:: Town Park, Telluride, Colo. ::
:: June 18 – 21, 2015 ::
Photos by Josh Elioseff
Words by Andrew Martin
- Wednesday, June 17, 015
We arrived at Town Park on Tuesday night. After setting up camp, I went out to the festival grounds with a couple of friends to get a sneak peek at the stage. It was the calm before the storm: the stage decorations were still only half constructed, loose pieces of fencing were sitting in a large bundle in the middle of the field, and the food and craft booths dotting the circumference of the festival were only partially built. There was total silence, except the rush of the Uncompahgre River raging in the background. This desolate scene formed a stark contrast to the bustling atmosphere that was about to erupt in about 36 hours, and it heightened our sense of anticipation for this year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
From our spot in the middle of the festival grounds, we stood facing the back of the box canyon and watched the stars. It was a beautiful night. You could see thousands of stars shining bright and luminous above, made even more dramatic by the moonless sky.
In the distance, lights were illuminating a group of trees near the edge of Town Park, making the leaves on the lower branches glow a radiant, emerald green. This color morphed to a piercing dark green as the trees reached towards the sky. Above the trees, you could see a dark silhouette of the mountains framing the star-filled sky, creating a scene replete with splendor and grandeur.
In spite of the fact that this is my 7th time attending the festival, the lush, dramatic backdrop of the Telluride Valley still imparts spiritual and emotional nourishment that makes your day-to-day concerns immediately fade away. This may sound hokey, but it’s very real, and it’s one of the many factors making the Telluride Bluegrass Festival so special.
After soaking in this scene for about 20 minutes, we were approached by a security guard riding a bicycle. He engaged us in friendly conversation for a few minutes, asking us questions about where we were from, how many times we had been to the festival, which acts we were looking forward to seeing. After we gushed about the majestic, star-lit sky, he started beaming with pride, exclaiming, “I get paid to hang out and gaze at the stars all night! There’s no better job in the world.”
He then politely explained that we weren’t allowed into the festival grounds this early in the week. He made it very clear that he understood we had done nothing wrong, and he even went as far as escorting us to an equally beautiful place to watch the stars that wouldn’t put us in violation with the early week rules of the festival. It was the most positive experience I’ve ever had getting kicked out of somewhere. There were no feelings of outrage at being booted from an empty field. Instead, my friends and I all commented that he was such a nice guy.
One of the other things that make this festival so special is the community created by Planet Bluegrass. It’s built on a culture of respect, kindness, and friendship. This culture extends to everyone taking part in Telluride Bluegrass – the musicians, promoters, Festivarians, and all staff members, including the night security guard whose job is to keep us away from the field prior to the start of the festival on Thursday morning.
After heading back to Town Park, I wandered through the labyrinthine pathways of the campground looking for a jam in progress. I eventually joined a spirited group at the Cascadian dome and infused some melodica into the symphony of strings picking away into the night. I was home.
Wednesday Kick-Off Festivities
FirstGrass may be the official kick-off party for Telluride Bluegrass, but the unofficial start occurred several hours earlier at the Rum Balls party in Town Park. This event is a long-standing Town Park tradition hosted by the Mash Tent. Festivarians are treated to fruit balls soaked in a blend of rum and fruit juices. “Telluride Tom,” the mayor of Town Park, gets on a ladder and welcomes everyone to Telluride before declaring that the festival is officially underway..
Later in the afternoon, a large crowd gathered in Mountain Village for the free FirstGrass show. Fruition kicked off the festivities with a spirited, rocking set. Rhiannon Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops headlined the show. She delivered a soulful, energetic set that touched on a wide range of musical styles including Motown, 50s jazz, and Appalachian traditional music. The canyon filled with deep percussive beats and infectious grooves that kept the packed crowd dancing from start to finish.
Yonder Mountain String Band Nightgrass Show
For the 14th consecutive year, Yonder Mountain String Band hosted the Wednesday Nightgrass kick-off party. After spending some time in flux, the band has settled into their new lineup, which features newcomers Allie Kral (fiddle) and Jake Jolliff (mandolin). Both Jake and Allie up the level of musicianship, allowing the band to build the music more dramatically.
This was a heavier set than I’ve experienced in previous Yonder shows. Allie builds soulful solos that elevate the music, while Jake provides an element of technical, intricate lines and blistering speed that has never been prominent in their music with the original lineup.
