[16 August 2012]
For the 39th consecutive year, music-and-mountain-loving hedonists recently made the trek up into the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado to attend the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the annual summit—literally—of the world’s most accomplished acoustic instrumentalists and 10,000 of their heartiest admirers. It isn’t a terribly easy festival to attend, given that this gorgeous, historic hamlet is tucked into a box canyon located hours of snaky driving from anywhere. But what makes the festival even further out of reach for most fans is the fevered competition for tickets. This year, Telluride Bluegrass sold out in record time, which only enhances the already pervasive feeling that attendees at TBF are camping, dancing, lounging, and whooping-it-up at the optimum point on the planet during this particular weekend in June.
Like most four-day outdoor music festivals, Telluride Bluegrass isn’t for wimps, given that almost everyone camps, almost no one showers, flush toilets are few and far between, and the four-plus days of nonstop revelry take place at 9000 feet, fluctuating from raging-sun days to long-handled-underwear nights. Last year, in fact, campers woke up to fresh snow on the first day of summer. Still, given the breathtaking mountain-peaks-and-waterfalls setting, the unmatched musical virtuosity of the lineup, the focus on sustainability and carbon-neutrality, the fan-friendly approach (the free water, the friendly staff), Festivarians (as attendees are officially known) and several of the artists come back every year without fail because Telluride is an undeniably special experience, and all serious fans of modern bluegrass are either in attendance or damn sure wish they were.
I had the chance to ask Chris Thile and Gabe Witcher of Punch Brothers, one of the younger newgrass bands dazzling enough to receive a standing invitation to fill one of TBF’s 30 spots each year, what makes this festival so essential. “Everything”, they said in unison. Sam Bush, the uncontested King of Telluride, was more specific when I asked him the same question: “When I first started playing Telluride with New Grass Revival back in 1975, we realized that we had finally found our audience, folks who appreciate our kind of music and allow the artists to play whatever they want to play, and we’ve been coming back ever since.”
“We” became festival mainstays like Bush and fellow New Grass Revival alumni Béla Fleck and John Cowan and eventually other bluegrass ambassadors like Peter Rowan, Tim O’Brien, and Jerry Douglas, all of whom help embody the central festival vibe, one that marries impeccable traditional-string-band chops with progressive beard-in-the-bongwater jam-ability. Younger whippersnappers like Yonder Mountain String Band, who also rate Telluride as unmissable, push the festival further into raised-on-rock bluegrass jamming. Then again, half of the acts on any given year’s lineup would appear to have little in common with the festival’s namesake genre. Or as Bush often tells newcomers to the festival, “Don’t worry about the word ‘bluegrass’. This festival is anything goes.” This year, here’s how it went.
Thursday, June 21
Thelma and Louise, featuring Chris Thile and Béla Fleck
When Béla Fleck and Chris Thile strolled out from opposite sides of the stage to take their seats for the opening set of the 39th Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Fleck leaned into his microphone to warn, “I hope you don’t like music”. He was only half-kidding. The format of this year’s inaugural set forbade the banjo baron and mandolin maestro to discuss anything beforehand regarding what they would be playing, subsequently forcing the two into 75 minutes of composition on the fly. It’s tough to imagine two other musicians on the planet with the facility, and therefore the confidence, to even attempt such an exercise, particularly with the likes of Edgar Meyer and Jerry Douglas watching from the front rows, but it was a set with all of the mind-splitting show-offery that one would expect. Too much of it, in fact. It was fascinating for a while as these two masterminds locked eyes and responded with their fingers—mutual mimicry, seemingly spontaneous digressions, key-change-without-warning challenges, etc. The two form an odd couple: Béla, the stoic; Chris, the livewire. Chris is, in fact, a bit of a ball-hog in this scenario—he almost never played rhythm and more often than not rejected Béla’s riff proposals in favor of his own maniacal forays. This is Thile unleashed, free-falling down the improvisational rabbit hole and contorting like an orgasmic muppet. Without a single pause between, um, “songs?”, however, the just-wanking factor eventually started to overwhelm, like a heavy trudge through broken country. There were standout moments, such as the sequence when the two thumped and plucked everywhere on their instruments except where they were supposed to, which sounded surprisingly coherent and symphonic. (It’s currently my ringtone.) Still, this was the musical equivalent of reading Faulkner—genius, sure, but tough to make it all the way through.
