Telluride Bluegrass Festival Day 2
As I stated yesterday, is little that happens at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival that is not epic, and Béla Fleck’s set with the Colorado Symphony puts the meaning of that word to the test. This was monumental. First of all the fact that Béla would ask, and then Craig Ferguson and Planet Bluegrass would agree to bring 50+ more musicians to Telluride (it is a small town), given the festival sold out in the first days it was on sale, is simply astonishing. The technical side of cramming 50+ chairs, 25+ music stands, 50+ microphones onto the stage, setting it all up in 45 minutes is an astounding feat in and of itself. It entailed mocking up the stage in Denver and dialing in a digital board, then performing the program in Montrose in a similar array to get the tech side more together, and then bringing the setup down here.
But the program is what took it over the top. Béla introduced the symphony, and let them play a couple pieces on their own. They started with the William Tell Overture and, while a somewhat hackneyed theme, its own grandiosity completely grabbed the attention of 10,000 festivarians, resulting in a well-deserved standing ovation. Then followed the first movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. Fleck came out for his trio arrangement of Debussy’s Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum. His orchestral arrangement of “Big Country” was gorgeous, yet “The Imposter Concerto” was the centerpiece of the set. For those unfamiliar, a “concerto” is a musical work usually composed in three movements, in which (typically) one solo instrument (for instance, a piano, violin, cello, flute, mandolin or banjo) is accompanied by an orchestra. I have fortunately seen him perform the concerto three times, and this was certainly the most grooving of them all. Over the 35 minutes of the concerto, there are many sophisticated odd-meter grooves that are not easy for a large orchestra. Maybe it was due to the smaller sized symphony, but more likely that they got to rehearse it a lot more than symphonies usually do.
The Symphony finished with the final movement of Mozart’s Jupiter. And then for the encore, Béla brought Sam Bush out for an orchestral arrangement of the New Grass Revival gem “County Clare.” But this was no ordinary sitting in for Sam. With a conductor, and 50 classical musicians, and no rehearsal this was a different thing altogether. Watching Sam figure out his way through this situation from up close was fascinating to witness. And Sam is the consummate pro, awaiting eye contact from Béla for some of the cues, closely watching for downbeats from the conductors baton, and taking several improvised solos. And when Sam dug into his legendary half-time chop, that orchestra grooved! Seeing Sam’s surprise and delight as he felt out a completely unique setting on a stage he has graced hundreds of times was such a treat, as these 50+ musicians played such a great tune by the band with so much meaning and history in this valley. A true honor to be witness this piece of Telluride Bluegrass Festival history.
An aside: I was sitting next to an elderly woman who is a dyed-in-the-wool classical music fan, and knew little to nothing about the banjo or stringband music. After the first movement, there was huge applause, and she was visibly befuddled, asking me why everyone was clapping knowing there are two more movements. I calmed her by explaining that these people have no idea of traditional classical music decorum, and the rest is to come.
Earlier in the day Aoife O’Donovan gave an incredible set, playing music from her debut solo album Fossils, with Chris Eldridge of Punch Brothers offering some blistering electric guitar solos, and Noam Pikelny sitting in for a tune. Aoife is just plain wonderful.
Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott’s set was captivating from front to back, with a rousing rendition of “Dance You Hippies, Dance” couched in the middle. Darrell’s improvised and winding harmony parts never sounded noodly or out of place, just offering a more and more compelling shades of the song. I actually always cry listening to Darrell’s song “With a Memory Like Mine,” and as the final tune of the set it left me literally in tears, while cheering the killer solos and trades on the chord progression. Lastly, Darrell’s harmonic sense over some 3-chord tunes is remarkable, offering creative passing chords and varying color and character in constantly changing ways.
Dave Rawlings Machine with John Paul Jones! This band is a national treasure. Their rendition of Dylan’s “Queen Jane” was simply sublime, and then encoring with “Going to California” with Dave capturing Robert Plant’s vocal inflections, yet owning them too. It is a treat to see bassist Paul Kowert of Punch Brothers, one of the most accomplished bassists today, channeling Roy Huskey Jr. and recognizing the endless challenge in playing 6 to 10 notes all night and making them REALLY count.
Once again, I highly recommend you all start streaming the festival now at www.koto.org. All bands sets stream during this epic festival, with interviews and more in between.
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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 from Telluride Day One.) Hear his music at JakeSchepps.com.