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Telluride Bluegrass Festival

(22 Jun 2012: — Telluride, Colorado)

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Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall


Friday morning is a splendid time at Telluride; after the famous Tarp Run, a fanatical bolt for the choicest spots in front of the stage, Festivarians can settle into some broilingly beautiful music under direct sun with the beer tent open for business a few yards away. Case in point: This emulsive set from two savants: Meyer, the most-decorated double bassist of all time, and Marshall, one of earth’s most versatile acoustic instrumentalists, who stuck to the mandolin for this series of duets. Unlike Béla Fleck and Chris Thile’s improvisational rat’s nest on Thursday, Meyer and Marshall’s pas de deux represents the classical-leaning edge of contemporary bluegrass and was made up of carefully composed and arranged originals like Meyer’s lusty “The Green”, which saw Edgar getting animated, working his hips on long solos with the bow. A few tunes gave the men free range around certain themes, introduced with respect to their keys (“A-Minor Thing”, “The E Duet”), each of these finding the sweet spot between structural fidelity and spontaneous invention.


The hour was edifying even if no one in the audience had much of an idea what these two eggheads were doing (and Marshall at one point admitted that he was himself in the dark about what was coming out of Meyer’s bass). We were, however, instructed in the syncopated modulations of Brazilian choro music and the 7/8 time of Bulgarian dance tunes (which played hell with the rhythms of the sun salutations over in the morning yoga group). Marshall, by the way, never fails to amaze, a boundless virtuoso who enjoys incredible powers of concentration and plays as fast, clean, and complexly as anyone. Both men are Telluride regulars, especially Meyer, who first started playing the festival in 1981. Despite the annual visit, he assured the crowd, “I am no less in awe of what I see in front of me”. The feeling was mutual.

Seryn

The folks at Planet Bluegrass have racked up an impressive winning streak as talent scouts, taking chances on relatively undiscovered bands that (a) fit under the Telluride Bluegrass umbrella and (b) are ready for a national splash. It’s a T-bone steak for the band, a chance to play for a few thousand fans who are guaranteed to listen closely and are already primed to love them. This year’s breakout pick, after a lightning-bolt set at a 2011 South by Southwest showcase, was Denton, Texas’s Seryn (the second syllable is stressed), a wooly five-piece that specializes in lush soundscapes, four- or five-part harmonies, drop-key tunings, and an RV full of instruments. Sweet-natured beard farmers, Seryn passed around ukuleles, violins, banjos, accordions, etc., proving that they’re a band unique enough to boast both a banjo-playing drummer and a trumpeting bassist. Seryn half-asses nothing, going to Texas-sized lengths to produce aural swirls and vocal skyrockets: at one turn, Trenton Wheeler is crying into his ukulele’s pickup; at another, Aaron Stoner is drawing a violin bow across both his electric bass and a xylophone, thereby creating a cathedral-huge sound that brought a previously-reclining audience to its feet. Chris Semmelbeck’s spacious drumming helped bring a rise to the Friday morning crowd, and Wheeler occasionally piled on by clobbering a floor-tom at center stage, forging a gorgeous white-noise apocalypse. Seryn evenly parcel out soundscaping duties, but special citations go to Chelsea Bohrer’s heartstrong viola creations and to Nathan Allen’s deft, intricate guitar fingerpicking, which drove most of the songs, and for his vocal baying, which, with his vein-popping passion and full-bearded fever, came across like abolitionist John Brown in full battle cry. The band ended up covering most their debut album, last year’s triumphant This is Where We Are, highlights of which included a mesmerizing “So Within” and the award-winning single “We Will All Be Changed”.


