Telluride Bluegrass: Beyond Abbey’s Hatchet Job
Photo by Geoff Mintz
The fact that there’s only one main stage puts a lot of pressure on the musicians—imagine, 10,000 eyes on you. The view behind the audience, all mountains and sky, probably helps. The canyon is a natural bowl, and it feels sacred because of the grandeur of the mountains, the way light and the waterfall enters the valley, and the open field that appears to be at the center of it all. For centuries that particular spot has been revered, starting with the Ute Indians, who used to gather there to party, feast, dance, and mingle. The Deprung Monks made the trek from India this year to instill their own sacred touch: a sand mandala that is built over four days and washed away on the last. When Abbey was criticizing the incoming industry, he was scared that it would change the sanctified nature of the place and that an influx of people could literally destroy it.
Planet Bluegrass is very aware of the strain the festival and 10,000 attendees puts on the environment and—excluding the economic benefits—on the town. The festival’s vision for sustainability has become a model for others and among the most progressive in the country. The real environmental damage at festivals comes from the carbon footprint of thousands of people travelling, and Telluride Bluegrass is truly innovative in that it’s the only festival that purchases carbon offsets to compensate for everyone’s travel to and from. It’s not just an option you can pay extra for—it’s included in the ticket price and based on a statistical analysis of where the tickets are sold.
Vendors are forbidden from utilizing non-reusable bags and are required to use compostable materials, so there’s essentially no trash created by the vendors inside the festival. Abbey wasn’t alone in thinking Telluride was a place that needed to be preserved and it’s not really surprising that the town has inspired one of the most eco-conscious festivals around. Adam Aijala, guitarist for the Yonder Mountain String Band, who have played every year since 2000, told me that Telluride is “really one of the best festivals of all time.” He continued, “It’s just so well run. We know the people at Planet Bluegrass…we love those guys.”
Jerry Douglas Band began their set with Edgar Meyer’s “Unfolding.” The Dobro master led his band through “The Rumpus,” “Hide and Seek,” and The Weather Report’s “A Remark You Made,” before having the Punch Brother’s fiddle player Gabe Witcher sing “Amos Moses.” His playing, more so than any other talented musician at the festival, has an organic sound that somehow echoes the environment while simultaneously taking the listener to a new place entirely.
I missed a fair amount of the Yonder Mountain String Band to catch Tim O’Brien play with rising legend Sarah Jarosz on the workshop stage. To hear them play “Walk Beside Me” in and of itself was worth it. After was Canadian luminary Feist, who has such an unusual style of playing guitar. Listening to her was incredibly sensuous, like hearing folk music in a cave.
Sam Bush is the undisputed King of Telluride, and his band is always something to look forward to. He may not be the best singer or technically the best musician, but his heart is in everything he does and his playing has made him both a crowd and musician favorite. He dedicated William Allen Ramsey’s Spider John to Fall Creek, played The Band’s “Rag Mama Rag,” and was joined by the entire audience for “Howlin’ at the Moon.” When he left the stage you could see the glow of the years largest moon, slowly rising behind the mountains.
Jackson Browne joined Telluride stalwarts Leftover Salmon after “High Country,” but I made the executive decision to see Elephant Revival play the late night and catch them the next day at a free show in town. Bonnie Pain singing a capella and playing the saw in an intimate high school auditorium, Bridget Law’s Bonfire Dub band mate Scott Stoughton improvising a Telluride rap, and sit-ins courtesy of Mimi Naja and David Tiller made Elephant Revival’s set one of a kind.
Telluride may no longer be rundown and backwards, but if you’re caught drinking in the street you’ll be told to chug your beer rather than throw it out, an unlikely occurrence on any other main street in this country. There are no true cowboys, but there are a lot of cowboy hats and a few boots. The music is part “imitation Negro,” but it’s also a bridge between the most prominent of American music styles, from bluegrass, to folk, to indie, to rock, to jazz, to jam, and back to country.
