Play Me Some Mountain Music: The Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2011, Part 2

Joe Pug

A cloudy, breezy morning began with a solo acoustic set from Chicago singer-songwriter Joe Pug. An instinctive, rhythmic songwriter with the flinty mien of a young Merle Haggard, Pug built his career subversively: by giving away his music to whoever asks for it, most often by personally mailing CDs to his fans. Pug continued his generous approach this morning, giving everything he had in Town Park. A graceful finger-picker and forceful strummer, Pug produced eyes-squeezed-shut vocal emotion on an arresting set of original songs, singing in a timbre that combined Cat Stevens and ’62 Dylan. Pug is a writer’s writer, whose lyrics take smart walks through the emotional minefields of a passionate life. With sleeves rolled above the elbows, his disheveled hair, and the open-hearted blasts of his harmonica, Pug came across like Darkness-era Springsteen on slow-burners like “Nobody’s Man” and “How Good You Are”.

He joked about his penchant for grim songs (“If there’s anything I love to hear on a beautiful Friday morning, it’s a dark, brooding folk ballad”), and it’s true that Pug stuck to roaming on his own heart-wrenching originals and a particularly gorgeous cover of Texas songwriter Harvey Thomas Young’s “Start Again”. Pug sang in a cracked voice over his cracked guitar about cracked lives. It’s true that Pug doesn’t have incredible range, but it only makes the songs more powerful: When he reaches for the high notes, it’s like he’s mining the depths of his soul. Festivarians were off to a slow start after last night’s roof-raising, but those who moseyed out for this Morning Joe were among the lucky. At the end, Joe played an intense version of his best-known song, “Hymn #101” and walked off the stage visibly shaken. He wasn’t the only one — many of those closest to the action were also wiping their eyes. As it turned out, Joe came to say exactly what he means, and he means so many things.

Chris Thile and Michael Daves

In his day job as the leader of the Punch Brothers, Thile does admirable work in blending in with that ensemble, sharing the spotlight with his remarkable flankmen. Plus the Punch Bros’ songwriting typically takes left turns far into the outer reaches of the bluegrass atmosphere, swirling into obtuse plinking that’s easy to admire but impossible to tap your foot to. So it’s a special treat to see Thile in a duet since he is forced to show off at all times, taking a couple of solos on each song. Plus, his duet here with the astonishing guitarist Michael Daves is one dedicated to traditional bluegrass and old-tyme songs, a two-man, mando-‘n’-guitar-pulling, high-harmonizing face-off. It’s clearly a Monroe Brothers (or perhaps Skaggs & Rice) homage since all of this material is age-old and the approach is unremittingly reverent. Yet these whippersnappers, whose brains function at Mach speed, can’t help but get carried away. Michael Daves looks like a Bible salesman, but, like Thile, he plays with incredible velocity and inventiveness. It’s a hoot to watch these guys go toe to toe: Thile smiles and cackles the entire time, while Daves squirms like he has something hot in his mouth. The boys threw on ties for the occasion, a nod to the traditionalism to which they ostensibly play tribute, but Thile’s three-week indie-rock beard fits the duo’s shambling, sizzling spirit, one that suggests late-nights with a table full of empty bottles and full ashtrays. This set stuck to scruffy versions of the standards found on their new album Sleep With One Eye Open, but they also paused for Fiddle Tune Request Time two or three times, at which point Thile noted that “Jerusalem Ridge” has become the “Poker Face” of fiddle requests.

The Infamous Stringdusters

A few cold sprinkles fell as the Infamous Stringdusters took the stage but were chased away by the vigorous, blazing energy of the Infamous Stringdusters. There is no shortage of bluegrass bands today who nod backward at traditionalism while pushing the boundaries of the genre; what separates the Stringdusters is their dedication to meticulous craft in both their instrumental and vocal performances and the detailed arrangements of their songs. They also play circles around most of their peers, and while the jamgrass community has embraced them due to their willingness to delve into musical expansiveness, the band also remains devoted to classic drum-tight picking and singing. Much of the group’s scopic sound comes from the fact that, at six members, they’ve made room for both full-time dobro and fiddle, on top of banjo, mandolin, guitar, and bass. In Telluride, such range made for a thrilling pace within each song, as nearly everyone takes a solo, which might get mind-numbing to the jam-averse but works great in the festival setting. The ‘Dusters dove deep a time or two into the knotty inner reaches of an improvisational middle section before finding their way back and resurfacing with tension-releasing coherence, but they also swung broadly for the audience’s sweet spot, playing plenty of covers, including two John Hartford songs (opening with “Steam-Powered Aeroplane”, a beloved number here) along with a cleverly-arranged take on U2’s “In God’s Country” and a loyal reading of the Police’s “Walking on the Moon”. It was a set full of instrumental peaks, but if anyone ran away with this show, it was dobro ace Andy Hall who burned brightest with the afternoon’s most wicked solos.

