Telluride 2014: The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Mandolins

[21 July 2014]

By Steve Leftridge

Photos by David Cady

The 41st annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival was another gathering of the world’s most accomplished acoustic instrumentalists, jamgrass hippies, roots rockers, and mandolin addicts. Following last year’s 40th anniversary blowout, the Festival once again accumulated the legendary figures who have defined the festival and solidified the next-generation of bright lights that continue to move the genre in electrifying new directions. Most of that music-making takes place on the Festival’s single Town Park stage in front of thousands of tarps surrounded by the Colorado town’s magnificent mountain peaks and waterfalls. Festivarians bask in screaming sunshine by day and huddle in near-freezing temperatures at night, as the bars and theaters in town fill with the lucky and the hardy for special NightGrass concerts, special encore shows that last into the wee hours. No way to see it all, but in honor of TBF’s 41st year, here are 41 notable moments from Telluride 2014.


1. C-Theezy: For years, mandolin prodigy Chris Thile was the future of Telluride Bluegrass. This year, it was clear that that future is now, as he spearheaded three separate sets, including the festival’s lead-off spot, where he played solo. Despite his boundless skill for classical and world-hopping instrumentals on the mandolin, Thile mined his inexhaustible memory to take traditional bluegrass requests. The set peaked when he coaxed festival polestar Sam Bush, who was watching from the wings, on stage for spirited runs through “Girl From Tennessee” and “Nine Pound Hammer”. Thile, with his signature spasmodic enthusiasm, summed up the sentiments of everyone present: “This is awesome!”

2. I Don’t Care If I Never Get Back: In Telluride, Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, etc., are the annual Boys of Summer.  This year, Telluride had a bit of baseball fever, as well, as our national pastime seemed to pervade the proceedings. Sam Bush, a Cardinals fanatic, crashed Cubs loyalist Chris Thile’s leadoff set, and the two of them held forth with baseball trivia for much of their time together (“Bumpus Lives!”); on Saturday, Thile dedicated the Punch Brothers’ “Movement and Location” to the pitching methodology of Greg Maddux; Bush’s own set Saturday night opened with a Hendrixy version of the National Anthem, after which he hollered, “Play ball!”; Leftover Salmon introduced a Sam walk-on with, “batting cleanup for the St. Louis Cardinals,” prompting Sam to break into his Harry Carey impression; and with the Telluride House Band on Sunday night, guitarist Bryan Sutton sang Jimmy Martin’s “Homerun Man”, introducing it as the only bluegrass standard directly related to baseball.

3. Olé, Olé, Olé!: A large number of this year’s Festivarians lounged on their tarps in patriotic stars-and-stripes garb in honor of the World Cup, the only event this weekend that could draw the crowd away from the main stage and into the Telluride Bars, like Black Dog Pizza, which on Sunday was stuffed with face-painted, pint-spilling soccer maniacs screaming and hopping in circles in the glow of the televised corner kicks. Those staggering fans eventually returned to the Festival to bend it like Bush.

4. The Snow Must Go On: Despite mild, sunshiny conditions for most of the weekend, Festivarians were treated to a short burst of thundersnow just before the festival started, pelting campers with an peppy cocktail of snow, hail, and rain. Thankfully, that brief storm was replaced by sunny blue skies, which would dominate the rest of the Fest, but it was a reminder of the anything-goes weather extremes that help define the Telluride experience.

5. Fish Story: Leftover Salmon’s NightGrass Show in the intimate Sheridan Opera House was predictably wild and sweaty, peaking with a Keller Williams appearance, who nudged Salmon frontman aside to direct solos and call for songs. At one point, Williams signaled for Herman to take a guitar solo, at which point Vince responded to the challenge by playing a tasty solo and then busting into the opening riff of “Cocaine”, thereby taking back the reins from a cackling Keller. Also, a precious moment: Mandolinist Drew Emmitt’s teen daughter joined the band for an emotional reading of the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling”.

