When the evening of Tuesday, June 19th rolled around, I was resigned. It was the eve of my annual Summer Solstice vacation—a migratory pattern I’ve maintained as a measure of self-care. I needed it as much as ever this time around. I’m naturally restless, so even at the tender age of 25, a desk job is a taxing affair for me. It’s enough to dampen my motivation to do things I truly enjoy, like leaving the East in the summer for a dryer, higher, cooler place with real mountains, superior beer, and lots of great music. All these things intersect with striking intensity during the weekend closest to Summer Solstice in Telluride, Colorado.
I know that the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is a crowning yearly pilgrimage for intrepid musical citizens of all ages. Chris Thile described the phenomenon more poignantly when, playing the opening set of this year’s festival, he remarked that the bluegrass fiscal calendar starts with Telluride. It rings true for performers and fans alike. Having just marked its 45th year, it’s one of the last music festivals that still feels oddly family reunion-esque in spite of the mammoth talent on its lineup. These are things I appreciate and even cherish. But the night before an early morning train ride from Union Station to Baltimore, followed by an early morning flight from Baltimore to Durango, followed by some road time before pitching a tent in a box canyon with the San Juan Mountains finally in view, I had a stroke of cynicism.
I was only able to make one day of the festival in 2017 before traveling north onto Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and then my home state of Montana. Would I get burnt out this year on four consecutive days of festivation? To boot, I had seen many of the musicians I was most enthusiastic about perform while touring recent records over the past few years. Between solo tours and special collaborations, I’d seen two musicians, Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan, as much as four to five times each in and around Washington, DC. Together, the pair is two-thirds of the acoustic supergroup I’m With Her. Interestingly, it was they—the two artists I’ve followed most faithfully in recent years—along with their bandmate Sarah Jarosz who brought me back to my senses while playing the coveted 5pm set the first day of the 45th iteration of the festival.
I was fortunate to see what was technically this trio’s first stateside performance as I’m With Her in May 2015 for A Prairie Home Companion’s Memorial Day show at Wolf Trap. It wasn’t until they returned to Wolf Trap in August 2017 for their second American Acoustic tour with the Punch Brothers that I heard the actual genesis story behind the band. Introducing the trio, banjoist Noam Pikelny recounted how he and his fellow Punch Brothers had asked their three friends if they’d like to throw together an off-the-cuff set to open their NightGrass show, a traditional late night component of the Telluride festival that takes place at a few indoor spaces in the town.
Those friends—O’Donovan, Jarosz, and Watkins—happily obliged, rehearsing for the first time as a band in the cozy but acoustically-pleasing quarters of a bathroom in the historic Sheridan Opera House (for the story, listen at 5:13 in this March 2018 episode of World Cafe). Their show brought down the house, and the rest is history. Well, kind of. Because here’s the thing: They’re still going full speed ahead. The material they came out with on their highly-anticipated debut record kicks major, major ass. But I’d have to be some kind of shamefully passive listener to not have noticed by now that they have the uncanny ability to roll out a new, perfect, mind-blowing cover every time I seen them perform live.
Between their 2015 and 2017 Wolf Trap performances, plus their 2016 appearance on the first American Acoustic tour that included a stop at the Kennedy Center on the opposite side of the Potomac River, I already knew some of the standard tricks these dames had up their sleeves: A jaw-dropping a capella rendition of Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband,” a vocally and instrumentally stunning three-parter of John Hiatt’s “Crossing Muddy Waters,” and a stripped-down but probing spin on Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover).” You’d think the need to pad the rotation would be less urgent once they had a full record of songs to tour. But no. By the time they made it back to Washington, DC just weeks after the release of See You Around, they had already minted a new addition to their cover rotation: Jim Croce’s “Walkin’ Back to Georgia.” And while I’m touting their virtues ad nauseum, I should also add that they sold out their first show at the legendary 9:30 Club. Lots of folks worked their way up to that and have since been playing shows at 9:30’s newer sister venue, The Anthem. But nobody sells out the damn 9:30 Club on their first rodeo. Further evidence that this juggernaut trio is unstoppable. In fact, we should just quit prolonging the inevitable and start referring to them as acoustic music’s reigning triumvirate instead of a trio because they’re already on pace to take over our ears (if not the world).
