Telluride Bluegrass Festival | Town Park | Telluride, CO | June 19-22, 2003

For those of you who have never visited the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, you’ll have to suspend for a few moments everything you think you know about how a perfect music event in the mountains can and should be. This event went WAY beyond what I had envisioned it would be, and made me Festivarian for life. For those of you who are familiar with the TBF, know that the folks at Planet Bluegrass outdid themselves this year in the tradition of excellence you’ve grown to love and expect from the Telluride team. Visit to see their stellar line-up of events.


I'll get to the epic line-up of bands and the “shows that blew me away” in a minute. But first, I must comment on the breath-taking setting that contains of the event itself. The site, staff, camping, Festivarians (that’s what they call one another at the TBF), jamming, sunshine, and its location in beautiful Telluride, Colorado were simply phenomenal. The festival is created on the valley floor of a Rocky Mountain Box Canyon at about 9,500-feet elevation in central Colorado. It is nestled up against the sides of two 11,000-foot mountain peaks in the valley floor that makes up the foundation of Telluride, with dramatic chiseled ridgelines in every direction. The town offers great boutiques, restaurants, galleries, and mountain charm, with a friendly local community that obviously loves the outdoors. TBF has been going since 1973, and is Telluride’s biggest weekend event of the year (during the summer months, there is a festival in Telluride every weekend, except one). Everything about this event is built on a tremendous amount of hard work, pride, and class, and shows how a 30-year event should be presented: perfect.

From the music meadow, awesome mountain slopes and ridges surround you. Snow patched and ominous mountain peaks rise from the festival grounds, covered with fir, pine, and aspen trees. A gorgeous cascading waterfall can also be seen from the music meadow, reminding Festivarians day and night of the event’s magic.

The setting is unlike any other music festival I’ve ever been to, but we didn’t make that long trip just for the setting.


In four days, I saw some of the hottest, ripping bluegrass music I’ve ever witnessed. Here is a partial list of the musicians I caught:

Libby Kirkpatrick, Allison Brown Quartet (with special guest Joe Craven), Martin Sexton, the Tim O’Brien Band, Susan Tedeschi, The String Cheese Incident, Keller Williams, The Waifs, the Jerry Douglas Band, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (with guest Sam Bush), Leftover Salmon (with guests Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas), Mike Marshall and Edgar Meyer, Peter Rowan Band with Tony Rice, Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin Carpenter, Emmylou Harris and Spyboy, the Vince Gill Band, The Horse Flies, Selections from JS Bach with Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Mike Marshal, and Chris Thile, Michelle Shocked Gospel Revival, Nickel Creek, Hot Rize, and the Sam Bush Band with his Epic Band and Sunday Night Finale.

There was so much mind-blowing music, it’s almost impossible for me to pick favorites. Nevertheless, the most impressive acts in my opinion were (in no particular order):

• Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
• Sam Bush’s Sunday Night Finale
• The Waifs
• The String Cheese Incident
• Nickel Creek
• Hot Rize


Not only did Bela Fleck share the stage with at least 10 other musicians throughout the festival weekend, for his Friday Main Stage act, he put together one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen. Bela was clearly enjoying himself throughout, ripping through solos that had more notes in them than most country’s have people, and leading the band though tune after tune that made our heads spin, our ears sparkle, and our eyes shine bright. His psychedelic banjo burnt through time and space at un-measurable speeds, all the while moving the crowd to dance, groove, and shout uncontrollably. He played many of our old favorite tunes, and added a number of new tunes to our “favorites” list which will be on the band’s new three-disc CD, set to be released in August of this year.

Bandmates Victor L. Wooten (bass), Future-Man (synthax drumitar, which is a fancy drum beat machine mounted to a guitar-like body that has extra knobs and buttons for “Futch” to lay down the rhythm for the band), and Jeff Coffin (saxophones and flute) were in top form (as always), dazzling fans with electrifying solos, strong support for each other, and top-class stage presence. Chris Thile (22-year old mandolin prodigy from Nickel Creek) and Sam Bush joined the Flecktones for their Friday Main Stage performance, adding more color and pizzazz to the already brilliant show. The band closed their set with an amazing version of “Sinister Minister,” which included Victor playing a four minute bass solo that had the crowd screaming and howling at every turn, and featured Victor throwing his bass around his back, catching it, and continuing the solo in time while we watched in amazement. No other band, in my opinion, had more presence, new music, and as much talent as Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Look for their new CD, as it features some of the hottest bluegrass players as “special guests,” as well as plenty of new songs written and crafted by Bela, Vic, Futch, and Jeff.


