Telluride 2014

The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Mandolins

by Steve Leftridge

21 July 2014

Photos: David Cady 

A Well-Oiled Machine and more...

22. A Well-Oiled Machine: “There he is right there!” Dave Rawlings announced, referring to Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who now plays mandolin for the Dave Rawlings Machine. Certainly, amid the star-packed backstage scene at Telluride, Jones was the cornea-melting figure who towered above everyone else this year. With the likes of mandolin gods like Sam Bush, Chris Thile, etc., milling around, however, Jones himself played the grinning superfan. Onstage with the Machine, Jones held his own instrumentally, but the real showcase was the vocal interplay and song selection of Rawlings and his musical soulmate Gillian Welch. The group, which also included former Old Crow utility folkie Willie Watson and Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert, mixed tunes from Rawlings’ 2009 LP A Friend of a Friend with rock and folk covers into a seamless procession of elegantly rustic beauty. Welch sang her own “Wayside/Back in Time” but otherwise ceded to the Machine, harmonizing with Rawlings on songs the duo wrote together like “Ruby” and “Bells of Harlem”, both tunes drifting through a rapt audience in the cool Telluride night. The audience clogged hard to “It’s Too Easy” featuring the twin fiddles of Watson and guest Gabe Witcher, which eventually became triple fiddles when Jones grabbed one, too. “I Hear Them All” morphed into a “This Land is Your Land” singalong (Rawlings: “I wrote that with Ketch Secor, except for the really good part in the middle”). Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” was expected, Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximate” was a surprise, and “Going to California” was the most weep-inducing moment of the fest, as Dave, Gillian, and Willie harmonized on the bridge while Jones plinked out his old lines on the mandolin.  One for the ages.

23. Traffic Report: Steve Winwood opened his Friday night set with the somnambulistic, flute-heavy deep Traffic cut “Rainmaker” but picked up speed with the Spencer Davis classic “I’m a Man” featuring Winwood’s indecipherable scatlike singing and the Latin-jazz whoosh of his four-piece ensemble. No bass player in Winwood’s band (the bottom end handled, for the most part, by Winwood’s left hand on the B3), and with drummer Richard Bailey (sensational all night) and legendary percussionist Café da Silva on stage, this group was all about the groove, and Winwood settled into those rhythms for a good long while on each tune, stretching “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” to 15 minutes of jambitious soloing, for instance. Other highlights included an exquisite reading of “Fly” (from the 2008 solo album Nine Lives) featuring the soprano sax of Paul Booth, the old traffic nugget “Medicated Goo” (inspired by Winwood’s visit to one of Telluride’s marijuana dispensaries earlier in the day), and a snaky version of “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” gave guitarist José Neto plenty of room to take flight. The only remnant from Winwood’s ‘80s hitmaking heyday came with “Back in the High Life Again”, a setlist audible (replacing “Higher Love”) at the request of Sam Bush, who beamed from the front rows. (“He hasn’t lost a step!” Bush declared).  Winwood finished with a delirious “Gimme Song Lovin’”, capping a set of nothing but highlights, and if the big audience wasn’t starstruck by Winwood at the beginning of the evening, they certainly were by the end of it.

24. In the Family Way: Billed as the “Watkins Family Hour”, Sara and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek led a stunning all-star workshop in Elks Park on Saturday that featured Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch, John Paul Jones, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan. You could hear a pin drop as attendees were continually surprised by these performances, including Dave and Gillian revisiting “Red Clay Halo”, and the entire ensemble taking on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and then finishing with John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Days”. One of this year’s most intimate and moving events.

25. High Steaks: The annual Telluride Band Contest has helped launch some top-flight bands, including Dixie Chicks and Greensky Bluegrass. Saturday morning, it was Denver’s Trout Steak Revival who hit the bluegrass jackpot, defeating the other finalists with assured original songs and fine singing, especially from affable banjo frailer Travis McNamara. Their win here secures them a full set at next year’s Telluride.

26. Rowan in My Sweet Baby’s Arms: You never know quite what to expect from a Peter Rowan set, although you’re guaranteed “Land of the Navajo”, which Pete has played at every one of his three dozen Tellurides, along with a heaping helping of prelingual yodeling. This year, Pete had help in both regards as Tibetan vocalist Yungchen Lhamo joined him for an afternoon of blending hemispheres and voices. When their respective quavering ululations crossed frequencies, the vibrations reportedly disrupted flight patterns overhead, but more often than not, the unlikely duo provided the spiritual liftoff that they were seeking during one of Big Pete’s more memorable sets of recent years.

