Telluride Bluegrass Fest | 06.17-21 | CO

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...


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