Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2006: Traditions Old and New
The 33rd annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival was an event that lived up to its storied reputation and high standards, marked by its established traditions while developing new ones. As in numerous recent years, while bluegrass remains the core of the festival, executive producer Craig Ferguson has not been afraid to take chances with his artist selections from other genres.
Along with the Telluride "regulars" — Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Peter Rowan, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas — this year’s festival welcomed the returns of Bonnie Raitt and John Prine, along with a variety of new participants, including: Neko Case, Drive By Truckers, The Decemberists,
Ryan Shupe and the Rubber Bands, The Wayword Sons, Stephen Kellogg & The Sixers and the "curve ball" of the event, Barenaked Ladies.
While Telluride may start on Wednesday night, June 14th, the activities at Town Park actually started Saturday morning, June 10th, at 8:00 am, for the annual "land rush,” where Festavarians are permitted to run into Town Park to claim their camping spaces. Some folks will camp for two weeks before that just to claim their space and enjoy vacationing in Telluride. A variety of Town Park events, set up by "the mayor of Telluride," a kind gentleman well known as Telluride Tom, bond the Festavarians while celebrating the Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s rich history.
However, due to having to work on Monday the 12th, I arrived at Telluride late that evening. Since I am learning banjo, my purpose for arriving then was to find and participate in a couple of late-night bluegrass picks (a catch-phrase for jam sessions), which I quickly found near the "Tiki Bar" campsite. After a couple of picks, and miraculously getting a few hours of sleep in my vehicle, I awoke the following morning and easily found a spot in the "Primitive" section of Town Park near a section titled “Chokecherry Circle” that was easily to my liking for setting up the group campsite.
After setting up camp, I would spend that Tuesday and a fair portion of Wednesday between picks, socializing with fellow Festavarians and enjoying a friendly and relaxed scene at Town Park and lovely downtown Telluride.
Wednesday, June 14th: The Night Before
One of the newer traditions is the Wednesday night pre-festival show by Yonder Mountain String Band at the Telluride Conference Center in Mountain Village, over 9,400 feet in altitude. Part of the fun is taking the gondola from Telluride up to the top of one mountain (10,500 feet), then back down over 1,000 feet to get to Mountain Village. The views from the gondola are a joy to behold, as you truly see Telluride surrounded by the box canyon of red cliffs and whitecaps.
In the past two years, YMSB’s pre-festival show has normally turned out to be a "standard" gig. This year’s, however, felt more like a throwdown. The quartet came out fired up for the first set, whose second half was notable for cameos by saxophonist Jeff Coffin and FutureMan on acoustic percussion, both from the Flecktones. Coffin’s soaring saxophones added to the hyper drive of "Death Trip" while FutureMan’s accents also added to the twofer of a lengthy take of Talking Heads’ "Girlfriend Is Better" into Jeff Austin’s (and Chris Castino’s) plaintive "Steep Grades, Sharp Curves."
The second set also shined, featuring one of my personal favorite YMSB covers — The Beatles’
"Only A Northern Song", with an intricate & upbeat rearrangement that both respects the immortal author George Harrison and transforms the song into a progressive uptempo previously unimagined. . From there, the Yonder lads welcomed Colorado dobro player Todd Livingston (formerly of Hit & Run Bluegrass) and banjo player Andy Pond (formerly of Snake Oil Medicine Show) for a fun-filled overdrive sandwich of "Jesus On The Mainline", "Elzic’s Farewell" and the "Mainline" reprise. Pond remained as Dave Johnston’s friendly banjo foil for the rest of the show, while Jay Sanders and Ben Kaufmann teamed up for a fun duet upright bass solo during the set-capping "Keep On Going." The encore was warm & upbeat, with the twofer of the late pioneer John Hartford’s "Steam Powered Aereoplane" and the aggressive take of Shawn Camp’s charging "Redbird."
Ah! Now that’s the way to warm up at Telluride!
Thursday, June 15th: The Old Traditions Continue
The "official" start of Telluride 2006, and there are those familiar sights to this third-year Festivarian. The line of people waiting overnight to receive their official number in line, the sound of bagpipes commemorating the official start of the festival day, the tarp rush, the reunions of veteran Festavarians, and many smiling faces all around.
