Play Me Some Mountain Music: The Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2011
Nora Jane Struthers and the Bootleggers
By Saturday morning, things get challenging. Even with the festival’s single-stage arrangement, most of the crowd has been showerless and sleeping on the ground for three or more days and have packed a week’s worth of partying into two long days in the sun. So the crowd was slow to trudge back to their spots this morning, although the promise a pleasant weather and another stellar lineup would eventually bring everyone back to form. There are, of course, those who slept in line for today’s shows, another singular phenomenon at TBF. Many people get in line at 5pm or earlier, sacrificing the night’s entertainment in favor of getting the best spots for the next day. When gates open, it’s a mad dash — tarps a-flyin’ — for the prime real estate closest to the stage. This morning, these early birds were treated to the dulcet sounds of Nora Jane Struthers, winner of last year’s coveted Band Contest.
Nora Jane is a comely, spirited blonde, sporting a red dress and matching shades this morning, leading her band through an old-tyme and swing set that recalled early Michelle Shocked. She leaned heavily on covers, like a crowd-tickling “Jolene” (kids in particular seem to love this one) and an elastic “Hard Times”. Joel O’Brien made another clogging appearance, and Nora Jane joined in with some hot-footing of her own. Bonus: Bootlegger mandolinist Dave Goldenberg is an impressive, versatile player, who may be the next star on the instrument.
The namesake duo in this band have provided the Telluride Bluegrass Festival with more than their share of thrills over the years as members of Leftover Salmon and the String Cheese Incident, respectively. So this band is something of a Salmon and Cheese sandwich, hold the jam. Okay, not all the jam; these guys still like to solo, obviously, but they’ve jettisoned the 30-minute electric-mandolin noodling, so there’s no please-god-someone-start-singing-again factor in this band. In fact, with Drew Emmitt on mando, Billy Nershi on guitar, Andy Thorn on banjo, and former Railroad Earthling Johnny Grubb on bass, this is one of the most dynamic outfits in bluegrass. Thorn is the most exciting banjo discovery since Noam Pikelny, and Grubb is one of the genre’s most versatile and tasteful thumpers. The band sticks within the general ballpark of traditionalism—the musicians are given room to lay foxy runs over thorny chord progressions, but these songs never feel like excuses to meander, never straying too far from the head during the explorations.
Today the ENB got a major boost when Sam Bush joined in on fiddle for the entirety of the set — how would you like to call in that wingman? — and dobro stud Andy Hall from the Infamous Stringdusters piled on midway through, expanding the quartet to six just as the sun came out to blast a crowd catching its umpteenth wind. It was Nershi’s presence that seemed to most energize the place, with his old prospector vibe and occasional shouts of “Olé!” Nershi played his originals like “Colorado Bluebird Sky” and “Black Clouds”, although SCI fans constantly screamed requests between songs. For Emmitt’s part, he let loose a “Festivaaaal!” cry in honor of Salmon cohort Vince Herman and played a breezy “Valley of the Full Moon”, a song he wrote about this very place.
Tim O’Brien Band
For those who didn’t get enough of Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan, and Bryan Sutton on Thursday, these aces were back as the Tim O’Brien Band, one of the weekend’s most charming musical and songwriting showcases. Tim has added drums (John Gardner) to this combo in the last year, so the hammer swings harder than before. It’s a tight, economical combo; Duncan and Sutton are a thrill-a-minute pair. It was O’Brien, though, who delighted the crowd with a superb selection of songs and his patented between-song repartee, much of it punctuated by an undershirt tricked out with toy organ keys, of all things. Harefooted numbers like “Wheel Hoss” and “The Hangman’s Reel” (Sutton, ooh-wee) lit the fuse under the crowd, but Tim really scored with his singular brand of poignant modern-folk narratives (“My Girl’s Waiting For Me” and “Workin’” from last year’s Chicken & Egg) and personal songs and bits of wisdom dedicated to his wife (“Brother Wind”), his father (“Not Afraid of Dyin’”), and a fruit salesman in his boyhood home (“Megna’s”). The band closed with the Adam and Eve lark “You Ate the Apple”, which Tim sang while eating an actual apple. With a variety of Stringdusters, Flecktones, Punch Brothers, Yonder Mountain String Banders, and Decemberists sitting around me, this felt like one of the fest’s marquee shows, and O’Brien, at the end, challenged everybody to keep these good Telluride vibes going all year, a tall order but a nice sentiment to round out a heartwarming show.
