Play Me Some Mountain Music: The Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2011, Part 1

Telluride isn’t a town you stumble onto. Tucked away deep into a box canyon in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, Telluride is a tough place to get to and, literally, the end of the road. Route 145 runs through the Victorian main street and dead-ends at the base of Bridal Veil Falls, which spills water 365 feet down to the town, providing about a quarter of Telluride’s 2200 residents with electricity in the process. Telluride built its legend on silver mining and smuggling legends, but these days, the town is chiefly the destination of well-heeled skiers and weekend dreamers soaking in the singular beauty of the canyon. And every June, the town takes on an additional 10,000 guests for the four-day Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

Many of these “festivarians”, as they call themselves, are TBF lifers. That is, they come every year, organizing their summers around the Summer Solstice/Father’s Day weekend in Telluride, when the world’s greatest acoustic musicians assemble to jam and host a blissful picking party at 9,000 feet. As more and more people get hooked by the festival’s charms — the gorgeous setting, the friendly vibe, the mind-blowing musicianship on stage, the eco-smart organization, the manageable crowd-size, the relative comfort (free water all four days for instance) — tickets to the festival have been increasingly tough to come by. This year, the entire festival sold out in record time, furthering the feeling that by being in attendance, you were among the luckiest sun and music worshippers on earth.

The annual-reunion aspect of the fest is palpable within the easy-mingling crowd, especially in the campgrounds, where folks put in impressive work in their mission to have the times of their lives — campsite construction goes to the big leagues with campers arriving days ahead of the actual music festival in order to construct bars, cafés, living rooms, kitchens, and discothèques out of elaborate combinations of tents, awnings, canopies, etc. A stroll through the campground is a feast for the senses, as these sites typically host gatherings of musicians for impromptu picking sessions so that you are never more than a few steps from a mandolin solo. It’s the only campground in the world where you can count ten abandoned upright basses just by walking to the port-a-potty.

Nowhere is the reunion tradition more obvious though than on the Telluride stage. Unlike most major festivals, the TBF has just a single main stage, which boils the lineup down to about thirty acts and eliminates the nagging Bonnaroo-style concern of continuously missing something awesome elsewhere. A handful of artists play TBF every year — Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brien — the most important figures in the newgrass genre who define the mojo of the festival. Those legends are now joined each year by a younger wave of kindred spirits, like Yonder Mountain String Band and Punch Brothers, who carry on the festival’s tradition of progressive bluegrass, instrumental preeminence, and free-spirit attitude.

The rest of the festival is rounded out by a mix of folk, roots rock, blues, jamgrass, old-tyme, and singer-songwriter acts that form a wide umbrella, making it hard to explain to folks that you’re seeing Wilco or Sarah McLachlin or Bobby McFerrin or Robert Plant at a “bluegrass” festival. Indeed, the festival’s organizers, Planet Bluegrass, like to say that “Telluride” has become a sort of genre of its own, a claim that makes sense as the years of musical kinship has accumulated and the cross-pollination between artists has become one of the festival’s most anticipated aspects. Here’s what happened this year.


Tim O’Brien and Kevin Burke

The opening set of the Festival is always a big deal, a regal christening, the cork-popping of an enormous bottle of bluegrass bubbly. The stars come out for this set, and this year the commencement honor once again went to Tim O’Brien. Tim’s the perfect guy to usher in the fest, really; he’s the good-natured bluegrass ambassador, a veteran of more than thirty TBFs, the avuncular redhead with the easy-going stage persona, slurring through phlegmatic patter and introductions and wrapping his fireside vocals around you like your favorite old sweater. The archivists can check the records, but I’m guessing O’Brien has been on the bill in more sets than any other artist in the festival’s history, as he typically plays in two or more sets each year in some arrangement or another, from Hot Rize to New Grange to The Crossing to any number of duos and solo sets. This year, for instance, he appeared again on Saturday fronting the spectacular Tim O’Brien Band.

But this morning, Tim was joined by legendary Irish fiddler Kevin Burke for a set of reels and jigs and general merriment. This is drinking music, not that this crowd needed any additional encouragement, what with spotless skies of dazzling blue stretching from peak to peak, the sun simmering in the low-70s, so the audience was all too happy to embrace an hour-long kick off of fiddle tunes. The two sawers remained seated, breezing through fiddle songs with animals in the titles (“Pipe on the Hog”, “The Pigeon on the Gate”, “Blue Eagle”), with Burke stomping his foot on the two and four while O’Brien padded Burke’s melody lines, remaining in a purely supportive role for most of the set, never touching anything but the fiddle. Tim did provide his own highlight, a solo version of “Working on a Building”, during which he sang harmonies to his own moaning fiddle tones. Tim’s teenage son hopped on stage (literally) to do a little clogging on some plywood, showcasing his Simple Minds haircut, which Tim even thanked after the song. It added up to an exuberant start to a long weekend of all-day-and-night revelry. Tim: “By Monday morning, you look like your picture on your driver’s license”.

