Telluride Bluegrass Day 4
Chris Thile dubbed this year’s festival Telluride Bluegrass and Classical Festival, in large part due to the two magnificent sets delivered by Béla Fleck, with the final day’s set of through-composed music performed by Béla and the brilliant young string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Their set started with several Flecktone works arranged for this ensemble (they unfortunately did not announce their program from the stage). The centerpiece of the set was Béla’s “Night Flight Over Water,” composed for this quintet. While streaming the show online, it may have sounded flawless, but their on-stage finagling of charts in the incessant breeze was quite incredible. They all struggled with dozens of pages of music and a mess of clothespins holding them in place, several times with a stagehand assisting while they played through the piece. And, it came off seamlessly. Violinist Colin Jacobsen wrote my favorite work of the set, entitled “Brooklesca.” I had heard this on their Passport album, and the sparkle added with Béla’s part was a perfect addition to this showpiece.
On a day of so much bluegrass and new acoustic music, San Francisco’s Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers shined. Their accessible lyrics, a perfect country-pop vibe and groove, their lead guitarist’s jaw-dropping solos, and Nicki’s amazing singing was just what Town Park needed at that hour. (Hat-tip to my good friend Dave for insisting I catch their set.)
This year, Jerry Douglas brought his new project the Earls of Leicester, which is a tribute to the original shows by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Shawn Camp’s imitation of Lester Flatt’s distinct talking voice is just fantastic, and the band ran through dozens of gems from that era. Banjoist Charlie Cushman was laying it down like almost no one else can do. Tim O’Brien played the part of Curly Seckler, the mandolinist in the Foggy Mountain Boys. After Flatt & Scruggs left Bill Monroe’s band, they chose not to feature the mandolin (Bill’s instrument of choice), and therefore Tim got one solo. I personally find an incongruity in a band where Cushman plays Scruggs verbatim, Johnny Warren sounds just like his dad on fiddle, O’Brien gets one solo (a la Curly Seckler), yet Douglas can play in a fairly modern style over all these tunes. But boy can they can SING, and I am looking forward to their album due out this fall! One aside is I was sorry that they did not mention that Thursday, June 19, was Lester Flatt’s 100th birthday.
Over the last few years the Telluride House Band — Sam, Béla, Jerry, Edgar, Stuart and Bryan — have closed the festival. Only in Telluride do these legends go by only their first names — a testament to the consistency of the crowd, their dedication to performing at the festival, and what lions they are in stringband music. Twenty-five years after the Strength and Numbers album, these musicians are still at the top of their game, and they always deliver. There were so many highlights in this epic two-hour set it is tough to single out one, so here are a dozen:
1. The touching introduction by Craig Ferguson (President of Planet Bluegrass) describing the devastation from last year’s floods in Lyons, and how this festival got them through it all.
2. Bryan Sutton is so good at playing guitar (check this solo).
3. Béla’s old banjo masterpiece “Eager and Anxious” (that rarely gets played)
4. Jason Carter (of the Del McCoury Band) sat next to me and videoed every single Stuart Duncan solo.
5. The fact that Planet Bluegrass brought Allison Krauss out only to sing with this band.
6. And that Del McCoury sang with the House Band.
7. “Sawin’ on the Strings” is both the coolest and corniest tune of all time.
8. Edgar Meyer’s arco solo on “Hangman’s Reel.” Oh my god.
9. Del, Allison, and Sam singing “Cry, Cry Darling.” Oh my god.
10. Edgar Meyer’s “Barnyard Disturbance” with Béla and Jerry.
11. Sam and Jerry playing the “Mannish Boy/Sailin’ Shoes” medley. I have seen it dozens of times, and it is still an amazing display of power, groove, and soul.
12. Del and Sam closing the set with U2’s “In the Name of Love.”
Also of note, Planet Bluegrass’s extraordinary commitment to the environment is noteworthy, with onsite compost and recycling, dedication to renewable energy, and free filtered water. As a frequent attendee to their events, it is always shocking to me to go to other festivals or events with overflowing trashcans full of Styrofoam and plastic water bottles. These strides in what they call “sustainable festivation” are highly admirable.
Thanks to everyone for reading these posts, and tune back in at the end of July for reports from RockyGrass.
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Jake Schepps is a five-string banjo player whose most recent album, An Evening in the Village: The Music of Béla Bartók bridges Bartok’s Eastern European folk melodies with the realm of American roots music. He’s been hailed by Bluegrass Unlimited magazine as making music that “intrigues, entertains and reveals more of itself with each play.” He’ll be reporting from Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2014 for No Depression. (Check out his report fromTelluride Day One.) Hear his music at JakeSchepps.com.