6. A Man(dolin) Down: Yonder Mountain String Band is a group in transition with the recent departure of founding mandolinist Jeff Austin, but the remaining three members continued their three-set tradition at Telluride, including Wednesday night’s kick-off show at the Telluride Conference Center. The show was packed with the Kinfolk, ready to bust loose with all that pent-up jamgrass energy after the long journey to the Festival. So the band, filled out with mandolinist Ronnie McCoury and fiddler Jason Carter from the Del McCoury Band, kept the songs fast and flooded with frenzied solos, which made for silly bluegrass breakdance circles, but the sameness of the chaotic soloing eventually grew tiresome. Still, a good Waylon cover is always welcome, and Carter pulled out his best whiskey-stained baritone on “Lonesome, On’ry, and Mean”.

7. Bluegrass for Breakfast: Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen proved to be a formidable force in newgrass, playing an early Thursday set that opened with the Box Tops’ “The Letter” and boiled into hard-driving original material like “Cold Spell” and “Line Drive”, showcasing the considerable instrumental flash of Solivan’s mandolin, Mike Munford’s windmilling banjo, and 22-year-old Chris Luquette’s guitar, which produced some of the most impressive flattop breaks of the weekend.

8. Three’s Company: Brooklyn trio The Lone Bellow made the most of their first Telluride appearance, taking a full-immersion approach, playing a free “FirstGrass” set on Wednesday, a sold-out Thursday NightGrass show in town, and a midday Thursday mainstage set turned thousands of new fans onto the band’s gospel-folk-soul blasts of forehead-vein-popping three-part-harmony belting. If that weren’t enough, the band waded out into the crowd on Saturday to surprise the great unwashed with an impromptu unplugged ‘tweener.

9. Sixty and Cowan-ting: Former New Grass Revival singer John Cowan is one of Telluride’s most legendary figures, missing some TBF’s lately due to his current run as the Doobie Brothers’ touring bassist. This year, Cowan put together a 13-song set that highlighted his new record, Sixty, with Doobies multi-instrumentalist and drummer Ed Toth on hand. The set was a mixed bag, some of it gorgeous, like Cowan’s piano-only performance of Charlie Rich’s “I Feel Like Going Home”, some of it preventable, like a lifeless McFee-sung version of Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac”, and Cowan was too generous with letting his bandmates sing lead on a few songs. The set regained its footing though when Sam Bush showed up to assist on “Callin’ Baton Rouge”,  and Cowan and Co. finished with an a capella reading of “Jesus Gave Me Water” anchored by the poised clapping of guest vocalist Pastor Mustard.


10. Del-uride: Sam Bush may be the King of Telluride, but Bush kept reminding fans this year that Del McCoury is the King of Bluegrass, a moniker he used six times from the stage, making sure it stuck. But McCoury did everything he could to earn the laurel this weekend, playing, at 75 years old, two full sets and guesting during four others (with Bush, Keller Williams, Leftover Salmon, and the Telluride House Band), stealing the show every time he appeared. And the Del Band’s main-stage set of Thursday? Better than ever, a barnstorming of the Best of McCoury, immaculate, lickety-split zips through “Smoking Gun”, “Working on a Building”, and a one-two Bush punch with “Ole Slew Foot” and “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome.”


11. When They Came Back Down: One of the most-satisfying sets of the weekend, and one in which crowd enthusiasm peaked, the Nickel Creek reunion, seven years in the making, was a celebration for Chris Thile, fiddler Sara Watkins, guitarist Sean Watkins, and bass veteran Mark Schatz. The band picked flowers from their catalog of ‘00s albums, songs that the crowd knew by heart, although some of the biggest reactions came for tracks from the trio’s excellent new album The Dotted Line, including the Sara-centric single “Destination” and the barn-sex anthem “Hayloft”. (That hay gets everywhere!) Best moment: A devastatingly beautiful version of Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” played just as a brilliant sunset over town bathed the crowd, maximizing opening-night bliss.

12. She’s a Fine Girl: Thursday night, Brandi Carlile took the stage and ruled, not but two days after her wife gave birth to the couple’s baby girl. Unsurprisingly, emotion ran deep as Carlile played what she afterward described as one of the most passionate shows of her life. The proof was in her voice, which she pushed to maximum capacity on roots-rockers like “Raise Hell” and a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”, in her bloody right hand torn open by over-vigorous strumming, and in heart-engorged renditions of “That Wasn’t Me” (on guitar rather than the usual piano) and “Looking Out”, played solo. Carlile played to the back of the crowd with hair-slinging rock star moves, rewarding a crowd who endured an especially cold night with a cover of “Folsom Prison Blues” before ending with a beautiful new ballad, “The Eye”, introduced as a song inspired by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. 