As is tradition, Tim O’Brien started the festival, this time with sister Mollie in tow, performing a set of graceful folk & Celtic duets. Mollie’s soprano flew gracefully around Tim’s tenor, and every second of their set was as real as duos get.
Next up were the Wayword Sons, a recently new Colorado quartet fronted by songwriter and YMSB collaborator Benny Galloway. With Anders Beck on dobro, Robin Davis on acoustic guitar and Gregg Andrulis on electric piano, the Durango-based group played some nice, understated performances, much of which derived from their new album, Poor Boy’s Delight. Things also brewed up when YMSB’s Adam Aijala added his acoustic guitar to a couple of tunes.
The first non-bluegrass act, Ryan Shupe and the Rubberbands followed with an entertaining set of nouveau folkgrass, highlighted by a flawless rendition of The Muppets classic, "Rainbow Connection", with Ryan providing a spot-on impersonation of Kermit The Frog!
Drew Emmitt and his band kicked up some cranking bluegrass-rock jams, with Drew’s mandolin and vocals leading the way in full force. Included in Drew’s band was guitarist Tyler Grant, his well defined flat-picking became a fine foil for Drew to counterpoint. Jeff Sipe also handled the skins, in a very effective minimalist fashion that blended very well with Greg Garrison’s electric bass. Linking all the instruments together was young banjo master Noam Pikelny, his Huber graced the rhythms and soared on the solos. Sam Bush made the first of numerous cameos that weekend, kicking in some nice fiddle to complement Drew’s guitar.
Neko Case followed with a set of modern alt.country, which connected with much of the Telluride crowd. Admittedly, my friends and I were less than moved, and one of the most important rules about attending a four-day festival like Telluride is: You can’t catch everything! Thus, my friends and I respectfully opted for dinner at our campground.
We returned in plenty of time for "The Best House Band In The Land" featuring the bulk of the Telluride regulars: Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brien, Bryan Sutton and Edgar Meyer. Of course, there were boatloads of instrumental virtuosity abound, but the players also hit a number of moods, particularly with a few Strength In Numbers tunes. In short, the set reliably lived up to its billing, although one particular band member would experience problems afterwards. Prior to this set, Craig Ferguson awarded Bela a special book of photographs and memorabilia, commemorating Bela’s 25th anniversary of playing Telluride.
Bonnie Raitt was the Thursday night closer and Telluride, her last appearance six years prior, marked the start of her Summer tour. There was a touch of rust, as Bonnie forgot to apply her capo to one of her newer songs. In fact, much of her new material sounded refreshingly rootsy and organic. Of course, there were the "big" songs like "Love Sneakin’ Up On You" and "Nick Of Time," and they were all served well by her crack band and her rich voice, which has aged like your finest whiskey.
Bonnie’s tasty set was capped with a stellar encore segment, starting with a killer fat-n-chunky "Thing Called Love" featuring Bela’s banjo, Jerry’s dobro. Tim O’Brien’s fiddle came in handy for a gorgeous "Angel From Montgomery" where the only thing missing was its songwriter, John Prine; who would arrive at Telluride at 2:00 am, thus missing his longtime friend. Still, with rich solos by Tim, Bela and Jerry, it would be cruel to fault this rendition. The final song that night,
"Louise", was intricately luscious and a long "good night" bear hug.
On a somber note, it was during Bonnie’s set where Sam Bush had collapsed due to chest pains. When Bonnie asked for Sam to join in at the encore, The King Of Telluride was already en route in an ambulance to the Montrose Hospital. Thankfully, the chest pains Sam suffered were due to a virus he had contracted, and Sam’s heart was fine. Of course, this was certainly a scare, but also a valuable reminder to all of us about our own mortality. Of course, many Festavarians would not learn of Sam’s condition until the following day via word of mouth.
Thursday Night at The Sheridan: DREW!
