Telluride Bluegrass Festival – (Telluride, CO)
There’s no better view from a festival stage than the one in Telluride, Colorado, facing vast escarpments, waterfalls and Lord of the Rings-worthy peaks. It’s easy to mark first-time performers because no matter how hip they are, the massive box canyon and the altitude leave them a bit breathless and awestruck. With so much rock on display, most of them take the scenery as a call to rock, in whatever form of music they pursue, at this, the most incompletely named music festival west of the Mississippi.
Meanwhile, the veterans who play annually and who gave this festival its personality over its 33 years, use the vastness of the sky and the height of the mountains to remind them of musical standards that can’t be as easily achieved at sea level. They are today’s acoustic grand masters, the founders of a whole school of Americana born of bluegrass, fermented in Appalachia, then homegrown in California and the Rockies: mandolinist Sam Bush, banjo player Bela Fleck, bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer, dobro innovator Jerry Douglas, fiddler and multi-tasker Tim O’Brien, guitarist Tony Rice, bluegrass Meistersinger Peter Rowan, and a few other rarefied sidemen. Locale notwithstanding, these musicians, and their penchant for improvising together in all manner of combinations, are one important reason thousands of people make the long drive up to this Elysian town’s baseball field.
The opening Thursday built toward a climactic set in which Bush, Fleck, Douglas and Meyer revived repertoire from their landmark 1989 Strength In Numbers newgrass album The Telluride Sessions (O’Brien stood in for Mark O’Connor on fiddle). Flatpicker Bryan Sutton, personifying a new generation of next-grassers, proved he has mastered and built on the Strength In Numbers ethic as well as anyone. With late-afternoon light blasting up the valley through roiling neon clouds, tunes such as “Texas Red” felt indigenous to the terrain. And in celebration of Fleck’s 25th straight Telluride festival, the irreverent and irrepressible emcee Pastor Mustard presented the banjo player with a fat but lively chicken.
By that point, we who had planned so carefully to snag quality real estate for our tarps and low-back folding chairs had already been prepared with a superbly modulated lineup. O’Brien and his sister Mollie had opened the festival with two voices, one guitar, and a bunch of elemental country and bluegrass songs. Ryan Shupe & the Rubberband, winners of Telluride’s band competition back in 1997, were the only act of the weekend from a mainstream country label (Capitol Nashville). Their polished harmonies and stage antics went over well. Drew Emmitt, formerly of Leftover Salmon and now a frontman, elicited a sort of newgrass heartthrob swoon from the Colorado crowd. Missing perhaps was Leftover’s weirdness, and Emmitt often seemed to be emulating Sam Bush and John Cowan, both of whom sat in.
Thursday’s most dramatic set came from first-timer Neko Case, an inspired booking. Never mind that her wardrobe didn’t make it up the mountain. Her voice (backed beautifully by Kelly Hogan) filled the canyon to overflowing. Her songs were mystical, and she covered “Wayfaring Stranger” and Dylan’s “Buckets Of Rain” with vision. When a perfect rainbow materialized during the shiver-inducing “Hold On, Hold On” from her new album Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, it was like a huge thumbs-up from God.
Each day, it turned out, slotted a left-of-center wild-card act in the mid-to-late afternoon. Friday’s was the Decemberists from Portland, with suave beatnik Colin Meloy in charge of a set of fluid, organic pop. Sandwiched between the Jerry Douglas Band and Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Meloy and friends offered a celebration of song between the eclectic improv. As for Douglas, his band has taken on extra edge since adding Nashville guitarist Guthrie Trapp.
By Saturday, the unsettled weather had stabilized into long blue-sky days, and the tent city behind the festival grounds had become a comfortable neighborhood. The day began with a guitar conversation between Sutton and Rice, followed by the vocally and lyrically gifted Shawn Camp, making a welcome festival debut. The Yonder Mountain String Band, the essence of Colorado hippie-grass, are probably destined for Telluride lifer status. They don’t approach the precision of Bush or Douglas, but they worked their many partisans into a dancing frenzy, two sets before Bush did the same with his tight band and fresh material off his new Laps In Seven disc. In between came an afternoon refresher from winsome Australian pop star Missy Higgins, who deserves every break Norah Jones ever had and more.
Sunday is Telluride’s bittersweet and sublime day. From the intimate pairing of mandolin master Mike Marshall with Edgar Meyer, through an afternoon of perfect bluegrass from Rowan, the Del McCoury Band and O’Brien, each note’s slow decay reminded one of the tent-striking and home-going about to take place. Hard to believe, but the music and mood kept improving through a daring, dazzling Nickel Creek set and a rapture-inducing John Prine performance that mingled a tear-jerking “Angel From Montgomery” with a rockabilly explosion of Cashian proportions on “Bear Creek Blues”.
Telluride’s daily closing acts might be best addressed as a group. Technically headliners, they still have the disadvantage of A) following one of the Telluride all-stars, who played each day’s penultimate set, and B) following long days of music very much unlike whatever it is they do. Thursday’s Bonnie Raitt show was solid and familiar-feeling, and she invited Douglas, Fleck and others onstage for a jammy “Thing Called Love”. Friday’s Drive-By Truckers set felt most out-of-place, and while a core of loyalists clearly enjoyed their amped and grungy performance, most festivarians retreated to their nests.
The most effective day-capper was Saturday’s Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. Their feisty funk complemented rather than crowded out the day’s smorgasbord. I listened to Sunday’s nutty, tongue-in-cheek Barenaked Ladies performance from the campground. The cheering throngs clearly would disagree, but I thought that was like serving live lobster for dessert. For me, Prine was the capper, a perfect soundtrack to a perfect sundown in a perfect place.