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

Photos: David Cady

In 2014, Telluride is the perfect encapsulation of where it has been and where it is going to be in the future.

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.

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