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Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Telluride, CO – 6/15-20

I’m sitting here reflecting on a legendary weekend of music in Telluride, Colorado over five days and nights.

Tuesday

We arrived on Tuesday afternoon, via flight from Newark, NJ and car from Montrose, CO. We settled into our condo, which was situated very close to the entrance to the festival grounds, a nice feature that allowed us to run back during the half hour breaks between musical acts. We grabbed dinner at Floradora (mussels at 8,750 feet always makes me smile for some reason), walked around town to get our bearings, and take in the sights. The Festival wasn’t to start until Thursday morning, but with camping allowed in Town Park the place was crawling with folks carrying tents and sleeping bags, bikers, RV’s and bars full of bluegrass fans and packs of merry comrades.

Wednesday

The day before the actual festival, they put on a concert called Firstgrass on the Sunset Stage at Mountain Village, a stunning gondola ride away, up into the mountains (aren’t we already in the mountains?) The sunset stage is a beautiful outside terrace at 9500 feet, surrounded by condos and then mountains.

Sarah Jarosz was the first act of the weekend. She’s a young, talented singer, and banjo and mandolin player. What a thrill it must be to stand on that stage, amongst the mountains, and play music at Telluride. She turned out to be a great picker, who sat in later in the day, accompanied by the ever-present Sam Bush, with the day’s headliner.

18 South are a fairly new band, comprised of some seasoned veterans of the Nashville scene, including Jessi Alexander and Jon Randall Stewart on vocals and guitars, Mike Bub on bass, Guthrie Trapp on guitars, Larry Atamanuik on drums and Jimmie Wallace on keyboards. They played a nice mix of originals and a few soulful covers for about an hour before they invited up Sam Bush to join in.

This is he first official ‘sit-in’ of the weekend for Sam, even though the weekend doesn’t actually start for another day. He is called the King of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and for good reason. Sam adds so much conviction and energy to anything he plays, the whole rhythmic structure of the sextet was enhanced with his presence. The sun was shining through the clouds periodically, adding to the magical feeling of gratitude and thankfulness that seems to permeate Telluride (little did we know, this would be the last we would see of the clouds for the next 4 days.) As the sun moved closer to the valley between the peaks in front of us, we were treated to a fine afternoon of bluegrass flavored soul. Tonight there is more music to be seen at the Sheridan Opera House down in Telluride. The line for the gondola was long, but moved quickly and everyone was in top spirits, looking forward to the coming weekend.

Dierks Bentley and the Travelin’ McCourys start at 9:00 at the historic Sheridan Opera House. Built during the gold rush more than a hundred years ago, it is a classic small theater with a balcony upstairs that wraps around 270 degrees. Dierks is a country music player who is also a fan of bluegrass, and friends with Jason Carter, the fiddle player for Del McCoury Band. Having picked together informally at each others houses, they decided to put together a tour and take the band out on the road, including Jason’s bandmates Ronnie McCoury, Robbie McCoury and Alan Bartram. It was a good show, with both kinds of music, country and bluegrass. As the show progressed, he invited out some more friends, including Jessi and Jon Randall, flatpicker Bryan Sutton, and what do you know, Sam Bush. As you can imagine, the energy in the room was high as they kicked up the dust for the next hour or so.

Afterwards, in the back room, Ronnie McCoury picked up a guitar and began strumming a tune with Jon Randall and Sam quickly jumped in to add some ‘alternate’ lyrics. They passed the guitar around and played and sang a half dozen songs together to the delight of Dierks, his band and family, and a few other lucky late night watchers like myself. The merriment was high as laughs and stories were shared in excess. As I stumbled alone back to my condo at 3:00 I felt very lucky to have been a part of the prefestival festivities backstage at the Sheridan. Tomorrow comes early. Sarah Jarosz opens things up at 11:30. What a life we are living.

Thursday

David Rawlings Machine played an enjoyable set midday Thursday. His musical partner, Gillian Welsh, was there to provide her special brand of backing vocals, rhythm guitar and encouragement. The band is rounded out with a couple members of the Old Crow Medicine Show and can jangle their way into your heart quickly.

