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Telluride Bluegrass Festival

(19 Jun 2011: — Telluride, CO)

Play Me Some Mountain Music: The Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2011

Darrell Scott & Friends



With multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter guru Darrell Scott, not to mention Americana all-stars Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin, in town backing Robert Plant, it was a no-brainer to schedule them in their own spot.  They ended up as a natural fit for Sunday morning, billed as the Darrell Scott & Friends Father’s Day Gospel hour, which ended up as one of the most talked-about sets of the festival this year.  Scott, who opened the show singing a traditional hymn and his original “Father’s Song” from last year’s excellent Crooked Road, parceled the songs out evenly among the friends on hand, which included Miller, Griffin, Tim O’Brien, Abigail Washburn, Kai Welch, and Casey Driessen, sitting around on couches and ordering drinks from an onstage bar.  The show was unremittingly gorgeous as Scott selected atypical songs for his buddies to sing, assigning Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” to Miller (genius), “Brother Wind” to O’Brien (nice, but Tim had already played it the day before), and “Heavenly Day” to Griffin (one of her originals, a fail-safe decision).


With Plant himself watching from the sidelines, Scott & Co. aced a range of standards even though they were more or less winging it, from John Lennon’s “Imagine” to Hank Williams’ “House of Gold” and a bouncy “This Little Light of Mine”, decorated with Welch’s and Bob Hemminger’s makeshift horn section.  Finishing with a solo reading of his signature song, “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive”, Scott gave the crowd the boost they needed on a brisk, overcast morning.  With radars threatening heavy rains and the accumulation of three days of merrymaking, this crowd was significantly sapped.  It was several hours before the hotly-anticipated Mumford & Sons/Robert Plant headlining sets, and with the gray weather hurting sales at the beer tent, the end-of-the-festival blues started to settle into Telluride earlier than usual this year.


Edgar Meyer


Meyer, as a double-bassist who has revolutionized his instrument as its most notable virtuoso, has been at Telluride Bluegrass for several years running, playing with the Telluride House Band and collaborating in a number of ensembles.  This year Meyer chose to play an unaccompanied solo set, and a relatively light crowd blissed out as Meyer’s bass swooped, belched, bowed, and darted around multipart classical compositions and improvisations.  No one had the slightest chance to understand what, precisely, Edgar was doing up there, so many decided that their best bet was to close their eyes and let the opus have its way with them.  Meyer held forth with a variety of jigs and original pieces with taciturn sturdiness for 45 minutes before going to the bullpen to bring out Chris Thile for some truly flabbergasting interplay.  The fun for the audience was in being utterly lost in the knotty configurations of the compositions, wondering if perhaps the two masters were too, at which point the two would stop on a dime and stab the head riff again in harmony, demonstrating that the joke is on everyone else who is saddled with merely mortal brains. 


Abigail Washburn & the Village 


The album City of Refuge is Abigail Washburn’s critically-praised, explorative collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch.  It’s an album on which Washburn repurposes her clawhammer banjo into globalist, deeply-textured roots music.  Today’s set was a showcase for those songs, as Washburn emerged as a charming, passionate storyteller and a singer of ethereal splendor.  Welch is an impressive sidekick, laying down mariachi trumpet, ambient guitar, swirling keyboards, and thick slabs of found-sound electronic embellishments to these trance-grass folk songs.  Washburn’s husband, Béla Fleck, was along for three songs, including one that Washburn sang in Chinese (she’s fluent) about waiting for the sun to come out in the mountains, and damned if it didn’t work, for a moment anyway.  The show was anchored by the brilliant new material, bookended by the title track and running through the mesmerizing final cut, “Bright Morning Stars”, on which Crooked Still fiddler Britanny Haas joined the Village’s violin duo of Odessa Jorgenson and Jeremy Kittell.  Washburn gave nods to her earlier roots-journey womanhood by playing “Keys to the Kingdom”, a slice of Dixieland blues from her Uncle Earl days, but stuck mostly to City of Refuge, hitting an emotional peak when telling the story of a Chinese immigrant whom Abigail taught English who had to come to terms with the empty promises of his American dream, an introduction to “Dreams of Nectar”, the end of which gave way to an extended soundscape of whirling ambient feedback. 


Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band


“Where would bluegrass be without Bill Monroe?” asked Peter Rowan during his midday set on Sunday, before playing a couple of Monroe classics, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Walls of Time”, which Rowan wrote with the Father of Bluegrass.  A similar question could be asked about Rowan himself.  After all, if Rowan had never existed, it would throw such a kink into the traditional/progressive bluegrass continuum to alter the very tones and complexion of this very festival.  30 percent more festivarians would wear shoes, for instance.  But, as one of the artists with a reserved slot on the lineup every year, Rowan at times struggles to bring anything new to the proceedings, and this year was an example.  Rowan’s latest release, last year’s Legacy is a solid album of traditional bluegrass, and his team of veteran pickers, including Jody Stecher on mandolin and Keith Little on banjo are accomplished pros, so some of the new material, like the wry “Jailer Jailer” and the plaintive “Father, Mother” worked fine.  But this set had more than its share of missteps, with a couple of songs threatening to fall apart and with Rowan, looking like a Founding Father on a six-day bender, repeating stories that he’d shared from this stage before.  Rowan started to capture the crowd that had stuck with the show, a cluster of fans who have followed his entire career and a younger bunch who know him as the guy who played with Jerry Garcia in Old & in the Way.  Those kids had to wait until the end of the show to hear songs they knew, “Panama Red” and “Midnight Moonlight”, which included Dead-friendly rambles through “Not Fade Away” and “Bo Diddley”.


Punch Brothers


Chris Thile and his well-tailored band of morbidly talented musicians in the Punch Brothers played this year’s most underappreciated set.  Just before the band started their late-afternoon show, a cold, steady rain started to fall and relentlessly drenched the crowd throughout the Punchers’ 80-minute set.  While Festivarians are hardy folks, half of the crowd bailed; the other half threw on raincoats and ponchos, ready to get their Gene Kelly on as the PBs played a carefully-plotted set of plinky avant-grass originals, hot-stepping bluegrass blazers, and off-the-wall covers.  Conditions outside were miserable, as beer cups were filling up with rain every 90 seconds and tarps turned into baby pools. Yet the Punch Brothers have one thing going for them:  They’re better than everybody else.  They are the most talented bluegrass collective since New Grass Revival, playing with freakish precocity, twinkling tremolos every which way, eschewing wayward jamming for intricate compositions and arrangements.  Thile for his part remains a marvel, now evolved from a spazzy heartland teen who sings about being a lighthouse to a spazzy Brooklyn metrosexual who sings about drinking whiskey. 


The songs from last year’s Antifogmatic (“You Are”, “Next to the Trash”) sounded just great, spit-shined after a year of playing them on tour, but they were a tough sell to a crowd being pelted by a bitter downpour, so a meticulously crafted as the show was with well-rehearsed transitions between songs, many must have wondered why the band couldn’t have cut the bass solo (or at least the doze-inducing “Missy”).  But when the band started cooking, as on banjoist Noam Pikelny’s “Man Chicken”, which he dedicated to the mothers in the audience on Father’s Day, Thile, Pikelny, and fiddle stud Gabe Witcher were scorching hot.  As for those covers, they played “Another New World”, a terrific Josh Ritter song (not that there any other kind) the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer”, proving they can sing those harmonies, too, and Beck’s “Sexx Laws” from Midnite Vultures, a typically abstruse choice from the Bros given that no one else has listened to that album since the month it came out.  It all added up to a dazzling display although one of the rare Telluride sets that was probably best enjoyed by listening along to KOTO-Telluride’s live stream. 


Mumford & Sons


“Rain is a binder”, Gunter Grass once wrote.  It certainly seemed true on Sunday while Mumford & Sons played in a freezing rainstorm.  In fact, the temperatures continued to drop throughout the day, into the 30s by the time Mumford started, so the crowd was a huddled, multi-colored mass of rain slickers.  The conditions may have been dreadful, but taking the was Mumford & Sons, who have the power to transport any crowd to robust euphoria, and as the show progressed the dismal weather became a special part of the occasion, believe it or not, something everyone was collectively proud in overcoming, even embracing.  The band played nearly every song from their multi-platinum smash debut, Sigh No More, just as they have for over a year now of persistent touring, including some 30 festivals last year.  If hundreds of runs through these songs in recent months have dulled their edges for these guys, you’d never know it by their boisterous performance.  Then again, they gushed continually about Telluride between songs, vowing to come back to the festival every year whether they are on the bill or not.  It was easy to see that they meant it. 