- Thursday, June 18, 2015
- 10:45 – 11:45am — Noam Pikelny & Stuart Duncan
- 12:15 – 1:30pm — Jerry Douglas Band
- 2:00 – 3:15pm — Robert Earl Keen
- 3:45 – 5:00pm — Rhiannon Giddens
- 5:30 – 7:00pm — Hot Rize
- 7:30 – 9:00pm — John Butler Trio
- 9:30 – 11:00pm — Telluride House Band featuring Sam, Béla, Jerry, Edgar,Bryan & Stuart
Jerry Douglas Band
After a beautiful acoustic duo opening set by Noam Pikelny and Stuart Duncan, the Jerry Douglas Band took the stage and significantly ramped up the energy. He opened with We Hide and Seek, a beautiful song featuring soaring slide lines on the dobro. This is my favorite Jerry Douglas tune, and it was by far the highlight of the set for me.
Overall, it was a great set of music, although a little mellower than in previous years. Jerry set the tone early on Thursday with beautiful, soulful tunes that rang through the canyon. The ascending unison and harmony lines by the dobro and fiddle created dramatic crescendos. As always, Jerry blended a range of genres that included driving instrumental pieces, rootsy stomp tunes, and more traditional Americana songs. No other music all weekend sounds quite like the Jerry Douglas set, and it was easily one of the highlights of the festival.
Rhiannon Giddens followed up a tremendous FirstGrass set on Wednesday with an even more impressive show on the main stage Thursday afternoon. As with Jerry Douglas, the music of Rhiannon Giddens is truly unique and very difficult to describe in a conventional sense. It has a strong Appalachian stomp vibe, augmented by an array of tribal overtones emanating from the drummer.
She also incorporated several non-traditional instruments, such as the melodica and the bones, which created fresh textures rarely heard during Telluride Bluegrass. Overall, there is a strong groove to her music, although it’s definitely not “groove music.” It was one of the more soulful sets of the weekend, while providing the energy necessary to keep the crowd dancing from start to finish.
Rhiannon has an amazing voice. She possesses a tremendous amount of power and control, which she wields in a tasteful manner that heightens the dynamics of her music. She combines this vocal talent with a powerful, exuberant stage presence that forms a deep connection with her audience.
Punch Brothers Happy Hour Set at Elks Park
All weekend long, there are performances at Elks Park which deserve your time and attention just as much as those on the main stage. One of the best was the Punch Brothers’ Happy Hour show on Thursday afternoon.
It was a loose, free flowing set that formed a stark contrast to the more formal atmosphere of a typical Punch Brothers set. The band even ditched their standard suits and ties for a more casual attire of jeans, t-shirts, and short sleeved collared shirts.
The band took a lot of audience requests, which made for a varied and interesting mix of songs. They played quite a few traditional numbers, and even honored a request for the Grateful Dead’s Cold Rain and Snow, a song which they’ve never played before. They performed a subtle, delicate arrangement, and you’d never know that it was their first stab at the tune.
Other highlights included a rousing version of the Cars’ Just What I Needed. Noam Pikelny plays al of the iconic guitar lines on the banjo, giving them a staccato feel that helps the band truly make the song their own. They showcased their vocal prowess on The Auld Triangle, an a capella song they recorded for the soundtrack of the movie Inside Llewyn Davis. Very few bands can execute such stirring and soulful 5 part harmonies, especially without instrumental backing.
Of course, no Punch Brothers set would be complete without a few breathtaking moments that showcase the band’s musical virtuosity. There were plenty of these to experience here and after one of these moments, Chris Thile even gave a shout out to a group of 6-year-old girls for their playful dancing. The band received a standing ovation at the end of the set, a fitting response for the show they delivered.
John Butler Trio
As the sun began to set behind the mountains, the John Butler Trio treated the crowed to a high energy set. John Butler’s songs blend a pop sensibility with some edgier, more eclectic music, creating a contrast that kept the audience rocking and engaged the entire time.
The band featured two multi-instrumentalists: Butler played acoustic guitar, electric slide guitar, and banjo, while the bass player also jumped on the keyboards from time to time. This allowed the band to vary their textures from song to song, making each piece stand out as a unique entity unto itself.
Telluride House Band (Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Bryan Sutton, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan)
The Telluride House Band closed what was easily the heaviest hitting Thursday lineup I’ve ever seen in the 7 times I’ve attended the festival. It seemed like it took them a little longer than usual to get into a place where the music was loose and free flowing this year. However, they eventually got there, and the last quarter of the set was nothing short of spectacular.
