Telluride Bluegrass Festival :: 06.16 - 06.19 :: Telluride, CO

Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2005
The first time I visited Telluride was in May of '92, and despite the fact that it was pretty cold for late spring (with snow still covering most of the peaks), I remember knowing that I was someplace special. When I returned several weeks later that year, the white stuff had melted away, and the sun lit up the dense green stands of pine and aspen surrounding the town. Bridal Veil Falls split the rocks at the end of town like an exclamation point, and there was an eclectic blend of trustafarians, cowboys (fewer now), outdoor enthusiasts, and transplants that have come to define the place. I was there for my first-ever Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and it felt close to magical. Since then, I've returned as often as possible.

The Wilders at Telluride '05
This year marked the 32nd annual T-ride Bluegrass Festival, and I can't remember the music or the weather ever being better! The term being thrown around was "bluebird." Every day of the fest was "another bluebird Telluride day!" And every act seemed to be playing their hearts out as if they were responding to the beautiful weather and the breathtaking setting.

The close-up view of the stage from the "poser pit" (press/VIP viewing area) was of course terrific, but there really is no such thing as a bad view in Telluride, and unlike most venues, the best view is enjoyed by the people on the stage. It's the only venue I've visited where the artists stop to take pictures between tunes. Tim O'Brien knows what I'm talking about, and naturally, the entire audience posed for him this year as he paused during his Friday set to snap several shots of the crowd.

In holding with Telluride tradition, O'Brien opened the fest solo on Thursday with an inspired set featuring his diverse traditional and progressive bluegrass/Americana songsmithing. He was followed by one of my favorite new (to me) acts - The Wilders. This honky-tonkin' outfit out of Kansas City has enough retro twang to make you wanna chew tobacky an' swaller it.

Emmylou Harris, Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch
Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2005
The John Butler Trio put down an impressive Thursday set that earned the band some new fans. Other Thursday artists included Split Lip Rayfield (I never knew an empty fuel tank could work as an effective bass), Kathleen Edwards, the John Cowan Band, Emmylou Harris, and Wilco -- all of whom gave strong performances.

I caught the Wilders again later Thursday night at Fly Me To The Moon Saloon on Main Street, but all I could see was their cowboy hats bobbing on stage and a fiddle tip sawing over a sea of beer-swillin', boot and Teva-scuffin', floor shakin', bluegrass-addled festivarians. The dudes from Kansas sounded great for the second time that day, and everyone was feelin' fine as FESTIVAHL season roared into action.

Hot Buttered Rum String Band w/ Sharon Gilchrist
Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2005
Friday saw King Wilkie staking its musical claim with a tasty set of bluegrass and folk that included a soulful and lonesome cover of Bruce Springsteen's acoustic ballad "Nebraska" that completely hushed the crowd. King W is a great band on its way up, and these guys have got the look and the chops. Next came Hot Buttered Rum String Band, who put in a fantastic Grisman Quintet-meets-Jethro Tull-meets-proggrass-like set featuring tunes such as the crowd-pleasing "It's Hard to Get Drunk on 3.2" and a nicely re-imagined version of the classic Beatle's tune "Norwegian Wood." You've gotta love an outfit that includes two mando players and a flautist.

The Duhks Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2005
Old Crow Medicine Show also proved to be a scrappy aggregation capable of blending influences. OCMS roused the rabble with its old-timey sounding fare punctuated with gritty harmonica and snake-oil vocals by frontman Ketch Secor. The Old Crow even laid down a soulful reggae groove, proving its ability to expand genres.

Tim O'Brien followed and tapped deep into the soul of Telluride with the help of his talented band. The TOB band includes the awesomely gifted and seemingly ubiquitous bright red Puma-wearing Casey Driessen on fiddle - he even popped up Saturday at the Fly Me To the Moon with The Duhks for a late-night set. Also in the band's lineup is the frenzied Irishman John Doyle on guitar, multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell on bass (or whatever you wanna call that thing he plays), and Kenny "two-tone" Malone on percussion. It'd be pretty tough to beat that lineup.

