The 18th Annual Telluride Blues & Brews Festival - Telluride, CO

[29 September 2011]

By Jonathan Kosakow

PopMatters Associate Events Editor

As a writer, it is my dream to write about the town of Telluride, Colorado. However, I cannot tell you about it and make you understand: you have to experience it to believe it. In a way, the town has everything—unfathomable beauty, storied history, rich culture, and a still strong economy (at least according to real estate prices in windows throughout town). When you are there, you feel cut off from the real world. Work ceases to exist, internet and phones are ignored, reading a newspaper is the last thing on your agenda. Your main priority is to look up and around you at the mountain peaks that surround the town. It is as close to fairy tale as you may find still active on the planet. It is also just about as impossible to reach as Narnia or Neverland. The local airport is small, and services mostly small or private flights. Commercial service is rare and costly. The other nearby airports are only a little bigger and slightly more trafficked. The closest national hub is in Denver, a nearly seven-hour drive over mountain passes and through unpredictable weather. For a majority of Coloradans, a trip to Telluride is a rare treat, though each winter the town is a high-end ski destination, and in the summer nearly every weekend holds some attraction of culture. This year’s festival, though plagued with less than desirable weather, was easily worth the trip. 

Friday, September 16

Just before noon on Friday, the gates opened through fog to light rain for festival openers The Sugar Thieves, whose “meat-shakin’ blues” were a fitting start to the weekend, as the only ‘20s-‘40s based blues sound of the festival. Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights, bell-bottomed and headband clad, jumped a couple of decades and shredded through a set of ‘70s inspired blues-rock that included a cover of the Jimi Hendrix classic “Crosstown Traffic”, amongst other rocking tunes. The rain let up shortly for The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, and the Reverend took hold of the brief moment of sun. Rooted in country blues, the trio consists simply of a resonator guitar, a washboard, a drumset, and the Reverend’s farmed vocals—their sound is distinct but large, and the roots dig so deep that even though the group is from Indiana, all you can do is picture the music being made on a Mississippi porch.

Fitz and the Tantrums marked a step away from the blues that would last the rest of the evening, but there was no love lost. Just as they are gaining ground in the spotlight, Fitz and the Tantrums really fired up the crowd. In the still foggy afternoon, their funk/soul pop tunes overshadowed the rain and clouds—though many of their songs are sung about forlorn love mishaps, the music itself is a jumpstart for a sweaty dance party. Later that evening, at the Sheridan Opera House in town, the band played the same set but with far more energy. They proved that they are certainly worthy of any recognition that will come their way. 

The son of a legend, Dweezil Zappa and his crew performed his father’s intricate, quirky songs with just as much precision and mania as you could have expected. Though Dweezil himself is surprisingly normal considering his name, heritage, and career, he and his band live up to the Zappa name—particularly vocalist and trumpeter Ben Thomas. Thomas, at first seemingly sidelined and standoffish, jumped into the heat mid-set and channeled the elder Zappa for awkward crowd Q&A sessions and sing-alongs. Their set, which ended just before sunset, could not have been tighter if the knot was tied by a Boy Scout.

To take a personal aside for a moment—I was not looking forward to seeing any band at this festival more than The Flaming Lips. Previous attempts had been thwarted, and over the years my admiration for their music, fueled by grand tales of their performances, has grown exponentially. So, when Wayne Coyne took the stage, scarfed and covered to keep warm in the nighttime mountain air, to warn about the possibilities of strobe-induced-seizures and confetti-induced-laundry, my heart jumped a little. The Lips performance was certainly grand—in his space bubble Coyne tumbled over the crowd, lasers cut through the night sky, and yes, pounds of confetti were cannoned all over. But something was missing. Desperate to build up the energy, Coyne repetitively chanted “Come on, come on, motherfuckers!” but without success. Despite a stellar performance of some of their most popular songs, and a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage/Eclipse” that made me wish I could have experienced Floyd in their heyday, the crowd neither sang along nor partied as hard as he (or I) wished. Whether it was a lack of enthusiasm from the crowd or a mismatched band at a blues festival is hard to say—in reality it seems both are true—but I believe that most of the festival goers walked away that night less than satisfied by the Lips’ performance. 

