The Other Festival: Good Pickin, the Threat of Wildfires, and Rumors of Bonnaroo Circulate at Telluride
"My parents say, "Son, what in the hell has happened to bluegrass?," Yonder Mountain String Band mandolin player and general frontman Jeff Austin mused to an oxygen depleted crowd.
The gig was in the mountain village above Telluride, Colorado, and marked the official kickoff to the bluegrass festival which was to begin in earnest the next day. One of the shirts available in Telluride reads "Screw milk, got oxygen?"—itself a salient point, though the mountain village is an additional three thousand feet above the rest of the town.
(The effects of life at this height will catch the traveler off guard; be careful, or you may find yourself thoroughly winded after climbing a few stairs, or unexpectedly vomiting behind a mountain after three drinks.)
Austin had a point: two days later, his band closed its main stage festival set with an audaciously successful bluegrass arrangement of The Misfits' "20 Eyes". Those in the crowd oblivious to the tune's origin may have enjoyed it as just another blisteringly rendered traditional number. The incognito fans of seminal underground punk in attendance may have realized that nothing was out of place, really— after all, American music has always been about assimilation, and bluegrass in particular is about interpreting the old tradition in new ways.
"You may ask yourself why you're here," Austin continued, before leading the band into a seemingly spontaneous jam on the Talking Heads' “Once in a Lifetime”. "You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile…You may find yourself at 11,000 feet, not making much sense."
Although the Telluride festival featured its usual sellout (about 10,000 people attend the event), this year's edition was decidedly in the cultural shadow of another little festival happening out in Tennessee called Bonnaroo. Indeed, Bonnaroo was a topic of conversation both onstage and off at Telluride.
Both Robert Randolph and the Family Band and the Bela Fleck/Edgar Meyer duet packed up and headed for Bonnaroo after playing Telluride. Austin offered "two reasons why Telluride is better than Bonnaroo" at the mountain village show: 1) it starts on Wednesday night and 2) it's in Telluride.
The significance of this second reason really can't be overlooked. The town of Telluride is in a box canyon, meaning that it is surrounded on three sides by mountains. The town is literally a geographical dead end: about ten lanes of straight roads carved out in between mountains for about seven blocks. The stage is at the far end of town, on a field at the base of three mountains.
"They should reserve the title "festival" for this, and everything else is just a "gathering"," Edgar Meyer said at one point, after telling the crowd of his travel plans.
***It's the first night of Telluride Bluegrass, and I've elected to head back into town after Ben Harper's set1, foregoing the closing performance by a band called The Sawdoctors, about whom I still know just about exactly nothing.
That morning we had headed in to the festival via the dirt path traveling along the creek that runs through town, nestled along one of the continuous mountain slopes that frames Telluride, Colorado. This is just beyond the last row of houses on that side, so upon my first visitation I traversed the town without seeing much of the civilization.
Thus my choice to head back again, after Ben Harper, through town along aptly named Main St.
Just beyond the festival grounds (the town park), Main St tails off into dirt, after forming the cement axis of the town, dividing it in half lengthwise from end to end. Heading back through town, one hits the heart of (what would be considered) downtown within a block or so.
I passed The Roma and the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon, basement bars directly across the street from each other2, and immediately breathed along to the lively pulse apparent in my surroundings. For a few blocks, there was literally acoustic music coming in every direction: I passed five streetside bluegrass bands within three corners.
Around each, in varying sizes and exhibiting various rates of enthusiasm, were crowds of crackling onlookers, many of whom were hooting and laughing and urging the musicians on. Cletus and the Barnburners[3}, a quintet participating in the band contest at the workshop stage that weekend, entertained a particularly enthused crowd with a version of the traditional number "Salty Dog", which came off as appropriately raucous and slyly bawdy.
Even after the "proper" bands, I continued to pass a series of odd arrays of musicians (a mandolin and a banjo, three guitars, some drummers and a guitar…) in alleys and under awnings. The pickers petered off into the night, until finally replaced after several blocks by the music coming from windows; some probably live, some played loudly on good systems.
It occurred to me that it seemed like I had entered some sort of bluegrass fantasy camp— or perhaps a civilization somehow untouched by a century, preserving a community and a folk art inherited from another era. Some of the storefronts indeed reflected the style of their antecedents from the mid-1800s days in which this mining town initially thrived.
I wondered if this could possibly be what the place is like all year. For a few moments I lived within this hypothetical community, breathing the mountain air that fell upon me in its path from peak to peak, existing in a decidedly fanciful yet suddenly plausible place.
