Telluride Bluegrass Festival
23 Jun 2012: Telluride, Colorado
In the summer at Telluride, one must pack for three different seasons due to the changeable weather at this altitude, but this year added a scarier scenario as Colorado experienced one of its worst-ever fire seasons. With festival organizers reviewing evacuation procedures given the fire risks due to exceptionally dry conditions—thousands of acres in the state were already burning—fears were nearly realized when a wildfire broke out just southwest of Telluride. While festivalgoers were never in any real danger, winds on Saturday filled the canyon with smoke from the fire. The haze obscured the mountain peaks by midday, and in the afternoon, the skies above the festival grounds were raining ash. Thankfully—especially for the singers onstage—the smoke started to blow through by evening and by Sunday would be gone entirely. Fire on the mountain…
Run Boy Run
…Run Boy Run is a traditional folk-grass outfit led by three harmonizing, string-toting sisters from Tuscon. These five Arizonans owe their appearance to winning last year’s annual TBF Band Contest—each year the winner gets a full slot on the following year’s lineup, bluegrass gold to any young band. The girls talked about the thrill of winning the contest (and reminisced about last year’s snow), a momentum that carried them through the year and led to the release of their eponymous EP. The band played a pile of covers to round out its hour on stage, sturdily arranged versions of chestnuts like Johnny Horton’s “Sleepy-Eyed John” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”. RBR have a fine fiddle player, but the group didn’t bring anything particularly memorable to songs that have been played to death on this stage; as a result, even numbers as great as Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues” came off as pleasant but pedestrian. The band did get a response for their wispy take on “Down in the Willow Garden”, probably because the Dead used to play it, although it sounded like the band learned it from the Stanley Brothers instead (or maybe from Raising Arizona). Incidentally, the 2012 Band Contest winners were Georgia’s BlueBilly Grit, so we’ll see them next year on this stage. A special note, though, for the most exciting of this year’s contestants, a Wisconsin band called Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, a ragged bunch of chain-smoking young Rick Dankos who play rustic hoot-‘n’-holler foot-stompers with fiddles and harmonicas all over the place. They came close to winning, but close only counts in…well, you know.
Devil Makes Three
“This has been a long time in coming for us!” called out singer/guitarist Pete Bernhard, referring to his hard-working trio’s first Telluride. Devil Makes Three are a band of Miniver Cheevys who mingle their veneration of field-recorded folk with such a crossbreeding of genres that you’re forced to call them something like neo-trad jug-punk vaudeville-abilly. Whether these guys are in character or not, their commitment to the style is impressive, especially guitarist/banjoist Cooper McBean, whose Amish outlaw guise is nearly frightening. Whatever they’re peddling, they’ve inspired a specialized fanbase, who dress in distinctive outfits and twirl at their shows. The Devil Makes Three fan look? Dickensian-Gothic urchin-harlequin. In fact, during their set the annual kids parade weaved through the festival grounds, a collection of costumed clowns and fairies, and one could scarcely tell the difference between the paraders and the DM3 faithful. Old-time revivalism is in full swing, as young audiences are going bananas for this band and for Old Crow Medicine Show from coast to coast. Yet as rowdy as DM3 audiences tend to be, there isn’t a whole lot of ruckus-raising on stage, and the fans, Devil Spawn, let’s call them, certainly don’t seem bothered by the fact their favorite band plays nothing but Silver Dollar City material. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and the music is precisely harmonized and plucked on vintage instruments, but the music is peculiarly tame to illicit such wild responses, even with all the drunk-in-a-ditch lyrics and antebellum angst. It’s true that many of the forebears (and their fans) of the Telluride Bluegrass genre have struggled with the relationship between an attraction to a fashion and the genuine quality of the music, and that line remains blurry with Devil Makes Three. However, no one doubts their earnestness—their version of “Statesboro Blues”, for example, sounds great and is way more loyal to Blind Willie McTell than to Gregg Allman (although Red Lane’s “The Day I Jumped From Uncle Harvey’s Plane” was erroneously introduced as “written by Roger Miller”). DM3 are noteworthy stylists, but not necessarily great songwriters, and the sameness in Saturday’s 18-song setlist was unmistakable. That repetition is part of the appeal, as Bernhard walks in place and scratches out relentless rhythms, scrubbing that upbeat on one minor-chord progression after another. The band played every song the crowd was ready to sing along to, including their best tune, “All Hail”, with all that Shakey’s Pizza banjo, and the Jack Daniels toast “Old Number 7”. Of note: It was nearly a DM2 show, as regular bass slapper Lucia Turino was out of action after falling from a ladder and breaking her arm. She was replaced for this show but was nonetheless in attendance and came out to sing lead on Doc Watson’s “Walk On Boy”.