13. A Fine Line: Friday morning opened with an hour-long set by North Carolina quartet Chatham County Line, who gathered around a single microphone to sing guitarist Dave Wilson’s warm, literate songs. Drawn from the best of the band’s decade-long career, CCL demonstrated what has earned them the reputation as one of today’s best acoustic outfits. Highlights included old goodies “Saturdays and Sundays” and “Crop Comes In”, described cheekily by Wilson as their big hit and for which he encouraged the crowd to go nuts when they started it. But the crowd, basking under cloudless skies, needed no goading to show plenty of love for the band, who also highlighted tunes from the sensational new Tightrope and finished with a boot-stomping “Let It Rock”. 

14. Composer Pit: Each year, a group of songwriters compete for the title of Telluride Troubadour. This year the title went to the evil-mustachioed Michael Kirkpatrick from Ft. Collins, Colorado, who won on sweet folk originals like the hounddog-howlingly yearnful “Come Back Home to Me.” Kirkpatrick edged out Nashville’s Allie Farris who came to Telluride with a tall stack of strong piano ballads sung in a robust personality-packed vocal.

15. Cover Story: Greenksy Bluegrass played one of the Fest’s “Workshops,” free informal performances staged in the town’s tiny Elk Park greenspace. Greensky’s Thursday workshop was dubbed “Happy Hour”, which lived up to its name, as the Michigan quintet rolled out fun rock covers including fastgrass versions of Grand Funk’s “American Band”, Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”, Pink Floyd’s “Time” (a huge crowd singalong), the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” (ditto), Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”, and Prince’s “Little Red Corvette”. For this overcapacity crowd of raised-on-rock hippiegrass converts, this party was the reason God invented string-playing hippies.

16. Green Acres: With an emphasis on sustainability, honeyed musical caresses, and neighborly goodwill, TBF has long instilled sweet vibes. This year, the crowd was especially mindful of being cool. According to reports, the crowd left the festival grounds cleaner than for any other festival in memory. Overheard backstage: “If you treat people like adults with marijuana, they act like adults.” The jury is still out on whether legal weed (this is the first TBF since the law took hold) contributed to a, well, greener behavior among the crowd, but, other than a few thrown marshmallows during Yonder Mountain String Band’s set on Saturday (a tradition that has long worn out its welcome), cleanup crews noticed that Telluride crowds were being especially mindful this year. 


17. Hail to the Aoife: Smooth sailing on Friday morning as Aoife O’Donovan got to most of her solo debut Fossils with help from Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge and backing vocalist Leah Andreeson making like Mickey Raphael on the harp. Aoife (“spelled the regular way”, she told the crowd) put much of the audience in a deep chillzone with her ethereal songs and feathery singing although she teased the audience that her NightGrass show would be so wild that Eldridge would take his shirt off. The former Crooked Still singer’s set crested emotionally with seriously lovely versions of Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons” and Joni Mitchell’s “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio”.

18. Psycho Keller: Moptopped madman Keller Williams led a high-energy set backed by the Travelin’ McCourys. The set highlighted cuts from K-Dub’s and the TM’s collaborative Pick album, and given Keller’s hempy, jammy résumé, the hippie kids flanked the stage and jigged hard throughout. These boys gave dancers plenty to work with by way of grassed-up rock covers, including Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky”, Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kids”, and a fun-in-the-sun ramble through Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff”. And how about Ronnie McCoury and Jason Carter, the hardest working musicians at this year’s Festival. They played six full finger-blistering sets over the weekend (two with Del, three with Yonder, one with Keller) and guested with Leftover Salmon’s NightGrass show. And Ronnie made additional cameos with Sam Bush on Saturday and with Punch Brothers on Sunday. That’s 32,847 mandolin chops in four days—I counted.

