Telluride Bluegrass | 06.19 – 06.22 | CO

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Words by: Nick Hutchinson | Images by: Benko Photographics

35th Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival :: 06.19.08 – 06.22.08 :: Town Park :: Telluride, CO

Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2008
At this point in its illustrious 35-year career, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival can safely be called an institution. The exuberant weeks leading up to the fest, the journey to the idyllic box canyon in the San Juan Range of southwest Colorado and the actual unfolding of the epic four-day musical event has become an integral part of life for the “festivarians” who make it an obligatory summer ritual. For yet another awe-inspiring season, TBF delivered and then some. Perhaps the words of John Hartford (as channeled through Vince Herman) say it best: “Just when you think it can’t get no better then it does!”

In keeping with its history of throwing musical curveballs at the audience via eclectic bookings, Planet Bluegrass, which has managed the fest for the past 20 years now, featured what many were calling “the best lineup ever,” which included non-bluegrass performers such as Arlo Guthrie, Ani DiFranco, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Glen Hansard (Once), Bruce Hornsby, Brett Dennen and Solomon Burke. The management served up a musical stew for the 35th anniversary that provided something for everyone. The sonic diversity catered to those who love good old American-rooted bluegrass and newgrass (Del McCoury, Hot Rize, Sam Bush Band, Steep Canyon Rangers, Cadillac Sky and The Telluride House Band), as well as to those who enjoy sampling the vibes of artists from further away, such as The Frames, The Duhks and Paolo Nutini. Depending who you asked, all of these acts were pleasing; the audience, which can be critical, tends to be as eclectic as the lineup.

And while the festival seems to outdo itself on a musical level with every new iteration, its continued greening efforts were abundantly clear this year, too. The bulk of the waste produced at the fest was dutifully separated for recycling and composting by a committed crew of volunteers, who kept the festival grounds looking pristine and reminded us to tread lightly so that we can preserve this kind of locale for years to come. Sometimes the best part of the fest is simply being in Telluride, where picturesque falls gush down to feed the cooling creek that flows through town and the shimmering aspens that line the mountains on all sides of the stage. Add to that some of the finest musicians in the world holding court for four days and it’s tough not to want to stay in festival Shangri-La forever.

Some Highlights from the 35th Installment

Ryan Adams :: Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2008
Nashville songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott kicked things off Thursday with his thoughtful solo acoustic music. Scott cut his teeth playing with the likes of Tim O’Brien, Sam Bush and Steve Earle, and has written material for the Dixie Chicks, among others. His earthy tunes, including “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive,” were a fitting pick to warm up the crowd.

The Emmitt Nershi Band played a very well-received set on Friday that closed with a hot take on Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue.” Leave it to Drew and Billy to take Dylan up a notch by infusing a classic with a heady dose of jamgrass.

Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder with Bruce Hornsby threw down one of the more interesting sets of the weekend. Hornsby crooned many of his hits, including “The Way It Is” and some of his material from the Dead years such as “White Wheeled Limousine” and “The Old Valley Road,” while Skaggs and his boys lit things up bluegrass style. Overall, they blended well, with a pleasing tension between pop, piano jazz and bluegrass.

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals seemed to test the audience by putting down a churning high voltage and voluble blend of alt-folk and psychedelia – no acoustic guitar was seen during his set. They ended their unique performance, which included a nice version of “Cold Roses,” by saying, “We love bluegrass.” Maybe a little irony there.

Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder with Bruce Hornsby
Friday night’s Leftover Salmon show was a powerful example of collective high country juju when Sam Bush and Del McCoury and sons joined Herman and company for a smoking version of “Midnight Blues” (from 1997’s excellent LOS release, The Nashville Sessions) that had the high lonesome sound soaring moonward on a rocket of polyethnic Cajun slamgrass.

Singer-songwriter Tift Merritt made some new friends on Saturday when she declared that she was planning to cancel the rest of her tour so that she could play Telluride every day.

Sam Bush stepped onstage with Yonder Mountain String Band on Saturday and pushed the festival meter into the “no going back now” zone as he added scorching fiddle licks to the already boiling Yonder sound. The crowd sing-along during the encore, “Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown,” was one for the books, with the general audience looming maniacally over the poser pit.