The Del McCoury Band played next. They play bluegrass! Del had played with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys back in 1960s and he is the real deal. His high lonesome vocals are the most recognized and celebrated in bluegrass today. His band, in addition to fiddle and bass, is comprised of his two sons, Ronnie and Robbie on mandolin and banjo. The family has always been a strong theme in bluegrass, and these guys harmonize like only family members can. It seems like telepathy to me but this is difficult to confirm. They brought out Dierks Bentley to sing a song with Del towards the end of their set. The sun was shining and smiles were everywhere.

Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas played a professional, nearly flawless set from 8 to 10 pm. Her voice is stunning. The band is so good it’s almost scary. The set seemed a bit rehearsed, but was excellent nonetheless. Every player in the band is so solid, perhaps that is the way it always is.

Tim O’Brien and Friends were next on the bill, to close out the main stage for the evening…and this is still Thursday. Tim is an ex-Colorado resident and founder of the legendary Hot Rize. His current band is comprised of Mike Bub on bass, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Bryan Sutton on guitar. Over the course of Tim’s upbeat set, they were joined by Sarah Jarosz on mandolin, Robbie McCoury on banjo, and Telluride fixture and hero, Jerry Douglas on dobro. Tim’s music is always fresh and his lyrics uncover everyday situations and allow them to be considered from a different, more humorous perspective. A fine closer for the first day.

Friday

Friday comes early in Telluride. I barely got to the main stage in time to see 18 South play another solid, sun-soaked set to an appreciative crowd. Again I am struck by how great it must be to play at Telluride. Jessi and JR met at Telluride 10 years ago and have since married and become musical partners…and here they are on the main stage. Wow.

Cadillac Sky played next. I saw them a year ago at Snowshoe in WV and knew what to expect. They are something to see, and something to hear. I’m not sure what it is, but it is something. And it grows on you. Be warned.

Peter Rowan and Crucial Country with Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas are another Telluride tradition. It only seems to happen here. At some point in their set, they become a bluegrass reggae band…two of my favorites combined into one. A special set to be sure. Everyone was so tuned in. Someone mentioned that this is Peter’s 30th Telluride. A lucky man. He’s written some great songs. Campfire songs. It doesn’t get any better.

Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas played a professional, nearly flawless set

Hot Rize were up next. They are great. Rocky Mountain Bluegrass at its finest. Original members Pete Wernick, Tim O’Brien and Nick Forester are augmented by Bryan Sutton who has replaced the deceased Charles Sawtelle. They play a great mix of originals and classic bluegrass covers. Midway through their set, Hot Rize are replaced by their sequined alter egos, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers (Waldo, Red, Wendell & Slade) also joined by Sam Bush’s alter ego, Otto, on fiddle.

They attempted to sell fly swatters and used donuts as they played a hilarious set of ‘Red Remembers’ versions of songs in their own country swing style. Eventually they were asked to leave the stage in favor of the return of legends, Hot Rize. They were not happy, but the 10,000 in attendance were ecstatic. Hot Rize came back, with Sam Bush sitting in, and ripped up a few more tunes before it was time for Lyle Lovett and his Large Band.

LLLB are a spectacle. Lyle is a classy guy. He brought 3 fantastic backing vocalists, Willie Green, Jr., Harry Bowens and Sweet Pea Atkinson, a drummer and a Hammond player and an electric guitar player and filled out his band with bluegrass greats. Jon Randall and Luke Bulla are considered fulltime members, but were assisted by Sam Bush (a former member), Jerry Douglas and Bela Fleck. It was a great set of music.

Leftover Salmon closed out the night. High Energy PolyEthnic Cajun Slamgrass I think it’s called. Vince Herman and Drew Emmitt are the original founders of the H.E.P.E.C.S sound. Sam Bush sat in and raised it up even more. Friday night comes to a close in Rocky Mountain Bluegrass fashion.

Saturday

Saturday is the most popular day of the Festival. Lots of folks come out just for Saturday and Saturday night. Sam Bush Band has headlined the Saturday night lineup since he became involved with Telluride more than 25 years ago. Before we get to Saturday night, we need to deal with the incredible lineup on Saturday afternoon. This was the third day in a row where there was not a cloud in the sky all day. The weather stayed around 75 degrees in the sun with a nice cooling breeze. A quick step into the shade cools things down considerably in the high Rocky Mountains. Absolutely perfect!