Who’s your favorite Della Mae? Frontgal Celia Woodsmith, who lends poised, brassy vocals to her terrific folkgrass originals? Or maybe Jenni Lynn Gardner, the laidback, nimble-picking mando maiden? How about the sturdy guitar-and-harmony ace Courtney Hartman? Or bespectacled two-time National Fiddle Champ Kimber Ludiker? My pick is bombshell bassist Shelby Means, the gum-snapping, free-roving, hard-slapper from Wisconsin. These five Boston-based babes are on a serious upward trajectory, and on Thursday morning, they gave this sold-out crowd its first chance to skip in place, playing a handful of songs from last year’s I Built This Heart, like the driving “Polk County”, and even more from an upcoming release, produced by guitar guru Bryan Sutton. Della Mae burned through standards like “Columbus Stockade Blues” like there was nothing to it, but the band’s formation tightened when the girls kicked into old-tyme stompers, as the fiddle twisted into clawhammer banjo and prompted hard jigging from the crowd. Pick tune: “The Hounds of Heaven”, a nifty reel that did wonders with the minor seventh. The Dell-Belles had plenty of fun by banishing Y-chromosomes, claiming that the only downside to an all-gal band is having to watch out for gusts of wind. Cuteness abounded on stage during this surprise-hit set as the ladies continually gushed about the view from the stage, but they also played a Dellava set of tunes, providing enough powerful string-band tremors to shift Planet Bluegrass on its axis.
Hitting the stage with a feedback-drenched crap-noise freakout, it was immediately clear that Juno-Award-winning Canadian artist Dan Mangan was refreshingly uninterested in modifying his act, sandwiched as he was between two bluegrass groups. The squall soon mutated into “About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Helpful At All”, the lead track from last year’s stellar Oh Fortune, and Mangan was off and running, setting up at stage left and fronting a three-piece combo of uncombed border transients. The relative sparseness of Mangan’s band left some songs missing the string/keys/horn embellishments of the studio versions—at times forgoing whole instrumental melody lines—but the group made up for it with a bushel of reverb, full-throttled singing, thunderous drumming, and electric-guitar muscle. Gord Grdina is, in fact, a monster player, wielding a ’72 Gibson SG as though daring anyone to get in his way, setting off firestorms that would burn both Jeff Beck and Tom Morello to the ground, even whipping out the fiddle bow Jimmie Page-style at one point. The songs from Oh Fortune are aces, and Mangan brought the title cut, “If I Am Dead”, “Leaves, Trees, Forest”, and, especially, “Post-War Blues” to vivid life, providing the Telluride stage with some of its hardest-ever rocking. The highlights, though, may have been two songs from 2009’s Nice, Nice, Very Nice: a solo-acoustic reading of “Basket”, sounding like Bang-era Neil Diamond, and the rousing “Robots”, during which Mangan took his tambourine into the audience to conduct a massive sing-along (“I know it sounds silly, but not in Canadian”, he claimed) and forcing the sun-drenched crowd to bring the love. Mangan also admitted wearing the same clothes he had on yesterday, putting him in further alliance with the crowd, as did the band’s beer consumption during their set. Mangan ended his 75-minutes with “Jeopardy”, a song with lyrics comprised of nothing but questions. Here’s another: Did Dan Mangan nail it at Telluride? No question about it.