Jerry Douglas featuring Omar Hakim and Viktor Krauss

If there’s a single sound that most embodies the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, it might be Jerry Douglas’s dobro. Douglas is, of course, the most renowned dobroist in history, and he’s a towering figure in Telluride, a guy who fields a dozen or so collaboration requests each year and honors most of them. But he gets his own set, too, in one configuration or another, and this year Jerry played with his trio alongside bassist Viktor Krauss, and legendary Weather Report drummer Omar Hakim. Jerry took the stage in a striped shirt and suspenders, resembling a 19th-century bank teller, the big man leaning over his resonator guitar and gunning through what-the-flux versions of razorback instrumentals like “From Anchora to Ismar” and “Spain”. A welcome shift came when Jerry brought out newgrass rising star Sarah Jarosz, who sang “Anabell Lee” and Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells”, both from her new record Follow Me Down. Jarosz wasn’t on the official lineup this year, so her appearance on the main stage was a real treat, as was the presence of her cohort, violin prodigy Alex Hargreaves, who stuck around for most of the set. No one makes complex drumming look easier than Hakim, and he was given his own showcase, not only by way of the Weather Report’s “A Remark You Made”, but also with an actual seven-minute drum solo. Toward the end, Jerry broke out a purple electric dobro, making like Jeff Beck, setting off sparks and rattling dentures in the VIP section, before finishing with a cover of “Hey Joe”, which Jerry sang (!) and the molten instrumental “Who’s Your Uncle”.

Trampled by Turtles

Shellacked by Shell Act! Trampled by Turtles, five chicken-fried-steak-eating hairballs from Duluth, have been hitting bluegrass gold lately, building a strong connection with audiences with their intense thrashgrass attack and last year’s relentless Palamino, which this audience knew by heart. In fact, although it was still early in the day, the saved-tarp-space system was trampled forcefully asunder due to the maelstrom onstage, which drew a heaving throng of sweaty, feral people born in the ‘90s, who pushed hard against the fence and went more bonkers than any day crowd in festival memory. The band pushed back hard with their banjocore propulsion, and the fast songs worked better live than on the record, mainly because the soundbooth had the Turts at body-slamming volume, the bulbous bass lines sounding like a full-drum melee. Singer/guitarist Dave Simonett has star appeal, with a Levon Helm thing going on, hopping around on one leg and belting out songs with varied control. Bassist Tim Saxhaug can’t grow a beard, but he provided the set’s sweetest singalong on the Faces’ “Ooh La La”, and fan fave Ryan Young bent over his fiddle and sawed out streaking delerium. Precision, schmrecision! What TxT lack in accuracy, they make up for in brass-knuckled energy and gale-force uproar. During “Wait So Long” at set’s end, the field was literally shaking. Go ahead and surrender.

Emmylou Harris

TBF head honcho Craig Ferguson introduced Telluride mainstay Emmylou himself, mentioning that she’d taken last year off, to which Emmylou replied, “I have no doctor’s note. I must’ve been out of my mind!” Indeed, if Sam Bush is the King of Telluride, Emmy is its Queen, and she came out dressed the part in a gauzy brown gown and sequined headband under her regal white hair. She opened with “Six White Cadillacs”, the saloon groover from the terrific new Hard Bargain. Backed by a reserved five-piece, including Will Kimbrough on guitar and Rickie Simpkins on fiddle, Emmy led them through a graceful career overview and…oh my god Robert Plant walked right in front of me.

