Telluride Bluegrass Festival
24 Jun 2012: Telluride, Colorado
John Cowan Band
Sunday morning coming down and with three days behind them, Festivarians have a keen sense that the utopian bubble that is the Telluride Bluegrass Festival will soon burst. Even the morning tarp run, folks in a tangled-up-in-blue sprint across the lawn, by Sunday has lost a few seconds off the weekly average. Still, it’s surprising how many people have plenty left in the tank, and with another sunny day ahead and the smoke gone from the valley, things got off to a stellar start with John Cowan taking over the traditional Sunday-morning gospel set. Johnny C, the Voice of Newgrass, made a cameo appearance on Saturday night during Sam Bush’s set, but he was given sole possession of the gospel slot to mark his return to the festival after missing the last two years to play bass with the Doobie Brothers. Cowan admitted to still getting nervous for Telluride, even after 33 years of playing the festival, perhaps more so this year given his time away. But he was backed by old friends, like Jeff Autry on guitar and Shad Cobb on fiddle, so the band settled easily into standards like “Dark as a Dungeon” as if they’d never been away. Nobody can belt it out like Country Cow, but the early morning set found John trading canyon-quaking power for a more subtle touch. He still threw his head back and hit the high notes, but it was clear that he was being careful, putting on a clinic on control in the process. Cowan knows his gospel-grass, and he was careful to supply it on a Sunday morning in which everyone could use some rejuvenation. Danny Flowers’ “I Was a Burden” fit the bill, as did the Curtis Mayfield-inspired “Amen”, which barefoot middle-aged men love to sway and sing along to. Luke Bulla, a Cowan Band alum, made an appearance adding backing vocals to an a cappella rendering of Sam Cooke’s “Jesus Gave Me Water”. For the encore, the crowd was bristling with dance-party readiness; instead, Cowan slowed things down for a tender, meditative “In My Father’s Field”, a belated Father’s Day dedication, a thoughtful hymn to him that spilled no one’s coffee.
Joy Kills Sorrow
Emerging Boston string band Joy Kills Sorrow are among the most talented young collectives on the scene, getting their first chance on the Telluride stage, a moment they used to highlight the intricately arranged songs from their latest record This Unknown Science. Splitting the difference between chamber-grass austerity, a subgenre they share with groups like Crooked Still, and the indie-rock sensibilities currently shipping gold stateside and in England, Joy Kills Sorrow ooze with dazzling musical invention while overflowing with sleek, popwise melodies and high-heeled lyricism. Singer Emma Beaton is the star here, an extraordinarily pale vocal stylist, a gangster’s moll who sings out of the side of her mouth and flexes a Country Elvis tattoo on her bicep. Bassist Bridget Kearny’s hook-filled songs sparkle with grandeur thanks to the textures and tones supplied by the ringers behind her, especially flatpicking whiz Matthew Arcara and nimble-pinkied mandolinist Jacob Jolliff. There wasn’t a dud in the setlist, but some highlights included the chill-pilled “Wouldn’t Have Noticed”; the kitchen-counter honkytonk of “New Shoes”; the scrappy, blues-steeped “You Make Me Feel Drunk” (“The gospel hour is officially over, so let’s party”, advised Kearny); and a new open-hearted tune called “Get Along”, alluring enough to remind everyone that these art-school bright sparks are just getting started.
A Telluride regular since 1976, Peter Rowan has done plenty to define the festival and justify his yearly spot. To his credit, he also mixes things up each year, and while the audience is guaranteed another round of prelingual “Land of the Navajo” yelping, Pete brings an array of musicians with him, whether stripping to acoustic four-piece bluegrass traditionalism or plugging in for grizzled world-hopping. This year, Rowan accessorized to include brass-knuckled guitarist Nina Gerber and drummer Kenneth Owen, among others, for a group Rowan calls the Big Twang Theory. So Rowan made more waves this year as the band ambled through altered-state tonal renditions of roots-history nuggets: “Hesitating Blues”, the set’s requisite Doc tribute; “Dust Bowl Children”, the third version of that song we’d hear this weekend; “Ruby Ridge”, reworked from its bluegrass origins; an “In the Pines” that burned so slow it almost went unrecognized; and a Corona-hoisting version of “Midnight Moonlight”—all making for one of Pete’s most satisfying sets in years, at least according to the white-haired dudes in the audience wearing Hawaiian shirts and expensive sunglasses. Also part of the band, by the way, was Pete’s son, Michael, a bit of nepotism that didn’t make a lot of sense considering what happened when it was Michael’s turn to take a solo. Late in the set, Rowan strapped on a Stratocaster for a medley of “Bo Diddley” and “Not Fade Away”, scratching a big Deadhead itch, and was joined by members of Della Rae, with whom Big Pete did his darnedest to dance seductively while the drummer pumped out the Bo Diddley beat. Like most hippie-grass jams, it went on way too long, but Rowan’s venerable, instinctive charm never gets old.