With the afternoon sun raging overhead on Day One, the crowd was ready to cut loose, and nothing puts a charge into the vicenarians in the crowd like a set of vagabond hippie-grass. (Average age of Festivarians: 32.) Enter Greensky Bluegrass, five scruffballs from Kalamazoo who initiated the fest’s first hardcore tarp invasion as hundreds of kids in funny hats came out of the woodwork to get delirious to 15-minute meanderjams. After 500 gigs or so, Greensky have gotten quite skilled at these kinds of noodle-n-jig parties, and while these guys look like a bunch of drywallers after a three-whiskey lunch break, they may be the most improved group of instrumentalists on the bluegrass scene. Guitarist Dave Bruzza, in particular, has expanded his rhythmic dynamism into agile lead playing, and dobro rising star Anders Beck continues to impress, bringing Great Licks from the Great Lakes and, at times, adding a thick wash of effects that made his drop steel sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher. At times GSBG take a gratifyingly song-oriented approach, and the best moments are when mandolinist Paul Hoffman sings, as on the woodsy, Levon-inspired version of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”. (Hoffman is one of the Jesus-iest-looking people you’ll ever see, by the way, even by Telluride Bluegrass Festival standards, which is really saying something.) Still, the protracted, tension-and-release jams are the band’s bread and butter, fueled by Mike Bont’s relentless banjo, although there is so much sonic crossover in the mix that soloists are rarely pushed very far up front. It’s a roiling effect that turns the crowd into a sea of tremendously happy bobbleheads, hellbent on letting everyone else know how pleased they are with the proceedings. Sealing the deal was the year’s first of many walk-ons by Sam Bush, who added fiddle to “Jaywalking” and stayed on for a turbo-charged “Bringing in the Georgia Mail”.
Laura Marling was delayed by transportation problems, and her appearance was in serious question throughout the day. Subsequently, the crowd was blindsided by a tweener from legendary country-folk singer-songwriter Jonathan Edwards. Apparently Edwards had bought his own ticket to the festival but was approached to play a few tunes given Marling’s delay. Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas jumped in as impromptu wingmen, and the trio played a heartwarming six-song set, including Edwards’ biggest hits, “Sunshine” (“If you’re under 30, you probably don’t know this song,” Edwards announced) and “Shanty” (for those putting a good buzz on, not that this crowd needed any extra encouragement). The mini-set also included a spirited cover of the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” and finished with Edwards, in beautiful voice, performing an a cappella rendition of his peaceful plea “This Island Earth”. He was preaching to the choir, and while Telluride has a long history of surprise appearances and unannounced collaborations, this was a singular moment, and the place was all smiles.
British songbird Laura Marling, who had bus trouble earlier in the day, hit the stage a half-hour late, literally just minutes after pulling into town. To make matters tougher, her band was down a man—missing their drummer—but Marling’s acoustic guitar was still backed by the vibrant textures of a double bass, a cello, a keyboardist, and a multi-instrumentalist on banjo, guitar, and trumpet, who also did what he could by supplying kick-drum here and there. Despite any setbacks, Marling, a major star back in the UK, looked fresh and lovely in a sleeveless black dress—a few in the crowd loudly assured her of such—and knowing that she had no time for banter, she burned through a lovely 11-song program, zeroing in on the best of her already remarkable songbook. Marling is still just 22 years old, incredible considering that last year’s A Creature I Don’t Know is already her third record, and Marling’s command and maturity on stage at Telluride was astounding. Opening with “Rambling Man” from 2010’s I Speak Because I Can, Laura quickly established the depth of her authoritative performance power and the supremacy of her melodic gifts, starting with songs from her first two records (“Blackberry Stone”, “Alas I Cannot Swim”) and then highlighting Creature (“The Muse”, “I Was Just a Card”). Throughout, the band incorporated an array of instrumental grandeur—French horns, pump organs—all behind Marling’s intricately picked Martin guitar, which was often doubled by cello and piano triplets. Marling later surprised the crowd with a solo-acoustic cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post”, and while her single “Sophia” didn’t quite have the snap a full drumkit would have provided, by then Darling Marling had already won over Telluride for good. Finally, during “Salinas”, Marling looked at the mountains and sang in her signature conversational phrasing, her alto breaking into a Joni-esque falsetto, to ask, “Will I ever see heaven again?” It was as though she were asking about this very place.