19. Southern ‘bell: Still drawing heavily from last year’s brilliant Southeastern, nine of the 14 songs in Jason Isbell’s Friday afternoon set came from that album. Isbell’s hot-blooded vocals were a bit taxed following soon after the previous evening’s NightGrass show, but he still had plenty left to hit the big notes in slow scorchers “Cover Me Up” and “Decoration Day”, for which the midday crowd cheered its approval although at other points the crowd seemed slow to warm up to much of the material. A greasy cover of the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” got a rise out of the place, however, and they stayed on their feet for a set-closing “Super 8”. Amanda Shires (Isbell’s wife) didn’t join the band for this leg of the tour, and her violin and harmony vocals were missed.

20. Two For The Show: Kindred spirits Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott turned in one of this year’s most nourishing sets. After all, no duo plays better and more intuitively together, and they have a bottomless bag of songs to draw from, including their terrific originals, like Scott’s “Long Time Gone” (played early) and the pair’s “With a Memory Like Mine” (played late). With their derby hats, they looked like a bluegrass Laurel and Hardy but testified that the hats were in fact in homage to John Hartford, whose spirit looms large over the Festival. They sang “Gentle on My Mind”, Hartford’s most famous song, with Tim taking the melody and Darrell making up harmony on the spot. Darrell’s pleading “Colorado”, Tim’s “Chemical Valley” (about the recent water contamination in West Virginia), and the hilarious “Dance, You Hippie, Dance” (plenty followed those instructions) were of the moment, but the brilliant set provided by these two masters felt truly timeless.


21. Orchestral Maneuvers in the Park: In the largest-scale musical production in TBF history, Béla Fleck brought the Colorado Symphony Orchestra—some 50 musicians—to Telluride to perform “The Imposter”, Fleck’s original concerto for banjo and orchestra. The symphony, under the baton of conductor Scott O’Neill, provided some cute pandering by leading off with the “William Tell Overture” (which soundtracks the Festivarians’ morning tarp runs) and would sandwich the set with movements from Mozart’s Juniper Symphony, played without Fleck. But the meat of the event was the three movements of The Imposter, as Fleck, in his patented schlubby-chic attire, sat facing the audience while he exchanged lines with the strings and built to a smoking finale that paid tribute to Gershwin and Scruggs in equal measure.  For an encore, Sam Bush showed up, naturally, to add mandolin to “County Clare” (an old Béla tune from New Grass Revival’s On the Boulevard), providing some symph-grass fireworks to an audience that, despite being primed for a Friday night party, listened closely and appreciatively to an historic display of extraordinary music at the Festival.

A Well-Oiled Machine and more...

22. A Well-Oiled Machine: “There he is right there!” Dave Rawlings announced, referring to Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who now plays mandolin for the Dave Rawlings Machine. Certainly, amid the star-packed backstage scene at Telluride, Jones was the cornea-melting figure who towered above everyone else this year. With the likes of mandolin gods like Sam Bush, Chris Thile, etc., milling around, however, Jones himself played the grinning superfan. Onstage with the Machine, Jones held his own instrumentally, but the real showcase was the vocal interplay and song selection of Rawlings and his musical soulmate Gillian Welch. The group, which also included former Old Crow utility folkie Willie Watson and Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert, mixed tunes from Rawlings’ 2009 LP A Friend of a Friend with rock and folk covers into a seamless procession of elegantly rustic beauty. Welch sang her own “Wayside/Back in Time” but otherwise ceded to the Machine, harmonizing with Rawlings on songs the duo wrote together like “Ruby” and “Bells of Harlem”, both tunes drifting through a rapt audience in the cool Telluride night. The audience clogged hard to “It’s Too Easy” featuring the twin fiddles of Watson and guest Gabe Witcher, which eventually became triple fiddles when Jones grabbed one, too. “I Hear Them All” morphed into a “This Land is Your Land” singalong (Rawlings: “I wrote that with Ketch Secor, except for the really good part in the middle”). Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” was expected, Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximate” was a surprise, and “Going to California” was the most weep-inducing moment of the fest, as Dave, Gillian, and Willie harmonized on the bridge while Jones plinked out his old lines on the mandolin.  One for the ages.