For me, though, it seems a day at Telluride does not end until after Nightgrass; a series of late evening shows that would take place either at the gorgeous Sheridan Opera House or the basement-dwelling Fly Me To The Moon Saloon. I would spend the next four nights at the Sheridan, a funky little opera house beautifully restored with wooden floors, a tiny balcony and an elegant 1930s aura.
Drew Emmitt and his band ripped & rolled all the way, from bluegrass covers like a shredding "Doin’ My Time" to Drew’s longtime pre-Leftover Salmon staple, "Troubled Times." As was the case every night at the Sheridan, there were several cameos including Mike Marshall, Bryn Davies, Sara Jarosz, Casey Driessen and Luke Bula. Tyler Grant’s polished flat picking would again prove to be an immediate asset.
Friday, June 16th: The "Day Off"
Reiterating the rule about attending four-day festivals: You can’t catch everything! Thus, I treated Friday as a "day off" from the main stage, as the only act I caught there was a typically
superb set by the Jerry Douglas Band. The other reason was that I was gearing for two particular shows: John Prine at the new Michael D. Palm Theatre (8:30 show), then Yonder Mountain String Band’s annual throwdown at the Sheridan afterwards.
After getting some nice sleep (6 hours), my friends and I headed to Elks Park to attend two workshops: The Mandolians and Songwriting. We arrived as The Burnett Family was playing
an impromptu set and learned of Sam Bush’s condition. Shortly afterwards, in the spirit of the phrase, "the show must go on", the Mandolians workshop consisted of masters Mike
Marshall, Drew Emmitt, and 15-year old phenom Sarah Jarosz, along with Tyler Grant for setting down the guitar base for all three mandolin players to work. Among the highlights included a
spirited "Deep River Blues", sung with spunk by Sarah. Mike led a friendly Q&A session; from which I asked the first question of how each player got their start in mandolin. I had
not known that Drew started with banjo before finding the mandolin more akin to his musical vision.
The songwriting workshop featured Dave Johnston (YMSB), Benny Galloway, John Frazier (Hit and Run Bluegrass) and Rebecca Hoggan (Hit and Run Bluegrass). Danny Barnes was to be featured, but his plane ran late, thus Dave and Benny had corralled John and Rebecca to take over. After a couple rounds of song-swaps, Mr. Barnes arrived for the last 20 minutes and
made his presence immediately felt. As you would guess, there were a couple of YMSB references, as Benny sang his own "I Ain’t Been Myself In Years" and "Deep Pockets." A nice plus, the folks that run the workshops allowed to extend this session so that Mr. Barnes would have proper room to show case his superb guitar, vocal & songwriting skills. There was one moment when a sudden (and typical Colorado) rainstorm hit briefly & fiercely for five minutes, causing most folks to run for shelter. However, several of us wound up staying and others returned. Benny Galloway appeared to get a rush out of the whole proceedings, cracking several smiles throughout the episode.
From there, it was off to the main stage to catch whom I’ve been calling The Other Jerry for years, as Jerry Douglas led a superb band featuring fiddler Gabe Witcher, guitarist/mandolinist
Guthrie Trapp, Todd Parks on bass and Doug Belote on drums through a number of driving & shining instrumentals. Jerry, of course, is not only the master of dobro, but the musician against whom all other dobro players are measured, plain and simple. While a good portion of the set concentrated on material from Jerry’s new album, The Best Kept Secret, my favorite tune of the set was an endearing workout of Bill Frisell’s "Lookout For Hope" (the title track of Jerry’s last solo album), featuring blissful peaks as gorgeous as the San Juan Mountains!
After that dose of Jerry, it was off to my friend’s condo for dinner, drinks, green and laughs. From there, a friend and I trekked over to the Telluride high school to see John Prine at the Michael D. Palm Theatre. One of the two downers was that I would miss Bela Fleck & The Flecktones on the main stage, but having seen them plenty of times over the past fifteen years to the point of over saturation, I felt the need to see John Prine.
The new Palm Theatre was quite nice, with a "modern" feel and holding approximately 650 people, with a large oval stage clearly meant for plays and productions. Thus, our second row seats felt more like tenth, but the theatre was well designed with plenty of fine views from their side balconies. There was an unannounced opening set by Jason Wilbur, whom is Prine’s tasty guitarist, and who proved to wear the singer/songwriter hat very well.