One of the challenges for annual Telluride soldiers like Jerry Douglas, the Rembrandt of the Resonator, is coming up with something fresh each time out since many of the fans come every year. Douglas, who logs more stage time than anyone else at Telluride besides Sam Bush, had the same rhythm section he brought last year, former Weather Report drummer Omar Hakim and bassist Viktor “Trouser Mouse” Krauss. But two things made Douglas’s set special this year—the addition of fiddle marvel Luke Bulla and brand-new material from Jerry’s latest record, Traveler, on which, among other things, Jerry reinvents himself as a singer. Introduced by one of his daughters, Douglas opened with a solo performance of Paul Simon’s “American Tune”, which was simply gorgeous, before bringing the band on for a ferocious “From Ankara to Izmir”. It was a marvelously balanced set, moving from a tranquil reading of Weather Report’s “A Remark You Made” to a dirt-bike ride through “Hey Joe”, featuring Jerry singing at the top of his range, which isn’t saying much. He sang only one other tune (“On a Monday”, the one he performed on Letterman) and acknowledged his limitations as a vocalist when introducing Luke Bulla: “so you hear what a real singer sounds like”. Yes, “Cry For You” may be the least appealing song by the Works Progress Association supergroup, but Bulla is a terrific singer. Things got really dangerous when Béla Fleck arrived for “Gone to Foringall”, an astounding seven minutes that built to a swirling maelstrom as Luke and Jerry played in unison and Béla rolled crossways over everything, all preposterously complex and perfectly executed. The band finished with Jerry’s signature instrumental, “Who’s Your Uncle”, which banged harder than ever and snapped to a thrill-a-second finish. Like everyone else, Jerry was still buzzing about John Fogerty the night before, saying, “Now that’s rock and roll…and that’s what this festival is all about!” He was making a joke about the sprawling variety of the Telluride Bluegrass genre, but on Saturday afternoon, he played like he sure enough meant it.
Yonder Mountain String Band
Yonder frontdude and mandolin mauler Jeff Austin is probably this festival’s biggest fan and loudest cheerleader, continually reminding the crowd that this vibe, this collection of artists, this scenery only happens once a year in one place, so why don’t we all go nuts. “We’ve been looking forward to this for exactly a year”, Austin shouted, a reminder that Yonder, currently on their 13th consecutive Telluride, plan to be TBF lifers. And why not—they’re universally adored here, and their Saturday afternoon set has become a tradition during which the field shakes in great surges of let-it-rip delight. For a four-piece bluegrass band that plays fairly traditional-sounding songs, scrambling through windy improvisations though they do, it’s amazing the fever-dream intensity they produce in the crowd. Referring to the diminishing smoke from the wildfire, Austin claimed, “You can see the peaks again! You’re blowing it out with your energy! That’s no bullshit! There’s a lot of energy here!” Maybe so, although fans were doing their damnedest to replace whatever smoke was leaving the canyon. Despite automatic love from the audience, the band still plays as if it has plenty to prove—in black t-shirts and jeans, the band was ready to get down to business, reminding all these upstarts that Yonder is still the jamgrass band to beat. Or as Austin put it: “Let’s play some damn fast-ass music and shake it!” before breaking into flangered-out mandolin tantrums while wearing facial expressions that imply homicidal instability. Such crazed enthusiasm sometimes leads to near-derailment for this band, and banjoist Dave Johnston frequently succumbs to rhythmic chaos. Adam Aijala is, on the other hand, one of bluegrass’s best guitarists, underappreciated because he makes it look so easy—he’s one of roots music’s most consistent nose-breathers, exuding the demeanor of well-behaved golf professionals. Highlights of this set: the nail-gun propulsion of “Piece of Mind” (Adam’s solo—ooh-wee), the still-goodie “40 Miles From Denver”, a zippy cover of Dylan’s “Spanish Harlem Incident”, and, yes, a half-hour Sam Jam, a medley of tunes like “Steep Grade, Sharp Curves” on which the band challenged Sam Bush’s fiddle to avoid improvisational runaway truck ramps; Sam responded with some Satanic solos, bringing the fire a whole lot closer to the canyon. Lowlight: A marshmallow war broke out midset. Sure, hundreds of flying marshmallows went quite nicely with the raining ash, but this littering dorkout has become Telluride’s worst tradition, for which Aijala half-jokingly admonished, “That’s so not green. That’s food you’re throwing”.
