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...

Friday :: 06.19.09

Troubadour Contest

Telluride Bluegrass 2009
In the morning I went down to Elkhorn Park located in the middle of town where performers invited by the festival were scheduled to put on free shows all weekend long. This morning the stage showcased the Telluride Troubadour Contest, where songwriting soloists compete for a chance to play Saturday night on the festival's main stage. The troubadour contest allows folks not attending the festival to see some of the musicians that may just become the next big name in bluegrass and offers unknown songwriters a chance to earn some stripes.

Workshop in the Park with Greensky Bluegrass and Railroad Earth

Later that day on the same free stage in town, Railroad Earth and Greensky Bluegrass put on a workshop together entitled "Playing Well With Others." With a whopping eight musicians on stage you might think that the music would become a cacophonous jumble, but the sound was just the opposite. The bands passed around the lead of the song without stepping on each other's toes proving once again that bluegrass is all about collaboration. The two mandolin players fueled the group with the small instrument's zealous, fast paced twang while Andy Goessling from RRE on flute proved that a bluegrass jam has room for any instrument. After playing together for about an hour everyone from Railroad Earth except Goessling stepped off stage for a portion of the show they called "Greensky vs. Andy." Here Goessling exhibited his vast range of talents as he switched off between banjo, guitar, flute and mandolin as he went head to heads with Greensky's entire band. Watching him dance around on stage from one member of Greensky to the other was probably the most animated I have ever seen him during a performance, especially when he walked up to Anders Beck (dobro) and jokingly offered him his flute to play. According to Greensky, the result of the competition was undeniable - Andy had won.

Béla Fleck & Toumani Diabaté

Fleck & Diabaté :: Telluride Bluegrass 2009
The combination of Béla's banjo with Toumani's kora was honestly the most impressive concoction that I caught all weekend. The idea for the collaboration came to Béla when he decided to trace the banjo's roots back to Africa, but more on that later. Surprisingly the kora (an African instrument that even looks like a more natural form of the banjo) compliments the banjo amazingly well. The result is a beautiful fusion that takes bluegrass and traditional African music and pushes them through a blender, with the results creating a sound beyond genres, cultures and imagination. The best song for me was "Throw Down Your Heart," which is the title track for their collaborative album and a movie that came out last March. For their encore the two men fought it out for the crowd. I am always impressed by the modesty that Béla exhibits in his every action, even while picking away at jaw-dropping solos on his banjo. The diverse origin of these two men makes the unrivaled chemistry in their music just that much more outstanding. Toumani started the duel with a thirty second example of what the kora could do and then sat back like a chess player waiting to see how his opponent would react. Béla would then take what Toumani played and add just a little more complexity to it. By the time the two men had walked off stage the sound had become so awesome that all I could do was sit still, completely awestruck.

Elvis Costello and The Sugarcanes

After David Byrne, Costello was the other musician that fell outside the lines of what many have come to expect in the booking. But as soon as he got on stage any doubt the festivarians may have had was immediately squashed. Costello's sound was an intermingling of bluegrass and a flavor all his own. Once again Jerry Douglas was on stage but this time as a full time member of Costello's band, The Sugarcanes. Many of their songs came off Costello's new album, Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane (released June 9 on HEAR Music) but they also played a few covers, my personal favorite being a downright bluegrass version of "Friend of the Devil" that had the whole concert bowl on their feet and singing in unison. For some of us it just isn't a festival until we hear a little Grateful Dead. Later on in the set Emmylou Harris graced the stage with her wonderful vocals. After her turn on stage was over Jenny Lewis came out to belt one out with Costello and the band. This show was just another union of musicians that only Telluride can bring about.

Railroad Earth

Jenny Lewis with Elvis Costello and The Sugarcanes
Telluride Bluegrass 2009
Friday night ended with a riveting performance of psychedelic bluegrass and river trance music that only Railroad Earth can offer. The fact that this band has only been together for eight years is almost shocking, but then again one should remember that these guys were invited to perform at Telluride in 2001 after playing together only 10 times prior to their debut at the festival. Really, that should say it all. Within these last eight years the band has developed a sound that is a unique synthesis of bluegrass and Celtic rock. They began their set with "Dandelion Wine" and then followed with one of the best renditions of "Smile Like a Buddha" I have ever heard them play. Tim Carbone stood on stage with an entranced look on his face as his fiddle accented every song with a foot stomping wail while Andy Goessling made every instrument he picked up look easy. This show was definitely a highlight of the festival.

Friday Nightgrass

Leaving the festival early I made my way over to see a band that was in the same genre as Railroad Earth but put on an entirely different show. Cornmeal was one of the only bands who had a spot at Nightgrass but not on the festival's main stage. After watching Tim Carbone on fiddle it was an abrupt shift to watch Cornmeal's Allie Kral play the same instrument but in such a different way. Cornmeal put on a much faster paced show than Railroad Earth and the added intensity of this shift complimented the cramped space of the Fly Me to The Moon Saloon well. Before set break the bar was already cramped but by the time they returned to the stage the little basement pub was packed beyond capacity. The gatekeepers at the door were frantic as more and more people kept trying to come into the venue that was already pushing its legal limit. By midnight the place was so crowded that the fire marshal could barely even make it in to take a head count and by that point people even with tickets to the show were being turned away at the door. From the single square foot I occupied in the corner I barely had enough room to dance.

