Review by Miranda Brooks, Photos by Kirsten Cohen
Telluride is brilliance simplified; a small town full of soul and sound. Born from the limitations of the strict genre-specific and legendary festivals of Telluride Bluegrass and Blues and Brews, The Ride Fest – in its infancy – provides a stage for artists ranging from reinvented icons to emerging groups to established players building their base. With no lines drawn (except for those among the crowd) expectations were allowed to fly high with little fear of “not fitting in.”
Word came quickly that the early Saturday opener The Weeks – a Mississippi-based quintet that destroyed SXSW (in the best way possible) and whom I had vetted to throw down for a highly anticipated late night Ride show – missed an international flight that caused their absence from the festival entirely. In their place, 18 year-old blues guitarist Matthew Curry and The Fury took the main stage. Though I missed the set, Curry’s face and name buzzed around the festival all weekend long.
Arriving in Town Park just in time to catch the last song of Los Angeles’ Rival Sons, their fiery approach to rock and roll solidified my decision to catch up with them later at The Sheridan Opera House.
Up next was The Revivalists out of New Orleans. My excitement was high as they had been on my radar since early this year. No disappointment. Through the set they provided surprising arrangements as their sound was a mix of ’70s rock meets soul meets beats, played entirely heavy and equally on all fronts to include guitar, pedal steel, bass, drums, keys, sax, trumpet and vocals. “Criminal” was a crowd-pleaser before they ended with a stellar cover of “Whipping Post” that involved the crowd with call and response, as front man David Shaw donned a simple t-shirt with an image of a leaf asking the question “got herb?”
Steve Earle took the stage and started things off with “The Low Highway” from his recent album titled the same. I appreciated the authenticity of the sound as even the out of tune piano provided a true honky-tonk vibe. Reinvention rolled through the set as the vocals and fiddle playing defined a country revival before the pure steel shredding made us remember rock and roll in its truest form. The classic “Copperhead Road” with its visceral lyrics and audience appeal was an excellent closer.
The dynamic duo Rodrigo y Gabriella assumed the stage modestly and was relentless with their instrumental-only and seemingly unending set. The flamenco playing was top notch and provided irresistible danceability. The addition of a keyboardist for a couple songs was a nice reprise from the repetition of the guitar. The sweet smile of Gabriella showed sincerity as she made mention of the metal fence that divided the crowd between the “very important people” and the “commoners.”
The partition provided division for those who paid a higher ticket price for luxuries such as a canopied tent with tables and chairs which gave shelter for the almost certain rain experienced daily, complimentary breakfast and high end porta potties within comfortable proximity. The politics of it all were debated a few times throughout town, but I assumed mainly because the social implications were so very visible.
Big Head Todd and The Monsters closed the night. I caught only the first few songs as I trekked the park back to my hotel to prepare for a night that would, come to find, knock my socks off. Hazel Miller joined for vocal support and her voice carried me home. Later – on a side street bench – my friend Tom would thank keyboardist Jeremy Lawton for the Muhammad Ali tune played by BHTM which Lawton referred to as a rarity. After cleansing the festival from my body and replenishing with food and a quick lie down, I stopped first at the Floradora Saloon to hear the tunes of a Nashville fellow, Daniel Lawrence Walker. It was there that Big Head Todd himself stood next to me as he ordered a drink. Telluride’s smallness proved the perfect conduit for such elbow rubbing. Moving on to The Sheridan Opera House, I received word later that Todd took Walker’s thirty minute set break to jam on the guitar for the unsuspecting crowd. Moments like that make me long for advancements in cloning.
I could feel the vibrations walking into The Opera House as Rival Sons were in the midst of an epic set. The small room provided the perfect conditions for the sweating that ensued. The crowd was more than amped as the band broke out with Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Ask Me What I Think of You.” The appeal of the foursome was noticeable and I sensed they could feel it too.