Special guests included Gabe Witcher of the Punch Brothers, Tim O’Brien, and Pastor Mustard. Pastor Mustard performed a spoken word piece that included some wacky vocal wailing by Jerry Douglas. Overall, this song seemed to get the band out of their comfort zone, resulting in some great musical interplay.
The highlight of the night was the Bela Fleck song Stomping Grounds. It featured great trades between Bryan Sutton and Jerry Douglas, and then another set of trades between Bela and Stuart Duncan. Eventually, all 6 members of the band were trading licks, showcasing some of the best musical conversations of the weekend. Sam Bush’s mandolin chop was a rock solid metronome through this entire exchange, providing the glue necessary to make it all work. This was by far the most amazing musical moment of the weekend.
Early Morning Sets (Mustered Courage and Johnnyswim)
Mustered Courage opened the show on Friday, providing a high energy start to the day. They laid down a rocking, bluegrassy set. Their drummer pushed the intensity of the music, forcing the bleary eyed Festivarians in Town Park to wake up and take notice from their camp.
Johnnyswim took the stage next. They’re a husband/wife singer songwriter team backed by a full band. They performed a set of soulful songs featuring great vocal harmonies.
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn
Bela Fleck performed with his wife and fellow banjo player Abigail Washburn. They played a beautiful, mellow set that was a perfect balance to the brutal afternoon heat. Abigail’s voice was soulful and soothing, providing a great complement to the twin banjos. They played a great cover of the 80s hair band classic, The Final Countdown, which became a viral Internet hit (Bela’s words) after they performed it for the Onion’s Undercover series.
The highlight of the set was the Bela tune New South Africa, which featured blistering banjo lines that bounced across the box canyon.
As always, the Punch Brothers were spectacular. Their set was filled with great interplay and intricate melody lines from Chris Thile, Noam Pikelny, and Gabe Witcher. Gabe even played drums on a couple of tunes, adding a bit of drive and intensity to the music. There were a few moments where he flexed his multitasking skills by playing fiddle and drums simultaneously.
Some of the highlights included Movement and Location, Familiarity, and This Girl. The biggest response came on their signature tune, Rye Whiskey, which whipped the crowd into a frenzy.
Janelle Monae brought the funk party to Telluride Bluegrass on Friday night. The band was dressed all in white, with the exception of the backup singers who sported black and white striped outfits reminiscent of an NFL referee. Their attire was further enhanced by white sheets adorning the back of the stage and the bottoms of the drum and keyboard risers, as well as by a black and white swirly pattern on the bass drum. Janelle sports a trademark pompadour, while her guitarist has a Prince haircut circa the late 80s Batman soundtrack days. Yes, they know how to create a funk party.
The music matched the flashy nature of their stage backdrop. The musicianship was exceptional, the grooves were riveting, and they created a tight pocket that forced you to put on your dancing shoes. Janelle is clearly a rising star, and she put forth a tremendous show under a beautiful Telluride sunset.
While I can’t speak highly enough of this set – the progressive nature of her grooves are matched by her charismatic, high energy stage performance – it’s clear that Janelle is still experiencing some growing pains regarding the flow of her set. She made a few curious decisions in this area such as playing two iconic covers, James Brown’s I Feel Good and the Jackson 5’s I Want You Back, consecutively (I think spacing these crowd pleasers out is a more effective approach). She also played a beautiful, soulful ballad that brought the energy down and failed to follow it with a heavy hitting funk tune that would get the crowd back to peak engagement. I think she’ll figure these things out over the next few years and once she does, she’ll blow the minds of music fans on a nightly basis.
Trampled by Turtles
Trampled by Turtles closed the night with a really high energy set. Most of their songs feature furious, relentless chord scrubbing, but it gets so fast that the music often has no groove. It’s not my favorite style. I feel like you always need to maintain some sort of a groove in your music. That being said, the crowd seemed to really enjoy their set.
Leftover Salmon Nightgrass Set
I cut out of the Trampled by Turtles set early in order to make it to the Palm Theater for the start of Leftover Salmon’s Nightgrass set. It was a great show, and the band played with tremendous energy throughout the night. The second set was particularly raging.
The band deftly blended a honky tonk feel with zydeco grooves and a rollicking bluegrass stomp. Drew Emmitt and Andy Thorn pushed the music with their solos, and Bill Payne was a great complement to them stylistically.
Anders Beck and Paul Hoffman from Greensky Bluegrass joined the band for the last few songs, increasing the jam factor tenfold. They encored with Rise Up, Wake and Bake, which had the whole crowd singing the refrain while the band sauntered off the stage.