27. Brothers Work It Out: Breaking tradition this year, it didn’t rain during

’ Saturday afternoon set. Instead, the Bros brought their own storm on stage in a steady deluge of savant-level musical moments. These five young guns, each of whom represents a separate trajectory into the future of progressive bluegrass, are in some kind of groove as a unit, drawing from the best moments of their most recent studio recordings (“Movement and Location,” “Next to the Trash,” “This Girl”) while throwing in tilt-a-whirl covers of crowd-rousers like “Wheel Hoss” and “Old Joe Clark”. They also pushed into material from their upcoming new album, including the casual-sex romp “Magnet.” An Aoife O’Donovan guest spot on her Goat Rodeo tune “Here and Heaven” was a treat, and the five-part a capella harmony on Irish singalong “The Auld Triangle” was a final reminder that these guys are in a league by themselves and that, in their hands, the Festival is secure for another few decades.

28. Down Yonder: It’s a transition year for Yonder Mountain String Band, and fan reviews were mixed on how well these Telluride mainstays fared without founding mandolinist Jeff Austin. When announcing Austin’s departure, bassist Ben Kauffman promised fans that Yonder would still put on the best party in town. They tried hard to live up to that pledge on Saturday with a relentless set of fast bluegrass ramblers bolstered by Ronnie McCoury’s mandolin and Jason Carter’s fiddle. There were moments of genuine inspiration, like the clever arrangement of the Beatles’ “Hey Bulldog”, but not everything worked so well. The crowd, as usual, was up for the party, and they bobbed up and down as required, but the unrelenting sameness of tempo and soloing failed to fully engage the audience, and, yes, the absence of Austin’s inflamed enthusiasm as one of TBF’s loudest cheerleaders was conspicuous. These guys, particular guitarist Adam Aijala, are whirlwind players and their spiritual connection to the music and the fans is thorough, so it’s certain that they’ll find their way, but that journey was in somewhat awkward conversion this year.

29. A Bird ‘n’ the Hands: Andrew Bird’s indie-weird history and genre-sprawling has recently been honed into old-barn rootsiness, decidedly Telluridian in its simplified focus on instrumental austerity and round-the-mic harmonizing. Bird, joined on this tour by Americana spitfire Tift Merritt, gave play to his past, reworking his fan faves like “Plasticities” and “Tables and Chairs”, but focused on the new rustic strains of 2012’s Hands of Glory, including lovely performances of “Three White Horses” and “When That Helicopter” as well as a moment-tailored cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Colorado Girl”. Bird seemed totally comfortable in the acoustical confines, comparing the experience to recent mega-festivals he’s played by expressing his gratitude about not having to compete with a hip-hop stage a few yards away.

30. Bush It Real Good: Regardless of the Rock Hall of Famers that Telluride now lands each year, for most of the audience, Sam Bush’s Saturday night special is the crowning moment of each’s year’s Fester. The pressure is on Sam to deliver, and this year he turned in one of the most blistering Sam Slams ever.  Opening with the “Star-Spangled Banner”, Sam signaled his intentions for epicness, and while the opening run was conventional enough with New Grass Revival-era goodies like “This Heart of Mine” and “White Freightliner Blues”, Sam started stretching out on new tunes (“Transcendental Meditation Blues”, a world premiere), celestial jams (NGR deep cut “Souvenir Bottles” with old pal Béla Fleck), and an electric mandolin fever dream as Little Feat pianist Bill Payne sat in on Feat classic “Spanish Moon”.  But the moment everyone was talking about was the mandolin orchestra (11 mandos on stage together) that Sam brought out for a swirling, intoxicating “Russian Rag”, an idea inspired by Béla’s symphony the day before.

31. Salmon Jam On: The only band that can jam after a Sam Bush throwdown did so although Colorado’s own Leftover Salmon had plenty of help, including a return to the stage by Sam himself. Bill Payne sat in throughout, and the whole show was pretty Featsy, opening with his own “Oh Atlanta” and hitting a dizzy “Dixie Chicken” toward the end. Del and Ronnie McCoury (introduced by Salmon ringleader Vince Herman as the “King and Prince of Bluegrass”) arrived at the outset for the appropriate “Midnight Blues”. Overall, if there’s a band that knows how to scratch the itch of the late-night revelers, it’s Salmon, playing in-the-moment pick-me-ups “Bluegrass Pines” and “I Want to Be Up in the High Country” and finishing with The Band’s “Rag Mama Rag”, the cap on a monumental night of classic Telluride sights and sounds.