However, the one frustrating part this was because of Jason’s unannounced opening set, we knew we would have to leave early in order to catch the start of Yonder at the Sheridan. Not to mention my friend, with a torn ACL, would need a seat in the balcony. Thus, we painfully left at the start of "Some Humans Ain’t Human", and bolted over to the Sheridan, making it in plenty of time for my friend to secure a seat (which the Sheridan staff, as we learned, had reserved for him).
As for Mr. Prine’s main set, well…John Prine has been a soundtrack to me, but especially the past 10 years. His songs have brought me out of dark times, and his songs have spoken to me deeply in ways that very few writers ever have. That said, what we caught of the main set
was superb all the way, featuring a rare & beautiful rendition of "The Late John Garfield Blues", a humorously playful "Let’s Talk Dirty In Hawaiian" and the understated Fair & Square gem "Clay Pigeons." In short, John had me in tears at least three times in almost two hours; including the poignant "Six O’Clock News", which always tears me up. It was painful to have to leave, but I was thankful for what I experienced. Again, you can’t catch everything!
Friday Night at The Sheridan: The Annual Yonder Throwdown!
I don’t call the Yonder Sheridan gigs a throwdown for nothing! The Sheridan was overfilled with Kinfolks, clearly adding an extra layer of energy absent on all other evenings at the Sheridan.
After opening with "Another Day", the Yonder lads welcomed John Frazier on mandolin and got down to business with a typically smoldering take of the Rolling Stones’ "No Expectations," which
is really now a Yonder song in my book because it is such a brilliant cover with a creative arrangement and an upbeat feeling surely not found in the Rolling Stones’ great original. From there, YMSB launched one of their best "epic" songs, Ben Kaufmann’s "Mother’s Only Son," which soared with the dual mandolins. John’s fiance, Rebecca Hoggan, came out for a pair of fine tunes: "Going Across The Sea" (sung by Rebecca) and "100 Years From Now." After that, three fiddlers Casey Driessen, Luke Bula and Gabe Witcher — and Mike Marshall came out to rip it up on the triplet of "King Ebeneezer,” "Lonesome Fiddle Blues" and the appropriate "Fun Time." At this point, it was difficult not to have a Fun Time, after all.
Drew Emmitt was welcomed for the second set, immediately lending his mandolin and boundless energy to John Hartford’s "Up On The Hill Where They Do The Boogie"; another appropriate choice since that classic was also a staple at many a Leftover Salmon show; it almost felt like the baton was being passed from Salmon to Yonder!
After a smoking "Crow Black Chicken," more special guests appeared: Bryn Davies and Jay Sanders triple-teamed with Ben Kaufmann for a wild upright bass solo during an overdrive "Traffic Jam" also augmented by the three fiddlers. It was quite cool to watch the camaraderie between Casey, Luke and Gabe — if anything, Casey appeared to always encourage Gabe during his solos. Sharon Gilcrest also graced the stage with her mandolin on crankin’ takes of "Going To The Races" and "Sharecropper’s Son." Afterwards, the band took requests, which one Kinfolker next to mecrelentless yelled "Ruby", and responded like he had won the jackpot! The version kicked too, with several crunchy instrumental excursions, capping a killer second set.
The encore was unmiked, with all special guests onstage, augmenting the Yonder lads on a fun-as-all-hell rendition of "Paul & Silas" where the crowd kept chanting "all night long" until the 2:30 am curfew. Yup! Just another Yonder Mountain Sheridan throwdown!
If there is a potential down side, I also wonder if YMSB may have outgrown the Sheridan. There were reports of several fans undoing their bracelet passes and throwing them from the Sheridan’s third floor window to friends outside the Sheridan so those who were shut out could get in. In addition, I spent a portion of the first set in the balcony, and I could not dance for more than 30 seconds at any time without being interrupted by a fan who wanted to pass by. I would spend the rest of the show on the floor, where there were not of such issues besides the usual overcrowding.
