Review/Photos: 40th Telluride Bluegrass Festival June 20-23 2013

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Day 1 

Photos by Josh Elioseff

Review by Andrew Martin

“There’s something magical about this festival.” My friends and I kept repeating this phrase over and over all weekend long. While “magical” isn’t exactly the first word you typically associate with a music festival, it is probably the perfect way to depict Telluride Bluegrass.

The dramatic beauty of the box canyon, the world class musicianship, and the 40 years of tradition all contribute to the magical moments captured every summer. But it is the people that truly make Telluride Bluegrass so special. Long-time Festivarians return year after year to watch a core of musicians reunite and collaborate on stage, creating a community unlike any I’ve ever experienced at a music festival.

It is impossible to understand the magic of Telluride Bluegrass without hearing stories of the people involved. Therefore, my discussions of the music will be framed by the people who made my week so unforgettable – old friends who reconnect every summer, new friends who will one day become “old friends,” and chance encounters with people I may never see again. These particular stories may be unique to me, but many Festivarians in attendance have similar experiences fueled by the individuals they meet throughout the week.

Yonder Mountain String Band NightGrass Kickoff Show

For the last 12 years, Yonder Mountain String Band has kicked off the festival with a Wednesday NightGrass pre-party at the Telluride Conference Center. After a long day of driving and a few celebratory cocktails at our condo in town, I boarded the gondola to Mountain Village with my friends Kara, Pavel, and Josh for the opening show of the weekend.

Yonder brought a tremendous amount of energy, playing a spirited set that kept people dancing from start to finish. In fact, the thumping groove of the music inspired a bluegrass dance circle right in front of me. Regardless of the form of expression, the energy and excitement in the crowd was undeniable.

Of course, no discussion of a Yonder show would be complete without a rundown of Jeff Austin’s goofy facial expressions during his mandolin solos. My favorites of the night were “Riding the Gravitron and about to Vomit”, “Corky” (Life Goes On), and “Catatonic Patient in a Psychiatric Ward.”

Chris Thile

Chris Thile opened the festival Thursday morning to a packed crowd. He had the entire audience rapt in attention from start to finish. Thile played a good mix of traditional tunes, classical pieces and even an old Civil War song called “Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel.”

One of the highpoints of the set was a cover of Fiona Apple’s “Fast as You Can” which featured a very percussive intro highlighting Thile’s strengths as a rhythm player as well as a ripping mandolin solo in the middle.As always, Thile demonstrated a tremendous control over dynamics. The music would segue from subtle, intricate passages that were barely above a whisper to blazing runs and melodies which would get punctuated by massive crescendos. He earned a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of his set.

Flying Kites with Pavel (Milk Carton Kids)

My friend Pavel is a kite aficionado. He often brings one to festivals and flies them when the wind is right. On this day, the wind was a bit inconsistent for sustaining a kite in the sky, but that wasn’t going to stop Pavel from trying.As fast as the kite left the ground, it would nose dive once the wind died down, wreaking havoc on unsuspecting Festivarians before finally crashing into the grass.

The Milk Carton Kids were playing while I watched Pavel fly his kite. They are a mellow, folky duo. From the back of the festival grounds, I couldn’t really hear all the intricacies of their music. From what I did hear, their songwriting was decent, but not overly exciting. However, they provided great background music as I watched Pavel’s kite flutter among jagged, ashen-gray mountain peaks dotted by patches of snow leftover from winter. It fit my mood perfectly.

Day 2 

Bouncing from Stage to Stage (Greensky Bluegrass, others…)

Never overlook the music being played in-town at Elk’s Park. Often, you will find hidden gems there that are well worth checking out. Elk’s Park is much more intimate, accommodating a few hundred people at most. The tree cover and adjacent buildings also provide some shade, a well-needed treat after several hours of bruising sun in the wide open field by the main stage.

We caught a few tunes from Lake Street Dive at Elk’s Park. They were doing a songwriter’s workshop set. The band would play a song and then deconstruct it, giving the audience a window into their writing process. They talked about how they would make a chorus flow with the verse, how the vocal harmonies were added to alter the mood of the song, and a few other tidbits about how they crafted their songs. As a songwriter myself, I found it interesting to hear how other people go about this process.

We then headed back to the main stage for Greensky Bluegrass. They played an energetic set to a packed crowd. There were some great moments, particularly during Anders Beck’s dobro solos, but overall the set was a bit too jammy for me. Sam Bush came out for the last two songs. During the set closer, they played a beautiful song that ended in a two-chord jam that went on way too long. Everyone on stage took a couple of extended solos through the same two-chord progression. If you are going to take 5-8 extended solos in a row (and I would NEVER recommend doing that under any circumstances), you need to change up the chord progression and the rhythm between soloists. Otherwise, you run out of ways to elaborate on the same idea, and it becomes a bit boring.