32. The Bear Strikes Again: This year’s Festival program warned campers that if they are woken up by a conga line singing Christmas songs at three in the morning, the leader of the party was surely Leftover Salmon’s Vince Herman, the hard-partying Bluegrass Bear, who has been disrupting the sleeping-bag-bound in the campgrounds for 20 years now. Depending whom you ask, it’s one of the Festival’s most fun or frustrating traditions. This year, the drone strike in my quadrant occurred about 2:30am Sunday and the song was “Take Me Out the Ballgame” to extend the year’s baseball theme. Backstage the next day, I mentioned the carousing to Vince himself, who said, “Naw, man, that wasn’t me! It was my evil twin!”

33. Pick ‘n’ Praise: Dailey and Vincent had the honors of the Sunday-morning go-to-meeting set, and although the duo—filled out with a group of deft bluegrass pickers—played lightning-fast selections from their Grammy-winning secular records, including “Fox on the Run”, “Steel Drivin’ Man”, and a couple of sweet, spot-on Statler Brothers impressions, they played some rafter-raising gospel numbers that fit the bill for some morning-after soul cleansing. Dailey and Vincent supply the kind of old-fashioned Branson-friendly schmaltz that doesn’t typically play in Telluride, and Darrell Vincent laughs more than anyone is show businesses, but there’s no denying their hard-driving solos and their bring-the-house-down quartet gusto on gospel standards like “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.” 

34. Riding High: Backstage before Béla Fleck’s early Sunday set, Béla nervously paced around waiting for his date, Brooklyn Rider, the quartet of string studs who were taking a private jet into Telluride that morning after their Saturday night gig in San Francisco. They arrived just in time to join Béla on his composition, Night Flight Over Water, written superficially to play with the three violinists and one cellist who make up the Rider.  “See you on the other side”, Béla told his wingmen just before starting the string storms that open the piece. The musicians had to make due as gusts of wind blew their music sheets around the stage, forcing them to rely on their memories and own instincts for extemporizing. Béla’s wife, fellow banjo innovator Abigail Washburn, sat in the front row holding their headphoned infant and laughed as Béla wrestled with his wind-strewn pages. No matter—it was a breathtaking set played with power and exquisite finesse, completing a one-two punch of virtuosic classical accomplishments for Fleck at this year’s Festival.

35. Darling Nicki: California throwback rockers Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers did what they could to alleviate last-day-of-the-fest blues, even overcoming a brief rain shower with their sunny brand of canyon country-soul. Nicki, dressed in all black, stalked the stage with serpentine dance moves, belting out fan faves “Hey Stranger”, “Jet Plane”, and the sultry Stevie Nicksy “Ravenous”. The Sunday loungers surged to their feet during a cover of “Piece of My Heart”, especially when Nicki nailed a Janis-worthy scream midway through. Nicki’s husband Tim, looking like he just walked off the set of Smokey and the Bandit, stepped out from behind his Hammond organ to sing “Squeaky Wheel” and later joined his wife for the trailer-love duet “Think About the Two of Us”. Playing TBF satisfied a five-year goal for the couple, Nicki announced from the stage, adding that the scenery in Telluride as their bus pulled in made her cry. 

36. Jerry Rigged: Dobro deity Jerry Douglas pulled together this group of musicians, including Tim O’Brien, Shawn Camp, Union Station bassist Barry Bales, banjo ace Charlie Cushman, and fiddler Johnny Warren for a tribute to Flatt and Scruggs, ingeniously named the Earls of Leicester. Nothing here would have been offensive to Lester Flatt himself , as the band piled on a whopping 27 Flatt & Scruggs classics.  Everything you can think of showed up—“Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, “Dig a Hole in the Meadow”, “Hot Corn, Cold Corn”, “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”, etc.—most of it sung in Camp’s authentic whine, and solos from Warren, Douglas, and Cushman were swift and tight, serving the songs, winning over the crowd more and more until no one wanted this set to end.  Progressive jams tend to win the day at Telluride, but this set of classic, perfectly-played traditional bluegrass was a reminder of how and why Festivarians all found each other in the first place. 

37. Green Light: Greensky Bluegrass has been invited to play Telluride Bluegrass each of the past three years, an indication that these Kalamazoo animals have transcended the jamgrass scene and entered the big leagues of progressive acoustic bands.  With a new album around the corner, GSBG this year showcased their evolving sound on fresh cuts like mandolinist Paul Hoffman’s driving rock-drama “Windshield” and guitarist Dave Bruzza’s Springsteen-inspired “Wings for Wheels”. And while the band dipped into history (“Steam Powered Aeroplane”) for good measure, it was clear that Greensky is a band that is moving the form forward, as on the psychedelic, effects-lathered rhythms of the new “Leap Year”. 