Their prolific pace of cover mastery came through in time for Telluride too. During that opening day set—their first at the festival as a band since forming there on a whim in 2014—they had a new cover in tow. Two actually. One was a tribute to Emmylou Harris. The queen herself was there, so that one wasn’t altogether surprising. But the other one…oh, the other one. If it isn’t their best yet, it is undoubtedly a wicked tribute to the sprawling breadth of their musical palates. They covered Vampire Weekend’s beautiful, devastating “Hannah Hunt.” Though outstanding, this also wasn’t altogether surprising to anybody who follows these musicians and the company they keep closely. Sarah Jarosz and Chris Thile spoke openly about their obsession with the record Modern Vampires of the City on this year’s Memorial Day broadcast of Live from Here before covering “Unbelievers.” In addition, Jarosz and her bandmates cut the studio version of “Hannah Hunt” for Spotify in early June, which by the way was criminally understated in Rolling Stone when the news broke. The understatement is on the magnitude of crime because the performance is superb. But as with most songs, this one takes on added significance commensurate with the nuance of the time and environment of a live performance.
It would’ve been difficult to forget it from their proper Thursday set, but the triumvirate brought it back for Saturday night’s broadcast of Live from Here. Who knows what was to blame. Maybe it was Avery Brewing Company’s generously hopped beer. Maybe it was the amalgamation of three consecutive days of legal marijuana use by many festivarians. Maybe it was the wind or the waterfalls or the mountains in plain view or the consistent blue-sky days—all of which were delectably present for the duration of the festival. Or maybe the triumvirate just brought it extra hard. Whatever it was, that particular performance of “Hannah Hunt” summoned a sustained ovation from the Telluride festivarians as the song drew to a quiet end. I can’t be the only one who teared up. It was sublime.
This doesn’t even begin to cover the quality of original songs that these three luminaries can deliver with at least as much impact as their unbelievable covers. Nor does it cover the originals or covers that each has championed magnificently both in their solo careers and in previous bands. But what strikes me about the proclivity of this specific trio with the art of the cover is how emblematic it is of the singular magic of music. Telluride is a great incubator for this type of magic. It has to do with lineage and influence and innovation. And it was probably best articulated, once again, by Chris Thile, but this time during the Live from Here broadcast. When Telluride veteran (and legend) Tim O’Brien exited the stage after the show’s opening theme, Thile remarked, “This is what the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is all about, folks: Genre-blind, multigenerational communion with our fellow music lovers.” No word there is expendable, but I think “genre-blind” and “communion” have particular weight when we consider a collaboration like that of Jarosz, O’Donovan, and Watkins paying homage to artists who we think appeal to a different demographic than the typical bluegrass listener. In that sense, they’re upstanding servants to the real art and camaraderie of music in a time where few spheres can claim such solidarity.
Still another statement from that indelible Telluride Live from Here program comes to mind when I recall the jaded headspace I was in some 24 hours before I made landfall in Telluride on the 20th, and how radically it changed course. Thile welcomed none other than the king of Telluride, mandolinist Sam Bush to the stage to play “Brilliancy” for the show’s Fast AF Fiddle Tunes segment, and remarked that his joy was palpable as he emceed the Telluride House Band’s headliner set the previous night. With 44 years at Telluride to speak of, the thrill of the festival isn’t lost for Bush. “When you first drive in,” he said, “And look way past town up into the mountains, you see Bridal Veil Falls. It’s a majestic sight, and it’s a chill-bump thing…every time. 44 straight years, and I’m amazed. I wish everyone in America could see this place.”
An I’m With Her show is still a chill-bump thing every time. I wish everyone in America could hear and see what they do, in real-time. If nothing else, it’s a tacit reminder of the beauty that is worth rallying through the dark and discouraging rounds of life for. For my part, I’m beside myself with gratitude that I still get to see them at least one more time before the end of the year. In August, they’ll be making their way to Missoula for the second annual Travelers Rest Festival curated by The Decemberists. And so will I. With luck, they may even have a new cover ready-made for Montana festivarians. Until then, I guess we’ll see them around.
Playlist above includes the inspirations for standard covers in I’m With Her’s live performance arsenal, and the covers themselves where studio versions are available. It is collaborative, so if there are ones missing that you’ve seen the band perform more than once, feel free to add to it!