The Waifs caught most people by surprise. Few who made the journey to this year’s TBF were expecting to be impressed so solidly by this Australian group that blends folk, bluegrass, contemporary pop, and rock better than any group around. The band was given its name by Vikki and Donna’s grandmother, who watched them float from town to town, gig to gig as wanderers in the “early years.” Apparently, as the band tells me, a “Waif” is a piece of driftwood that floats from place to place in the ocean with no apparent direction. Maybe early on they seemed to lack direction, only now the band is tight, the songs are fresh and exciting, and the band has got plenty of direction as it begins to take the music world by storm. Their songs drip of personality, real life experiences, and soul. Put as simple as possible: they just rock.

The Waifs are primarily a trio, two sisters (Donna and Vikki Simpson), and their lead guitarist and best friend Joshua Cunningham. However they also tour and record with a bass player and drummer. The trio formed 11 years ago, and was primarily touring in Australia until the past year or so when they began to tour the world. Younger sister Vikki blows her harmonica like a runaway train, and sings with a quality of spirit and spunk rarely seen on today’s stage. Donna plays guitar and also sings (and was Vikki’s reason for getting into music when she needed a back-up singer for a gig back in the late 1980s). Josh is one of the most creative and talented acoustic guitarists I’ve seen in years, ripping through soulful guitar solos and holding down rhythm guitar to support his two leading women. I was mesmerized, along with about 10,000 other cheering fans, by Vikki’s bouncing personality and lyrical voice, Josh’s prowess on the guitar, and Donna’s great songwriting. I especially like new songs “Lighthouse Man,” “Flesh and Blood,” and “Fisherman’s Daughter.” After 11 years, the Waifs are finally getting the attention they deserve and beginning to tour the world. For certain, based on the reaction of the crowd at Telluride and the long lines of people waiting to buy CDs and get the band’s “scribbles” (Vikki’s word for her signature), the Waifs made a memorable impression, one that won’t be forgotten for a long time to come. Look for their new release, Up All Night, on Compass Records.


The closing show for the 30th Annual TBF deserves extra special mention, as Sammy Bush, King of Telluride, closed the event like no one else could. Not only did the he play for two hours with his exceptional band before the break, he went on by inviting up to 15 special guests to the stage, playing for an additional two hours with some of the greatest bluegrass musicians still on the scene! By the end of the night, he had 18 heavyweights backing him up, including Emmylou Harris, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Michael Kang (The String Cheese Incident), Drew Emmitt (Leftover Salmon), Tim O’Brien, Mike Marshall, Chris Thile (Nickel Creek), Jeff Coffin (Flecktones), John Cowan, and a handful of other epic players. I left after the final notes in a state of disbelief. They played old favorites, improvised new jams, and smiled through it all as they sent us home with a new respect for the music we’ve loved for years. I, myself, was so moved that I walked away from the music meadow and played music with other inspired campers until 5am.

Yonder Mountain String Band Dishes Up Pre-Festival Festivities
Wednesday Late Night in Mountain Village

In addition to the exceptional festival line-up, epic Main Stage performances, and sizzling campfire jams, Yonder Mountain String Band “opened” the festival Wednesday night with a Late Night performance in Telluride’s magical and unique “Mountain Village.” Mountain Village is accessible by road; however, most Festivarians use the convenient, scenic, and free gondola ride to get there. Mountain Village is built above the town of Telluride, up and over a 10,500 feet elevation ridgeline, where condos, hotels, shops, restaurants, and a ski resort have been constructed among the expansive beauty of the Rocky Mountains. YMSB was in top shape for the show, debuting many of the songs on their new Old Hands CD in the first set, and taking us all for a grassy, semi-psychedelic, definitely super-charged ride for the second set with many of their old favorites.

Casey Driessen joined the band for much of the show on fiddle, and Sally Van Meter played Dobro with the band on a number of tunes. No one left the show disappointed, except for the fact that most of us on hand for the sold out show were ready to dance until dawn (many of the band’s fans know that Yonder often serves up enough music late night to bring out the sun). Unfortunately, the gondola stopped earlier than dawn, and forced us to wander back down the mountain to our campsites hungry for Day One Music. YMSB also played a Main Stage set and a Late Night show at the Opera House, and I heard rumors that they were out in the Town Park Campground picking tunes until the early hours of the morning on Saturday morning. Look for their new CD, Old Hands, now available on Frog Pad The recording features Darol Anger, Jerry Douglas, Casey Driessen, Tim O’Brien, Dirk Powell, and Sally Van Meter.


This year also marks the debut of Reflections: Vol 1 (Frog Pad Records), which is a glimpse into the storied history of the legendary Telluride Bluegrass Festival. This compilation features live music taken from the last 25 years of festival archives and captures one-of-a-kind performances from such greats as James Taylor, Del McCoury, Bela Fleck, Shawn Colvin and John Hiatt. Reflections: Vol 1 is a rare compilation of acoustic music that will be a must have for all music collections. Visit Frog Pad for more information.

Words and photos by Jeremy Pearl
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[Published on: 7/22/03]

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