Telluride Bluegrass Festival – (Telluride, CO)
The town of Telluride fits snugly inside a deep glacial valley walled by snow-capped mountains. There’s only one road in and one road out. Its few parallel main streets boast a quartet of coffee shops, a handful of real estate agencies, and a variety of ethnic restaurants. To be generous, this town of 2,300 with a median home price of just under a million dollars is a vibrant, idealistic, progressive community. To be cynical, it is a cloistered, elitist paradise.
Into this valley each June comes one of the best music festivals in the country. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival, now in its 32nd year, presents a wide variety of Americana and roots acts, along with a few curveballs. Most notable of the curveballs this year was Jewel. “Someone name a song,” she said, asking for requests at the beginning of her set. The response was tepid at best. At this point she undoubtedly muttered under her breath the same phrase that would be heard throughout the weekend by festivalgoers and artists alike. Gawking at the natural beauty and the unnatural wealth of Telluride, listening to artists as varied as Earl Scruggs and Stanley Clarke, and witnessing the coexistence of traditional bluegrass music and an almost maniacal environmental ethic (the festival composted — not recycled — nearly half of its waste last year), many visitors find themselves asking, “What is this place, and what the hell am I doing here?”
It was a pervasive theme for this often surreal festival. Thursday’s highlights included a high-energy early-afternoon set from the Wilders, followed by the same from Split Lip Rayfield. The two bands seem a natural duo. No matter that Hank Williams originally recorded it, the Wilders prove “Settin’ The Woods On Fire” was really written for them. From afar, they resemble a collection of country-themed bobblehead dolls gathered around the microphone, furiously pounding out honky-tonk tunes like latter-day Drifting Cowboys.
After an uninspired set by Emmylou Harris, Wilco — arguably a curveball themselves — took the stage. Jeff Tweedy wondered aloud how they had gotten there. “We’re not really a bluegrass band,” he said. So they took another approach: “We put all of our songs with the word ‘mountain’ in the set which is easy when you have no hits.” Encores of “Heavy Metal Drummer”, “Kingpin”, and, of course, “Remember The Mountain Bed” assured the handful of bluegrass traditionalists in the audience that indeed they weren’t bluegrass, but indeed they did rock.
Friday began with the Brunett Family Bluegrass Band from Flagstaff, Arizona. Between songs, the bass-playing mother invoked the theme from a different angle. “I’m just a housewife and my husband is a trucker,” she said. “I can’t believe we’re here!” King Wilkie, a group of young polyester-suited men from Charlottesville, Virginia, played an exceptional set, hitting highlights from their albums along with some great covers such as Gram Parsons’ “Juanita”.
But the battle for best emerging band was far from over. Old Crow Medicine Show took the stage in the afternoon, pulling out all the stops. Ketch Secor, the fiddle player and singer, presented each song in a style best described as an imitation of Ed Sullivan doing a Grand Ole Opry announcer. As Secor introduced a song for “all those Rocky Mountain hillbillies,” with the faux twang one might expect from such a phrase, a man near the stage observed, “In Nashville there’s classes on this. They teach you how to sell that shit.” Fortunately, Old Crow doesn’t really need a pitch, because the music speaks for itself — especially when their producer, David Rawlings, joins in to cover Dylan and the Band’s “Odds And Ends.”
Rawlings returned on Saturday night with his longtime partner Gillian Welch; together, they provided the festival’s high point. Rawlings emerged in a nudie suit that must have belonged to Porter Waggoner, and the duo proceeded to play a set so focused and lively that a brilliant, reverb-soaked cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” had the entire crowd endeared to them. Old Crow Medicine Show joined for an encore of The Band’s “The Weight”, and the question of “What the hell am I doing here?” dissolved in the harmonies.
It seems the only performers who know exactly what they’re doing in Telluride are the old guard — Tim O’Brien, Peter Rowan, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush. Before Calexico, a stunningly diverse and solid band from Tucson, Arizona, mopped up the dregs of the crowd with a dreamlike blend of Mexicali sounds and Minutemen covers, Bush’s band had invited half the acts from the festival onstage. This included, but was not limited to, Gillian Welch and Jean-Luc Ponty; they sang Bob Marley’s “One Love”.
In the end, no matter how much you may question what you’re doing there, I guess that’s what Telluride is all about. French jazz violinists and Rocky Mountain hillbillies singing reggae. Or something like that.