The Head and the Heart

The Head and the Heart, a band that a few weeks ago no one had heard off, provided a gust of full-folk-rock-band get-up-and-go to the festivities, playing the entirety of their self-titled debut, songs that had clearly grown on a sizable chunk of the audience. The band has recently gathered serious momentum, getting picked up in Rolling Stone, filling a tent at Bonnaroo, and selling out shows across its first national tour. Telluride has had a knack for these kinds of booking in recent years, bringing in emerging, mellow alt-folk rock acts who explode about the time of the festival. Last year, it was Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros and another band called Mumford & Sons, if you’ve heard of those fellas. (The Mumfords loved Telluride so much they’re back this year, again in Sunday’s penultimate slot.)

The Head and the Heart are a well-nuzzled, poorly-shaved six-piece of chill-pill kids from Seattle, who whisper and harmonize and strike anti-poseur poses. They trade lead vocals and shakers like true utopians, and their songs rise and fall with the ambrosial lilts that appeal to the heart if not to the head and certainly to the sun and the beer. Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell are the two frontmen guitarists and singers, who refuse to play guitar at the same time, although the band’s best guitarist is the piano player. But everyone’s favorite is fiddler/vocalist Charity Rose Thielen, who provides a distracted charisma as she ambles around her microphone, looking like Debbie Harry who can’t find her Xanax. Highlight: The sweet “Honey Come Home”, recalling Bookends-era Simon and Garfunkel.


Cornmeal pride themselves on cooking up the hottest hippie-billy jamfest this side of your ‘shrooms dealer, and through several thousand sweaty bar gigs in the Windy City, they’ve honed their barndance attack into a freewheeling blend of shaggy but infectiously spirited adventures in frenzied picking and singing. With a full drumkit behind them, the band brings extra boom-bap to songs, lighting a fire under the crowd, forcing them to make a mess of their tarps. It’s all just enough to fun to help you ignore that no one in the band is much of a singer and many of their originals are short on great melodies. Like any jamgrass band worth its salt, though, Cornmeal know how to scratch the itch of shirtless, cowboy-hatted, ironically-sunglassesed, bubble-blowing, squirt gun-brandishing kids who challenged the band to a jig-off death match. They are the Children of the Cornmeal, and the band put them through their paces with a twenty-minute version of “Old Virginia” among other ramblers. Cornmeal doesn’t much mess around with songs that aren’t supercharged speed-demon cookers, and it’s silly to pretend that the star of this show isn’t fiddlin’ lass Allie Kral, who plays with unremitting fire, like the devil in the house with the rising sun, threatening to reduce the stage to ashes right then and there.

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper

The International Bluegrass Music Association selects the Fiddle Player of the Year at its annual ceremony, and eight of the last ten of those awards have gone to Michael Cleveland, the fiddle phenom from Indiana and leader of Flamekeeper. In fact, Cleveland has won the award each of the last five years, so you don’t need me to tell you that Cleveland plays holy hell out of the fiddle. Cleveland, who was born blind, is a show stealer, but he’s careful to share the spotlight with his bandmates, as he stands off to the side of the band, sings only sparingly, and features the banjo and mandolin (almost) as much as the fiddle. The new Flamekeeper album, Fired Up is on pace to be one of the the year’s bluegrass records, but Cleveland was forced to shy away from its material after losing that record’s personnel earlier this year. Instead, he was joined in Telluride by an incarnation of David Peterson and 1946, including Charlie Cushman on banjo, for a set of expertly played traditional bluegrass from these veteran pickers. Peterson is a fine bluegrass singer, and songs like “Careless Love” and “Footprints in the Snow” allowed for a midday set with zilch of the festival’s cool factor but plenty of its technical integrity. Punch Brother banjoist Noam Pikelny and Yonder Mountain String Band mandolinist Jeff Austin and other young pickers took seats in front of the stage to watch Cushman twist his pegs on “Earl’s Breakdown” and Cleveland burn through standards like “Jerusalem Ridge” and “Orange Blossom Special”. After O’Brien-Burke, Cornmeal, and Cleveland, and with Stuart Duncan playing later in the evening, Thursday was a fiddle frenzy for the ages.

Steve Earle

You know, Steve Earle looks pretty good. Or at least well. After a couple decades of well-documented self-abuse and various physical transformations, Earle, at 56, looks healthier than he has in years, despite the late-period-Orson-Welles beard he wears these days. Steve has an old-world Pentecostal vibe going on, a mix of world-weariness an impending judgment, not unlike the lived-in political bent of much of his recent material. As Earle said from the stage, “It’s amazing what pinko shit you can get away with on a bluegrass record”. Maybe we can attribute a rejuvenated Steve Earle to the Duchess in his band who sat to his left: Alison Moorer, the terrific singer-songwriter who married Earle in 2005 and had his baby just two months ago. Earle’s songs have been common currency now for a generation of roots artists, and nearly every artist here has covered Steve Earle at one time or another. Those artists may have been disappointed then that Earle demonstrated some patented rascality by sticking largely to his new material, opening with five straight songs from the new (and underrated) I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. It was a fairly loose affair, with Earle fronting a poorly-oiled six-piece and with Earle’s own inconsistent commitment to the microphone. Things picked up speed once Earle handed the spotlight over to Moorer, who transported the crowd with a soaring version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (“Am I over-married of what?” Earle quipped). Earle eventually rewarded the audience with a double shot of classics, “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road”, before finishing with “The Revolution Starts Now”, by which time everyone was ready to sign up. At the end, Earle dashed off stage, returning seconds later with his infant boy, holding him up for the crowd Lion King-style. Like the rest of us, Earle was feeling the love tonight.