After this quick quiet reverie, I settled for the alternate explanation: that the best practitioners of this kind of music had simply descended upon a beautiful town for the premier festival of its (of any?) kind, for the 29th year.
For the five days of Telluride Bluegrass Festival-related shows, the rule held true: you couldn't shake a biscuit without bumping into a musician, a musician who would much rather pull up a stool in front of a saloon beside a mountain than plug any damn thing in.
After regrouping with crew members back at the condo, I caught an all- acoustic lineup of Leftover Salmon late night at the Sheridan Opera House, playing Telluride for what they said was the thirteen straight year.
"Festivaaaaaaaaaaaaaal!". Vince Herman cried to open the set.
The Sheridan, part of a complex (including theatre, hotel, restaurant, and bar) dating back a hundred or so years, featured a packed and sweaty floor area that would have made the Wetlands reach for a dry towel. Thus I took the show it in from one of the select rows of seats, and frankly sat for much of it, though plenty of my brethren in the crowd were still able to perform some sort of slam ho-down as the strings continued to sing.
Robert Randolph showed up for several songs in the first set, displaying better sea legs than during his set with the Family Band at the festival that afternoon, at which he noted his difficulty breathing, and fiddled with a sunhat and water. After playing with Tony Furtado elsewhere in town 'till about 1, Jeff Coffin came down the street and also sat in with acoustic Salmon towards the end of the show.
I had a distinct feeling of being overwhelmed by the amount of music I had absorbed over the past twenty-four hours, starting with Yonder Mountain's festival prelude up in the village Wednesday night.
And it was just day one. Three to go.
Things in Colorado right now are positively Biblical.
A distinct cloud of haze is hovering over one mountain range, coloring the afternoon of the second day of the festival with an ominous and palpable reminder of raging wildfires 120 miles away, in Durango.
The crisp mountain air I expected to breathe is tainted with smoke.
Along Route 133, as we headed southwest from Vail on the way towards Telluride, roadside signs designed for traffic updates and road work notices were blinking an ominous haiku: "Extreme/ Fire/ Danger".
As no less than seven major wildfires incinerate vast swaths of landscape around us, the entire state is under a strict ban on outside fires. The news reports that upcoming Independence Day fireworks are cancelled. Prolonged drought conditions have resulted in miles of scratchy, dry scrub brush; the scars from various smaller fires mark hilltops with black patches along our route.
Thus, cigarettes have become a quite fine-able commodity. Those who wish to light cigarettes of a sweeter aroma than tobacco do so with extreme care, not out of fear of police intervention but out of a desire to refrain from burning the entire town down.
The day is hot, and the sun unrelenting; even the occasional burst of refreshing breeze signals a mixed message, because we know it is those same winds that are contributing to the out of control status of the nearby fires.
In between sets, the house PA plays part of Dylan's Desire album, including the song "Romance in Durango", as we look up at the smoke from the Durango fire and hope that floods and famine will not follow closely behind.
Early that Friday afternoon, Todd Snider eased us into the day with a contemporary talking blues, issuing biting satirical barbs at various political and social situations. He even included a verse from one of Dylan's early contributions to the genre, "Talkin' New York Blues": "a lot of people aint got no food on their tables/ but they got a lot of forks and knives/ and they gotta cut somethin'".
The pickin' gets good and serious when 21 year old banjo prodigy Chris Thile teams up with veteran mandolin expert Mike Marshall, who is wearing a customarily audacious neon red shirt. They play some traditional numbers, and include a stunning bluegrass arrangement of an early bebop classic from the Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie catalog.
After tearing through a number by bluegrass Godfather Bill Monroe, Thile revels in the glories of his chosen genre: "Rage against the Machine has nothing on Bill Monroe!".
After this set we take the ten minute walk back to Elks Park, off of Main Street, to catch Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer at the workshop stage. The small park is filled with folks casually sitting on the grass, waiting for the man introduced by his partner Meyer as "the crown Prince of Telluride".
The workshop area is a decidedly informal one: the audience shoots out questions and requests to the musicians, who alternate between the role performer and teacher.
This set features less of that kind of interplay than others over the four days, as a mostly quiet (perhaps reverent) crowd allows Fleck and Meyer to simply proceed with their program.
Bela, wearing a gray t-shirt simply reading "Telluride", says that the performance is "sort of like a rehearsal" for the duo, who are also scheduled to play the festival stage the following morning. Bela is also going to play with The Flecktones tonight, making for three sets in 21 hours.