It would not surprise me if due to demand that YMSB may be forced to take their Nightgrass shows to the larger Telluride Conference Center in Mountain Village. If anything, it would be a smart financial move since that show would sell out, more tickets are produced, more fans get to see that given show and both YMSB and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival rake in more money. While I would certainly prefer to keep the annual throwdown at the Sheridan, at this point, it would make sound financial and logistical sense to consider this move.
Saturday, June 17th: Back To The Grind
After a few hours of sleep, I was back in line at Telluride Town Park, and after the tarp race, had my standard "left and barely in front of the soundboard spot." I skipped the second round of the band competition in favor of some brunch at the campsite, then returned in time for an exquisite hour-long guitar lesson by Tony Rice and Bryan Sutton. Two generations of pure six-string mastery, and some warm, elegant playing. On an appreciative note, Tony dedicated his patented "Shady Grove" instrumental to "the memory of [Jerry] Garcia."
Next up was an artist high on my "must see" list, the multi-talented Shawn Camp. Shawn is already a great songwriter, having written modern bluegrass chestnuts like "Redbird," "Travelin’ Teardrop Blues" and "My Love Will Not Change." However, combine some fine flatpicking skills, tasty fiddle and a rich voice loaded with Arkansas Southern drawl, and you have an artist who rightfully should be making plenty of quality country and bluegrass music in the years to come. Supporting his new & very fine album Fireball, Shawn did not disappoint, augmented by a full band featuring Bryn Davies on upright bass and Noam Pikelny on banjo.
Next up was another Telluride regular, John Cowan and his band. John still possesses his amazing set of pipes, singing so effortlessly and natural. One highlight was his cover of Darrell Scott’s "With A Memory Like Mine", which has become a standard in his setlists the last few years. With Shad Cobb on fiddle, Noam Pikelny on banjo, guitarist Jeff Autry and Wayne Benson on mandolin, John’s sets in recent years have leaned back towards traditional bluegrass instead of modern country, a move for the better, I say. As usual, John delivered the goods to the Telluride faithful.
Next up were those Yonder Mountain scamps, who delivered a winning set, much of it based on the "new" material from their self-titled album on Vanguard records; particularly a three-song stretch of the instrumental "Fastball," "Classic Situation" (with its Byrds-like hook), and Adam Aijala & Dave Johnston’s upbeat "Night Out." However, there was room for some Yonder standards like the ping-pong bounce of "Boatman," which effortlessly segued into the new & rather Beatlesque "Sidewalk Stars." Drew Emmitt lent his mandolin to a typically ripping take of Bill Monroe’s instrumental "Kentucky Mandolin." Danny Barnes contributed some crisp & spunky banjo to the set closing "Angel." However, you know the Yonder lads have made it when after
a crisp "New Horizons" encore, they were called back by the Telluride faithful for a second encore, a lovely take of Pink Floyd’s "Goodbye Blue Sky," just as a pretty Colorado sunset was beginning.
In short, Yonder Mountain String Band shined at Telluride more than ever, and every set they played was spot-on! As Jeff Austin noted near the end of the set, they are already booked for next year. However, at this point, why _wouldn’_t they?!
Having seen Missy Higgins at last year’s Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, I respectfully skipped her set in favor of dinner in downtown Telluride, then returned to the main stage in time for one
of the festival’s pinnacle sets.
While Sam Bush is well known as The King Of Telluride, his health scare on Friday night had caused many like I to hope that his health was fine, first and foremost. Sam Bush has always been great live, but never had I called a Sam Bush set emotional until this night. Sam and his always-crisp band featuring bass master Byron House featured plenty of new material from Sam’s new album, Laps In Seven, such as the kicking "Ridin’ That Bluegrass Train." Thus, there was not the "same old" feeling to Sam’s sets unlike in recent years, and very little references to other genres like reggae. Sam was upfront with the Telluride faithful, noting that he was fine and looks forward to playing Telluride for many years to come. Even so, the inspired set by Sam and his sheer presence continued that essential reminder of our mortality as human beings. Peter Rowan also made a cameo in Sam’s encore, teaming with The King of Telluride for a killer duet workout of "Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms."