k.d. lang & the Siss Boom Bang
As the annual gathering point of the world’s best pickers, it’s easy to define the signature sound of Telluride as mandolin, dobro, and banjo strings, but now and then a vocalist reminds us that the canyon is a heavenly place to be sung to. Enter k.d. lang. Her latest album, Sing It Loud was feloniously overlooked last year, and it’s been long enough since her mainstream success of Grammys and hit singles, that it wasn’t clear which part of her career lang would embrace. Turns out that her versatile band, the five gentlemen in the Siss Boom Bang, do beautiful work in combining the layered elegance of k.d.’s modern period with the steel-guitar-laced frontier romance of her alt-country torch-and-twang years. And that rich, expressive alto? To hell with the smoke and the altitude—lang came out set to stun, performing with Springsteenian passion and damn near stealing the first three days of the festival. Much more playful than many expected—dancing, posing for photos, flirting with the audience, tight-walking the edge of the stage—lang was a barefooted gale-force storm, winning the crowd on the new songs (“I Confess”, “The Water’s Edge”—both superb) and slaying them on the old ones (“Western Stars”, “Miss Chatelaine”). The covers worked wonders: the slow-burning caress of the Talking Heads’ “Heaven” and a fuzzy-warm version of Little River Band’s “Reminiscing”. But it was, unsurprisingly, “Hallelujah”, as sick as everyone has a right to be of that song, that made three out of five people in the audience weep openly. Bolstering herself up like a prize-fighter, lang prowled the stage and delivered those lines as if she’d never get another chance. Strangers hugged. (Frustratingly, even that moment wasn’t enough to get the well-connected people in the Poser Pit, the VIP section in front of the stage, to stand up. Folks like lang and Fogerty must have thought, “This is great. But who are these lazy elitists up front?” If these folks can’t stand up when John Fogerty is playing “Proud Mary” in their faces, then perhaps they don’t deserve such a privileged view.) By the time “Constant Craving” rolled around, lang was doing wild mule kicks all over the stage to the extent that she was hard-winded but still robust enough for the single-mike country vamp “Pay Dirt” and a totally appropriate “I Am the Winner”.
Sam Bush Band
The eggs and bacon on Sam Bush’s t-shirt Saturday night were in the shape of a skull-and-crossbones, a perfect metaphor for what Sam provides each year during his no-holds-barred sets. That is, he’s both comically frolicsome and incomparably deadly. Nobody throws down like the Lean Machine From Bowling Green, and his decades of musical derring do long ago secured his place as lifetime King of Telluride, the heart and soul of the festival on stage and the ambassador backstage. In his introduction this year, former TBF emcee Pastor Mustard (and it’s a crime that Mustard doesn’t still host the whole weekend) speculated that Sam found a Fountain of Youth in one of the ice-cold waterfalls nearby, explaining his age-defying heroics that show no sign of stopping. Sam has been touring for three years behind his last album, 2009’s Circles Around Me, so this year’s covers-heavy set dusted off some his old faves, like John Hiatt’s “Memphis in the Meantime” and Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues”, and paid tributes to his heroes, Doc Watson (“Freight Train Boogie”),Guy Clark (“Picasso’s Mandolin”), the Beatles (“I’ve Just Seen a Face”), and Levon Helm (“Up on Cripple Creek”). Jerry Douglas crossed swords with Sam on a series of nail-gun solos throughout “Mannish Boy”. And it was all smiles for the return of John Cowan, the New Grass Revival singer who has missed the last two Tellurides. Cowan reprised his old duet with Sam on Little Feat’s “Sailin’ Shoes” and stuck around for the triple-banjo attack (Sam’s own Scott Vestal, Yonder’s Dave Johnston, Béla) on “Cripple Creek”, the kind of only-in-Telluride moment fans have come to expect from a Slammin’ Sammy show. And for a finale, would you believe…Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom”? With four basses on stage—Edgar Meyer covering Spinal Tap is certainly something no one ever expected to see—Sam slayed people in their thirties and forties but, given the head-scratching reaction, also seemed to prove that today’s young people no longer watch This is Spinal Tap. In any case, I caught up with Sam on his bus after the festival, and he held forth on a number of topics.