Telluride: All Bela, All The Time.
"We were kinda scared about playing without a chance to brush up," he admits before launching further into his classical/jazz/bluegrass project. Meyer mostly plays acoustic bass, before switching to a keyboard for a number or two.
In their quiet way, this duet presents the most experimental music of the weekend. The set includes two pieces by J.S. Bach (introduced by Bela as Robert Randolph Bach), but somehow fails to come off as pretentious. It's hard to fault Mr. Fleck for stretching the perceived limits of his chosen instrument by mixing and matching genres, chopping and dicing context until all the listener can do is admire the chops and tap her foot along to it all.
Two hours later, as Yonder Mountain String Band get the festival crowd really moving for perhaps the first time that day, a small miracle occurs.
This is the first time I've seen a crowd applauding and whooping it up in earnest because the clouds have opened up and heavy, cold rain is cascaded down on everybody. There is no grumbling, no running for cover in disappointment. We are just glad that the town apparently isn't going to burn down today.
Jeff Austin welcomes the rain from onstage. Himself an accomplished picker, he is openly humbled by the virtuosity that has continually been on display all over town.
"I'm going to be selling my mandolin after what I heard today," he says, before pointing to imaginary bidders in the crowd. "How much? One buck? You, all the way back, by the flank steak!". He then notes that the flank steak sandwiches are pretty good, and accepts an apparent offer. "Actually, I'll take it! For three flank steaks over the rest of the weekend."
Near the end of the third night of the festival, an indelible image is seared into my mind: Leftover Salmon, closing the third night, singing "Take a look at that moon over behind that mountain", with a nearly full moon lofted up above the mountain behind them.
Most Telluride attendees have been here several times already, and they seem generally to be over it; I am, however, still agog at my natural surroundings, and have no choice but to seal this image in a special tamper-proof container, to endure as the one moment that best sums up for me the Telluride Bluegrass experience.
We skip over to the Sheridan Opera House to catch another Telluride Nightgrass show, courtesy once again of the busy Yonder Mountain String Band.
Jeff Coffin sits in, along with Mike Marshall, and other guests on mandolin and banjo.
The show gets out sometime after two, and I thinking I'm heading back home to the condo until I hear music and general crowd noise wafting down from the top floor of a building next to Elks Park.
It turns out to be the local VFW hall, and they're hosting a band. Upon my free admission, I discover a room full of people generally acting as if it's a rave, except for the onstage lineup of acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, and upright bass.
Oh yeah, this is what happens around here.
I catch the name of the band, but forget it. That's ok though, and in fact it kind of fits: Telluride Bluegrass clearly isn't about creating a laundry list of popular names so everyone can tell the world afterward that they saw the Warren Haynes Widespread Incident play "Money, Love and Change". It's about inviting the most talented people in the scene, who want nothing better than to pick for enthusiastic crowds all night long, for free.
The band is told they need to unplug sometime well after three, and then huddle in an acoustic circle on the floor, with no intention of stopping the show.
I finally head out of this strange but beautiful underground bluegrass party, and try to go to sleep. By this point though, I literally hear furious picking in my head, whether I want to or not. I spend the night hearing fast little banjo breaks and mandolin solos, while I try to sleep.
The final morning, I decide to take the creekside path back to the festival. Shielded by trees, I eventually hear the sweet sound of mandolin notes carried aloft by the Spring breeze, complemented by the easy rush of the stream. I just laugh.
The authors of those mandolin notes are Sam Bush and David Grisman, and a fairly impromptu combination of musicians. The best way to play a mandolin, or a banjo, or any acoustic instrument for that matter, is clearly to sit down in front of a mountain and pick away.
This point can be argued, but I think that the best way to listen to it may be to sit down behind a bend in a creek, watching butterflies.
The band plays a lighthearted tribute to Bill Monroe, which also references the players onstage and other familiar figures from the scene. It includes the couplet: "The grass he smokes sure 'aint blue/ That's ok, everybody does it, cept ole' Bill".
Later in the afternoon I jaunt over to Elks Park to catch a workshop billed as Mike Marshall and percussionist Joe Craven. When I arrive, Craven is teaching the audience about Latin American rhythms, and demonstrating on his array of percussion tools.
It turns out that David Grisman is hanging out in the wings, and Marshall calls him onstage. They play a number, field some questions, play another number.
Someone asks if it is difficult to play varied genres of music. Grisman gives a long answer in which he says that the key is just to listen to lots of music, and particularly, to listen to the best players in each genre.