Brother and Bones closed The Opera House with unparalleled energy and emotion. I had the opportunity to travel with the London-based band from Denver to Telluride for their first U.S. appearance. The dialogue in the car was jovial and full of simple questions as we compared and contrasted cultural, social and political differences between our home countries. To then see those same men on stage in such a capacity with primal talent and musicianship was mind-blowing. The dual drummers, one on a standard kit with the other on upright djembe, provided a tribal and differentiating sound. At any given time you could find the bassist hanging from the rafters of the low hung balcony or wailing on the audience floor while on his back playing guitar like he was fighting for his life. Other times provided a gospel feel as the three front men harmonized like Mumford and then went wild like you’d expect from any self-respecting British rock band.
The music ended there, but the night lasted until the morning birds brought the sun.
Having heard Hazel Miller sing with BHTM and witnessing Brother and Bones the night before, I justified my tardiness to the festival field with enduring enthusiasm as I needed just a few hours of precious sleep. I missed their sets, but was beyond grateful for the free breakfast burritos and bottomless cups of joe.
The songwriting from Sun Volt was enough to engage me thoroughly despite my best hangover head. Playing tunes primarily from their recent album Honky Tonk, it was evident the group had made a conscious decision to base their current sound fully within the confines of country, pulling away from a more “alternative” genre. A sucker for lyrics, I could listen to most music as long as the day. But with some difficult to pinpoint factor, I lost interest in their time on stage. I will hope for a better go next time around.
It was perhaps the midday set of Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale that stole my heart. Everything from the Vaudeville vibe to their incredible backing band had me weak in the knees from the get-go. Playing mainly from their current album simply titled Buddy and Jim from New West Records, they told tales of love lost and love gained, all with hope for better days. Miller and Lauderdale were also incredibly reminiscent of George Jones and Conway Twitty. The humorous banter back and forth between the two proved that entertainers are best when relatable. They busted out a newbie “That’s Not Even Why I Love You” and I found myself within myself; the best place to be when experiencing new music you feel like you’ve known forever.
Governor Hickenlooper was on hand for the festivities taking the stage to declare “politics is rock and roll for ugly people.” Leaving me to surmise that even prominent figures long for the musicians’ lifestyle, so highly idealized by popular culture. He then introduced Cake.
The minimalistic sound translated exceedingly well live and was better than I anticipated. The band played their favorite oldies and I was delighted in my choice of clothing when realized I was wearing a short skirt with an oversized summer sweater (“Short Skirt/Long Jacket”). I danced and jumped around a good deal. Though the somewhat aggressive and sarcastic approach from front man John McCrea did seem to wear thin on the crowd, as he became irritated by lack of audience participation. He used weird psychology to separate us between men and women and then rose awareness again to the political fence divide of the VIP versus the non-VIP. By that time, I could only imagine that for the artists on stage looking out into a crowd split directly down the middle would be an interesting view and an easy topic on which to voice opinion. They finished with their ever-loving cover of “War Pigs.” It was pretty mental.
Taking a short break to regroup, I quickly found myself hustled backstage with my friend Kirsten Cohen as we managed to wrangle four of the five all-day-drinking Brother and Bones members for a little sit down chat. After thirty minutes or so, the conversation ended officially and with cheers when our ears perked to slight starting sounds coming from the stage…it was time.
David Byrne and St. Vincent (Annie Clark) were sheer dynamite, better than any drug I was offered throughout the weekend. They opened with “Who” from their Love This Giant album which just so happened to be my favorite. I found myself with a great view and plenty of room to dance like a misfit music nerd; as I had practiced my moves by studying old videos of Byrne from his time with The Talking Heads. But no amount of research could have prepared me for the show I witnessed. The choreography alone was mesmerizing. Add to that the best backing brass band (perhaps) money can buy and you’ve got a reinvented wheel or, at the very least, redesigned. On stage, Byrne appeared as tactful and serious and calculating as one could expect. St. Vincent’s curly locks were bright white, a recent homage to her counterpart I suspected with purposeful intention to add drama to the already theatrical bill. My God. The range of brass from French horn to sousaphone had my head spinning. And admittedly at times was hard to fully comprehend my presence among theirs. The rendition of “Burning Down the House” was perhaps the best I have ever heard.
The music rolled over into the bars of the town to provide festival-goers one more round of late night shows, but for me it ended there. I felt as though I could not digest any more than I had already. My ears had provided my heart fulfillment. What a ride. Until next time.