- Saturday, June 20, 2015
- 9:00am — Gates Open
- 9:45 – 10:45am — Telluride Band Contest
- 11:00 – Noon — Trout Steak Revival
- 12:30 – 1:45pm — Robert Ellis
- 2:15 – 3:30pm — Steep Canyon Rangers
- 4:00 – 5:30pm — Yonder Mountain String Band
- 5:45 – 6:00pm — Telluride Troubadour
- 6:15 – 7:30pm — Lake Street Dive
- 8:00 – 10:00pm — Sam Bush Band
- 10:30 – Midnight — Leftover Salmon
Steep Canyon Rangers
The Steep Canyon Rangers delivered a great set featuring top notch musicianship. They write great songs that include a variety of interesting chord progressions. The band really knows how to build their music. They are all really strong soloists and rhythm players, resulting in huge crescendos that reverberated throughout the Telluride Valley. The music gets a bit jammy at times, but their musicianship keeps these sections engaging.
The band added a percussionist since the last time I saw them. He plays a Cajon that doubles as a bass drum (using a bass pedal) and a snare drum (by hitting the top of the Cajon with brushes and bamboo sticks). He also has two cymbals in his kit to provide some embellishments. He was very tasteful and added a little oomph to the music without being too overpowering.
Sam Bush made his first of many appearances of the day, sitting in on a few tunes in the middle of the set. On a day that featured some of the longstanding classic Telluride Bluegrass acts, this set stood out as one of the best.
Yonder Mountain String Band
You’d better duck for cover, or you’ll get blasted by a barrage of marshmallows at the start of the set. This has become an annual tradition during Yonder’s Saturday afternoon show, much to the chagrin of the band.
The early part of their set featured some of their new music, which contains a lot of heavy riffs and progressive lines. Their new lineup has pushed the boundaries of their music for the better, and I really liked this part of the set. Allie Kral has emerged as the best soloist in the band, and she really helps them build the music to more powerful peaks.
Sam Bush sat in for the second half of the set. At this point, the music shifted gears and became much jammier. The highlight came near the end of the set when Sam, Allie and Jake Jolliff traded solos, building the music to a powerful crescendo with the help of the rhythm section. They encored with a really grooving Shakedown Street.
Lake Street Dive
Lake Street Dive followed Yonder with a great set of their own. They are a really soulful band that blends a barroom blues feel with some rocking moments fueled by an upright bass that gets downright crunchy through a distortion pedal.
Lead singer Rachael Price has an amazing voice, simultaneously soulful and powerful. Her voice is matched by her charismatic stage presence and her ability to connect to the crowd through poignant, heartfelt stories that provide a more intimate window into the band.
They chose some interesting covers, including the Annie Lenox classic Walking on Broken Glass and Van Halen’s Jump. Guitarist Mike Olson jumped onto the trumpet to play Eddie Van Halen’s iconic guitar lines while the signature keyboard progression was covered by the upright bass. They made both of these songs their own, and the crowed soaked up every moment.
Sam Bush Band
Sam Bush proved once again why he’s the King of Telluride, weaving a masterful flow throughout his set. He was the beneficiary of the most vibrant sunset of the week. There were just enough clouds to create rich colors and textures framed between the V-shaped silhouettes of the mountains. The sky hummed with soothing shades of orange, blue and pink while Sam serenaded the crowd with Circles Around Me, a song he wrote about the magic of Telluride.
Other highlights included a new song called It’s Not What You Think which featured really progressive lines and rhythms, and the Sam Bush classic Howling at the Moon. To close the set, he brought out a litany of special guests including Drew Emmitt, Chris Daniels, and Jake Jolliff for Bob Dylan’s When You Gonna Wake Up. This song featured electric mandolin, electric guitar, and organ tones by a synth banjo to create a full, rocking feel that built to an impressive peak with a great mandolin exchange between Drew and Jake. The Leftover Salmon boys joined Sam on the encore, providing a preview of what was to come next.
Leftover Salmon kept the party going strong. They weren’t as rocking as the previous night. This was a more groove-oriented set that had the crowed bopping around from start to finish. Sam Bush joined them for the second half of the set, capping a day where he easily spent over 4 hours on stage. The man is a true music warrior.
Highlights included High Country and the Andy Thorn tune Morning Sun, which closed the set with a stirring jam featuring Sam Bush and Chris Daniels.