Marshall repeats the question, and then answers with a laugh, "Yes. It is."
Craven then suggests the inspired idea of taking a familiar song and playing it in a totally different style. So the impromptu combo, which has by now swelled to include flautist Enrigue Corea and another percussionist, improvises a Brazilian arrangement for Grisman's trademark number, "Dawg's Rag".
After another appropriate choice by the people behind the between-set music (The Band's "Up on Cripple Creek"), Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys take the stage and close the 2002 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. They play originals ("Rank Strangers to Me") and traditional numbers ("John Henry", "Pretty Polly") as Stanley shifts the spotlight between each member of his band, which includes both his son and his grandson.
Mid-set, Stanley provides a stirring reading of the song he performed on the Grammy's a few months before: "Oh Death", which was popularized by the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
That night, I catch the outrageous octet Japonize Elephants at the Fly Me to the Moon. Their very original sound (self-described as "circus gypsy bluegrass hardcore madness") is pretty entertaining, though I feel that their whole shtick (wearing supposedly outrageous costumes that really are just poorly-matched thrift store relics) detract from the proceedings.
If you want it, Telluride provides an overwhelming musical experience— and it's not accompanied by an overwhelming logistical hassle. The crowd is large but laid back, though small enough for you to keep running into the same guy with a "Wanted: Gibson mandolin" sign.
In between sets, it’s easy enough to walk back to your condo in town for a change of clothes or some scrambled eggs. For those camping, at least there are public bathrooms and even showers available.
The Huge Rock Event obviously has its place, and I've logged my share of eight hour traffic jams on the way to a festival, but for those who prefer their four (or five) day musical experience with a laid back Western attitude, and a complete lack of any kind of hassle, Telluride is the hands down festival of choice. Maybe it's just the free fruit and water.
For me, the overall experience conveyed a mood that made the whole thing worthwhile, beyond the particular musical highlights. I had as much fun on a street corner watching an unnamed band as I did watching any of the festival headliners. The feeling of stepping into a civilization where this kind of music is the popular music was unforgettable.
Sure, the American folk tradition is derived directly from the old Scottish ballads, but bluegrass is an American classical music as original and important as jazz. Beyond music that can be strictly categorized as bluegrass, traditional American music offers a wealth of offshoots, from field hollers echoing African antecedents, to fife and drum styles that are laced with the tradition of the early generations of American slaves, as well as Caribbean dance music that crept up through such places as the islands off of Georgia.
Fiddle breakdowns, guitar/banjo/mandolin combos—-this is the dance music of an earlier American era, when popular music and culture was not shaped and distributed by mass media outlets. It is still carved from the same rhythms that once made folks get up and dance all night. In Telluride I discovered that they still do.
It is not romanticizing things to say that this music was actually transmitted from person to person, and person to group, with people along the way adding and subtracting elements in the same way that Homer assimilated various orally transmitted mythic tales into one written opus.
Any recorded version of "The Coo Coo Bird" contains folk lyrics added and changed by the innumerable players who made it their own for a time, played it for their friends, and passed it on.
The Telluride Bluegrass Festival creates, at least for about a week, a community where this kind of thing still flourishes, where barrooms are filled with banjos and it seems like everyone is carrying an instrument.
This is not to say that it is an academic re-creation of museum relics: much to the contrary. The musicians at Telluride transmitted traditional songs in their own styles, with their own imprint—as well as stretching the perceived boundaries to fold up other pieces into the puzzle.
Thus, heading back down Main Street after that last set Sunday night, with the surrounding mountains lit clearly by the moon, it was like I was on the Main Street of more than just one town. I felt strangely… patriotic.
This is an America to which I can relate. I had heard of it before. The thing I learned in Telluride is that it still exists.
a rather downbeat, unaccompanied appearance that would have benefited from different scheduling, methinks
and sight of those (at this point) mythic Phish shows in 1988, their first out of New England
a band from, a) Santa Cruz, Ca b) Tampa Bay, Florida c) Modock, Arkansas, d) Ithaca, Ny e) all of the above
the altitude alteration also may have played a small hand in my general dizziness
Jeremy David Goodwin lives in Swampscott, Massachusetts, the home of the Dory. In his spare time he serves on the Board of Directors of The Mockingbird Foundation, and co-edited several sections of The Phish Companion. His first novel, Sunburn and Frostbite: An Adventure Tale About Chasing the Elephant, is eagerly anticipated. Feel free to contact him at The Castle (email: email@example.com).