From there, I had to skip Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, whom I understand gave a fine dose of funk to the Telluride crowd; as it was time to head to the Sheridan once again, this time to catch another Telluride regular.
Saturday Night at The Sheridan: It Runs In The Family!
It is uncommonly easy to take Tim O’Brien for granted. Always reliable in performance, a keen ear for cover material (all the proof you need is his 1996 brilliant album of Dylan covers,
Red On Blonde), a crisp player on mandolin, fiddle and guitar, a distinct baritone rich in tone and feeling, a down-to-earth stage presence with droll wit, and doing all this with an almost effortless feeling. Yet, I’ve called him Timbo for years because, to use a sports analogy, Mr. O’Brien is simply a stud!
There was a very nice unannounced opening set by Colorado’s old-time quartet Sweet Sunny South, whose ensemble interplay, humility and energy, made for a warm, entertaining opener.
Timbo was his usual stellar self, leading a kickin’ band led by Danny Barnes on banjo and electric guitar, along with the masterful Casey Driessen on fiddle. A recent key addition was Mike Bub on upright bass; formerly of the Del McCoury Band, Mike’s sterling musicianship and gregarious presence immediately paid plenty of dividends.
Timbo is one of those musicians that makes everything seem so natural, rarely wasting a note and every nuance purposeful. There was plenty of material from his two recent albums, the Grammy-winning Fiddler’s Green and Cornbread Nation. However, the highlight of the show may have been when sister Mollie took the stage and led the band through a handful of well-selected songs; among those, a luscious and soothing jazz-flavored cover of Sam Cooke’s timeless soul classic, "You Send Me." Timbo’s son, Joel, also displayed his clogging skills, along with Mark Schatz; whose main gig these days is upright bassist for Nickel Creek. Also of note were two tasty Dylan covers, the slightly-reggae-tinged "Man Gave Names To All The Animals" and the first encore of a punchy "Everything Is Broken."
Speaking of Nickel Creek, Timbo & company were called out for a second encore, this time with mandolin wunderkind Chris Thile for a sterling duet, with full band accompaniment. If anything, it felt like Timbo was handing off the Sheridon baton to Chris. This Nightgrass show felt a touch short, ending before 2:00 am, but as usual, the quality was top notch all the way! Just another killer evening at the Sheridan.
Sunday, June 18th: Blissful Encounters…and a Beatle?!
After returning to my campsite, I decided to take a shower then get immediately in line for Sunday’s tarp rush. Thankfully, one of my friends recognized that I may need some sleep and took over for me at 4 am. Those four hours of sleep were what I needed. I went back and relieved my friend, who had secured a nice number in line. After the tarp rush, we wound up with a spot five feet closer the to the stage and five feet right from yesterday (to the left side of the soundboard). That does not sound like much of a benefit, but this was the largest line of all four days; since this was the only day to "officially" sell out. Ah, the things one will do at Telluride!
Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall started with an hour set of crispy upright bass-and-mandolin instrumentals. Like the Rice & Sutton set, the musicianship was of the highest caliber, but there was a warmth to Mike’s playing in particular.
Next up was the traditional gospel set, this year supplied by Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir. Fellow Oakland native Mike Marshall chipped in on mandolin for one tune, but these were four women gettin’ down and played a brand of organic gospel music augmented
by fine electric piano, percussion, rich vocal harmonies and a warm stage presence. In short, these four women took us to church! This set was righteous, ranging from traditional gospel to a heartfelt Marvin Gaye encore combining Mr. Gaye’s two most essential classics, "What’s Going On" and "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)." On a personal scale, my friends and I continued a tradition we started two years ago: A bottle of cherry wine to enjoy during the set.