Enticed by a need for fresh air and a change of scene, I decided to walk over to the Sheridan Opera House to take my chances getting into the Yonder Mountain String Band Nightgrass show. Once I finally did get inside I realized that this venue was no better off than the Moon Saloon but that wasn't enough to make me leave. Especially since on stage with Yonder were Tim Carbone and Greensky Bluegrass' Anders Beck on dobro. The music was awesome and the crowd was causing more ruckus than I have ever seen at a Yonder show. They covered "Sideshow Blues" and I was immediately reminded of when they played it last year on the festival's main stage accompanied by Sam Bush. Later on, Jeff Austin teased us with the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" but never went into it. I have a feeling that had they played it the balcony would have crumbled and the people on the ground would have stomped their way through the floorboards. Despite Yonder Mountain being one of my favorite bands at this festival I once again had to drag myself away from another amazing show in order to reach the gondola before closing time. It was here that I promised myself that next year I would just have to drop the $55 to camp in town just so I wouldn't have to rely on that damn gondola.

Continue reading for Saturday coverage from Telluride...

Saturday :: 06.20.09

Jerry Douglas Band

Jerry Douglas :: Telluride Bluegrass 2009
Saturday began for me with the Jerry Douglas Band. As I walked up halfway through the first song all I could do was stare in wonder at the stage jam-packed with musicians. I quickly realized though that the overabundance of musicians was because the Punch Brothers were up there helping Jerry Douglas start off the show. The day started with rain that had lasted all morning but then the sun came out from behind the gray just for this show. Jerry Douglas has an amazing stage presence. Before every song he would tell the crowd why the song was written but then he would leave the music and Luke Bella on vocals and violin to tell the song's story. The words of wisdom that were in these songs is something that many genres are lacking but it is an overall theme in bluegrass, where the band members are not just musicians but also preachers of morals that are universal and wholesome. One of my favorite songs of the set was "Cave Bop," which Douglas described as Fred Flintstone meeting John Coltrane for the very first time. The end of the song trailed off into a melodious romp that complimented the story behind the song well. I walked away from the show feeling like I had made a new friend.

Yonder Mountain String Band

Jeff Austin - YMSB :: Telluride Bluegrass 2009
Here was a show that the devil himself couldn't have kept me away from. As the band took the stage, Jeff Austin, The Lizard King, gave his blessing and the golden rope dividing the throngs of young Yonder fans from the front of the stage was cut and the fence was immediately bum rushed. This was Yonder's tenth year at the festival, though eleven years ago they could be found standing on a street corner playing for free. They began the show with a Beatles cover that they play often, "Only a Northern Song." They followed this with "Red Bird," and then "A Troubled Mind" played in tribute to Todd Snider. After this Adam Aijala took over the vocals to sing "Rain Still Falls." As if by magic, the end of the song brought the sun out from behind the clouds and the crowd was illuminated in the late afternoon light. In the spirit of the stormy day they played "New Horizons" trailed by "Mother's Only Son." Ben Kaufmann and Jeff then jammed their way back into "New Horizons" followed by "Pockets" and "Angel." During this song I walked away to get a beer only to start kicking myself for it when they played "Dreams," a cut that will appear on their new album debuting in September. After that Sam Bush came out to join them and things got exciting. With Sam and Jeff both on mandolin they played a spectacular version of "Catch a Criminal" and then "Peace of Mind." It must have been a Talking Heads weekend because after this came "Girlfriend Is Better," which they transitioned flawlessly back into "Peace of Mind." For the encore they played "Sharecropper's Son." And with a thank you to friends and neighbors, Jeff, the band and Sam walked off stage, leaving the audience in zealous revelry after their phenomenal performance.

Sam Bush Band

Sam Bush :: Telluride Bluegrass 2009
At 8 o'clock I was back in the front row before the main stage to watch a man often called the King of Telluride. He walked out in a Buffalo Sabre's hockey jersey, flashed a smile and the band dove into "River Take Me" followed by two new songs, "String Bean" and "Blue Mountain" off of his new album coming out in the fall. After these two songs out walked Jerry Douglas, who helped him play a tribute to Jeff Black before doing a song that Sam and Black had written together. Bush danced about like a little kid squirming to get to a bathroom. He has the most energy I have ever seen in a musician and he fuels the rest of the band with it. The next surprise for the crowd was when Peter Rowan emerged from backstage, buckling up his pants as he came out. After a song with Rowan, Emmylou Harris came out to take her place on stage. It was great listening to Emmylou's voice accompany Sam's during "The Rivers Gonna Run." This show just made me wonder how many of these artists were waiting around at the festival just for the chance to play with Sam. After all the guests left the stage the band turned electric as Bush picked up his Mandocaster. When the band began playing The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" the crowd went wild but little did they know that halfway through the song John Cowan would be coming out to help Sam wail out the lyrics. The only thing that could top the show itself was the encore. Bush made a call for anyone still hanging around backstage to come on out and from the wings out walked Peter Rowan, Chris Eldridge and Jerry Douglas to help Sam play the best version of Bob Marley's "One Love" I have ever heard followed by "Rolling in My Sweet Baby's Arms" with Chris and Peter taking turns on the vocals. Hands down I would say that this was the best show of the weekend.

