Telluride Bluegrass Festival Day 1
There is little that happens at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival that is not epic. Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, the Telluride House Band, Yonder Mountain String Band, Punch Brothers, Tim O’Brien, Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, and Edgar Meyer are here every year (this being Sam’s 40th straight festival, and he is the reigning “King of Telluride”). Almost every year also includes the Del McCoury Band, Leftover Salmon, Allison Krauss, Hot Rize, and many other bluegrass, jamgrass, folk, and rock stalwarts. The artists here bring their A-game, and the setting in this grand box canyon, a deeply devoted sold-out audience, and a dedicated staff at Planet Bluegrass consistently leads to an event like no other.
Most superlatives in today’s language are overused; we just go for the “top shelf words” these days, and words like genius, brilliant, and amazing carry little weight anymore Yet there are not enough of those words to describe the musician that started this year’s festival. About 90 minutes before his set, Chris Thile tweeted out “GOOD MORNING, TELLURIDE!!! I woke up feeling like playing actual bluegrass. Any songs/tunes you wanna hear in an hour and a half?” Thile started the set with “Over the Waterfall,” and then took requests from the audience for the remainder of the set. Chris not only walked on stage with little idea of what he was going to play, but he free-formed the entire arc of the set, segueing instrumentals, bluegrass barn burners, pretty tunes, bluesy tunes, and more. He drew on the material from his phenomenal duet album with Michael Daves Sleep With One Eye Open, yet most everything came as requests. It culminated with a couple of fun duets with Sam Bush.
Among the many things that struck me during Thile’s set, during his solos, was his extraordinary rhythmic and melodic displacement. His level of sophistication with this — and his ability to freely recombine odd-length phrases — is nothing less than remarkable. Also, the general arc of how he actually used the mandolin in each song was very conscious and extremely effective. Seldom was the mandolin used just as a harmonic bed on which to sing, instead offering single notes, rhythmic emphasis, and countless other sophisticated techniques, drawn upon with extraordinary freedom, then interwoven to be unrecognizable individually, yet recombined into an effective rendition of the song. And his singing sounds better than ever.
Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, with their blazing IBMA Banjo Player of the Year Mike Munford, put on a fantastic show of material from their three albums (a new one is due out this summer). I love this band. Great energy and superlative musicianship. My favorite tune is “Is That So” from Tony Rice’s 1980 album Mar West, which provided a stellar showcase for young gun Chris Luquette.
The Del McCoury Band is an enigma, yet also one of my favorite bands. In a day of bands with extended jams, flashy instrumentalists and even gimmicks, this group really has none of that. No one individually shines, and with all of that energy going back into the band’s sound, they all shine brighter. They always, always deliver. Their captivating 90-minute set came across as effortless, and simply beautiful. The band had several more spot mics on the stage than I had seen before which created a bigger sound, and likely some easier on stage choreography. Yet, they still sing around one or two mics, and it sounds amazing. Sam Bush again sat in for a couple tunes, and I must say that Del singing tenor to Sam Bush’s “Ole Slew Foot” is one of the coolest musical moments I have witnessed in a while.
Nickel Creek followed it up, playing to an audience of rabid fans singing along to all the old classics. My personal favorite Nickel Creek album Little Cowpoke was not referenced tonight, but one can always hope it comes back into the fold. And Mark Schatz is just so good, you barely know he is there, yet you would miss him terribly if he ever dropped out — the sign of a true pro.
I highly recommend you all start streaming the festival now at www.koto.org. All bands sets stream, and it’s an easy, less expensive way to take part in this epic festival.
UPDATE: Read about the second day of the festival here.
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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. Hear his music at JakeSchepps.com.