YMSB's Jeff Austin :: Telluride '05
But perhaps the hottest set of the festival came in the form of the Yonder Mountain String Band's Friday night outing. YMSB came out kicking like the Widespread Panic of newgrass, unleashing a thunderous set of jamgrass that blazed from start to finish. Shining brightly on tunes including "Ramblin' in the Rambler," "If You're Ever in Oklahoma," "No Expectations," "Little Rabbit," and "Dear Prudence," Yonder demonstrated what a bunch of relatively young upstarts can do. Sam Bush, Darol Anger (who played the entire set), and Vince Herman all seemed to enjoy their time on stage with the lads from Nederland, and the energy level hit a new high in Town Park. Scott Vestal also sat in with YMSB, adding his precise picking to the party. If you've never taken in a YMSB show, don't hesitate.

That night it was back to the ritual late-night spot, the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon, for Vince Herman's Pickin' Party, which included the banjo work of Noam Pickelny. Other late-night jams included a spirited Saturday night Yonder show at the Sheridan Opera House that saw Chris Thile burnin' it up.

Jerry Douglas :: Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2005
And of course Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas are no slouches when it comes to lighting up the stage with insane jams as they amply demonstrated several times over the course of the weekend. Douglas's set on Saturday took in Bela Fleck and Sam B, among others. These newgrass icons demonstrated just how they earned their vaunted reputations.

Douglas pushed his dobro to the limit and beyond, moving from soft tableaus to balls-to-the-wall power drives. "King" Sammy got serious on Saturday and dug in hard, wowing the audience with rapid-fire pickin' and mando choppin' and trading breaks with his old peers. Bela was flawless as he and the established T-ride hands showed their Newgrass Revival roots.

John Cowan with Sam Bush :: Telluride '05
Later on Saturday, Sam returned to the stage with his own band and generated plenty of his trademark Sammy power. At one point Saturday night as I was biking down the nature trail along the creek that flows through the festival grounds, I looked up at a brilliant rising moon to hear Sam singing "Take a Little Time for Howlin' at the Moon." It was definitely a nice Telluride moment.

The Duhks (pronounced "ducks") from Winnipeg, Manitoba also tapped into the bluegrass vibe with a great version of "Walkin' Boss," during which they were joined by Tim O'Brien. Their earthy version of Sting's "Love is the Seventh Wave" continues to get radio play and was a perfect tune for a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Telluride. Call it soul-grass or whatever you will, the band has a warm, rootsy, and inviting sound that is entirely its own, and people are loving it.

Calexico :: Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2005
Calexico from Tucson, Arizona was a great surprise on Saturday night. The band borrows from the unique culture that exists in the sun-baked regions of Mexico and the American Southwest. The group worked the crowd using diverse instrumentation. Calexico is Joey Burns (vox, guitar, mooger frooger), John Convertino (drums, percussion), Paul Niehaus (pedal steel), Jacob Valenzuela (keys, trumpet, vibes), Martin Wenk (accordion, guitar, synthesizers, trumpet, vibes), and Volker Zander (upright bass). Mix a Mexican fiesta with a Spaghetti Western soundtrack, and you'll end up somewhere near Calexico. There was some serious shaking going on during their set, and I witnessed dance steps and get-ups that I don't think existed prior to their appearance.

Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2005
As the lantern moon rose every night and beamed down through the pines and the sun rose lushly every morning, the sweet weather, pristine setting, and incredible music served to lull me into a musical La-La-Land. Stellar sets by Jewel, David Bromberg, Peter Rowan, Gillian Welch, Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon, Earl Scruggs, Krauss and Union Station (simply an awesome display of Nashville talent), Trio! (featuring Fleck, Ponty, and Clarke -- jazz fans were amped for this one), the all-female Uncle Earl, Mountain Heart, Bobby McFerrin (he's much more than "Don't Worry be Happy"), and all the other amazing musicians that played during the course of the four-day fest combined to make the Telluride Bluegrass Festival simply incredible. As soon as I win the lottery, I know where I'm moving.

Be Sure to Click "Continue Reading" for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Photo Gallery...

Words by: Nick Hutchinson
Images by: Tobin Voggesser
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