23. Traffic Report: Steve Winwood opened his Friday night set with the somnambulistic, flute-heavy deep Traffic cut “Rainmaker” but picked up speed with the Spencer Davis classic “I’m a Man” featuring Winwood’s indecipherable scatlike singing and the Latin-jazz whoosh of his four-piece ensemble. No bass player in Winwood’s band (the bottom end handled, for the most part, by Winwood’s left hand on the B3), and with drummer Richard Bailey (sensational all night) and legendary percussionist Café da Silva on stage, this group was all about the groove, and Winwood settled into those rhythms for a good long while on each tune, stretching “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” to 15 minutes of jambitious soloing, for instance. Other highlights included an exquisite reading of “Fly” (from the 2008 solo album Nine Lives) featuring the soprano sax of Paul Booth, the old traffic nugget “Medicated Goo” (inspired by Winwood’s visit to one of Telluride’s marijuana dispensaries earlier in the day), and a snaky version of “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” gave guitarist José Neto plenty of room to take flight. The only remnant from Winwood’s ‘80s hitmaking heyday came with “Back in the High Life Again”, a setlist audible (replacing “Higher Love”) at the request of Sam Bush, who beamed from the front rows. (“He hasn’t lost a step!” Bush declared).  Winwood finished with a delirious “Gimme Song Lovin’”, capping a set of nothing but highlights, and if the big audience wasn’t starstruck by Winwood at the beginning of the evening, they certainly were by the end of it.

24. In the Family Way: Billed as the “Watkins Family Hour”, Sara and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek led a stunning all-star workshop in Elks Park on Saturday that featured Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch, John Paul Jones, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan. You could hear a pin drop as attendees were continually surprised by these performances, including Dave and Gillian revisiting “Red Clay Halo”, and the entire ensemble taking on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and then finishing with John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Days”. One of this year’s most intimate and moving events.

25. High Steaks: The annual Telluride Band Contest has helped launch some top-flight bands, including Dixie Chicks and Greensky Bluegrass. Saturday morning, it was Denver’s Trout Steak Revival who hit the bluegrass jackpot, defeating the other finalists with assured original songs and fine singing, especially from affable banjo frailer Travis McNamara. Their win here secures them a full set at next year’s Telluride.

26. Rowan in My Sweet Baby’s Arms: You never know quite what to expect from a Peter Rowan set, although you’re guaranteed “Land of the Navajo”, which Pete has played at every one of his three dozen Tellurides, along with a heaping helping of prelingual yodeling. This year, Pete had help in both regards as Tibetan vocalist Yungchen Lhamo joined him for an afternoon of blending hemispheres and voices. When their respective quavering ululations crossed frequencies, the vibrations reportedly disrupted flight patterns overhead, but more often than not, the unlikely duo provided the spiritual liftoff that they were seeking during one of Big Pete’s more memorable sets of recent years.

27. Brothers Work It Out: Breaking tradition this year, it didn’t rain during

’ Saturday afternoon set. Instead, the Bros brought their own storm on stage in a steady deluge of savant-level musical moments. These five young guns, each of whom represents a separate trajectory into the future of progressive bluegrass, are in some kind of groove as a unit, drawing from the best moments of their most recent studio recordings (“Movement and Location,” “Next to the Trash,” “This Girl”) while throwing in tilt-a-whirl covers of crowd-rousers like “Wheel Hoss” and “Old Joe Clark”. They also pushed into material from their upcoming new album, including the casual-sex romp “Magnet.” An Aoife O’Donovan guest spot on her Goat Rodeo tune “Here and Heaven” was a treat, and the five-part a capella harmony on Irish singalong “The Auld Triangle” was a final reminder that these guys are in a league by themselves and that, in their hands, the Festival is secure for another few decades.