The Sam Bush Band, which featured among others, John Oates of Hall & Oates – yes, they played “Maneater” – closed its Saturday set with a rousing “Up On Cripple Creek” that segued into a crowd-amping jam.

Sam Bush and John Oats
The Frames, the Irish folk rock band led by Glen Hansard, felt like a bit of a comedown following Bush’s blistering set. They were out of tune for their first song, a slow and pensive number, and they didn’t really find their legs until later in the set. The crowd thinned for this one, though fans of the band declared it to be a moving performance.

The much-anticipated Sunday set by The Swell Season was a reflection of what can happen in Telluride when everyone starts feeling giddy. Glen Hansard was back onstage, this time with his Once co-star, Marketa Irglova, to revisit some of the stirring music from their romantic film, including the Oscar winning “Falling Slowly.” A marshmallow war broke out during their performance that saw thousands of soft white confections bouncing through the air and off the stage. These quirky moments seem to come one after the other in Telluride.

The Duhks‘ version of Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love” (which was also covered by Sam Bush) was a lesson in genre cross-over.

Hot Rize, and its honky-tonk counterpart Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, performed their 30th anniversary reunion shows on Sunday. As always, the boys from Boulder delivered it hot. Opening up with “Blue Night” and lifting off from there, it’s a shame they didn’t play longer, though Waldo Otto, aka Pete Wernick, later made a colorful appearance during the Telluride House Band’s festival closing set to mutter some Vince Herman-like gibberish (“Think about the Children!”).

Nathan Moore
2008 Telluride Troubadour Winner
JamBase favorite Nathan Moore was named the 2008 Telluride Troubadour. Although he’s a star to some through his solo work and as part of Surprise Me Mr. Davis, when he took the stage with his brand new custom-made guitar he was awarded, he wowed the largest crowd he’d ever seen with a bunch of older material as well as a song he wrote the night before at the campground. While Moore took down the Troubadour award, the Blue Canyon Boys won the Band competition and they will be performing on the main stage next year at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

It’s always comforting to know that the core artists upon whose shoulders the festival was established are present and ready to give it their usual all – pickers and pluckers such as Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Peter Rowan, Pete Wernick, Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt, John Cowan and Tim O’Brien, to name a few. These Telluride stalwarts returned to the Fred Shellman Memorial Stage with their trademark virtuosity and banter (anyone for some more “polk-ass” music?), and Sunday’s festival closing show by the House Band including Bush, Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Edgar Meyer, fiddler Luke Bulla and Fleck brought things to a typically sweet close with a version of “Molly and Tenbrooks.”

Once the action on the main stage was over each day, many festivarians chose to wander down Main Street, with a variety of venues (Fly Me To The Moon Saloon, Los Montanas and The Sheridan) featuring official late night jams by some of the festival acts, and local watering holes hosting more down home gigs by up-and-coming groups, of which there appears to be no shortage. With 10,000 music addicts filling up Telluride around the time of the Summer Solstice, the town teemed with possibilities with the new moon illuminating it all.

The incredible workshops in Elk’s Town Park drew a lot of notice this year as well, with the Swell Season putting on an inspired session on the little stage off of Main Street, and Bela Fleck screening his latest documentary about the banjo, Throw Down Your Heart, at the Nugget Theatre. Just when you think the Telluride Bluegrass Festival can’t get any better it pulls off a 35th Anniversary like this!

Ani DiFranco
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn giving a workshop
Bela Fleck & Jerry Douglas
Blue Canyon Boys
Solomon Burke
Sam Bush
Sam Bush introducing Jerry Douglas
Darrell Scott & Tift Merritt
Emmitt-Nershi Band :: NightGrass
Emmitt-Nershi Band
The Frames
The Punch Brothers
Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers
Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder with Bruce Hornsby
Steep Canyon Rangers :: NightGrass
Uncle Earl
Ani DiFranco
Arlo Guthrie
Arlo Guthrie
Darrell Scott
Darrell Scott & John Cowan
Brett Dennen
Jerry Douglas
The Duhks’ Sarah Dugas with Abigail Washburn
The Duhks in a hail storm
Glen Hansard
The Swell Season – Marketa Irglova & Glen Hansard
Hot Rize – Tim O’Brien & Nick Forster
Leftover Salmon
Billy Nershi
Paolo Nutini
Jeff Austin – Yonder Mountain String Band
Abigail Washburn

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