The hippies are still in Telluride, and though they may have cleaned up slightly since Edward Abbey’s day, they’re drawn to the town not because they’re LSD fiends with money, but rather because of the outdoor recreational activities, the fresh air, and classy events like Telluride Bluegrass.
The hippie of Telluride Bluegrass is the sort that can afford the ticket or a condo for the weekend and, in general, tends to get a shower in every day. There is cannabis and also a large amount of alcohol consumed, just like any other festival, but for the most part drug use isn’t extravagant, and the general mentality is pretty tame—a lot of people would rather get a little sleep at night than risk napping and missing music during the day. Abbey, however, would have been happy camping at the Ilium campground, far removed in the woods and notorious for late night music, partying, and a more carefree attitude.
The last day always comes too soon at Telluride Bluegrass. The Deprung Monks began the day with Sacred Music Sacred Dance, letting the audience in on some of their traditional rituals, showcasing their guttural throat singing, and unleashing a symbolic snow lion on the crowd.
Béla Fleck took the stage solo, which is unusual considering he tends to bring guests from many different genres into the Telluride fold. He’s a proud new father however and capable of wowing on his own, especially when he plays his now classics like “Big Country.”
The Infamous Stringdusters followed and upped the energy ante, with Andy Falco leading some of the fastest playing of the weekend. Bassist Travis Book pointed out his mom in the audience and talked about his personal connections to the festival. The surprise Leftover Salmon show that took place at the Floradora Saloon in town after was an intimate treat, filled with heavy drinking and a “it’s the last day, let’s go all out” attitude.
Hot Rize took us back to the classic notion of bluegrass, with their fabulously eccentric garb and engaging stage presence. Hot Rize played a huge roll in giving birth to Colorado bluegrass and their set, which included their alter-egos Red Knuckles & Trailblazers, showed a younger generation just why.
Jackson Browne songs are classics and he was joined for a few by Sara and Sean Watkins, Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush. Among his classics played were “These Days,” “Running on Empty,” and “Take it Easy.” Baking guitarist Val McCallum joined Browne for a surprising set highlight, McCallum’s “Tokyo Girl” off his solo album At the End of the Day.
The Telluride House Band is the band you don’t miss at the festival. They play nowhere else and are composed of Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan (fiddle) and Edgar Meyer (bass). They always close the festival out and they never disappoint. Chris Thile joined them, as did Jackson Brown (for Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”), but the show was about their own playing and on-stage chemistry. Each is a musical genius and if you’re lucky enough to ever hear them play together, it just may alter your musical horizons forever.
“It’s a celebration of the present, the here and now. That’s the gift of music. When the world gets really weird with things like terrorism lock your dors, etc., music brings us together and makes us realize we’re all in this mess together right here and how. That’s why people keep coming back to Telluride, to get that recharge to carry them through the rest of the year.”
—Vince Herman, Jamgrass:Telluride’s Wild Child
The festival’s theme this year was ‘Thanks’, and in addition to a forest sanctuary honoring dead bluegrass legends, the stage literally spelled it out in big letters. For everyone, from the artists to the attendees, to the organizers to the people who couldn’t make it this year, Telluride Bluegrass is a weekend to be thankful for.
Forty years down the road and Telluride Bluegrass is greener, has established traditions, and continues to choose some of the best contemporary musicians around. Musicians who manage to bridge the gap between old Americana and new-age innovation, between jambands and old-time American roots music, between the radio and the indie underground.
Telluride the town has altered, as real estate prices have risen astronomically and the ski resort has long brought more people to town, but the festival gives those who can’t afford a house or a vacation there a way in. Once a year the place is transformed and a sort of playground, where you can interact with your favorite musicians, enjoy some of the contemporary talent in roots music and take in the awesome local.
Edward Abbey liked to bitch about the free spirits, who enjoyed listening to a group “called the Almond Brothers. Followed by the Ungrateful Dead.” He was scared of the change, the devastation to the environment, the influx of money, the loss of the old border mentality; he “missed Hank Williams.” In the grand scheme of things, I think Telluride Bluegrass would have made him proud.