Sarah McLachlan

Oh, Sa-a-a-rah; things they change, my friend. But not you. No, Sarah is still delivering her atmospheric emotional ballads, gilding her Lilith all over her piano, budging not an inch from the adult-alternative pop that she helped invent back in the early ‘90s. Tonight McLachlan played the penultimate spot on Thursday, a spot reserved for a big-name headliner, and McLachlan made good on the promise of the shimmering, ornate, ethereal balladry that has made her famous and attracted a legion of swayers and seekers and turquoise jewelry aficionados. Sarah opened with “Awakenings” from last year’s Laws of Illusion, about as close as she comes to rocking, with the keys and compressed guitars and drums swirling into atmospheric canyon beauty. In black jeans and tank top, Sarah sauntered around the front of the stage, clearly taken aback by the surroundings. After “Building a Mystery”, she described a hike she had taken up to the top of the waterfall earlier in the day: “a religious experience…a different kind of alive than I’ve felt in a long time…my body’s still tingling”.

It was first show for her band in a while, and they were missing a member, down to seven, but she was flanked by professionally greasy guitarists, the sort of polished ringers who hermetically seal these songs into plush perfection. It was a greatest hits collection, as Sarah luxuriated through a middle section of her most intoxicating songs (“Good Enough”, “Aida”, “Sweet Surrender”). Best moment: An exquisite reading of “Answer” from 2003’s Afterglow, which sent chills through those in the audience who weren’t talking noisily. After all, Sarah’s tranquil ambience and halcyon falsetto wasn’t going to grab the entirety of the audience, especially those gearing up for the slamming bluegrass party that would follow. But those who attended to the tender harmonies that embroidered “Angel” and the set-closing singalong of “Ice Cream” were rewarded with one of the weekend’s most satisfying and moving musical experiences.

Telluride House Band

This has been the act that has closed the festival most years, the annual Clash of the Titans, a summit of the super-pickers, the reigning gold-medalists of each instrument, who play together as a band one time a year. Most of the players are the same each year: Sam Bush, the King of Telluride, on mandolin; Béla Fleck on banjo; Jerry Douglas on dobro. The fiddle, guitar, and bass slots have fluctuated over the years, but this year’s personnel is that same as last year’s, arguably the strongest in history: Stuart Duncan on fiddle; Bryan Sutton on guitar; Edgar Meyer on bass. The simultaneity of such blinding talent is difficult to process. Each of these guys is a force of nature so potent he has to command his own band, but here they are together in a single superjam, so the thrill-a-minute bombardment is often more than one’s central nervous system is built to withstand, especially after a day of diligent partying and rapt music absorption. Any annual jam-fest gathering such as this is going to be a bit shapeless, and this particular set was looser than most, often derailed by between-song grab-ass that the pickers enjoyed more than the audience. But when these guys lock into a song, sparks fly, and this set offered more musical peaks than this Fat Tire-guzzling crowd had any possibility of remembering. Meyer’s compositions “BT” (from his Short Trip Home collaboration with Sam Bush) and a new one called “Hello Hat” were highlights, with their sly, complex progressions. The fever pitches, though, were achieved when the boys kept it to four chords, as on the Bill Monroe instrumentals that allowed these aces to step forward and execute the face-melting solos that no one else on earth has ever been able to play.

Bush is the de facto leader, and if he wasn’t the evening’s most dazzling soloist, he demonstrated again that his indispensible rhythmic mandolin chop is the most formidable in the business, and he’s the easily the best of the group’s vocalists. Any competitiveness is buried under obvious camaraderie and respect, but if I had to crown a champ, I’d give it to Bryan Sutton, a flatpicking virtuoso so far ahead of every other that it’s hard to imagine anyone ever dethroning him. This year, the collective went mining for old inspiration, like John Hartford’s “Natural to be Gone” and the Country Gentlemen’s “Matterhorn”, and if these versions failed to achieve real liftoff, it’s a kick to watch them work through the arrangements on the spot in front of 10,000 people. Regardless of what they pulled out, the crowd was spellbound for the long haul, shucking along to obscure traditionalism, like The Darlin’ Family’s “Never See My Home Again” and Flatt & Scruggs’ “Heavy Traffic Ahead”. The show peaked with ten-minute romp through Béla’s “Blue Mountain Hop”, just the kind of barn-burner that drove the crowd into hippie shit-fit conniption dances. The crowd demanded more, and the band polished the day off with a spirited “Salty Dog Blues”, with (almost) everybody taking a turn at singing a verse, and then a final instrumental (with Duncan on fire to the end) sent the crowd back to their tents fully sated, both wound-up and exhausted and, for the musicians in the audience, feeling both inspired and hopeless.