Telluride Bluegrass Festival – (Telluride, CO)
“There’s been a lot of talk about political songs and songs that aren’t political,” Steve Earle said into the solitary microphone that he and his Bluegrass Dukes had gathered around on a sunny and breezy Saturday afternoon in Telluride. “But you know what, Pete Seeger said all songs are political because lullabies are political to babies.”
And with that, Earle summed up the spirit of this year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival. From Jorma Kaukonen’s “election-year version” of the depression-era “Breadline Blues”, to John Cowan’s request for the audience to “clap for peace to end this stupid ass war,” politics was at every corner of this year’s festival. Even so, the political tone of the weekend never eclipsed what everyone was there to see — a lineup of inspired musicians, and a few great bluegrass bands.
Setting the bar unreasonably high was Thursday night’s songwriters-in-the-round show, an bill easily worth the day’s admission price. “We’re going to play you some songs we know, and some we don’t,” cracked Guy Clark as he took a seat beside Joe Ely, John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett. “But just stick with us,” he continued. “We’ve had a lot of experience.”
Clark kicked things off with “The Cape”, introducing it as “a song about jumping off the garage.” As he played, the other three sat like much of the audience, staring with admiration. When it came to his turn, Lovett joked, “The hardest thing about doing this show is remembering that you have to do something. Three-fourths of the time you have the best seat in the house.”
After the first four songs — including Hiatt’s raucous version of “The Tiki Bar Is Open” and Ely’s “All Just To Get To You” — it was again Clark’s turn. “We found this chick singer wandering around backstage,” he said, as Emmylou Harris walked out to wild applause. Soon Clark and Harris were in the middle of “Old Friends”, and most everyone in the crowd felt included in the distinction.
This inevitably led to more Harris duets; everyone wanted to sing with her. Joe Ely asked timidly, “Emmy, would you do a song with me?” She gladly joined him on Butch Hancock’s “If You Were A Bluebird”. But Harris did more than back up the boys; she sang a few of her own, including a gorgeous version of “Red Dirt Girl” (for which she borrowed Clark’s guitar). The highlight of the set was Lovett’s “My Baby Don’t Tolerate”, the song’s playful lyrics and pumping blues beat grabbing the attention of everyone in the crowd as Hiatt performed a teasing solo over Lovett’s rhythm. Toward the end, the crowd was singing backup, too.
After four turns each at the microphone, the quartet finished with a version of Doc Watson’s “Going Down This Road” (in which Hiatt sang, “I’m going down the road to Abu Ghraib/George Bush ought to be ashamed for treating those prisoners that way”) before an encore of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” led by another guest, Steve Earle. Walking offstage, Harris admonished the crowd, as she did on at least three occasions: “Don’t forget to vote!” Did I mention there was a political tone to the festival?
While the songwriters set wasn’t easily forgotten, there were, indeed, other acts. There was the Seldom Scene, veterans of contemporary bluegrass, who introduced a Stanley Brothers tune (“How Mountain Girls Can Love”) by saying it was written by “the Sex Pistols of bluegrass music.” And there was the up-and-comers section Friday morning with Hit & Run Bluegrass, Reeltime Travelers, and Railroad Earth (who played an excellent set, somewhat reminiscent of Mark Olson-era Jayhawks).
Also in the newcomer role were the Mammals, billed as “the proud voice of a new generation of old music” (huh?). They were given an awkward time slot between the two most musicianship-oriented acts of the festival — the duo of Bela Fleck & Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor & the Hot Swing Trio. Indeed, the Mammals’ ambling set underscored the difference between artists influenced by Allen Ginsberg and those influenced by Mozart, Miles Davis and Django Reinhardt.
The founding members of New Grass Revival, who have ostensibly become the elders of this festival, also made their fair share of appearances. John Cowan was booked in two slots, while Sam Bush performed a wildly entertaining set on Saturday night with his band and sat in with a handful of others. Bush also got into the political swing of things, taking a few serious shots at the other Mr. Bush before announcing his own run for the oval office. His vice-presidential hopeful is Arlen Spector, he told the audience, creating a “Bush & Spector” ticket for 2004.
Bela Fleck was also on the bill twice; his slot with Meyer on Saturday morning followed a virtuosic and lively set with the Flecktones the night before. Their set included a teenage ukulele master and a blonde Theremin player who looked as if she’d stepped directly out of a John Waters film without even fixing her hair. Musically, Fleck continues to push the envelope further and further into some spacey but interesting terrain. But he was also grounded at times: He encored by himself with a beautiful solo on the late John Hartford’s banjo.
Like the Mammals, Ani DiFranco found herself in a bizarre time slot, wedged between the Jerry Douglas Band and the Flecktones. As the Jerry Douglas Band began, it was immediately clear that their set was going to sound more like Ornette Coleman than Union Station. DiFranco followed with an exceptionally animated set accompanied by an upright bassist. Her small frame contained energy enough for the whole crowd, as she bounded through some of her more popular songs with mostly college-aged women pushing toward the front, singing every word.
But, of course, this was (at least by name) a bluegrass festival. As such, it seemed the right place to find Del McCoury and his boys. The Del McCoury Band’s set had some of the audience rethinking Telluride’s loosely bluegrass model. The thought went like this: If every bluegrass band could sound like McCoury’s, then why isn’t this festival entirely bluegrass?
The answer, of course, is that not every bluegrass act sounds like McCoury. As band members drifted in and out of the single microphone, Del smiled wide for every photographer and looked thrilled and surprised as though he were playing with his grandbabies. Their high lonesome sound was refreshing after a weekend of bands trafficking in the current craze for old-time music.
Despite their late-’90s collaborative record The Mountain and the proximity of their sets, McCoury and Earle did not appear onstage together. Earle did, however, play six tracks off The Mountain, backed on those songs and others by the Bluegrass Dukes, including Tim O’Brien on mandolin and Darrell Scott on banjo.
A fair-sized segment of Earle’s set dealt with the subject of war; he began with Civil War songs and marched through the ages, eventually getting into his more contemporary repertoire with “Just An American Boy” and “Jerusalem”. He took a moment to ask the crowd politely to vote in November; at another point, he lectured on the importance of unions.
Introducing his song “Dixie”, Earle described the way soldiers were coerced into joining the Civil War, with implications for our contemporary involvement in Iraq. After his introduction, he shook his head for a moment and said, “It’s amazing the pinko shit you can sneak in on a bluegrass record.”
Or, he might have added, a bluegrass festival, for that matter.