Let’s say it straight away: Brett Dennen turned in one of the weekend’s best sets—fun, musical, spirited, unpredictable, sweet-natured, dance-y, melodic, funky. Dennen is such a likable guy, for starters, equal parts gawky dweeb and genuine stud-handle. Dude may not have moves like Jagger, exactly, but he’s a rhythmic sensation, which you hear in his lips and see in his hips. In fact, before plunging into the nasty, body-slamming funk on “Must Be Losing My Mind”, Dennen instructed the audience how to dance to it: “It’s not up here, not the Grateful Dead dance”, he said, paddling his arms in the air. “It’s down here”, he explained, demonstrating gyratorily below the waist. Elsewhere, when Dennen sang “Make You Fall in Love With Me”, a glance at the rapt ladies in the audience verified that it was true, quite a feat for a 6-foot-5-inch, bespectacled raggedy andy with epileptic stage contortions. But the 32-year-old brings the love and, most important, the songs, especially those from last year’s addictive summer-bliss album, Loverboy, which gave rise to Dennen’s percolating guitar patterns and his skyscraping turkey-fried voice. The audience may have been largely unfamiliar with songs like “Dancing at a Funeral” and “Comeback Kid (That’s My Dog)”, but Dennen was in peak form and having a blast as he made explicitly clear: He told the crowd that when he read the email that he’d been invited back to Telluride, he nearly lost control of his bowels. The audience did sing along to some of Brett’s older material, especially restyled versions of “Make You Crazy” and “Heaven”. The only bummer came at the tail end of the show when another marshmallow war broke out, and this time the hundreds of flying marshmallows were hurled stageward in an irrational game of Bean The Singer In The Nuts. Brett’s too good-natured to protest, so he tried to have fun with it, but the band couldn’t really perform as the crowd sabotaged “Sydney (I’ll Come Running)”, which should have been a joyous finale.
Chris Thile is a superstar here, an artist in his prime as the consensus most-flabbergasting musician on the property, and he’s still just 30 years old. By Sunday, Festivarians had already gotten some good looks at him—he opened the festival alongside Béla Fleck on a Thursday morning’s wankathon and then played a nightful of scintillating mirror-ball solos with Bruce Hornsby on Saturday. But his band is where Chris’s heart is, his alliance with the four brainy Brooklynites in Punch Brothers, players musically sophisticated enough to hang with Chris and who have the important job of reigning his excitable musical genius into comprehensible final products, and the Brothers’ increasingly collaborative approach has recently led to the band’s winningest results. In fact, since last year’s Telluride appearance, the quintet released Who’s Feeling Young Now?, their third or fourth record, depending where in Thile’s career you start counting. With that much material to draw from, and an endless number of traditional bluegrass and off-kilter indie-rock covers at their disposal, the PBs, for the most part, hit with the most accessible tracks across their career, a set suitable for this big festival crowd ready to pogo. If Chris & Co. have risked getting too esoteric for mass appeal, you’d never know it from this audience, who wore Punch Brothers signs on their backs all weekend and were aflame with concentration during their set. The crowd energized the band, which played eight fresh-sounding cuts from the new record, including the Radiohead-inspired “Movement and Location”; the Kurt Weillish vamp “Patchwork Girlfriend”; and the Josh Ritter co-write “New York City”. The boys made a lot of noise a time or two, descending into Wilco-like discordant noise-madness, only to arise with their biggest haymaker, “Rye Whiskey”, generating the loudest response of the set. But the time capsule moment was the only-in-Telluride performance of the 3rd Movement of the Brandenburg Concerto, a classical piece that, if nothing else, proved that the number of other bluegrass bands that could pull this off can be roughly calculated to equal zero.
