TELLURIDE TURNS THIRTY-THREE

Words by Nick Hutchinson :: Images by Tobin Voggesser

Telluride Bluegrass Festival :: 06.15-18.06 :: Telluride, CO


Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2006
My friends and I knew we were on a classic outing when the first person we saw as we idled into Telluride was none other than Victor Wooten casually wheeling his mountain bike down Main Street. We had the radio tuned to the local listener-sponsored radio station, KOTO, and as we neared Town Park, we could hear the gathering crowd buzzing both over the airwaves and literally through the air as the talent stepped onto the Fred Shellman Memorial stage. While it's impossible to effectively relate all the inspired musical moments that made up the 33rd Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, here's a glimpse of some highlights from the scenic box canyon southeast of Sawpit.

Thursday

After a typically quirky introduction by emcee Pastor Mustard (a.k.a. Dan Sadowsky), the now classic brother-sister duo of Tim and Mollie O'Brien kicked off the event with their flawless harmonies and timeless repertoire, a feel-good mix of old-time, gospel, folk, and traditional gems. The O'Brien siblings provided a soulful and welcome way to ease into the fest and were followed by the Western-themed tunes of The Wayword Sons from Durango, Benny Galloway's eclectic pickin' project (which includes talented Broke Mountain Bluegrassers Anders Beck on dobro and Robin Davis on guitar/mando). Next came the "post-heehaw funkadelic hip-hop newgrass" of Utah-based Ryan Shupe and the RubberBand, a drum-driven group that generated a lot of buzz and is sure to be back in the future based on the crowd response. Shupe does a better version of "Rainbow Connection" than Kermit the Frog himself.


Ryan Shupe and the RubberBand
Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2006
I started feeling right at home as the sweet strains of the Drew Emmitt Band began radiating from the stage. The group, which features the guitar work of flat-picking six-string champ Tyler Grant and former Leftover Salmoners Noam Pickelny (banjo), Jeff Sipe (drums), and Greg Garrison (bass), nailed a nice version of "All Night Ride" (the first track on the band's 2005 release Across the Bridge). They raised the excitement several notches by adding John Cowan and Sam Bush to the mix. The assembled talent was enough to trip the festival meter, and it push the audience straight into Telluride time. The group's lively take on the Blood On The Tracks Dylan classic "Meet Me in the Morning" hit the spot with a sweet blend of Leftover Salmon-inspired jamminess and Newgrass Revival-oriented newgrass. Other tunes from the set included "Still of the Night," "Just Another Highway Song," and a raucous "Midnight Blues," from the late '90s release The Nashville Sessions. The bubbling set provided a welcome uplift after a long road trip.


Neko Case :: Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2006
Neko Case brought her acclaimed vocals to the stage on Thursday, much to the pleasure of her devoted fans, and earned herself some new admirers in the process. Case, with the help of her tight backing band, paired Americana songsmithing with countrified grit to arrive at a lush sound that was no less than soothing against the gorgeous alpine backdrop. A palpable hush fell over the crowd as a rainbow appeared during her set.

The All-star Jam was solid business as Bela, Edgar, Tim, Jerry, Bryan, and Sam took the stage to dazzle and delight the crowd with their progressive bluegrass style. First incarnated in 1988 as the Telluride All-stars, this distinguished aggregation (four of whom formed the powerhouse newgrass outfit Strength in Numbers) also included the lighting-fast picking of Bryan Sutton, the sturdy and erudite bass work of Edgar Meyer, and the multifarious talent of Tim O'Brien.


Jerry Douglas
Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2006
On a stage of luminaries, Jerry "Flux" Douglas shined brightest while Tim and Sam schooled the crowd on how to heat up a fiddle and mando. The virtuosity was abundantly apparent. This is essentially the Telluride house band, comprised of some of the best acoustic musicians on the planet, and everyone knows it and loves it. Any single member of this band could draw a crowd by himself, but put them all together and you achieve liftoff.

From my position at the foot of the stage, I tried and failed to follow SB's fingers on the mandolin as the group ripped through renditions of "Salty Dog," "Look Down That Lonesome Road" (from TOB's Grammy-winning release Fiddler's Green), and "White Water" (aka "Lawnmower," off of Bela Fleck's landmark Drive). The stage antics during this set were typically colorful, with O'Brien contrasted against the "powdered wig" stateliness of Meyer and Bela pushing King Sammy away from the mic just in time to avoid the off-color culmination of lyrical punch lines such as:

Two old men lying in the grass
One has his finger in the other one's...
Honey let me be your salty dog!


Bonnie Raitt :: Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2006
Bonnie Raitt closed out the first day with a solid set packed with her favorites and then some. It was only her second time in T-ride, and she endeared herself to the crowd by saying "I can't believe I gotta follow those guys!" True words. After taking a moment to ponder that, she said "We'll play the blues, you get the grass, and let's party." That statement also went over well. She furthered the crowd's appreciation by calling up Bela, Jerry and Tim (but where was Sam Bush?) for a few tunes at the end of her show.

Friday

Austin, Texas-based The Greencards, who last year had the honor of hitting the road with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, stamped their name on the stage with a hot T-ride debut. Comprised of two Aussies, mandolin player Kym Warner, and bassist Carol Young, and British fiddle player Eamon McLoughlin, the group knocked out an inspired set of Celtic- inflected bluegrass, including sprightly versions of "The Man From Galilee," "What You Are," and a solid take on the Bill Monroe/Peter Rowan classic "The Walls Of Time." The band was also joined by Rob McCormack on guitar and vocals.


The Greencards:: Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2006
The Decemberists brought their clever brand of folk-rock to the high mountains, and the Jerry Douglas Band, as usual, was a big crowd favorite, laying into his signature tunes such as "We Play Hide and Seek" (the first track on the recently release DVD Bluegrass Journey, and also on Jerry's disc Slide Rule).

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones received a fantastic reception from the crowd as they put on a very strong performance, punctuated by the killer and inventive bass- playing of Victor Wooten and the inimitable grooves of Futureman. This year marked Bela's 25th Telluride, and he and the 'Tones were clearly thrilled to be there. The band's encore, "Sinister Minister" (probably the Flecktones' biggest hit) sent the festometer peaking into the red. Fittingly, Bela was presented with a live chicken in honor of his 25 consecutive years playing at Telluride. He appeared to be honored by the gift.


Bela Fleck :: Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2006
The Drive-By Truckers presented their brand of southern/alt-roots rock to the party, and the Friday night audience ate it up. The guitar-heavy band showed that you can be loud AND still twang right. DBT displayed agile lead playing (times three), good vocals, impressive songwriting, and great bass playing by Shonna Tucker, who along with Bryn Davies from Peter Rowan's band, is one of my favorite new bassists.


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