Not only were these guys constantly out front watching shows all weekend, chain-smoking and tossing back beers — young rock stars with the world by the balls — they were clearly beside themselves to be joined by Béla Fleck and Jerry Douglas, who lent rolling undercurrents to “Awake My Soul”.  “To come here from London and to play with your greats is fucking ridiculous”, keyboardist and lead headbanger Ben Lovett testified in response.  Mumford have doubled the size of their touring band in recent months, adding a horn section, a drummer (although leader Marcus Mumford still takes his turn behind the kit), and former Cadillac Sky fiddler Ross Holmes, who make possible full-form versions of songs like “Winter Winds”.  Marcus Mumford’s voice is tougher than it was a year ago, and he tends to throw away lines more, but he remains a magnetic performer who persistently kept the crowd in the moment, either by apologizing for bringing the rain or by encouraging the crowd to dance in it.  But it’s tough to take your eyes off of Winston “Country” Marshall, the most Mumf-y of all of them, the one who most embodies this band’s surprise appeal, looking like a truck-driver from Tora Bora who raided a Victorian haberdashery.  They played a handful of new songs, the best of which — the tentatively titled “Lover of the Night” and “Lover’s Eyes” — reprise the same kind of anthemic righteousness that has made the band huge.


Toward the end of their show, after an hour of steady rain, the skies in the west suggested that clearing skies were on the way.  Finally, the band played a final song, an exhilarating stomp through “The Cave”, and then, in what had to be one of the most magical moments in Telluride history, the skies opened up and the rain stopped.  For the last part of the song, as the crowd pogoed along, half of the audience turned away from the stage to stare in amazement at the surrounding mountain peaks, now covered in fresh snow under newly blue skies.  A breathtaking moment.


Robert Plant & Band of Joy


Throughout Mumford & Sons’ show, you could see a dozen or more artists watching the band from the side of the stage, including Robert Plant and the rest of the Band of Joy.  They must have been questioning the wisdom of agreeing to follow this act.  Thankfully, the rain had finally passed through, leaving a clear, albeit very cold, night for this, the closing set of the festival.  In fact, a significant portion of the crowd had packed it in by this time, despite the fact that Plant had been the most anticipated event of the weekend.  Still, once Plant strolled onto the stage, his famous locks grown back to full ’73 glory, the crowd immediately forgot about the cold and started shedding coats, hats, and gloves from the first notes of a revamped version of “Black Dog”.  With that warhead of an opening volley, any fears that Plant couldn’t deliver vocally or would shy away from overt Zeppishness were quickly abandoned.  In fact, many in the audience, including a pit full of artists, spent much of the evening wrapping Plant’s actual presence around their awe-struck minds, staring dumbfounded as Plant suddenly seized the microphone with both cupped hands, bucked his torso to the rhythms, stood with his legs crossed one over the other, tucked his elbow into his ribs while curling his hand outward at the wrist.  I stood next to Sam Bush, and at one point when Plant unleashed a signature yowl, Bush raised his face to the heavens and howled at the moon in sheer delight.  And you should have seen Yonder’s Jeff Austin busting apeshit dance moves, clearing space in every direction.  Such was the mood. 


Plant was in full possession of his mid-range clarity although he modified melodies, chose his shrieks sparingly, and sang most of the songs as duets with Patty Griffin, who, transformed into lemon-squeezing rock-mama form, took Plant’s old melody lines while the legend harmonized beneath her.  This approach worked especially well on the Led Zeppelin songs, especially a version of “What Is and What Should Never Be”, which thrilled everyone early.  The Band of Joy is a collection of musical geniuses — including guitarist Buddy Miller, multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott, and bassist Byron House — who have worked up arrangements that adhere to Zeppelin idioms and themes but that create rich roots textures that bring the old songs in line with the material from last year’s Band of Joy record, which made up about a third of the evening’s set.  Plant pushed each of the band’s singers into the spotlight for a song apiece (Miller on “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go”, Scott on “A Satisfied Mind”, Griffin on “Ocean of Tears”).  The last third of the show, though, was a Zep-heads’ dream, playing a string of classics, including the rarely-played Physical Graffiti gem “Black Country Woman”, a swampy reading of “Houses of the Holy”, and a thrilling “Ramble On”, which ran from a straight acoustic transcription to an otherworldly middle section in which Plant yelped in tongues along to Scott’s Eastern-flavored mandolin exercises.  Add in “Misty Mountain Hop”, a gorgeous “In the Mood”, and the closing “Gallow’s Pole”, and Plant delivered on mountain-high expectations, more than living up to his band’s name and finishing off a British one-two knockout punch to cap off the 38th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival in unforgettable fashion.  Campers would wake up the next morning — the first day of summer — to a fresh round of snow on the ground, a soggy start to the festivarians’ long wait to do it all again next year.

Steve Leftridge has written about music, film, and books for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, No Depression, and PlaybackSTL. He holds an MA in literature from the University of Missouri, for whom he is an adjunct teacher, and he's been teaching high school English and film in St. Louis since 1998. Follow at SteveLeftridge@Twitter.com.


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