Plant didn’t play until Sunday, but here on Friday, the Tall Cool One came strolling into the pit in a leather jacket, aviator shades, and a stocking cap and took a seat to watch Emmylou’s show. The pit is full of artists all weekend, and you have to keep your cool when some famous musician or another sits next to you, but when the Golden God rambled on in front of me, my knees buckled. In fact, the rest of Emmylou I couldn’t help but watch Plant watch the show: “Ah, he smiled at that line!” “He’s tapping his foot!” “His applauds elegantly!” Okay, sorry, back to Emmylou. Highlights included a glistening “Red Dirt Girl” and a lively “Hello Stranger”, during which she singled out a local favorite, who jigs hilariously all weekend at the side of the stage. “The Road” from the new album, a song about Gram Parsons, was gorgeous, as the piano and guitar built to a shimmering crescendo. She played “Payer in Open D” from 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer solo acoustic, a touching version that stirred hearts when she went all the way up to that famous whisper. “Every Grain of Sand” was the obligatory Dylan cover, and things got cooking with “Luxury Liner”, “Wheels”, and “Born to Run” (no, not that one), before ending quietly by dueting with Simpkins on Billie Joe Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimer’s Like Me”, which she introduced a “song that only old people can sing”.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones

Fans who discovered Béla Fleck and the Flecktones in the mid-‘90s after harmonicist Howard Levy had already left the band, may have not been aware that Levy, also an extraordinary pianist, was a member of the Flecktones for the band’s first three albums, from 1990 to 1992, so a return to the “Original Flecktones”, as this Telluride appearance was billed, caught some by surprise. What opened the door for Levy’s return was the departure of saxophonist Jeff Coffin, who joined the Dave Matthews Band after the death of LeRoi Moore in 2008. As much as Coffin contributed to the Flecktones over the years, which is plenty, the band resounds with freshness by reuniting with Levy, and many of Friday night’s brightest spots came courtesy of Levy’s instrumental and compositional contributions. It goes without saying that any Flecktones concert is packed with spellbinding instrumental skill, and the band on occasion lets their musical imaginations run far enough that the listener ends up feeling mauled by all of it. Still the Flecktones Telluride comeback show was a feast of riches: Béla pulling magic out of a Deering Crossfire electric banjo, bassist Victor Wooten tossing his bass around his Roy Lichtenstein shirt, Levy playing the harmonica and piano simultaneously like a man with two brains, and mad scientist Futureman rocking pirate garb and continuing to amaze — 20 years after inventing the Drumitar, no one has yet figured out how he plays the damn thing. If the House Band made a point to screw around between tunes, the ‘Tones kept up a professional pace like they still had something to prove. It was a challenging set of songs, with many stretching to ten minutes and beyond, and kudos to the audience for rolling with whatever bop-style digressions and avant-garde jazz-funk-grass freakouts came their way. It was a kick watching people try to dance to the 11/16 time signature of “Life in Eleven” as the band got Bulgarian on their asses: The medical tent reportedly treated people for displaced joints as a result. The knockout punch came with “Bottle Rocket”, the title track from their amazing new record, with Wooten and Levy trading riffs until Fleck took over, playing with blazing speed and cosmic crackle. Un-flecking-believable.

Railroad Earth

Following Béla and the Flecktones is a tough assignment, and perhaps for that reason, Railroad Earth, the veteran jamgrass groove specialists, brought things down into long, deep trance rock that mixed with the triptastic lights, resulting in a mysterious, multi-layered wash of sound that incited a crowd who had saved their deeply-packed effects for this very moment. As sleepy and meandering as Railroad Earth seemed to get, the audience remained locked in throughout (except for the 14-week-old infant sleeping in his mother’s papoose next to me). Perhaps no band has ever pleased crowds more while avoiding more crowd-pleasing gestures. The band, which looks like a group of middle-aged hobbits, even avoided sure-fire winners like “Colorado” in favor of sober readings of “Potter’s Field” and “Lone Croft Farewell”. These are songs that endlessly establish mid-tempo grooves with interweaving violin, guitar, steel, etc., that illicit light swaying, sun salutations, and elaborate hand gestures, so much that it’s easy to forget there are actual Todd Shaeffer songs in here. Some of Shaeffer’s better compositions made the cut on this cold Friday night, including “Bird in a House”, played early, and “The Jupiter and the 119”, played late. It remained, however, a peculiar setlist, steering clear of the band’s best-loved songs, so no “Head”, “Like a Buddha”, “Old Man and the Land”, etc. Still, as with the usual lovefests between artist and audience that typify this festival, the crowd settled for the Earth’s moments of transcendent beauty, declared the set a winner, and marched off into the darkness of another Telluride midnight.