they mentioned that it was inspired by a scene from the movie What About Bob.

The Punch Brothers are undeniably one of the most talented bands at the festival. Their musicianship is on par with the other world class players that take the stage every year. They brought out Jerry Douglas and played Song for a Young Queen from a solo album Chris Thile did about ten years ago. It was one of my highlights of the set, along with a cover of Radiohead’s Kid A which built to a chaotic crescendo.

Near the end of the set, they brought out Rob Moose on violin and played Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Rob Moose arranged the concerto specifically for the Punch Brothers. I’m not typically a classical music fan, but this was spectacular. The arrangement was impeccable, and I was awed by how seamlessly the layers created by each instrument weaved in and out of each other. There aren’t too many other artists at the festival, other than Bela Fleck, who could have pulled this piece off as flawlessly.

Telluride House Band

As always, the House Band put on a great set. The band consists of Sam Bush on mandolin, Bela Fleck on banjo, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Bryan Sutton on guitar, Edgar Meyer on bass, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle.

There were too many highlights to list them all, so I’ll talk about my favorite. They played a stirring version of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down in tribute to Levon Helm. The crowd was locked arm in arm, swaying back and forth, and singing along. A very powerful moment.

The House Band set was free flowing, featuring exceptional musicianship and tremendous solos by all band members on stage. They visibly look like they are having a blast when they play together.

There were even a few train wrecks, but that is perfectly acceptable for this band. One of these train wrecks occurred at the end of a ripping Bela Fleck solo. The entire band stopped playing and looked around at each other, unsure of what to do next. Fortunately, Bryan Sutton saved the day by laying into a furious guitar riff that brought the band back to the end of the song. When it was done, Sam Bush chuckled and thanked Bryan for his help. Ironically, Bryan Sutton had a colossal train wreck of his own during a solo later in the set. Sadly, no one in the band returned the favor.

In Case You Haven’t Gotten Your Fill Yet… (Punch Brothers, part 2)

For those people who were not ready to call it a weekend, there was one last show after the House Band left the stage. Every year, the Punch Brothers play the final NightGrass show at the Sheridan Opera house on Sunday night. Despite being worn out to the point of total exhaustion, I decided to check it out. I’m glad I did.

The Punch Brothers are meant to be heard in an intimate environment like the Sheridan Opera House where you can hear every ripple of music and see all of the stage antics going on. It was the first time I’ve been to a Punch Brothers show in this type of environment and witnessed them play in front of their crowd. I learned a few things about the band:

  1. Don’t talk or the crowd will shush you – Yes, this is the type of crowd that takes their music seriously. A Punch Brothers show is a music appreciation event, not a party. Pay attention or you will be put in your place. During one moment, Chris Thile was playing a beautiful solo mandolin introduction and there was a lot of chatter in the crowd. Out of nowhere, there was a furious “Ssshhhhhhh!!!” heard across the room. That put an end to the chatter boxes.
  2. Chris Thile is a really charismatic band leader – OK, I already knew this. But his stage presence is so much more powerful in an intimate setting. Every note that he plays pours forth from his body in a state of unbridled passion. It is great to see up close.
  3. These guys are really tight – Again, I already knew this. But in an environment where you can truly focus on everything they are doing, it is impossible to not be blown away by the level of musicianship as well as how tight their music is. The subtle intricacies of their rhythms are more impressive than you can see from far away.
  4. Their dynamics are tremendous – This is something that sort of gets lost in a large show. There are moments where you can hear a pin drop, and a few minutes later they’ve built to a raging wall of sound. Both are equally powerful.

As tired as I was, I just couldn’t bring myself to leave. The music was amazing. I steadied myself against the back wall so that I would not fall over from sheer exhaustion and took in one last great show to cap off an amazing weekend. Ahoy!

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  1. I have read articles from Andrew for the past two years and it was these that made me go to telluride, despite the fact that blue grass was never my dancing floor. I was blown away right from the start by the place, by pleasantness of all the people around ( attendees, musicians and organizers as well) and by live bluegrass music. Picking circles after hours were a nice surprise to me and I can say that I felt in love with bluegrass mainly because of those. These night sessions let you jump around until you want instead of looking for another ways to spent the energy you collected by the main stage. I went to bed content every night. This year’s article again brought a little of the bluegrass groove back with it and I, patiently, can’t wait to go back.

  2. I’ve read Andrew’s articles for the past two years and it was these that made me visit this festival despite the fact that bluegrass was never my dancing floor. I was blown away right from the start by the place, by the pleasantness of all the people around ( attendees, musicians and organizers as well ) and by live bluegrass music. After hours circles were a nice surprise and it was mainly these that made me fell in love with this music. These night sessions let you jump around until you want instead of looking for other ways to spent the energy you picked up by the main stage. I was going to bed content every night. This year’s article, again, brought back a bit of the Telluride groove with it and I, patiently, can’t wait for next year. Thanks Andrew.

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