Kara and I went back to Elk’s Park to catch the end of the Punch Brothers’ set. Their set sounded great. It mixed in some interesting covers like “Just What I Needed” and “Sexx Laws” with some signature originals like “Rye Whiskey.” We lost Kara after the Punch Brothers set, but we found Pavel. The four of us returned to the main stage for the last few songs of the Steep Canyon Rangers. By now, the sun was dipping below the mountains and the heat was less intense. We found a quiet space in the back of the field, and Shep and Carrie provided a picnic snack to go along with a very traditional set of music. It was my first time seeing the Steep Canyon Rangers, and I was very impressed by their strong musicianship.

Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell

After Mumford & Sons had to cancel at the last minute due to a medical emergency, the Steep Canyon Rangers picked up an additional set with Steve Martin. They delivered a fun, energetic performance to punctuate a stellar opening day. Their set contained a little bit of everything. There were traditional bluegrass songs which highlighted the band’s musical abilities as well as soulful songs led by special guest Edie Brickell.

Steve Martin was by far the star of the band. He came out in a white dinner jacket and sat front-and-center on stage. Between songs, he’d entertain the crowd with funny, poignant stories delivered with the mastery of someone possessing more than 40 years of experience as a comedian, actor, and entertainer. His stories helped guide the flow of the music, taking the audience on a journey with the band.

Late Night Jamming in Town Park

The music was done on the main stage, but it was just getting started in Town Park. Josh, Pavel, Kara and I found a jam being led by Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon. They were not too thrilled with our nontraditional instruments, particularly my melodica. After 4-5 songs where we were completely ignored as if we weren’t there, we decided to find a more inclusive pick session. We made our way over to the Mash Tent. This was a much better jam, and they welcomed my melodica and Josh’s harmonica with open arms. We played music here till well after 3 am, and the jam was still going strong when we left.

Day 3 

Lake Street Dive

Talk about a melting pot of music. Lake Street Dive throws blues, rock, New Orleans funk, 60s Motown, and jazz into a blender and garnishes the mixture with a pop sensibility. The end result is some really grooving, catchy music that can appeal to fans of just about any genre.

Tim O’Brien

Tim O’Brien delivered a strong set. He played some mellow, soulful songs that proved to be a perfect soundtrack while relaxing on a blanket under a rich, bluebird sky. With players like Bryan Sutton (guitar) and Noam Pikelny (banjo) in the band, the musicianship was first rate. The highlight of the set for me was a stirring cover of Bob Dylan’s “Señor.”

Tarp Squatter Tales: Chris and Susannah (Punch Brothers)

The Punch Brothers are a band best experienced up close. Their music contains so many subtleties and intricacies that it becomes impossible to soak in the breadth of what they are doing when you are too far away. In order to make the most out of this set, I wandered up front to about the fourth row.

It is clear that the Punch Brothers have some of the most dynamic soloists at the festival (particularly Chris Thile). But they are also some of the best rhythm players, and this is what truly makes their music come alive. The end result is a textured syncopation that builds to tremendous crescendos. I think this year might have been one of the best sets I’ve seen them play on the main stage.

Infamous Stringdusters NightGrass Show

Kara and I wandered over to the Palm Theatre and met up with Pavel, Kat and Matt for the Infamous Stringdusters NightGrass show. It was one of my best decisions of the weekend. They threw down a raging show lasting until well after 2 am.

The Stringdusters are amazing musicians. They do everything exceptionally well – fierce solos, great vocal harmonies and driving, syncopated rhythms. Their rhythm playing is without a doubt one of the most impressive aspects of their show, and it enables them to blow the roof off during solos.

I always love watching the Stringdusters move around on stage. Throughout the set, they will shift positions in order to best support the music. Sometimes, a couple of guys will crowd around the soloist while the remaining band members are playing rhythm together in the corner. Other times, all four of them will huddle around the soloist. There are even a few moments where there is a lone rhythm player on one end of the stage while everyone else is surrounding the soloist. They do this effortlessly, and it facilitates more varied interactions between the band members.

Tarp Squatter Tales: Stuart (Jerry Douglas)

Never believe everything you hear at a bluegrass festival. At least 10 people told me they heard a rumor that Paul Simon was going to sit in with Jerry Douglas. Imagine the buzz this created. Paul Simon! Ah, but it was nothing more than a toothless rumor.

Fortunately, Jerry Douglas didn’t need a cameo from Paul Simon to deliver one of the best performances of the weekend. Very few bands can match the depth of style and emotion on display during a Jerry Douglas set. The music runs the gamut – bluesy, rocking, soulful, and beautiful. There are driving instrumental pieces, rootsy stomp tunes, and more traditional Americana pieces. The set wasn’t as jazzy as it has been in recent years, but it was still easily the most diverse of the weekend.

The highlight for me was “We Hide and Seek,” a beautiful instrumental slide tune featuring a dazzling dobro solo. I think it is safe to say that Jerry Doulas is one of the most tasteful players at the festival.

The Marshmallow Fight (Yonder Mountain String Band)

During the Saturday afternoon Yonder set, a massive marshmallow fight broke out in the crowd. I vaguely remember this happening last year as well, but this time it was the defining moment of the set.