Head for the Hills


Longtime Festivarians, the four fellows in Head for the Hills got their crack at the main stage after a decade of honing their craft through campground jams and tarpbound hero-worship. Head for the Hills are the afternoon jamgrass dance party of the day, and for half of the people who bought tickets, this is where it’s at—the chance to shuffle and jig in the sun to a band of Yonder-Come-Latelys. It’s a mixture that facilitates serious beer drinking, to the extent that the beer tent would run totally dry Friday evening, a festival first. (The fest sells only New Belgium products, and this year, the company brewed a new beer, Summer Bliss, exclusively for this event.) The happy 20-somethings in the crowd make up a springing army of goofy hats and bare shoulders that is unique to festival crowds: compared to Bonnaroo kids, for instance, the Festivarian youth has 70% fewer tattoos and does 80% less dicking around with their phones. It didn’t much matter what this band did on stage, these Head-cases had premeditated an hour-fifteen of solid hippie-wiggling. Still, H4tH, a four-piece from Fort Collins, weren’t bullshitting anybody instrumentally, especially fiddler Joe Lessard, a beanpole who was rocking mutton chops and a bank teller’s vest and fedora, and guitarist Adam Kinghorn, who tore into some topnotch breaks on tunes like “Chupchik” and “Poor Boy’s Melody” from the band’s self-titled sophomore album. In line with time-honored jamgrass traditions, the band has no terrific singers, but they are less druggy and noodly and have more of an old-tyme sensibility, than, say, Greensky Bluegrass. Still, they know where their bread is buttered and will therefore make room for a six-minute electric-mandolin solo when they need to. Of course, these Hill-raisers also busted out some well-chosen covers: A chugging version of “Unchain My Heart” wasn’t quite clever enough to flip anyone’s wig, but that groovy rendition of “Owner of a Lonely Heart”? Yes!


O’Brien Party of Seven


With a single main stage, TBF isn’t like many festivals at which you are forced to make heartbreaking choices about which acts to see and which to miss; instead, you park on your tarp in front of the fest’s only stage, and they bring all the action to you. However, Tim O’Brien was up against some stiff competition this year as Sam Bush, Bryan Sutton, and others were simultaneously staging a special tribute to Doc Watson, a free event in a small gazebo park in town. I stuck around for Tim’s Tribe, but word quickly spread that the Doc tribute was the most heavily attended workshop in the festival’s history and was a moving presentation of songs and stories. O’Brien, as one of Telluride’s most versatile and beloved figures, usually plays in two, sometimes three, ensembles over the weekend, so he broke tradition this year by being billed just once, and even then ceded much of his star time by submerging into the O’Brien Party of Seven. As that moniker would indicate, it’s a family affair, a band that features Tim, his two sons, his sister Mollie (a powerful vocalist and Telluride veteran), Mollie’s husband Rich and their two daughters. Those who hung with the O’Brien Brood were treated to a set as cute and as musically inconsistent as one would expect from a show in which established artists let their kids sing. The most delightful aspect is that the clan is touring behind their just-released collection of Roger Miller songs, Reincarnation. A set peppered with Miller tunes is a foundation that’s hard to screw up, and although they opened (and closed) with the compulsory “King of the Road”, the rest of the set crate-dug deeper into the Miller songbook (“Got 2 Again”, sung by Rich; “Train of Life”, belted out with Broadway panache by Mollie) and cuts from the Huck musical Big River (“Guv’ment”, bellowed by Tim’s son Jackson; “Hand for the Hog”, sung by Tim, accompanied by his son Josh’s handboning). They didn’t have enough Miller tunes for a whole set, which worked to their advantage as Tim pattered through his own “Workin’” and a rendition of “Sally Ann” that Josh clogged along to, or as Tim put it, “Josh is going to play ‘Sally Ann’ with his feet”. Indeed, any Tim show is filled with droll stage banter, and today was no exception—“If you’re not happy, then get happy,” he advised at one point. On that count, this crowd was well ahead of him.