28. Down Yonder: It’s a transition year for Yonder Mountain String Band, and fan reviews were mixed on how well these Telluride mainstays fared without founding mandolinist Jeff Austin. When announcing Austin’s departure, bassist Ben Kauffman promised fans that Yonder would still put on the best party in town. They tried hard to live up to that pledge on Saturday with a relentless set of fast bluegrass ramblers bolstered by Ronnie McCoury’s mandolin and Jason Carter’s fiddle. There were moments of genuine inspiration, like the clever arrangement of the Beatles’ “Hey Bulldog”, but not everything worked so well. The crowd, as usual, was up for the party, and they bobbed up and down as required, but the unrelenting sameness of tempo and soloing failed to fully engage the audience, and, yes, the absence of Austin’s inflamed enthusiasm as one of TBF’s loudest cheerleaders was conspicuous. These guys, particular guitarist Adam Aijala, are whirlwind players and their spiritual connection to the music and the fans is thorough, so it’s certain that they’ll find their way, but that journey was in somewhat awkward conversion this year.


29. A Bird ‘n’ the Hands: Andrew Bird’s indie-weird history and genre-sprawling has recently been honed into old-barn rootsiness, decidedly Telluridian in its simplified focus on instrumental austerity and round-the-mic harmonizing. Bird, joined on this tour by Americana spitfire Tift Merritt, gave play to his past, reworking his fan faves like “Plasticities” and “Tables and Chairs”, but focused on the new rustic strains of 2012’s Hands of Glory, including lovely performances of “Three White Horses” and “When That Helicopter” as well as a moment-tailored cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Colorado Girl”. Bird seemed totally comfortable in the acoustical confines, comparing the experience to recent mega-festivals he’s played by expressing his gratitude about not having to compete with a hip-hop stage a few yards away.

30. Bush It Real Good: Regardless of the Rock Hall of Famers that Telluride now lands each year, for most of the audience, Sam Bush’s Saturday night special is the crowning moment of each’s year’s Fester. The pressure is on Sam to deliver, and this year he turned in one of the most blistering Sam Slams ever.  Opening with the “Star-Spangled Banner”, Sam signaled his intentions for epicness, and while the opening run was conventional enough with New Grass Revival-era goodies like “This Heart of Mine” and “White Freightliner Blues”, Sam started stretching out on new tunes (“Transcendental Meditation Blues”, a world premiere), celestial jams (NGR deep cut “Souvenir Bottles” with old pal Béla Fleck), and an electric mandolin fever dream as Little Feat pianist Bill Payne sat in on Feat classic “Spanish Moon”.  But the moment everyone was talking about was the mandolin orchestra (11 mandos on stage together) that Sam brought out for a swirling, intoxicating “Russian Rag”, an idea inspired by Béla’s symphony the day before.


31. Salmon Jam On: The only band that can jam after a Sam Bush throwdown did so although Colorado’s own Leftover Salmon had plenty of help, including a return to the stage by Sam himself. Bill Payne sat in throughout, and the whole show was pretty Featsy, opening with his own “Oh Atlanta” and hitting a dizzy “Dixie Chicken” toward the end. Del and Ronnie McCoury (introduced by Salmon ringleader Vince Herman as the “King and Prince of Bluegrass”) arrived at the outset for the appropriate “Midnight Blues”. Overall, if there’s a band that knows how to scratch the itch of the late-night revelers, it’s Salmon, playing in-the-moment pick-me-ups “Bluegrass Pines” and “I Want to Be Up in the High Country” and finishing with The Band’s “Rag Mama Rag”, the cap on a monumental night of classic Telluride sights and sounds.

32. The Bear Strikes Again: This year’s Festival program warned campers that if they are woken up by a conga line singing Christmas songs at three in the morning, the leader of the party was surely Leftover Salmon’s Vince Herman, the hard-partying Bluegrass Bear, who has been disrupting the sleeping-bag-bound in the campgrounds for 20 years now. Depending whom you ask, it’s one of the Festival’s most fun or frustrating traditions. This year, the drone strike in my quadrant occurred about 2:30am Sunday and the song was “Take Me Out the Ballgame” to extend the year’s baseball theme. Backstage the next day, I mentioned the carousing to Vince himself, who said, “Naw, man, that wasn’t me! It was my evil twin!”