It occurred during the song “Boat Man.” Ironically, Kara told me about 5 minutes earlier that she really wanted to hear this song. We were getting blasted by marshmallows and had a blast throwing them back at people. Yonder’s bass player, Ben Kauffman, put out a giant tea cup and people started launching marshmallows on the stage. None made it in the cup, but one hit the rim.

Day 4 

The Bungled Jungle

One of the crafts booths dotting the side of the festival grounds is manned by a couple from Salida named Pat and Suzanne. The name of their business is The Bungled Jungle, and they make brightly colored space gremlins oozing with personality. I love their art.

Each creature typically takes Pat and Suzanne several weeks to complete, and they are all one of a kind. They start with a metal, wood, or plastic framework and then add numerous layers consisting of rubber, plastic, plaster, and clay. Most pieces have about 13 layers of materials before they are complete. Pat and Suzanne have a cage full of space gremlins playing musical instruments. Those are my favorite. When I first saw them last summer, I lamented that there was no creature playing a piano. Pavel overheard my comment and ordered one for me as a gift. It currently sits on top of the upright piano in my living room, and really ties the room together.

Leftover Salmon

Leftover Salmon closed out Saturday night with a really fun set. The band lost a little steam for a few songs when they brought out Jackson Browne. They backed Jackson up on several of his songs, and it just seemed like his songs didn’t fit in with the flow of the set.

However, the music really kicked into gear once they brought out Sam Bush for the entire second half of the set. He restored the energy lost during the Jackson Browne segment. One of my highlights was a zydeco tune that featured a drums/percussion breakdown. I’ve never seen Leftover Salmon play with two drummers before, but it worked well, particularly during this moment.

Andy Hall of the Stringdusters and Tim O’Brien came out for the last few songs. There were 9 players on stage, but they did a great job at leaving space for each other and the music never sounded cluttered. They hit their stride as a 9-piece with textured grooves and extended jams that brought the house down with a high energy finish to one of the most spirited days of the weekend.

Bela Fleck

When I saw that Bela Fleck was playing a solo set, I wasn’t sure what to expect. There was always the chance that it would be very noodly and heady, appealing to only the serious music nerds in the audience. To my delight, Bela went in a different direction, playing a varied selection of songs. Some of the highlights were an Abbey Road medley including “Here Comes the Sun” and “You Never Give Me Your Money,” the Bela original “Big Country,” and a twangy Earl Scruggs tune. Bela received a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of the set.

Tarp Squatter Tales: Emily (Jackson Browne)

I’ve heard of Jackson Browne since I was a kid, but for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you the name of a single song he’s written. Fortunately, I spent the set with my friend Tuck, who is a huge Jackson Browne fan. It definitely helped my appreciation of the show.

I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by Jackson Browne. He is definitely a good songwriter, providing a balance to the day’s music (many of the other sets on Sunday featured artists more known for their musicianship than their songwriting). My a-ha moment came near the end of the set when he played his two famous songs, “Running on Empty” and “Take it Easy” (written with Glenn Frey). Jerry Douglas sat in for both of these. Sam Bush and Sara Watkins sat in on “Take it Easy” as well. Sometimes I remember a set because of what takes place on stage. In this case, it was the unforgettable conversations with Tuck and Emily. Regardless, Jackson Browne was an unexpected highlight of my weekend.

Tarp Squatter Tales: Jon and Chris (Telluride House Band)

Sometimes, you have to save the best for last. I always enjoy the House Band set, but this year it was something special. I’d go as far as saying it was the best set of the weekend. This is always a fun show featuring  six good friends who have played together for decades and get to reconnect every summer at Telluride Bluegrass. This dynamic produces a free-flowing performance filled with as much humor and storytelling as musical virtuosity. Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan brought home a great weekend of music with stunning musicianship and playful exchanges.

In honor of the 40th year of the festival, the House Band brought out a litany of guests. Noam Pikelny, Gabe Witcher, and Chris Thile all came out for a few tunes before hightailing it across town for the Punch Brothers NightGrass set. At one point, everyone left the stage except for Thile and Sam Bush. The ensuing dueling mandos moment was spectacular. They stayed with each other lick for lick, harmonizing beautifully while maintaining blistering speed and technical mastery. At the end, Sam joked that, “Anything I can play, Chris can play the harmony.” I’d say so…and a lot more.

Other special guests included Tim O’Brien, Peter Rowan, Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins, and Jackson Browne. It was a great mix of the festival’s old guard and up-and-coming players. Something happened during the “special guest” segment of the show – the House Band really settled into a groove. I’d go as far as saying they were in the zone. I watched in amazement as they sat back and let the music flow through them. The constant eye contact necessary for a band that rarely plays together was replaced by heads buried in their instruments and an ability to communicate that is normally reserved for the most seasoned and well-rehearsed bands. The end result was spectacular interplay and some of the most inspiring music of the weekend.

After the House Band bid the crowd farewell until next summer, I wandered back to Town Park and enjoyed one last jam session at the Mash Tent. We were too tired to make it all the way to 4 am this time, but it was still a fitting way to end a fabulous week.

 

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