Béla Fleck & The Marcus Roberts Trio


Béla Fleck, since helping to establish the Telluride Bluegrass milieu as the history-altering banjo revolutionary in New Grass Revival, has gone on to collaborate with the world’s greatest musicians on the Telluride stage, luminaries like Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Jean Luc Ponty, Toumani Diabate, and, of course, the mad scientists in the Flecktones. This year, the tradition continues, as Béla brought along the amazing Marcus Roberts Trio. Roberts is, according to his old bandleader, Wynton Marsalis, “The Genius of Modern Jazz Piano,” and his trio featuring Rodney Jordan on bass and Wynton’s brother Jason Marsalis on drums have teamed up with Béla for the dynamic new collaborative record, Across the Imaginary Divide. Clearly one of this year’s marquee matchups, these four musicians delivered evocative versions of most of the album’s original compositions, including the sing-song “Some Roads Lead Home” and the train-melting “Petunia”. The album’s title felt wholly appropriate here, as the set obliterated genre distinctions and achieved an organic feeling but also a suitably spontaneous blend of loose elegance and risk-taking drive. It was all impossible to dance to, not that many in the audience didn’t try; others more quietly displayed the curiosity and enthusiasm that have come to define these audiences. In a way, these two giants of their respective genres are a contrast in styles—the classicist Roberts clashing with the progressive Fleck—plus the Trio dressed in impeccable dark suits, while Fleck looked as though he’d just been roused after passing out in his clothes. Marcus, for his part, played with wild, incredible velocity on his Steinway on a series of stride-piano gambols and hard-bop digressions. Béla tore loose on “I’m Gonna Tell You This Story One More Time”, bending notes on his bluest ever playing and flashing some Eddie Van Halen-style fretboard typing. Marsalis, who set up facing sideways toward Roberts’ back, is a remarkable timekeeper, intuitively responsive to the soloists’ directions, even when the wind blew down his floor tom and ride cymbal. But nothing was going to stop this historic quartet as they soared through a jubilant reinvention of jazz and roots vernaculars, one blue truth at a time.


Del McCoury Band

There’s something fascinating about Del McCoury, something complex yet conventional, something buoyant yet rigid, something natural yet painstakingly preserved. I’m referring of course… to Del’s hair. In addition, Del, the king of the traditional scene, stands next to one hell of a bluegrass band, one that can moan and harmonize in ways (“She’s Left Me Again”, for instance) to which Lester Flatt would have no objections, but can flip the switch to tight, fast bluegrass (“Hello Lonely”, say) incendiary enough to convince the jam kids that their asses are being conclusively kicked.  At 70, Del’s tenor whine isn’t a whit diminished, and he’s still a delight to behold as he chuckles through his Opry-style intros (“Are you ready for a banja tyoone? We’re gonna play one anyway!”) and raises his eyebrows mirthfully every time he plays that signature guitar lick at the ends of lines. Today’s set—with Del in gray, the boys in black—served up a Best of Del, including “Nashville Cats”, played early, and the Del-on-wheels classic “1952 Vincent Black Cadillac”, played late. Del ordered his boys to the front of the single-mike arrangement now and then, whether it was Rob McCoury on the five to play some straight-up hotshit banjo on “Train 45” or bassist Alan Bartram to lend his tenor to “The Kentucky Waltz”. The band paid tribute to past greats on “Alabama Waltz” (Hank) and “In Despair” (Del’s old boss, Bill Monroe), and with 90% of the crowd standing, folks here treated Del as full-fledged member of Hank’s and Monroe’s pantheon of giants.  Still, Del made sure the undergraduates in the audience understood that he’s no bluegrass-history jukebox after a request was called out for “Rocky Top”: “Bobby Osborne is the only guy who can sing ‘Rocky Top’”, he said, “Now put that in your head and remember that.” Later, Sam Bush joined in to duet with Del on “Roll on Buddy, Roll On” and to unleash a hippie’s-delight mandolin war with Ronnie McCoury on a lengthy “My Love Will Not Change”.