The penultimate set on opening night is the legend’s spot, and this year it went to John Prine, who has over the years cultivated a treasured relationship with Colorado audiences; suitably, the big crowd here responded with wholehearted, rock-concert enthusiasm. These days, Prine tours with first-rate players Jason Wilber on guitar and Dave Jacques on bass, and at Telluride, the trio gave the excited audience an hour and a half a Prime Prine, a lively, moving 18-song tour of the songwriter’s forty-year career. Following Jonathan Edwards, Prine completed a nostalgic day for 55-year-olds, and many of those longtime fans gathered near the stage for a close look. Prine, dressed in his customary black suit, was more animated than usual in response to the crowd’s energy, leaning over the stage, swinging his guitar, and making eye-contact with audience members far and wide: “I usually can’t see everybody”, he said. “So far you’re lookin’ good! Of course, it’s only the first day!” Starting with a swift run through “Spanish Pipedream”, Prine continued with a fan’s fantasy set that included poignant readings of “Six O’Clock News” and “Christmas in Prison”, which sent his Travis-picked guitar ringing throughout the canyon, plus an impeccable “Souvenirs”, dedicated to his brother Doug. Prine’s voice is grainier than it once was, which has only deepened the wisdom in his stories and added warmth and gravity to his vocal delivery on songs like “Sam Stone” and “Donald and Lydia”. By “Angel From Montgomery” the sun had started to sideswipe the field, which grew hushed as the crowd attended closely to lyrics they knew by heart. It was a peppy Prine set, comparatively, as he threw in happy enchiladas like “That’s the Way the World Goes Round” and “The Glory or True Love”, to which the crowd went bonkers, and Prine must have felt like the guy who could have his lunch in London and his dinner in St. Paul. The audience roared loudest for “Whistle and Fish”, described by Prine as “good for what ails you—if nothing ails you, I’ll give you a minute, and I’m sure you’ll think of something”. It was clear, however, as Prine brought Sam Bush out to assist on a set-closing “Paradise” , that for this audience, at least on this night, all was right with the world.
Alison Krauss & Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas
Once the sun sets, the valley gets trippier and more mysterious as Festivarians pile on the clothing and rev up for the final act of the evening, usually a high-energy rock-oriented or jamgrass act that facilitates maximum carousing. Alison Krauss & Union Station are not exactly synonymous with hell-raising, so their selection for the night’s final mushroom spot was unusual, particularly following Prine, another drumless act. (Fun fact: Like John Prine, Alison Krauss was also born in Illinois, so it was Land of Lincoln Night in Telluride, which I suppose is why the line for the Killer Flank Steak was so long.) Yet a glance at the enormous, affectionate crowd anticipating Alison’s arrival was a reminder of Krauss’s tremendous popularity and unprecedented success as a bluegrass artist. After all, at 27 wins, no living person has won more Grammys than Alison Krauss. Certainly, the AKUS set at Telluride was full of the gauzy austerity one would expect, opening with the delicate ballad “Paper Airplane”, the title track from her 2011 album, a resumption with the gentlemen in Union Station. The subdued pace continued through much of the first half, as Krauss lent her iconic soprano to her prettiest Jerry Douglas-abetted ballads from her most recent albums: “Ghost in This House” (from 1999’s Forget About It), “Daylight” , “Let Me Touch You For Awhile” (from 2001’s New Favorite), “Sinking Stone” (from Paper Airplane). Despite the butterfly-light touch, the audience brimmed with energy in appreciation of the band’s dedication to its singularly authentic and elegant brand of contemporary bluegrass. After cooing her biggest hit, “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You”, Krauss turned things over to her band, who ramped up the tempo with powerful versions of “Rain Please Go Away”, “Wild Bill Jones”, and an obligatory “Man of Constant Sorrow”, featuring the barrel-chested vocals of guitarist Dan Tyminski. Krauss herself has toned down the flowy, extension-wearing glamour-girl look that she wore when she was within lemon-squeezing distance of Robert Plant every night. Instead, she sported a shorter ‘do and a florid housecoat, and, midway through the set, she revised her old role of bluegrass barnburner on classics like “Sawing on the Strings” and “Every Time You Say Goodbye”. Jerry Douglas’s solo turn was another peak, as he went nuts on a medley of “Lil Ro Ro”, “Little Martha”, and “Monkey Let the Hogs Out”, all chop-and-charge glory and muscled zigzags. The group eventually wound things down, easing into the witching hour as Tyminski and banjoist Ron Block snuggled tight around Alison for a hits medley that included snippets of “When You Say Nothing at All” and “Down to the River to Pray”. It was a finale of gilded emotional resonance, an exquisite soundtrack for an evening of moon worship and shadowed beauty.