From there, it was to another kind of spirituality, via the Peter Rowan/Tony Rice Quartet. Visually, thanks to the lovely Sharon Gilcrest on mandolin and Bryn Davies on upright bass, one half of the quartet was very easy on the eyes. However, the focus clearly remains the two masters, Rowan and Rice, starting out with standards like the wistful "Dust Bowl Children" and the always playful "Panama Red." Decked out in western decor accented by a large beige sombrero, Mr. Rowan held presence throughout; the set keyed by two standout tunes. The first was a well-known Telluride standard, as a 13-minute "Land Of The Navajo" featured passionate vocals and harmonies (by Sharon and Bryn), then driving solos by Sharon on mandolin and Tony Rice’s masterful acoustic guitar. The second key song was a new gem, "Tribute To Vassar Clements", a warm and spirited uptempo tribute to the most gentle of fiddler giants that walked this earth, the song’s choruses accented with his name. The grade-A set was capped by a typically powerful take of "Walls Of Time" as its encore (although sans Peter’s classic Bluegrass Breakdown story, but you can’t have everything!).
Next up was the Del McCoury Band, and the first time I’ve seen Del with his new upright bassist, Alan Bertram, who did a fine job. The set started like any standard Del set — A strong "Travelin’ Teardrop Blues" to open, followed by the earnest "Count Me Out." However, midway through the set, Del sang some of the gospel numbers from the new album, The Promised Land, which were quite warm and tasty. These days, it doesn’t seem like a Del set until Del takes risks and playfully flubs a tune. In this case, it was a birthday tribute to Paul McCartney via "When I’m 64" where the second verse escaped Del, who of course, laughed it off and finished the classic in grand fashion with a dose of warm self-esteem. A typically superb Del set where mandolin monster Ronnie McCoury, banjo meister Robbie McCoury and fiddler Jason Carter made their typical and admirable marks.
Tim O’Brien continued his Telluride duties, leading his band in tasty & reliable set. A fair portion of the material was repeated from last night’s Nightgrass show, but there were numerous shining moments, particularly when sister Mollie guested on stage (Mollie, please don’t wait another decade to return to Telluride!). Plenty of old-school "chicken picking" guitar leads from Danny Barnes added to the fun. One particular highlight that stood out was a Tim-n-Mollie duet on one of Randy Newman’s gems, a lovely "Sail Away."
Nickel Creek was next, and was clearly one of the more anticipated sets of the day, as a standing room crowd developed and quickly grew in size. Similar to Alison Krauss, I have heard and read numerous criticisms of the trio and their music leaning towards a pop direction. That said, like Alison and the great Union Station, to deny this trio’s talents is utterly foolish! With Mark Schatz providing upright bass support, the trio — Chris Thile on mandolin, Sara Watkins on fiddle (and ukulele) and Sean Watkins on acoustic guitar — shined throughout their set. Highlights included plenty of material from their recent album Why Should The Fire Die, but perhaps my favorite moment of the set was Sara’s playful & self-effacing take of Randy Newman’s biggest hit, "Short People." (Hmmm! Perhaps Planet Bluegrass should bring Mr. Newman himself to Telluride next year for a solo piano set!) They also took a Britney Spears song — yes, Britney Spears — "Toxic", and turned it into a piece creatively and genuinely enjoyable. A winning set all the way around.
Another anticipated set — and one I was looking forward to among the most — was John Prine, the last time he graced the main stage nine years ago. His set started on a rocky note, breaking a string on his typical opener "Spanish Pipedream", and he, guitarist Jason Wilbur and bassist Dave Jacques were clearly out of synch. However, one deep breath later, the trio would sparkle and shine for the following fifteen songs. While much of it was repeated from Friday night, I did not care simply because of how much I love those songs! Once again, "Six O’Clock News" caused tears to flow from my eyes, and the newer country-rocker "The Glory Of True Love" was one warm, friendly grin. Unlike Friday night’s show, there was no solo John segment since he only had 75 minutes. He made the most of those, and his colossal war ballad "Sam Stone" hit a grand slam; simply one of the finest songs about war ever written, right up there with Bob Dylan’s "Masters Of War." With a good portion of the set rooted in his Grammy-winning Fair & Square, my favorite song of the set wound up the one I had to leave early to on Friday night, the poignant and quietly angry "Some Humans Ain’t Human"; the Telluride faithful listening deeply to John’s sermon and sharing his sentiments. A driving "Lake Marie", featuring a tasty guitar interlude by Jason Wilbur, capped the set in complete triumph, one of which several Festavarians already have since cited it as a favorite of the weekend.