33. Pick ‘n’ Praise: Dailey and Vincent had the honors of the Sunday-morning go-to-meeting set, and although the duo—filled out with a group of deft bluegrass pickers—played lightning-fast selections from their Grammy-winning secular records, including “Fox on the Run”, “Steel Drivin’ Man”, and a couple of sweet, spot-on Statler Brothers impressions, they played some rafter-raising gospel numbers that fit the bill for some morning-after soul cleansing. Dailey and Vincent supply the kind of old-fashioned Branson-friendly schmaltz that doesn’t typically play in Telluride, and Darrell Vincent laughs more than anyone is show businesses, but there’s no denying their hard-driving solos and their bring-the-house-down quartet gusto on gospel standards like “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.” 

34. Riding High: Backstage before Béla Fleck’s early Sunday set, Béla nervously paced around waiting for his date, Brooklyn Rider, the quartet of string studs who were taking a private jet into Telluride that morning after their Saturday night gig in San Francisco. They arrived just in time to join Béla on his composition, Night Flight Over Water, written superficially to play with the three violinists and one cellist who make up the Rider.  “See you on the other side”, Béla told his wingmen just before starting the string storms that open the piece. The musicians had to make due as gusts of wind blew their music sheets around the stage, forcing them to rely on their memories and own instincts for extemporizing. Béla’s wife, fellow banjo innovator Abigail Washburn, sat in the front row holding their headphoned infant and laughed as Béla wrestled with his wind-strewn pages. No matter—it was a breathtaking set played with power and exquisite finesse, completing a one-two punch of virtuosic classical accomplishments for Fleck at this year’s Festival.

35. Darling Nicki: California throwback rockers Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers did what they could to alleviate last-day-of-the-fest blues, even overcoming a brief rain shower with their sunny brand of canyon country-soul. Nicki, dressed in all black, stalked the stage with serpentine dance moves, belting out fan faves “Hey Stranger”, “Jet Plane”, and the sultry Stevie Nicksy “Ravenous”. The Sunday loungers surged to their feet during a cover of “Piece of My Heart”, especially when Nicki nailed a Janis-worthy scream midway through. Nicki’s husband Tim, looking like he just walked off the set of Smokey and the Bandit, stepped out from behind his Hammond organ to sing “Squeaky Wheel” and later joined his wife for the trailer-love duet “Think About the Two of Us”. Playing TBF satisfied a five-year goal for the couple, Nicki announced from the stage, adding that the scenery in Telluride as their bus pulled in made her cry. 

36. Jerry Rigged: Dobro deity Jerry Douglas pulled together this group of musicians, including Tim O’Brien, Shawn Camp, Union Station bassist Barry Bales, banjo ace Charlie Cushman, and fiddler Johnny Warren for a tribute to Flatt and Scruggs, ingeniously named the Earls of Leicester. Nothing here would have been offensive to Lester Flatt himself , as the band piled on a whopping 27 Flatt & Scruggs classics.  Everything you can think of showed up—“Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, “Dig a Hole in the Meadow”, “Hot Corn, Cold Corn”, “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”, etc.—most of it sung in Camp’s authentic whine, and solos from Warren, Douglas, and Cushman were swift and tight, serving the songs, winning over the crowd more and more until no one wanted this set to end.  Progressive jams tend to win the day at Telluride, but this set of classic, perfectly-played traditional bluegrass was a reminder of how and why Festivarians all found each other in the first place. 

37. Green Light: Greensky Bluegrass has been invited to play Telluride Bluegrass each of the past three years, an indication that these Kalamazoo animals have transcended the jamgrass scene and entered the big leagues of progressive acoustic bands.  With a new album around the corner, GSBG this year showcased their evolving sound on fresh cuts like mandolinist Paul Hoffman’s driving rock-drama “Windshield” and guitarist Dave Bruzza’s Springsteen-inspired “Wings for Wheels”. And while the band dipped into history (“Steam Powered Aeroplane”) for good measure, it was clear that Greensky is a band that is moving the form forward, as on the psychedelic, effects-lathered rhythms of the new “Leap Year”. 