Yonder Mountain String Band
It’s an interesting scheduling choice to place the world’s biggest bluegrass band in the middle of the day on Saturday, but it’s a placement that over that last few years has come to anchor the festival. The year was Yonder’s 12th consecutive TBF, and a dozen years ago they came to Telluride as the hempy, Sam Bush-worshipping, Nederland, Colorado kids whose instrumental reach was pretty far from their grasp. It’s funny what a thousand-plus shows will do for a band, however, particular when they’re as smart as these four guys. Today’s setlist was predictably unpredictable, a mix of old and mostly new songs. And if, true to time-honored jamgrass trajectories, YMSB is yet to make a great studio album, the new material they played in Telluride this year, especially mandolinist Jeff Austin’s “What the Night Brings” and Adam Aijala’s “All the Time”, was strong enough to give hope that they might yet get there. In any case, the band sounds fully committed to keeping it going: “If you’re in it with us, we’re in it with you for as long as we possibly can”, Austin told the crowd. Other developments: Bassist Ben Kaufmann has recently shaved his head, Aijala has become the band’s most polished singer and remains an underrated guitarist, and Austin looks healthier and acts more manic than ever, which is saying something. He’s long been bluegrass’s most overexcited spaz, but today he was positively crackers, so psyched when Sam Bush joined them onstage that he stalked Bush with the wild-eyed derangement of a hatchet murderer. Such batshittery might be less tolerable if everyone didn’t understand that it’s part of Austin’s untamable gusto for life, a hard thing to knock. And Sam on fiddle? Awesome as ever. Slammin’ Sammy sat in for a murderous last half-hour, pumping out fiddle breaks with almighty rapture on a delirious run through “Fingerprint”, “Snow in the Pines”, and “Bolton Stretch”.
The last time the Decemberists played the TBF back in 2005, frontman Colin Meloy challenged Béla Fleck and Jerry Douglas to a pick-off, and when those guys never showed, Meloy announced that the Decemberists had “won Telluride” by forfeit, a running gag throughout this year’s set, which Meloy called a “victory lap”. Meloy was in a playful mood throughout, whether by offering “The Calamity Song” free of charge to Michelle Bachmann’s presidential campaign in case of any of her staffers were in attendance or by suggesting that the audience could handle the band’s darker material since people at bluegrass festivals “spend the entire weekend hearing songs about dead babies”. Meloy kept a straight face while singing 12 Decemberists songs (13 if you count the snippet of “Dracula’s Daughter”, which Meloy introduced as the “worst song that’s ever been performed at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival”) and a Fruit Bats cover (“When U Love Somebody”). Jenny Conlee was out of the lineup, undergoing treatment for breast cancer (a sign in the audience read, “Breast Cancer Sucks but Jenny Rocks”) so Sara Watkins was on hand to provide fiddle, percussion, and erogenous background vocals.
Most of the material was drawn from this year’s The King is Dead (their best album ever?), plucking two songs from The Crane Wife (“O Valencia!”, “Yankee Bayonet”), just one each from Her Majesty the Decemberists (“The Chimbley Sweep) and The Hazard of Love (“The Rake’s Song”), and nothing from Picaresque. The new material and Meloy’s rock-star moves, leaning over the stage and flirting with the audience (“Each man more rugged than the next, each lady more sundressed and sunkissed than the next”), slayed the audience thoroughly. And speaking of rock stars, legendary Heartbreaker keyboardist Benmont Tench made a surprise appearance to lend some Hammond organ to “All Arise!” But the moment everyone will remember is when, after an hour of taunting, Béla Fleck and Jerry Douglas showed up to answer the pick-off challenge, leading to a hilarious back-and-forth with Meloy (“Something’s wrong with my guitar”). Punch Brother banjo whiz Noam Pikelny joined in the fun, making for what was probably the most smile-inducing ten minutes of the weekend. “When U Love Somebody” followed, with Meloy calling out the soloists—Béla! Jerry! Benmont! Sara!—before ending with a peaceful reading of “June Hymn” from the new album. The Decemberists may have conceded the pick-off, but it was a victory lap nonetheless.