On his first Telluride: “A group called the Fall Creek Band saw New Grass Revival [at the Walnut Valley Festival] in Winfield, Kansas in September, 1974 and invited us to play Telluride the next summer. We were the first non-Colorado band to play Telluride. This was ’75, which was John Cowan’s first summer in the band. That year at Telluride, we also met the Ophelia String Band, with Dan Sandowsky—that’s Pastor Mustard’s real name—and Tim O’Brien, and that’s how we got to know those guys, and we all just thought, wow, we’ve really found our audience, and we’ve come back ever since.”
On collaborations at Telluride: “Sometimes people don’t say a word to me about what they’re going to play. Yonder had a couple of new riffs they showed me ahead of time and I’m glad they did because I don’t know if I would’ve caught on in time. But I was especially up for it this year because my energy was real good, and I enjoyed the festival as much this year as any I’ve ever been to”.
On his iron-horse Telluride run: “There have been times when I’ve wondered if I’m still relevant as the festival goes on. I hope to keep going, but I realize that things change and there might come a time when they feel like they need to change talent, and I’ll understand that. But I want to keep doing it as long as I can. Right now, I’m just hoping they’ll let me come back for the 40th [anniversary next year].”
On playing “Big Bottom” “We played it at a Halloween show where our guitar player, Stephen Mougin, dressed up like Nigel from Spinal Tap, with the wig and the x-ray shirt, and we looked at each other and said, we’re definitely playing this at Telluride. We tried to get even more basses on stage. The action on mine has gotten so high, it’s like a dobro, which is why I played slide on it. I don’t think Edgar knew the song, but I talked him into it. In fact, I think a lot people in audience didn’t know what it was. But if you noticed, Chris Brown knew Spinal Tap’s drum fills exactly”.
On Pastor Mustard: “I miss him. He’s so good on his feet, and he’s a great musician. When he was the full-time emcee, he was the hardest working man at Telluride. I guess things needed to change, but after trying different things with emcees over the years, I think a lot of people found out just how hard it is to keep the festival going smoothly on stage.”
On meeting Levon Helm: “I played a TV show that Levon hosted in the ‘90s, a real hip show called The Road, and I was with Emmylou Harris taping an episode in Nashville, and someone asked if Levon could borrow one of my mandolins. So I was thrilled. And then I played a Little Feat tribute show in Washington, D.C., and Levon was also there, and the highlight for me was getting to share a dressing cubicle with Levon all day, and he was just really sweet. And then they started his Rambles up, and I got to play three of those in Woodstock, and I played on all the Rambles at the Ryman. There was one scheduled for May 6th, but Levon didn’t make it that far.”
On the success of Circles Around Me: “It’s been a special time for us. The record came out on my and Lynn’s 25th anniversary, but as my business partner and wife tells me, ‘Time for a new one, buddy’. So I have some things in the works. I’m in the process of coming up with a collection of songs that are entirely written or co-written by me. I’ve never done that before”.
