Various Artists – Teluride Blugrass Festival (Telluride, CO)
Kasey Chambers unassumingly takes the stage wearing a blue rancher shirt and cowgirl hat. She surveys the crowd and breaks a modest smile, then bows her head to strap on an acoustic guitar. Her lips tighten as the opening electric guitar riff wraps quickly around an A-minor chord and she starts into the song, determined and lustful: “Barricades and brick walls won’t keep me from you/You can tie me down on the railroad track…”
All wayward attention is now aimed at the stage. The rest of the first verse blurs until the final two lines weaken knees: “I’ll be damned if you’re not my man/Before the sun goes down.” Cheers erupt.
The sun begins its slow reddish-orange descent behind the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains as the song comes to a close. Anticipation and wonder flavor the breeze for the next 80 minutes on this Friday evening, and when she leaves the stage, Chambers is the new owner of more than ten thousand hearts.
A bit dramatic? It was. Amid a lineup bulging with folk, bluegrass and country legends, the 27-year-old Australian emerged as the undeniable high point of this year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
Her ballad “Nullabor Song” filled the air with languishing beauty, and the impossibly catchy “Pretty Enough” glistened. But the unequivocal peak was foretold, a staple of Chambers’ live shows for years: her cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Changed The Locks”. Chambers, having grown grittier and more defiant over time, night-howled the song, spitting lyrics as if they were soaked with plague.
Saying she conquered the festival is no exaggeration, but to understand the degree of accomplishment that involves, others who took the same stage over the four-day event must be considered — weighty names such as Emmylou and Bela, Colvin and Carpenter.
Known to old hands as the festival’s shaman, Peter Rowan welcomed the summer solstice in the early afternoon Saturday and had already run through his classic “Midnight Moonlight” before partner in crime Tony Rice made it to the stage. The masterful guitarist arrived just in time to jump-start “Panama Red” with his inspired acoustic picking, and the pair confidently held court for almost an hour and a half, closing with a swaggering reading of “Wild Horses”.
In the most anticipated pairing of the festival, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin teamed up on the main stage for a wild and loose affair comprised mostly of covers. Introducing one of her songs as the one “about my skanky old boyfriend,” Chapin Carpenter noted that the chord progression sounded like “Mr. Bojangles”, which the Nitty Gritty Dirt band had performed on Thursday night. She hummed the melody to Jerry Jeff Walker’s masterpiece, nodded to herself, and started into “Bojangles”, leaving her own song and never returning to it. The ad-lib seemed doomed to trainwreck — neither Chapin Carpenter nor Colvin could remember the opening to a single verse after the first. No problem. Inquisitive looks outward prompted the gleeful crowd to shout the first lines toward the stage, and Chapin Carpenter continued from there.
A wave of approval swelled as Colvin started into Steve Earle’s “Someday”, and the duo slow-burned through a mesmerizing rendition of “Dancing In The Dark”, about half the speed and twice the emotion of Springsteen’s original. Colvin added to the already family-friendly atmosphere by coaxing her young daughter onstage to dance during her own “Diamond In The Rough”.
Though sound problems and feedback vexed Emmylou Harris throughout, she and backing band Spyboy offered a stellar and far-reaching performance. Sparked by guitar ace Buddy Miller, they shook the stage on “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It”, equaled Patsy Cline’s take on “Sweet Dreams (Of You)” and gave Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty” and the Colorado favorite “Boulder To Birmingham” more than their proper due.
Vince Gill followed with a bluegrass-heavy set, trading his guitar for a mandolin on songs such as “Pretty Little Adriana”, “When I Call Your Name” and “One More Last Chance”. Amy Grant made a one-off appearance with her husband for her own hit “Baby, Baby”.
The Sunday morning crowd found a boost in a spiritual hair of the dog set from Michelle Shocked. Backed by a gospel band with members from Los Angeles to Louisiana, she stirred up a sing-along with a low-swinging take on “The Weight”, then brought politics to the for with “Quality Of Mercy” (from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack). Another Sunday highlight was the Boomchicks, a rotating dream-team of female performers — as well as men dressed in drag — led by Chapin Carpenter.
Throughout the weekend, all-purpose instrumentalist Tim O’Brien, banjo great Bela Fleck and mandolin master Sam Bush (dubbed “The King” at Telluride) provided first-class backing on many occasions, including Harris’ rendition of “Love Hurts”, dress-wearing John Cowan’s angelic delivery of “Unchained Melody”, and everyone from Colvin and Shocked to Sally Van Meter and Alison Krauss red-lining “White Freightliner Blues”.
In the end, though, it was not to be forgotten who claimed the festival as her own this year. Boarding one of the school bus shuttles back to the campground as the festival wound down, the jovial grandmotherly driver surveyed the weary faces behind her and asked, “Has anyone topped that Kasey Chambers yet? I keep hearing she was awesome.”
The answer came by way of silence.