Afterwards, Craig Ferguson gave his annual speech to the Telluride faithful, and literally reviewed every act that had played, and thanked all of us for another successful Telluride. In turn, I always thank Craig and Planet Bluegrass, because once again, they did a genuinely exceptional job running the festival.
The last act on the main stage was Barenaked Ladies. I was rather skeptical of how they would fare, and the Canadian sextet proved they deserved their billing. Their acoustic-based set featured plenty of their standards, such as "Brian Wilson", but they also tested out new material for a forthcoming new album, tentatively scheduled for release in October. Sadly, I had to leave early to catch Chris Thile at the Sheridan, but an indication that I enjoyed Barenaked Ladies’ performance was the fact that I opted to "milk" another 15 minutes before (literally) running to the Sheridan. Their quintet vocal work, friendly down-to-earth stage presence, and those cleverly constructed songs made for an engaging give-and-take between artist and audience. In short, if Barenaked Ladies are invited back to Telluride, I will certainly not object because they deserve another invitation. I would also miss a cameo by the Watkins siblings, but again, you can’t catch everything!
Sunday Night at the Sheridan: A New Thile Tradition?
Last year, Nickel Creek held a special Sunday night Nightgrass show at the Sheridan, the first time there was a Sunday Nightgrass gig to begin with. That show featured the premieres of the material for Why Should The Fire Die? This year, it was Chris Thile who was billed, but of course, you figured the Watkins siblings to fit in at some point. A show generous in length, the first set started with just Chris singing and playing new material from his upcoming solo album How To Grow A Woman From The Ground. Immediately, it is clear how gifted Chris is, not just on mandolin, but vocally; as he has clearly developed his own voice and already displayed mastery. Later, he he performed a variety of engaging instrumental duets with upright bassist Edgar Meyer, then another mandolin prodigy, Mike Marshall, to cap the first set.
As you can guess, Sara & Sean were guests in the second set, and the trio easily topped Del McCoury on their take of "When I’m 64." (Even if Del had not flubbed, I would state the same opinion). However, one of the highlights of the second set involved Steven Page and Ed Robertson — the two front men for Barenaked Ladies teaming up with Chris and Sara to play a song I unequivocally abhor — Wham’s ultra-cheesy ballad "Careless Whispers." Guess what? It was great! Steven and Ed sang their hearts out in a gleeful madness while Chris’ mandolin and Sara’s fiddle flew effortlessly around the harmonies and Ed’s acoustic guitar. These unexpected moments are part of what makes a Telluride experience truly special.
The grand finale of the set saw nearly a dozen musicians on stage, led by Nickel Creek, and capped a brilliant show. If anything, if I had to pick my favorite night at the Sheridan, I now struggle between this gig and Yonder on Friday night. However, here’s hoping a new tradition has started: Sunday Nightgrass starring Chris Thile and Nickel Creek!
If there is anything sad about leaving the Sheridan on Sunday night, it’s the feeling of knowing that another festival has passed! After getting over five hours of sleep, upon waking up, numerous Festavarians had already packed up their gear and have gone, while many others started the process. After goodbyes to my friends, it was time to drive home; which included several stops due to what I call "Telluride Fatigue." While it takes the human body its share of time to recuperate, the memories from another great Telluride find their homes and resonate, becoming stories to share when reaching your rocking-chair years.
This year’s Telluride was marked by more "curve ball" acts playing alongside the regulars, plenty of inspired moments, an essential reminder to all of us about mortality, and most of all, the constant building of traditions. Whether it is seeing masters like Bela Fleck and Sam Bush or "modern" regulars like Yonder Mountain String Band and Nickel Creek or other genre representatives like Bonnie Raitt and John Prine or new artists like Ryan Shupe and the Rubber Bands, the 33rd annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival was steeped in those rich traditions, whose roots will continue to grow deeper for many years to come.