Saturday Nightgrass

After Sam Bush's performance I was walking around in a daze but somehow I managed to make my way over to the Opera House to see Greensky Bluegrass. At 11 p.m. the crowd was still small compared to the other nights I had been there. It seems most people were still over at the main stage to see Gaelic Storm. Tim Carbone was on stage when I showed up but after a few songs he stepped off to join us regular folks in the crowd. I watched the first half of the show up in the balcony, where my head was almost scraping the low ceiling. For the second time this weekend I got to hear some Grateful Dead music as the band finished up their set with "China Cat Sunflower" into "I Know You Rider." As the second set started the Opera House began to fill up. Carbone came back out and I could see Andy Goessling and Jeff Austin enjoying drinks in the crowd before they too would join Greensky on stage. Unfortunately I wasn't able to stick around to see it. As the band began playing "Ice, Ice, Baby," for the third time this weekend I had to leave the show before the gondola shut down.

Continue reading for Sunday coverage from Telluride...

Sunday :: 06.21.09

Throw Down Your Heart

Telluride Bluegrass 2009
Béla Fleck's movie Throw Down Your Heart is an amazing experiment that unites the banjo with traditional African music. I don't think anyone would have expected the fusion of these two diverse genres to result in such an amazing sound but the result was spectacular. For the moment the movie can only be seen at film festivals but it will come out on DVD this November. I would recommend it to all. The soundtrack has already been released and it is a good example of what you can expect from the film. After the film Béla came out to answer questions from the audience. The passion that he had in making the film shone on his face and for the first time ever I saw his modest composure disappear as he began to talk about the project.

Tim O'Brien Band

Back to the main stage again, just in time to see the beginning of Tim O'Brien's performance. The fans had thinned out by now as the working class crowd had to hurry home to begin another workweek. O'Brien's music has an old age sound but his lyrics talk about new age matters. With lyrics like, "The mobile phone is a threat to the human race," his songs remind you of a simpler life that few of us know about except through music. When he covered Bob Dylan's "Tombstone Blues" you could almost hear that unique Dylan whine in his voice. It was a good show to end the day with before the Telluride House Band took to the stage later.

The Telluride House Band

Telluride House Band :: Telluride Bluegrass 2009
The longest day of the year ended as six music gods took to the stage. The House Band is made up of Sam Bush on mandolin, Béla Fleck on banjo, Jerry Douglas on dobro, the infamous Edgar Meyer on standup bass, guitarist Bryan Sutton from the Tim O'Brien Band and Luke Bella on the fiddle. The collaboration between these musicians is something that only Telluride can produce and you could feel the spirit in the air during the entire show. It seemed like the musicians were even more excited to be playing together than the crowd was to be seeing them. It was a surprise to see Edgar Meyer on stage considering he was the only one in the band who didn't play at the festival earlier in the weekend. The family feel of the festival became even more pronounced when, in recognition of Jerry Douglas' 25th year at the festival, his whole family came out to join him when he was presented with a sheep as a gift. Being at Telluride for 25 years is a big thing for this festival and receiving a farm animal has become a Telluride tradition. The House Band was an amazing end to an amazing weekend.

Continue reading for more pics of Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2009...

Thursday :: 06.18.09

Jerry Douglas & Tim O'Brien
Zac Brown Band
Peter Rowan
Three Girls & Their Buddy
Three Girls & Their Buddy
Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band
David Byrne
David Byrne
David Byrne
David Byrne

Continue reading for more pics of Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2009...

Friday :: 06.19.09

Blue Canyon Rangers
Crooked Still
Toumani Diabaté
Jenny Lewis
Elvis Costello

Continue reading for more pics of Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2009...

Saturday :: 06.20.09

Greensky Bluegrass
The Punch Brothers
The Punch Brothers
Jerry Douglas
Yonder Mountain String Band
Ben Kaufmann - Yonder Mountain String Band
Sam Bush & Jeff Austin (Yonder Mountain String Band)
Kasey Chambers
Sam Bush Band
Sam Bush Band
Sam Bush Band with Emmylou Harris & Jerry Douglas
Gaelic Storm

Continue reading for the final batch of pics from Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2009...

Sunday :: 06.21.09

Todd Snider
Jeff Austin & Todd Snider
Austin, Snider & Kaufmann
Tim O'Brien Band
Emmylou Harris
Emmylou Harris
Emmylou Harris Band with Sam Bush
Telluride House Band
Telluride House Band

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