:: Durango Blues Train ::
June 2 & 3, 2017
Click For > Artist Line Up
Photos by Ty Hyten
Words by Caleb Westbrook
It’s a pretty unreal scene if you think about it: where else can you board an 1880s steam train and suddenly enter one of the most surreal – and fitting – places to listen to a stellar cast of musicians playing the blues?
That’s at least what the Durango Blues Train offers for the select few lucky enough to land tickets for the handful of performances on the historic locomotive in this special part of Southwest Colorado.
The Durango Blue Train is a literal moving musical experience on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a historic route that once brought supplies over two mountain passes from Durango to the former mining town of Silverton.
On this particular adventure, however, the train is tasked with hauling music lovers on a 37-mile trek through some of the most idyllic Colorado terrain, offering craft beer and local snacks along the way.
Started in 2010, the Durango Blues Train has been steadily gaining notoriety. This year, for instance, three of the four performances have sold out. When I started writing this piece, the last ride available on August 18 has just six tickets left. Now, it’s sold out.
And it’s really not hard to see why the train-blues-beer-dancing equation hasn’t translated into one of Durango’s newest and top tourist attractions.
“We’re repeat offenders,” said Nancy Abood, who lives in Mancos, about 30 minutes west of Durango. “All these people are here for a common purpose: to keep the blues alive. You don’t have to go to New Orleans.”
“The train departs the depot 7 p.m. sharp in downtown Durango, a vibrant historic district with a dizzying array of restaurants, bars, music venues, hotels, wine shops, distilleries and even a speakeasy.
As soon as the first train whistle blows, the music starts.
Two full bands on each end of the train perform in an open air gondola, with the seats removed to make way for a groovin’ – albeit shaky – dance floor.
And then four solo/duo acts play in separate “coach cars” that are enclosed, have seating and offering a warmer place to listen to music as night sets in and temperatures drop (the train recommends bringing layers).
Felix y Los Gatos is a self-proclaimed “party band” from New Mexico, dishing out a mix of Americana, Blues, Funk, Rancheras Cumbias, Country, Tex-Mex – you get the idea.
George Kilby Jr. is spans New Orleans R&B to Alternative Country, but essentially, you’re getting good-time American roots music, coupled with the wailing harmonica playing of Phil Wiggins, who was half of the acclaimed “Cephas and Wiggins” blues duo.
Yet by far, the true standout performer according to this reviewer, was Florida musician Ben Prestage.
It was like this man emerged from the swamps of the Everglades, was transplanted to the streets of Memphis where he learned how to play music as a street busker, and then became a permanent fixture on a coal-fired steam engine.
According to his website’s bio, that’s almost all true.
Prestage’s stomping, impromptu way of playing and storytelling, as well as engaging with the crowd the entire night, led to a discernable difference in the amount of people checking out his coach.
“People like guitar solos, but they love good storytelling,” he said. “All the old bluesman, they talked to the audience. And I’m just trying to keep that old school thing alive.”
The Blues Train takes about 3.5-hours round-trip. The first half, you get to see the wonderful purple cliffs and lush valleys north of Durango under a slowly setting sun.
The night sets, and the train ride feels wilder, freer. And then it’s over before you really feel it’s time.
So, if you’re reading this and now want to check out the Blues Train, you’ll have to wail until next year. And trust me, it’s worth the wait.