Telluride Bluegrass 2018: Notes, Reflections, and Ruminations
Thursday’s Saturday and Friday’s Thursday
It’s Friday morning, but it looks a lot like Thursday in Telluride’s Town Park. Thursdays are a bit laid back. Some folks aren’t off work yet, or are just taking their time getting into town. Thursdays are supposed to be the semi-calm before the Festivarian Storm each year. Fridays then pick up, and the Festival tide peaks on Saturday, before settling back down on Sunday. This year things seem a little topsy turvy, as even the early shows on Thursday saw crowds rivaling a normal Saturday. And outside, there are folks holding up fingers, hoping to score a ticket.
Friday moring, however, is chill. You get the impression that Thursday’s sun and libations have left a few people sleeping in. And unless they’re listening on KOTO, they don’t know that they’re missing some amazing harmonies by The Maes of Australia and some Finnish fiddle sounds by Frigg. By the way, here’s a great Frigg joke: “This was written by a professor, very precise man, as professors tend to be. So he heard us perform his composition, and said, ‘Well, yes, it can also be performed like that.'”
Thursday tarp runs are usually ho hum, with even high numbers landing prime Festival real estate. But this year the Thursday tarp line was really long, maybe 700 numbers given out, and even the folks without numbers lined up and tried to run, too, even though it was a bit late for that by the time they emerged into Town Park. One minute you’re listening to the bagpipes as the tarp run begins and the next thing you know, it’s a recording of “Mister Soundman” and Town Park is almost full, tarps as far as you can see.
We did have a little Thursday sun tent snafu. Word is, the tents became sentient (prounounce that to rhyme with sun tent and you’re an honorary Festivarian) and devised a plan to move the sun tent signs, allowing themselves to take over a good portion of Town Park. Telluride gummies generate some interesting rumors. But maybe it happened. Anyway, while the expansion of sun tent world was good for the sun tents, it wasn’t all that good for everyone. And for, like 30 seconds, it was stressy. Which is a long period of stress at the Festival. But it went away, everything was worked out, and Friday morning the sun tents had been put back in their place.
The Thursday lineup was the best first day we’ve seen in years. You don’t have to take my word for it, there was a guy on a cellphone Friday morning telling someone in Chicago, “Hey man, the lineup yesterday was the best Thursday ever!” *pause* “No, really dude. Tedeschi closed it out with like 25 people in the band [it was closer to half that, still a huge contingent] and they brought up Del and Ronnie McCoury and then Sam Bush and then they, like, jammed.” Chicago was right, they like jammed. There were somewhere in the neighborhood of six planets visible with a half moon right over the stage as they jammed. Unlike past festivals when dark means something between freeze to death and really chilly, Thursday night was almost warm. Almost. You could leave your fleece unzipped.
Thursday started at 11:00 a.m. with Chris Thile, the Prince of Telluride. He played a solo set to a very large crowd, and they were beyond receptive. The Railsplitters were up next, bringing some Boulder (and Jackson, Mississippi) bluegrass sounds. This group was under my radar screen before Thursday, but they won’t be anymore. After the Railsplitters, Billy Strings. That’s a nickname for Michigan’s William Apostol, earned because of his flatpicking. This dude from Michigan can play, and although he’s only 25, he sounds a lot older when he sings. The Telluride Bluegrass program says his vocals are “whiskey-cured” and maybe that’s so, but if it is, Billy has spent a lot of time at a bar. At one point he’s got Sam Bush on stage with him doing Freeborn Man, and you’re thinking, hey, I need another beer, but how do I walk away from this? And it’s only 2 p.m.
What do you say about The Wood Brothers? Oliver and Chris rocked the early mid-afternoon, or perhaps the late mid-afternoon (sorry Steve Martin, couldn’t resist) and at one point had Derek Trucks sits in on a cover of Midnight Rider. The Woods play with a guy named Jano Rix, who can play just about anything, including a Shuitar (don’t try to pronounce it, the u is silent). It’s a guitar played as a percussion instrument, and well, by the time that came out, it seemed completely natural. Telluride natural.
Thursday evening started out with I’m With Her. Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan. Aoefie is pronounced Eef-ah, by the way, and you should try to say that because it doesn’t sound like it looks. But she, however, does sound like she looks. Amazing. As do Sara and Sarah. They were introduced as a super group, and then they showed us why that term is both dead on and understated. They do these harmonies and complex arrangements, and they’re all great vocalists and instrumentalists. This set is Telluride, tried and true, starring a group born here four years ago. And you start to wonder, when am I going to have time to get out of here to get my jeans on for the night sets? Answer is simple. You aren’t.
Del McCoury played next. There isn’t a more loved fellow at Telluride. He dates back to Bill Monroe, but he’s cooler than the other side of the pillow. These younger Festivarians dig him so much, it’s a love Del Fest. By the time he gets to 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, the crowd is completely taken. Ronnie and the guys back him up as always, and you get to look at the future and past of bluegrass right there together on the Fred Shellman Memorial Stage. Thank God for Del.
Sunday is Saturday
The War & Treaty start Sunday off with a bang. Gospel? Yes, some gospel. But mainly
Before the day is over we’ve seen Edgar Meyer & Christian McBride, Tim O’Brien Band, Yonder Mountain String Band, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Punch Brothers, and Sturgill Simpson. And we’re done by 10:45, just in time to see Punch Brothers again at the Sheridan. But we give our tickets away and walk back to our place after Sturgill. You know Punch Brothers will be great, but it’s time to put this festival in the books.
Telluride has its own philosophy, a hippie-egalitarian philosophy of fairness and kindness. I’ve been coming here since 2005, and I’ve never seen any sort of physical altercation during the Festival.