On his upcoming duets tour with Del McCoury: “Squaring off with Del is terrifying. I’ve known Del since 1970, and he always encouraged me to sing more. But singing with Del is like going to the mountain. It’s intimidating, though, when Del squints that eyebrow, buddy, because he’s puttin’ out. You probably noticed during Del’s set that I was about a foot closer to the mike than Del was, trying to get the right blend because he’s so strong. Because if I try to sing as loud as Del I’ll lose my voice.”
On loving the St. Louis Cardinals: “My lifelong love of Cardinals baseball started growing up in Kentucky because the only radio station we could get was KMOX out of St. Louis, and I listened to Harry Carey and Jack Buck call Cardinals games. Also, the Cardinals were the only team besides the Yankees that would be on the Saturday afternoon TV game on CBS. My dad was a White Sox fan, but I always loved the Cardinals”.
On Sam Bush “Freshman Senior” t-shirts. [laughs.] When you turn 60, you get a 10% discount at Kroger grocery stores in Nashville on the first Wednesday of each month. So I’m a freshman senior, and you only get to be a freshman senior for one year. Unless, of course, I flunk and they hold me back”.
Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers
Combining lock-step precision with responsive seat-of-the-pants flying, Hornsby and his incredible band, the Noisemakers, were in an adventurous mood on Saturday night, even more so than usual. Hornsby has never been particularly fond of, you know, setlists, but with playthings like Chris Thile and Béla Fleck around, Hornsby was like a kid in a candy shop, conducting left and right and throwing curveballs at every turn just to see what would happen. Things were super well-oiled over the first three tracks, starting with a “Big Rock Candy Mountain” tease, a nod to the surroundings, which dissolved into a delightful “Candy Mountain Run,” seven minutes of jumpy white-guy funk, followed by “Sunflower Cat”, which audibled into a glitzy reworking of Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”, featuring an extensive southern-rock guitar solo and Bruce’s patented laidback vocal delivery. The Noisemakers boast a stupendous rhythm section (bassist J.V. Collier and drummer Sonny Emory) that drove a sound-and-light feast for the senses for those with the energy left after a hot, sunny, smoky, and action-packed day. Hornsby’s choice of his recent solo material didn’t always hit the mark, as with lugubrious picks like “Might As Well Be Me”, a Robert Hunter co-write, and the shopping-addiction exercise “The Good Life”, played on the dulcimer. But when Chris Thile, a Hornsby fanatic, joined the party, things got weird and dangerous. Whenever a band wings it this flagrantly, it can be stressful for the audience, and Bruce was so clearly off-script that even someone like Thile was sweating bullets, but the results were, more often than not, thrilling. Bruce called for “Great Divide”, an offbeat cut from Spirit Trail, and after showing off with unaccompanied crystalline piano pinwheels, Bruce turned the spotlight on Thile, who entered a funhouse of organ and sax, holding on for dear life. (That’s old Captain Beefheart cohort JT Thomas on sax.) Once Thile found his legs, it was off to the races, as Bruce ordered a duel between saxophonist Bobby Reed and Thile although Bruce couldn’t stay out of it for long, jumping back in to form an improv-à-trois. As Bruce admitted, “We’re just winging our asses off!” Such was the rest of the way, as Bruce enlisted Béla for a marathon “Mandolin Rain”, which started straightforwardly until midway through the second verse when Bruce abruptly commanded Chris and Béla to play over a larky ragtime arrangement. “Tighten up!” Bruce yelled at the band as the pickers knitted a chain of descending lines together. Béla is no lapdog, however, giving as good as he got by prompting Bruce to alter his vocal phrasing by rolling faster and changing patterns. Finally, an inspired Chris approximated the sound of “mandolin rain” over the song’s magical final minute. The set had too much lag time for tuning and sound tweaking, but a hot-stepping “Jacob’s Ladder”, which featured a nuke-test Sam Bush fiddle solo and saw Thile and Béla catching second, third, fourth winds on hare-footed breaks, was likely the weekend’s most incendiary sequence of musical feats. A good chunk of the crowd couldn’t take any more, but Bruce piled on anyway with a 14-minute rendition of his biggest hit, “The Way It Is”, before closing with the sinewy, accordion-boosted “Rainbow’s Cadillac”, thereby capping an exhilarating, exhausting day of music.