It’s not often that the Telluride Bluegrass Festival hosts the Toast of Broadway, but here he was—Glen Hansard, who just swept this year’s Tony Awards for the music from Once, now the hottest ticket in Times Square. Hansard initially took the stage solo, in stocking-hatted busker mode, like early-‘70s Springsteen, and if his influences weren’t already obvious, he launched into a restless version of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”, at the end of which he raged against his machine, making the Willie Nelson-esque hole in his guitar a bit bigger. One more solo-acoustic song, “In These Arms”, and Hansard brought out members of The Frames for the reminder of a balanced career overview. Let’s look at the numbers: Two covers, five Frames songs, five Swell Season songs, four songs from his new solo album, Rhythm and Repose, and one traditional Irish tune. It was apparently too soon for most in the audience to recognize the terrific new material, like “Talking With the Wolves” and “High Hope”, but Hansard got everyone involved anyway. Hansard’s calling cards defined the set: (a) scarlet-faced, larynx-shredding final choruses, delivered passionately enough to make the audience worry for him, and (b) teaching the audience vocal-harmony parts, the way he taught Markéta Irglová to sing “Falling Slowly” in the film. The latter kept the audience engaged throughout, as did the soul snippets he threw into his own tunes—“Sexual Healing” in “Low Rising”, “Respect” in “Love Don’t Keep Me Waiting”. Hansard would leave out his two best known tunes (the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly” and the heart-palpatating “Say It To Me Now”). Instead, Hansard jumped on the Levon love train with the weekend’s only version of “The Weight”, just when you thought it wouldn’t happen. It was the weekend’s biggest singalong by a large margin. For the encore, Hansard kept the group-sing going with a purely pleasurable “The Auld Triangle”, on which every band member took a verse, and the audience took the chorus. It was a fitting dénouement, inspired by the setting. As Hansard would dedicate an earlier tune: “This is for the people who first settled here, who pulled into the valley and said, ‘Oh man, I’m staying’. And for the wisdom that doesn’t allow to turn into some sprawl”. And the auld triangle went jingle jangle all along the banks of the Royal Canal.
Telluride House Band
Strength in Numbers, Thunder Jam, Bluegrass All-Stars—it’s been billed under several names and has undergone a few lineup substitutions, at one time hoping to call themselves, simply, “Telluride”. It would have been the perfect name, really, because these six musicians at this time in history represent the culmination of what Telluride Bluegrass has built. They are the six most crucial players on each of their instruments—Sam Bush (mandolin), Béla Fleck (banjo), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Edgar Meyer (bass), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), and Bryan Sutton (guitar). They play one gig a year, and here it is. In years past, this was a loose affair, sometimes frustratingly so, but each year the band has tightened things up, as they did for the festival’s final act with an unprecedented 22 songs. Spontaneity will always be central to this gathering, but the band this year appeared more rehearsed as to setlist, arrangements, soloing order, etc., so the sound and pacing of the set was smooth and the playing was uniformly amazing. With pickers like these, and with everyone taking a solo nearly every song, it’s almost too much to process, so it’s key that the band keeps things relatively coordinated and restrained, rather than letting themselves get carried away by digressing into freeform jamming; instead, they’re more interested in paying tribute to bluegrass history and flexing their Ryman-era fluency. The setlist was full of surprises, none more than the opener, “East Bound and Down” from Smokey and the Bandit (Sutton’s idea—he’s a huge Jerry Reed fan naturally) and a version of the “Steel Guitar Rag”, of all things (Sam and Jerry even sang a little on it). As expected the set was heavy with tributes to Earl Scruggs (“Feast Here Tonight”) and Doc Watson (“Black Mountain Rag”), but the moment everyone will remember is the final Levon tribute of the fest, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”—“Let’s all sing it so loud Levon can hear us tonight”, Sam said. Béla came up with the idea, Sam sang the verses, and a horde of other musicians flew in from the wings to join arms and belt out the chorus. Earl’s and Doc’s and Levon’s passing seemed to make everyone realize that these six men on stage, this time and this music, this festival and this moment, must be savored. From the looks on their faces, everyone in Telluride was doing just that.
// Notes from the Road
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