John Fogerty


Fogerty hit the Telluride stage like a 737 coming out of the sky. That is, everyone knew that the rock legend was descending on Telluride this year, but there was still pervasive wonderment and hysteria when Fogerty charged on stage to the opening riff of “Hey Tonight”. This crowd spends its days proving its bluegrass bona fides, but nearly everyone here was raised on rock, so Fogerty gave these Friday night revelers the chance to cut the shit and get down with a full-blown rock concert. Fogerty’s appearance at Telluride Bluegrass wasn’t necessarily incongruous—his 1973 and 2009 Blue Ridge Rangers projects are country records, and he declares TBF mainstay Jerry Douglas his favorite musician of all time—but the band stuck to gunslinging classic-swamp-rock versions of more Creedence songs than your brother can name.  In brown-and-red flannel, Fogerty looked young and strong, vigorously flying into his patented bandy-legged jogs across the stage and playing loud, hedonistic guitar leads. But what everyone shook their heads over was the power and glory of his voice, every bit the foghorn squall it once was. Then again, it was nearly impossible to take your eyes off of drumming studbucket Kenny Aronoff, the relentless, indestructible rock machine, who flattened the whole town with the supremacy of his flaming-gong energy and muscular precision.


Fogerty, like everyone who plays here, was clearly impressed with his surroundings, comparing the young, outdoor crowd to his experience at Woodstock decades before: “But you’re a lot better looking, and I think you make more money”, he noted. The band checked off a CCR dream-set, lacing classics like “Lodi” and “Born on the Bayou” with dobro embellishment from new band member Randy Kohrs, but at times got seriously heavy, as on a proggy, face-melting Les Paul freakout in the middle of “Ramble Tamble”. (And was that “Eruption” that Fogerty was finger-tapping before “Keep on Chooglin’”?) The band also worked in some crowd-tickling covers (“(Oh) Pretty Woman”, John Prine’s “Paradise”), but in the end, Fogerty asked all the right questions about rain and otherwise sang a song for everyone—from the rock-and-roll girls to the old men down the road—and left 10,000 catching their breaths long enough to offer up a universal assessment: That was awesome.


Leftover Salmon

On Friday afternoon, I saw a guy walking through the campground wearing a sign that read, “Salmon Forever!” Yes, Leftover Salmon is still at it, 23 years into a career that helped reshape progressive bluegrass and infused newgrass music with snazzy electric instrumentation and full drumkit wallop. When Leftover Salmon arrived—after the members first met in campground jams at Telluride—the original five-piece galvanized the post-New Grass Revival scene by representing everything Telluride crowds love: shaggy-haired playfulness, slam-grass headbanging, an encyclopedic reservoir of music history, thrill-seeking improvisation, shoot-‘em-up instrumental prowess, Sam Bush worship, and wake-and-bake party promotion. The face, neck, breast, chest, and head of Salmon’s appeal is frontman Vince Herman, and his two-decade evolution from loveable bluegrass-mountain-bear to stoned-Santa elder statesman is both a reminder of time’s march and of Salmon’s permanence. No one, after all, has single-handedly caused more sleepless nights in the campground than Vince Herman, and his signature clarion call, “Festivaaaal!” is the official rally cry of Festivarians everywhere; waiting for him to holler it out is like waiting for Henny Youngman to ask the audience to take his wife please.


Despite their status as official Telluride legends, there was zero laurel-resting for the band on this night, focused as they were on the hot-off-the-presses Aquatic Hitchhiker, perhaps the band’s strongest collection of original songs yet, and the addition of banjoist Andy Thorn, whose hairpin turns on the new record’s title cut reportedly put several audience members in the burn ward. The first half of the set was a peppy run through the new material—the reggae-ish “Liza”; Vince’s rootsy “Kentucky Skies”; a slinky “The Gulf of Mexico” sung by founding member Drew Emmitt; the banjo-spurred “Keep on Driving”—all aided by Little Feat pianist Billy Paine, sitting in for the gig. Things got zanier when the band brought out guests, which was exciting even though it did nothing for the show’s pacing. Peter Rowan sang “Walls of Time” and zonkily bellied up to a Stratocaster to face off with Sam Bush’s fiddle, which stayed on to add heroic whoosh to a fifteen-minute “Whispering Waters” and a giant singalong of The Band’s “Cripple Creek”, after which the band presented Sam with a custom-built San Juan mandolin for his years of service.  The band closed with the one-two punch of the aptly-titled “Euphoria”, with Emmitt launching into slide-mando outer space, and a final “Rise Up”, which, long after the band had left the stage, fans chanted with genuine resolve all the way back to their tents.


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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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