:: June 19, 2014 ::
:: Day 1 ::
Photos by Josh Elioseff
Text by Andrew Martin
By Andrew Martin
Another glorious Summer Solstice weekend has just wrapped up, leaving thousands of musicians and fans alike with lifelong memories from the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Each year, the town of Telluride experiences a small dose of magic as legendary musicians get together for unique collaborations, creating one-of-a-kind moments which make this one of the most special musical events you will ever attend.
Yonder Mountain String Band Kickoff Show
For the past 13 years, Yonder Mountain String Band has hosted the annual “Kickoff Party” at the Telluride Conference Center in Mountain Village. Some crowd members had been waiting anxiously for days for the music to start. Others had just arrived in town several hours ago and were excited to start their vacation. This mix created an electric energy in the audience, and Yonder didn’t disappoint.
Ronnie McCoury (mandolin) and Jason Carter (fiddle) sat in as special guests filling in for the recently departed Jeff Austin, and the band didn’t miss a beat. In fact, I think their music sounded better than it has in a long time. Ronnie and Jason bring first-rate musicianship to the table which really elevated Yonder’s music to new levels. It was clear to me that Yonder has an even brighter future than their already-accomplished past if they choose to replace Jeff Austin with an exceptionally talented player (or two).
Batting Lead-off (Chris Thile)
Batting lead-off on the first day of the festival was Chris Thile (more on the baseball reference in a minute). For the second year in a row, Thile opened the week with a spectacular solo set that reaffirms his place as one of the finest musicians in the world. Very few people can blend musicianship with showmanship all the while spanning every genre under the sun like Thile. This was all on display during his opening set.
Thile gave us a bit of everything – blistering mandolin runs, quiet soulful sections, up-beat traditional tunes, and intricate instrumentals. As always, his charisma and stage presence kept the entire crowd rapt in attention. How can you turn away from a player whose body movements visually personify the emotion emanating from his instrument?
In a fitting end to the set, Sam Bush was invited on stage, giving us a moment to enjoy the reigning King of Telluride duke it out with the heir apparent. There is clearly a strong respect and fondness between the two. Sam cracked a joke about finally proving to Chris that he wakes up before 2 pm.
After playing a song, Sam tried to leave the stage, but Thile urged him to stay for the set closer. This led to some impromptu banter about one of their other common passions – baseball. I learned quite a few tidbits of trivia from this banter, including the fact that the Atlanta Braves are the only team to throw back-to-back no-hitters.
Eventually, they gave the crowd one final song. The interplay between the two was spectacular – both on mandolin and with their vocal harmonies. They seemed to be having a blast trading licks, playfully trying to “one-up” each other. It brought the house down and garnered a well-deserved standing ovation.
Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen
Every year, I discover a band that comes out of nowhere to blow me away. This year, it was Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen. Ironically, I almost missed their set. I was about to go back to camp after Thile, but I really enjoyed their first song and decided to stay for a few more. I didn’t leave until they were done.
Solivan is a multi-instrumentalist (mandolin, fiddle, mandola) fronting a band featuring excellent musicianship, great vocal harmonies, and strong songwriting. There were a few moments when everyone in the band gathered in a circle as they built jams to a vibrant crescendo. The circle formation allowed for great communication and interplay between the musicians. With strong rhythm playing and dynamic soloists, this band was able to put on a ripping set that turned out to be one of my opening day highlights.
Del McCoury Band
Some people just keep getting better with age, and Del McCoury is living proof. He turned 75 earlier this year and after a 50+ year career, he’s still playing at an extremely high level. His band features some exceptional players, including Jason Carter who in my opinion was one of the most exciting fiddle players at the festival. His soaring fiddle solos redefine what can be accomplished in a traditional bluegrass set.
Sam Bush was a special guest later in the set, providing an opportunity for us to enjoy a few special moments shared by a pair of legends.
Nickel Creek had called it quits before I began delving into the world of bluegrass, so this was my first time ever seeing Thile on stage with the band that originally put him on the map. It was a real treat to see them. The songs are a bit more folky and accessible than the heady, “musician’s music” of the Punch Brothers. This band definitely showed me a different side of Thile as an artist.
Very few music festivals blend a focus on instrumental musicianship with strong vocal harmonies as well as Telluride Bluegrass. In many ways, I feel like Nickel Creek epitomized this dichotomy. Led by Thile, Nickel Creek featured many shining musical moments, but the beautiful harmonies between Thile and Sara Watkins really made their music come alive.
Nickel Creek serenaded a packed crowd as the sun set behind the box canyon of Telluride. Bright orange and red colors fused with the deep blue sky, illuminating dramatic mountain peaks to the side of the stage. This backdrop capped one of the best opening days I’ve been a part of during my 6 years at Telluride Bluegrass.