John Wood Memorial Pick in Town Park
Shortly after Leftover Salmon ended the music on the main stage, the late night jams began in Town Park. The featured jam of the evening was the John Wood Memorial Pick, in honor of longtime Festivarian John Wood, who passed away at the festival last summer.
It was easily the largest Town Park jam I’ve ever participated in. There were probably about 30 players participating at its peak, and there were even more people in the audience. The pick was filled with great vibes and lots of positive energy. All the musicians were arranged in a large circle along the circumference of the Cascadian Dome, and all players were welcome. There was lots of laughing, many “Festivaaal!” shouts, and numerous stories of John peppered in between the songs.
Vince Herman and Andy Thorn from Leftover Salmon played for a while, and 2 of the members of Fruition showed up for the wee hours of the night. The jam was still going strong, albeit a little smaller, when I took off around 5:00 in the morning. It was a beautiful tribute to a man who touched the lives of many Town Park Festivarians over the years.
- Sunday, June 21, 2015
- 10:00am — Gates Open
- 10:45 – Noon — Rock My Soul featuring The Fairfield Four & The McCrary Sisters
- 12:30 – 1:45pm — Rhonda Vincent & The Rage
- 2:15 – 3:30pm — Brett Dennen
- 4:00 – 5:15pm — Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer
- 5:45 – 7:00pm — Greensky Bluegrass
- 7:30 – 8:45pm — Kacey Musgraves
- 9:15 – 10:45pm — Ry Cooder, Sharon White & Ricky Skaggs
Rock My Soul featuring The Fairfield Four and the McCrary Sisters
This year’s gospel set combined two legendary groups, the Fairfield Four and the McCrary Sisters, for what was by far the most inspiring Sunday morning gospel hour I’ve ever witnessed at Telluride Bluegrass.
They eased us in with a few a capella gospel tunes, but the break from Saturday night’s action didn’t last long. Shortly into their set, they launched into some rollicking, foot stomping tunes that were at times downright funky and at others full-on rockers. As their set drew to a close, they brought the energy back down a bit with a few soulful gospel numbers. It was by far the best set of the day.
Rokoko Art Booth
Telluride Bluegrass is best known for the world class music performed all weekend, but each year you’re also treated to some exceptional artwork in the craft booths along the side of the festival ground. This year, one of my favorites was the Rokoko art booth.
Rokoko is the art of Mitch and A.me Alamag, a husband and wife team from Las Cruces, New Mexico. They’ve been creating art for more than 30 years, and they travel across the country every summer to bring their pieces to festivals nationwide.
Their art is truly one-of-a-kind. They utilize a wide range of structures as the “canvas” for their art, including traditional rectangular backgrounds, skulls, guitars, skis, ski boots, and even a giant chair in the shape of a hand.
Mitch builds the structural components to the art pieces, and A.me does all of the painting and writing. Their skill sets complement each other perfectly. A.me’s use of vibrant colors, her tremendous attention to detail, and innovative avant garde designs truly make Mitch’s structures come to life. If you didn’t have a chance to stop by their booth at the festival, visit their website (www.rokokoart.com) to take a look at these amazing art pieces.
Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer
Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer provided Sunday’s music appreciation set. There were some incredible moments where they locked together and built the music to powerful crescendos that featured masterful musicianship. That being said, these moments were few and far between. Overall, the set seemed a bit noodly and heady, and I found it hard to stay engaged.
Greensky Bluegrass delivered a jammy set that kept the energy pretty high from start to finish. For the most part, their jams mainly build their intensity by increasing volume, not due to the tension and release created by syncopated rhythmic variations and innovative solos. The crowd was really engaged, but the set got a bit too jammy for my taste.
Country Sunday Send-Off (Kacey Musgraves and Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs, and Sharon White)
The festival ended with two country sets. First, Kacey Musgraves treated the crowd to an energetic set of modern country music. The stage was adorned with neon cacti for her set, providing a fun visual backdrop.
Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs, and Sharon White closed the weekend with a set of old timey country classics. The musicianship was first rate, and Ry Cooder’s guitar licks were spot on for the style of music. However, it was an extremely low energy set to close the night, which made it challenging to stay engaged after such a long weekend of music.
Back in Town Park, the scene was much mellower than in previous nights. There were fewer picks going on, and those who did participate seemed to have a bit less pep in their step. This was quite understandable. After an epic weekend of tremendous performances, many Festivarians were a bit worn out. I’d say that’s a sign of a great festival.