Saturday, September 17

Just as we arrived to the festival grounds on Saturday for the Grand Tasting, a group holler took hold of my eardrums. I looked up toward the mountains, and saw that it was snowing. The next two hours felt like an eternity, and instead of listening to the music that was being played on stage, the majority of people were focused on two things: drinking as much free beer as they could, and staying warm. The first was easy, the second was not. Of the 50 microbreweries serving 150 different beers, it was virtually impossible to taste everything—let alone one beer from every brewery. The snow stopped at two o’clock and underneath the hot sun it was as if it had never started. We dried, and we drank. The cold took its toll on nearly everyone, and if you didn’t come out of Saturday afternoon feeling less than 100%, you weren’t there.

Unfortunately for those two hours, The Lionel Young Band and Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band served as background music to most drinkers. I say unfortunately because both bands brought a unique blend of blues-inspired tunes to the fairgrounds. LYB blends horns and classical string instruments to somehow smoothly form the blues. The Booty Band took the stage mid-snow and ended with the sun. Their thumping rhythm section is nearly impossible not to dance to, and thankfully the constant rhythm kept us moving to avoid certain frostbite.

In the distance as The Booty Band was finishing up, the cloud cover over town was clearing, and the blue skies were closing in. Another cheer went up in the air, this one louder and of more relief than the previous one. As soon as the sun hit us, it seemed we were instantly warm. Anders Osborne, 7 Walkers feat. Bill Kreutzman, and Moe. were the beneficiaries of the relief in weather—and the crowds thickened in front of the stage for the more jam-based portion of the weekend.

Saturday’s headliner was Colorado-based Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Compared to the monstrous names of the other two headliners—The Flaming Lips and Willie Nelson, the blues-rock band may seem a break in the excitement, but on stage they were anything but. For their 90-minute set, guitarist and vocalist Todd Park Mohr led his band through blues ballads, rock and roll explosions, and tender moments.

Sunday September 18

The final day of the festival, as with any festival, was a bittersweet one. Ahead of us, we still had some fantastic music to look forward to, but we knew these were our last moments. For me, it wouldn’t be a summer mountain vacation without some time in the wilderness, and since this was the last day I did just that. After climbing to the top of Bridal Veil falls, I made my way to the festival grounds just in time to catch Marcia Ball, who brought to Colorado from Austin, Texas a classic style of Zydeco and New Orleans blues. Among her songs—which she admitted nearly always speak of love, food, or Louisiana—were practiced and prideful numbers that, though we may not have heard them before, were somehow familiar.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit brought another taste of the South, but a different one. As Isbell commented upon taking the stage, they were Sunday’s staple rock ‘n’ roll band. The quintet tore through a set of guitar-driven rockers, and ended on a high note with a passionate cover of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane”.

With the show now really winding down to a close, the festival goers quickly packed tightly to the front to catch the legend Robert Cray. Cray and his band were among the most impressive performers of the weekend. Though his set was one of the calmer ones, it was also one that captured more attention than any of the others. For the majority of the festival felt open and expansive, but was more crowded for Cray than at any other time up to that point—and Cray responded warmly. His current quartet played each note like it was their last, relishing each one with perfect placement.

The crowd packed even tighter for Willie Nelson: parades of families zigzagged through the grounds, and others just pushed through to the front. Nelson took the stage at 6:00pm sharp, just enough time to play his entire set in daylight on his old beaten guitar. His set was littered with just about every song you could have asked him to play—from the opener “Whiskey River” to “On the Road Again”, and of course the classic “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”. At 78 years old, Nelson’s performance rests most likely on routine. He wastes no time between songs, and runs through each one without even having to think—or at least so it seems. His voice has lost nothing in its years, and still maintains the iconic tone that has filled our ears for so many decades. As a guitar player, he is still able to fire through riffs and toss in jazzy chords—he leads his equally talented band like a grandfather would lead his grandson, confident and without hesitation, but careful not to step on any toes.

With the festival over, and the final sunset on the Telluride festival season falling behind the mountains, it was no time to reminisce on the weekend that had just passed—it was time to look forward to the next one.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/149105-the-18th-annual-telluride-blues-brews-festival-telluride-co/