Telluride Bluegrass Fest | 06.17-21 | CO

Words by: Sam Boehms | Images by: Bill Ball

36th Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival :: 06.17.09 – 06.21.09 :: Telluride, CO

Telluride Bluegrass 2009
High in the San Juan Mountains lies a small town where once a year bluegrass festivarians come by the thousands to join a temporary community of musicians and fans, friends and family. This weekend marks the 36th year of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival where the best artists in their fields come out to play together like only this genre allows. To understand this festival, however, you must first understand what bluegrass is. Bluegrass is music of the soul. The musicians tell us their stories; they share with us their experiences. They open their hearts to us because they know that we have all had the same troubles, and we have all experienced those same euphoric levels of joy as well. It is a story told, a song sung, just for you. If you can walk away from a show feeling like the band and you are the closest of friends then the band has done their job. Bluegrass is not a genre for celebrities and stars. It is the music of friends, and this festival is the embodiment of that spirit.

The town of Telluride is connected to the ski resort city of Mountain Village, where those that can afford the excessively priced hotel rooms stay at night and then take a free gondola ride into Telluride in the morning. Besides the hotels, there are campsites spread throughout the valley that are either in walking distance to the baseball field the festival takes place on or else are connected by busses that shuttle music lovers to and from Telluride. There is also always the free option of staying in the national forests that are just a short drive away from Mountain Village and the gondola.

Wednesday :: 06.17.09

Yonder Mountain Pre-Show

Before the festival gates were even opened Yonder Mountain String Band put on a pre-party at the Mountain Village Conference Center. In a surprising act they decided to play a set they'd performed all the way back in October 2, 1999 in memory of their friend Sandy Alexander. The crowd had no complaints. The spring-loaded floor bounced up and down as the crowd went wild to songs like "On the Run" and "Bolton Stretch." To finish the first set they played "Boatman's Dance" and then they surprised everyone with "Whiskey for Breakfast." After set break the band played "Traffic Jam" into a Jeff Austin solo. It was here that it hit me just how old most of their songs really are. Listening to their shows from ten years back you realize that though their songs may not have changed, the way they play them definitely has. They started as something more traditional but today their music is a style completely their own.

Thursday :: 06.18.09

Thursday Morning

As dawn broke on Thursday morning the gate already had a line stretching down the block. At 10 a.m., the gate opened and the mad rush began as people covered the baseball diamond with tarps, lawn chairs and canopies. A good spot to watch the music from was the reward these fanatics received for waiting out all night in the freezing cold.

The Lovell Sisters

The Lovell Sisters :: Telluride Bluegrass 2009
Here was just one of the many bands I saw this weekend that I had never heard of but will definitely remember. The powerful trio of beautiful sisters had a country feel with the technical difficulty of a well-formed bluegrass band. Despite their young age (the oldest of the three is only 24), their lyrics have substance that musicians twice their years have trouble achieving. Needless to say, I walked away a fan.

Zac Brown Band

This was another band I had never heard but could immediately relate to. Coming from Atlanta, GA, it was no surprise to hear a little Southern rock infused into their music. With lyrics like, "Not a worry in the world/ a cold beer in my hand/ life is good today," these Southern boys' good time music about getting drunk, playing music and digging life will be playing in my head long after festival season is over. Clear highlight were the rendition of "Devil Went Down to Georgia" played in tribute to Charlie Daniels and the giant guest appearance from Jerry Douglas during the second half of their set.

Peter Rowan

Here is just one of the many music gods that graced the stage of Telluride this year. Standing on stage in a slick black suit, his hair is gray and his talk slow but his voice still has all the vigor of a young man, still fully capable of hitting a vast range of notes. I hope they paid Jerry Douglas overtime this weekend because here he was on stage for the third time on Thursday to help Rowan play a slow version of "Panama Red" that was at first unrecognizable due in part to Jerry's heavy picking in the beginning of the song. It sure was nice to hear a little Grateful Dawg music at Telluride.

David Byrne

David Byrne :: Telluride Bluegrass 2009
To finish up the first day of the festival, a musician came on stage that was anything but bluegrass. The turnout was the largest of the whole weekend as festivarians came out en mass to take a trip into the bizarre and surreal after a day of listening to the earthy sounds of bluegrass. The musicians and singers were all dressed in white with David Byrne standing front and center wearing a suit as white as his hair. Surrounding him were more white clad men and women who danced about on stage like automatons throughout the entire show. His setlist was riddled with Talking Heads songs and so as an added bonus to the on stage theatrics we got to hear songs like "Burning Down the House," "Life During Wartime" and "Once in a Lifetime." For the encore everyone came back out wearing tutus to add just one more outlandish thing to the performance. Despite how out of place he was at this festival, seeing David Byrne perform was definitely a once in a lifetime experience.

Thursday Nightgrass

Apart from the actual festival itself, a handful of the bands played shows at the bars in town that required separate tickets to attend. These shows are called Nightgrass. With bands playing sometimes as late as 3 a.m., you can definitely expect these concerts to draw the younger crowds of the festival. For Thursday night, Oakhurst was playing at the Fly Me To The Moon Saloon. This little basement bar was so small the upright bass on stage was nearly scratching the ceiling. The tight quarters only gave the crowd more energy, though this venue was never meant to handle the onslaught of bluegrass fiends threatening to push these walls apart.

After leaving Oakhurst I made my way over to the town's other Nightgrass venue, the Sheridan Opera House, where Railroad Earth was already in full swing. Joining the band on stage was Jeff Austin from Yonder Mountain String Band and Greensky Bluegrass' Paul Hoffman. The band was hot and rearing to play until the Opera House was ready to force them off the stage, but unfortunately for me there was no time to stick around to see it through till the end. At 2 a.m. the town closes down the gondola connecting Telluride to Mountain Village and the parking lot that housed my car. So when 1:50 came around I had to tear myself away from the show or else be forced to roam the streets of Telluride until the gondola opened up again in the morning. It was a tempting alternative but all the same I ended up on that gondola just in the nick of time.

Continue reading for Friday coverage from Telluride...

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