38. Lame-ontagne: Sunday night headliner Ray LaMontagne played a genuinely enchanting set of his best material, including nearly the entirety of his into-the-mystic new album

. The loveliest moments came during a stripped acoustic interlude, featuring LaMontagne’s barrel-aged voice on “Trouble”, “Jolene”, and a lump-in-the-throat-gorgeous “Rock and Roll Radio.” Unfortunately, LaMontagne pulled the rug out from underneath whatever he accomplished musically by way of his rude and unprofessional comments from the stage, first by dissing “folk festivals” such as Telluride as full of “lovey-dovey, huggy-kissy, best friend bullshit. I never dug it. Ever.” Later, a clearly agitated LaMontagne said, “Thank you very much. Especially for all you out there dancin’. You made my night, having to sing over about a hundred walking dead down here” before storming off stage with set time to spare. LaMontagne was dissing the folks in the pit in front of the stage, who were sitting and closely attending to LaMontagne’s ballads. It was a petulant end to his show and at severe odds with the prevailing vibe that pervaded the rest of the weekend.

39. House Party: The Telluride House Band, as it’s currently called, is the all-star lineup of Sam “Burnin’” Bush, the Plato of the Plectrum. Béla Fleck, the Fellini of the Five, the Ruler of the Roll. Thunder Thumb Jerry Douglas, the Lord of the Lap Steel. Edgar Meyer, His Holiness of the Half Step, the Timing Titan From Tulsa. Stuart Duncan, da Vinci of da Violin, serving up Reign Bow Stu. And Bryan Sutton, the Prince of Pentatonics, the Head Honcho of the Hammer-On. Beyond being the toughest hombres on their respective instruments, kudos to the collective for coming up with unique setlists for each Festival even though it’s the only time each year that they all play together. This year’s highlights: Stuart Duncan taking lead vocals and inventing tailor-made lyrics for each band member on the burbling “Ground Hog”; the spectacular Béla original “Eager and Anxious”; “Hangman’s Reel” featuring bladder-bursting flatpicking runs from Sutton; and the Meyer-driven zig-zags of “Barnyard Disturbance”. It’s impossible to crown a champ for the night as there was more mastery-per-minute than you can possibly process. Sam Bush, however, had an especially strong night, taking the reins on a “Mannish Boy/Sailing Shoes” duet with Douglas’ dobro and otherwise chopping and soling with assiduous precision. Billed for this set was also bluegrass queen Alison Krauss, who arrived midway in to sing four songs, peaking with the elegantly awesome “Shadows.” It was a too-brief appearance although Alison did resurface later to sing with Del McCoury, the other marquee guest, on “Cry Cry Darling”, at one point punching the air to celebrate the perfection of the two legends’ harmonies. Del stuck around to lend recreationally high harmony lines to U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” which thrilled everybody at the end of an exhausting, nearly perfect set from musicians who have solidified a truly golden age for this music and this pristine location.

40. Pastor Mustard and the Good Book: Commemorating last year’s mark of 40 annual Telluride Bluegrass Festivals, the folks at Planet Bluegrass published an impressive leatherbound coffee-table book, Telluride Bluegrass Festival: Forty Years of Festivation, and rolled them out in time for this year’s Festival.  The books are stuffed with terrific photography from the history of the fest, from its tiny hippie-gathering roots to the benchmark destination event it has become today. The best aspect of the book, though, is the year-by-year accounts written by Pastor Mustard, the colorful Colorado DJ who emceed the Festival for 31 years.  Mustard’s writing is candid, poetic, and hilarious. For TBF aficionados, this is the definitive historical account and souvenir of the first four decades of their Festival.

41. Punch Out: Another newly established TBF tradition is the Punch Brothers NightGrass show on Sunday at the Sheridan, the official final burst of music of the weekend. The whiskey-sipping Punch Brothers, the musicians being groomed to drive the next three decades of Telluride Bluegass, came out firing in every direction, slaying the 200 in attendance with closely harmonized standards (“Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, “San Antonio Rose”), labyrinthine cuts from their studio albums, and a handful of new tunes (“Magnet”, the working-titled “Cherries on Fire”), and an uproariously entertaining number during which surprise guest Ed Helms appeared on stage to provide old-time radio-show narration.  The second set got even crazier with pop-ins by Dave Rawlings, Willie Watson, Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and others as the musicians and crowd alike tried to hang on to Telluride Bluegrass for dear life, staring down the 361 days until they could do it all again.

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.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/183812-telluride-bluegrass-festival/