38. Lame-ontagne: Sunday night headliner Ray LaMontagne played a genuinely enchanting set of his best material, including nearly the entirety of his into-the-mystic new album

. The loveliest moments came during a stripped acoustic interlude, featuring LaMontagne’s barrel-aged voice on “Trouble”, “Jolene”, and a lump-in-the-throat-gorgeous “Rock and Roll Radio.” Unfortunately, LaMontagne pulled the rug out from underneath whatever he accomplished musically by way of his rude and unprofessional comments from the stage, first by dissing “folk festivals” such as Telluride as full of “lovey-dovey, huggy-kissy, best friend bullshit. I never dug it. Ever.” Later, a clearly agitated LaMontagne said, “Thank you very much. Especially for all you out there dancin’. You made my night, having to sing over about a hundred walking dead down here” before storming off stage with set time to spare. LaMontagne was dissing the folks in the pit in front of the stage, who were sitting and closely attending to LaMontagne’s ballads. It was a petulant end to his show and at severe odds with the prevailing vibe that pervaded the rest of the weekend.

39. House Party: The Telluride House Band, as it’s currently called, is the all-star lineup of Sam “Burnin’” Bush, the Plato of the Plectrum. Béla Fleck, the Fellini of the Five, the Ruler of the Roll. Thunder Thumb Jerry Douglas, the Lord of the Lap Steel. Edgar Meyer, His Holiness of the Half Step, the Timing Titan From Tulsa. Stuart Duncan, da Vinci of da Violin, serving up Reign Bow Stu. And Bryan Sutton, the Prince of Pentatonics, the Head Honcho of the Hammer-On. Beyond being the toughest hombres on their respective instruments, kudos to the collective for coming up with unique setlists for each Festival even though it’s the only time each year that they all play together. This year’s highlights: Stuart Duncan taking lead vocals and inventing tailor-made lyrics for each band member on the burbling “Ground Hog”; the spectacular Béla original “Eager and Anxious”; “Hangman’s Reel” featuring bladder-bursting flatpicking runs from Sutton; and the Meyer-driven zig-zags of “Barnyard Disturbance”. It’s impossible to crown a champ for the night as there was more mastery-per-minute than you can possibly process. Sam Bush, however, had an especially strong night, taking the reins on a “Mannish Boy/Sailing Shoes” duet with Douglas’ dobro and otherwise chopping and soling with assiduous precision. Billed for this set was also bluegrass queen Alison Krauss, who arrived midway in to sing four songs, peaking with the elegantly awesome “Shadows.” It was a too-brief appearance although Alison did resurface later to sing with Del McCoury, the other marquee guest, on “Cry Cry Darling”, at one point punching the air to celebrate the perfection of the two legends’ harmonies. Del stuck around to lend recreationally high harmony lines to U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” which thrilled everybody at the end of an exhausting, nearly perfect set from musicians who have solidified a truly golden age for this music and this pristine location.

40. Pastor Mustard and the Good Book: Commemorating last year’s mark of 40 annual Telluride Bluegrass Festivals, the folks at Planet Bluegrass published an impressive leatherbound coffee-table book, Telluride Bluegrass Festival: Forty Years of Festivation, and rolled them out in time for this year’s Festival.  The books are stuffed with terrific photography from the history of the fest, from its tiny hippie-gathering roots to the benchmark destination event it has become today. The best aspect of the book, though, is the year-by-year accounts written by Pastor Mustard, the colorful Colorado DJ who emceed the Festival for 31 years.  Mustard’s writing is candid, poetic, and hilarious. For TBF aficionados, this is the definitive historical account and souvenir of the first four decades of their Festival.

41. Punch Out: Another newly established TBF tradition is the Punch Brothers NightGrass show on Sunday at the Sheridan, the official final burst of music of the weekend. The whiskey-sipping Punch Brothers, the musicians being groomed to drive the next three decades of Telluride Bluegass, came out firing in every direction, slaying the 200 in attendance with closely harmonized standards (“Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, “San Antonio Rose”), labyrinthine cuts from their studio albums, and a handful of new tunes (“Magnet”, the working-titled “Cherries on Fire”), and an uproariously entertaining number during which surprise guest Ed Helms appeared on stage to provide old-time radio-show narration.  The second set got even crazier with pop-ins by Dave Rawlings, Willie Watson, Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and others as the musicians and crowd alike tried to hang on to Telluride Bluegrass for dear life, staring down the 361 days until they could do it all again.

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