Words by: Nick Hutchinson :: Images by: Tobin Voggesser
Telluride Bluegrass Festival :: 06.21.07 – 06.24.07 :: Telluride, CO
This year's festival began on the Summer Solstice. According to its history, the founders of the event consulted 100 years worth of Farmer's Almanacs to arrive at the conclusion that the weekend closest to June 21 is always the best for the fest since it's the time when the chance of rain is the slimmest. And sure enough, the only sign of precipitation was a smattering of cool Colorado wet stuff early on opening day - just enough to cool down the incoming crowd before a long weekend of deep blue sky, blistering jams, musical cross-pollination, workshops by legends including Peter Rowan and Emmylou Harris, fun in the family tent, the never-ending quest for premium tarp space (a personal obsession) and general high times in one of the planet's most beautiful spots.
Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2007
Absent this year, reportedly due to an artistic disagreement with management, was longtime emcee Pastor Mustard (aka Dan Sadowsky). Anyone who's been to Telluride or RockyGrass over the years is familiar with his free-associative patter. Who can forget "heen?" Yet despite the Pastor's absence the show managed to go on.
If there was one musician noticeably missing it was Tim O'Brien, who decided to take the summer off to recharge his batteries and ratchet down on some new work. O'Brien's traditional opening slot on Thursday was filled by next generation instrumental virtuoso and songsmith Chris Thile, who cobbled together a kick-off set of bluegrass, newgrass, pop and Bach before passing the stage to first timers at Telluride Crooked Still. Thile and Darol Anger joined the innovative Boston-based group for a classically tinged reinterpretation of bluegrass and Americana, not to mention the genre-expanding stage garb worn by Rushad Eggleston.
Avett Brothers :: Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2007
Crooked Still was followed by the Avett Brothers of North Carolina, a fast rising act that puts an indie/punk edge on its old-timey feel, including drums and noir-ish titles like "Die, Die, Die" and "Paranoia in B flat Major." The brothers segued into the bluesy rock of Jackie Greene, who put on a soulful set that provided a departure from the festival's prevailing straight-up acoustic sound.
These diverse artists all loosened up the first-day crowd for the much anticipated Telluride House Band, which was introduced by Emmylou Harris. The house band - comprised of Bela Fleck (banjo), Sam Bush (mandolin and vocals), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Edgar Meyer (bass), Darol Anger (fiddle), and Bryan Sutton (guitar) - settled comfortably into its revered role as resident virtuoso ensemble and stretched out on a variety of material including some Strength In Numbers compositions, such as the quirky "Futureman," (a tune from 1989's Telluride Sessions that was named after that member of the Flecktones who happened to be in the audience), before tearing up a version of John Hartford's "Up on the Hill Where They do the Boogie," a festival favorite that stoked the crowd and set a musical precedent for the weekend. This acoustic super group (plus or minus a few past members, such as violinist Mark O'Connor), which has assembled under other names, including "The Telluride Allstars," is acoustic music's finest letting it all hang down – something readily manifested by the mind-boggling solos as well as the overall band sound. Listening to the soaring strains of this collective as clouds move lazily over the mountains can put you in a space where you don't mind staying. The set also took in versions of "Polka on the Banjo," "The Green Slime," "Ride the Wild Turkey," "The White House Blues" and closer "Duke and Cookie," another Strength In Numbers chestnut.
Bush & Douglas - Tride House Band
As usual, most of the festival was aired live on Telluride's public radio station KOTO, 91.7 FM. The local station even streamed Thursday night's performance by the Counting Crows on www.koto.org. The station's staff works hard to get the music on the airwaves, and listeners throughout Telluride and beyond always appreciate it. It's nice to hear the fest being cranked on radios in town if you leave the festival grounds.
Emmylou Harris - Tride 2007
Emmylou Harris took the stage on Thursday along with John Starling and Carolina Star, a group of musicians who founded Washington DC's The Seldom Scene and whose association with Harris dates back to the '70s. Harris has become a Telluride regular who seamlessly blends her superstar presence and acclaimed vocals with the festival's pickers and grinners. Her countrified crooning fits nicely with bluegrass and she clearly enjoys her time in the high country as she keeps coming back to participate on many levels - from performances with her own group to sit-ins, band intros and more. Her act delivered a balanced set of traditionals ("Cold Jordan" and "If I Be Lifted Up"), tasteful covers (including James Taylor's "Millworker," Lucinda Williams' "Sweet Old World" and Creedence's "Lodi") and her own material (such as her early '80s hit "Roses in the Snow" and "One of These Days"). She closed her set with a version of Bill Monroe's "John the Baptist" with Sam Bush assisting on mandolin and harmony vocals.