Sam Bush Band
The King of Telluride. Slammin’ Sammy. The Bush Whacker. Sam the Man. The Mandolin Reign. Burnin’ Bush. The Lean Machine from Bowling Green. The dude goes by many names, which only points to the weight of expectations that must fall on Sam Bush each year as everybody — and I mean nobody misses Bush’s show — counts on him to bring the hurricane-riffing newgrass incineration that has made him the chief god in the Telluride pantheon. And, sure enough, the reason people someday will walk by the Sam Bush Statue when entering the festival grounds is due to sets like tonight’s, his 37th consecutive TBF, a soup-to-nuts barnstorming through the Best of Sam, toggling among altered-state excursions (“River’s Gonna Run” with an Emmylou Harris cameo), New Grass Revival deep cuts (“Unconditional Love”), and breakneck bluegrass chuggers (“Bringin’ in the Georgia Mail”). Sam remains an ageless wonder, wearing a custom-made Cardinals jersey, weaving and bobbing in his signature shaggy-haired playfulness and wide-mouthed laughter, clearly having a blast and driving guitarist Stephen Moughin and banjo marvel Scott Vestal to cross swords with him.
My two favorite moments came with the title cuts from his solo records, “Circles Around Me”, a poignant song about survival and being in this very location, “Howlin’ at the Moon”, featuring Sam’s barndance fiddle, and an epic “Laps in Seven”, as the band switched to electric instruments and lacerated the crowd with a dozen minutes of nasty funk and shrieking lava-lamp solos. Sam set the flamethrower late on a string of covers — “Whipping Post”, a Jerry Douglas-abetted “Sailin’ Shoes”, “Up on Cripple Creek” —that wrapped up another year, another Sam Bush classic. Side note: Bush’s introduction came by way of a surprise, unbilled appearance from Pastor Mustard, the TBF legend who emceed the festival for a couple of decades before unceremoniously vanishing a few years ago. The good Pastor reminded everyone of what we’ve been missing with his hilarious, masterful intro, and Planet Bluegrass would do well to exercise the kind of utilitarianism with its emcee selection that they do so well with every other aspect of the festival: the greatest good for the greatest number is to return Pastor to his rightful place once and for all.
Old Crow Medicine Show
Leave it to Old Crow Medicine Show to keep the party going after Sam Bush, a tall order since Bush wrenched much of the audience of their last ounces of hardihood. But the Crows are up to the task—as anyone who’s seen them knows, these rowdy Virginia yayhoos raise the dingblastedest old-time ruckus of any string band before or after them. Half the crowd retreated to shelter due to fatigue and cold (or hit the venues in town for the late “Nightgrass” shows), but those who had the sand to go the distance were hit with the weekend’s most vigorous, relentless party. The set was full of guest appearances, thrilling the crowd early when Winston Marshall and Ben Lovett from Mumford & Sons jumped out to frail ‘n’ shout along to a riotous “Alabama High-Test”, and Marcus Mumford lent lead vocals to a terrific version of “Take “Em Away” from the band’s 2004 debut (The Mumfs had to bolt for their Nightgrass show at the Sheridan Opera House, the hottest ticket of any show in America this year).
Benmont Tench materialized on and off throughout, and Emmylou Harris was also back, dueting with guitarist Willie Watson, doing his best Rolling Thunder Dylan, on “We’re All in This Thing Together”. OCMS scored points with hook-filled new material, such as the Hank mashup “Hey Good Lookin’ Country Gal” and the backwoods hootenanny “Carry Me Back to Virginia”. With Gil Landry clawing at the banjo and Kevin Hayes hammering chords on the guitjo, the band’s bangety-bang was plenty rocking for a Saturday night, as Watson’s dynamic head-bobbing would attest. But all hail Ketch Secor, who may be the biggest studbucket in bluegrass. (Were those leather pants he was wearing?) He played, sang, and boogied like a man possessed, at times on the verge of sawing his fiddle in half and playing the tastiest harmonica riffs this side of Mickey Raphael. Gaggles of girls behind me had been screaming for “Wagon Wheel” from the moment the band started, and when they finally got a big-hearted, loyal rendition, it was the swaying, arms-locked sing-along that you’ve grown sick of, which is where the whiskey comes in. The Crow Show ran later than scheduled, and by the time they called it a night, I could barely zombie my way back to my tent. I seem to recall eating a slice of pizza on the walk to the campground before burrowing into my sleeping bag as temperatures dropped quickly, a sign of things to come.