Thursday evening's closing act was the somewhat unlikely radio rockers Counting Crows, who did their best to unplug and do it up bluegrass style. The festival has played host to genre-pushing bands in the past, and like those earlier groups (last year's fest included Toronto's Barenaked Ladies), the Crows rose to the occasion and pleased with a set featuring some welcome covers including a duet with Emmylou Harris on Gram Parsons' "20,000 Roads," a fun pass through the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil," Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere" and a unique take on Madonna's classic "Borderline." Naturally, the band mixed in its own pop-oriented hits such as "Mr. Jones" and "Rain King." Overall, the Crows impressed some critics of "non-bluegrass" and blended into the Telluride scene on their own terms.
Counting Crows :: Tride 2007
Friday included a hot set by up-and-coming progressive bluegrass artists The Infamous Stringdusters, whose members seemed to pop up everywhere over the course of the weekend. In holding with the TBF tradition of playing on various stages in town and sitting in with other outfits, the group put on a rousing Nightgrass show on Friday at the Fly Me To The Moon Saloon, with a clusterpluck that could barely be contained by the saloon stage (Sam Grisman, Casey Driesen, Dominick Leslie and others pickers all piled on). Dusters guitarist Chris Eldridge joined Bryan Sutton on Saturday for a 'tweener that featured a few nicely rendered Tony Rice compositions. And members of the band appeared as guests of John Cowan and Drew Emmitt at the Sheridan Opera House on Saturday night and earlier that day on the main stage, where the entire group joined Cowan's band for an elongated foot stompin' version of Louis Jordan's famed ditty "Caledonia." Duster dobroist Andy Hall got down on many a jam over the course of the weekend, earning some new fans in the process and starting a buzz – "He's a young Jerry Douglas!" Check out The Infamous Stringdusters' recent release, Fork in the Road for a taste of what they do.
Andy Hall - Infamous Stringdusters :: Tride 2007
Mike Marshall and Brazilian choro master Hamilton de Holanda raised the cultural bar a few notches. The two prodigies dexterously fused the rich musical traditions of North and South America as they engagingly traded rhythm, melodies and runs before reaching "derrubada" or the moment when it is no longer possible to follow another player's riffs, kind of like the famous banjo scene in the movie Deliverance.
Jerry Douglas - Tride 2007
The Jerry Douglas Band is always a huge treat and its Friday set was as pleasing as the band's impressive performance at last year's fest. The blazing electric guitar work of Nashville session man Guthrie Trapp continues to add a tonal counterbalance to Douglas's dobro, taking the group from bluegrass, country and newgrass to more rock-oriented zones, much to the delight of the audience. Douglas' band also includes gifted musicians Doug Belote on drums, Luke Bulla on violin and Todd Parks on bass.
Chris Thile and The How to Grow a Band set featuring Bryan Sutton was a nice surprise. With the help of Leftover Salmon alum Noam Pickelny (banjo) and Greg Garrison (bass) along with Gabe Witcher on fiddle and Bryan Sutton on guitar, the act featured solid progressive bluegrass jams and strong vocal work by Thile, whose singing sounded more seasoned and mature than in years past. The group is slated to tour, so catch them if you can. Check out the recent release How to Grow a Woman From the Ground to hear the band in action.
Guster joined the party to challenge audience expectations with its catchy acoustic pop. The group invited Bela Fleck up for a tune and even tried its hand at jockeying around a single microphone for the encore. That's how bluegrass rubs off on folks in Telluride. No matter a band's style of music, they're bound to pick up a new approach or two.
Bela Fleck :: Tride 2007
Telluride stalwarts Bela Fleck and the Flecktones added their renowned virtuosity to Friday evening. As usual, the audience loved it. With Fleck, Jeff Coffin, Victor Wooten and Roy "Futureman" Wooten, the band creates a unique sound, sometimes referred to as "blu-bop," that has garnered several Grammy Awards. Blu-bop mixes well with a gentle breeze and a gurgling creek, which suits the atmosphere in Telluride perfectly.
Los Lobos hit the stage Friday night, and with a little help from Jerry Douglas the band took flight. The boys from East L.A., who have been at it for 30-plus years now, gauged the crowd well by fusing their own creations - including tight versions of "Don't Worry Baby" and "Last Night I Got Loaded" - with crowd frenzying covers of the Allmans' "One Way Out," a verse or two of Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Lovelight," a romp through Buddy Holly's classic "Not Fade Away" and a blistering version of the Grateful Dead's "Bertha," with Jerry "Flux" Douglas burning up the fretboard on his electric mandolin. The group finished with a thundering version of Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl." Their high energy set made for a satisfying Friday night closer and was one of the weekend's high points.
Los Lobos - Tride 2007
Continue reading for Saturday's and Sunday's coverage...