Jerry Douglas with Omar Hakim and Viktor Krauss- Jerry said from the stage that he likes to do something new every year at Telluride and this year is no exception. He called up Omar Hakim out of the blue and asked him if he would be interested in playing a set and he said yes! Lucky Us! Omar has played with Weather Report and David Bowie to name a few, and he is one of the most sought after drummers in Sessionland. Victor Krauss, of course currently plays with Lyle Lovett and has been a staple on the scene for years, since his days in Alison’s band. Their set was a highlight of the weekend for me! Not bluegrass in any way, except when they play bluegrass. The drums were blended into the mix and were never overwhelming, except during the well-timed drum solo ( a drum solo at a bluegrass festival?) As the set proceeded, Jerry brought out a host of musical friends, including Bryan Sutton, Alex Hargreaves, Bela Fleck, Peter Rowan and Gabe Witcher, many of whom have shared the stage over the years with Jerry as part of the Jerry Douglas Band.

Yonder Mountain String Band played an entertaining set in the middle of the day. Obviously psyched to be playing Telluride again (their 11th time apparently), they burned through a number of fast-paced bluegrass hits and originals. Jeff Austin was bouncing around the stage while peeling off mandolin licks and singing when he found himself near the microphone. They brought up Sam Bush to sit in on their last couple numbers which ran more than 20 minutes. Jeff said it was so much fun, they would play this festival for free. Sam, the wily veteran, cautioned him against saying such things as they may take him up on it. The Colorado youngsters gave up the stage to a trio of legends.

Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer- I feel that all three of these musicians should be household names. Zakir Hussain has been on stage since he was 5, a child percussion prodigy in his home country of India. Edgar Meyer is the only bassist to ever win the Avery Fisher Prize and is much sought after as a collaborator, constantly writing modern classical music compositions. Bela Fleck is the world class innovator on the 5 string banjo. Put them together and you have three guys who can count and play effortlessly. And that is what they did at Telluride. The rhythms seem to flow out of Zakir’s fingertips with ease. Edgar adds his unique brand of upright bass fiddle playing, and then Bela has room to slide back and forth between the melody and rhythm. It’s hard to keep track of what they do on stage…is someone speeding up? Is someone slowing down? Everything seems to be on purpose, the way good music should be. Simple, Intricate, Beautiful music.

Sam Bush Band played the coveted 8 to 10 pm spot as dictated by tradition. The set started with Sam’s five piece band, comprised of Scott Vestal on banjo, Chris Brown on drums, new addition Todd Parks on bass, and Steven Mougin on guitar. They opened with the theme to ‘Blazing Saddles’ and then played a set peppered with tunes from Sam’s new recording, ‘Circles Around Me’. After about an hour, Sam brought up a couple old friends, Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer, to play some trio music. After that, Sam brought up the Telluride Mandolin Orchestra comprised of Tim O’Brien, Drew Emmitt, and Chris Thile. The front of house engineer had his work cut out for him, trying to mix a band with 4 mandolins all wanting to be heard. Sam also brought out Zakir Hussain to play on a conga as well as Alex Hargreaves on fiddle and Edgar Meyer on bass. King of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival indeed!

Drew Emmitt & Friends played a late night show at the Sheridan Opera House Saturday night as well. Drew has a great, positive attitude towards music. His enthusiasm is contagious. His band consists of a bunch of his buddies, and they play like they are in someone’s living room. Drew brought out Bryan Sutton, Matt Flinner, Guthrie Trapp and Jeff Austin, to name a few. It was a great way to end a Saturday night in Telluride.

SUNDAY

Sunday was comprised of a wide variety of music, including Vasen, Carolina Chocolate Drops and Mumford and Sons, but I had my sights on the Festival’s Finale with the Telluride House Band. Sunday afternoon also brought us

The Punch Brothers- Chris is a brilliant mandolin player who used to front Nickel Creek. In the last few years, he has struck out on his own with his band the Punch Brothers, consisting of some young stars of the East and West Coast Bluegrass Scene: Chris Eldridge on guitar, Noam Pikelny on banjo, Gabe Witcher on fiddle and Paul Kowert on bass. The music is unique, quiet, loud and acoustic. The songs are strung together into movements on record, but live they performed the most accessible of their material. Many of the players involved in the festival took in Chris’ set from the VIP pit.

The Telluride House Band is an allstar configuration that gets to play together rarely, and most times, only at Telluride. The Band includes Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Bryan Sutton. We were treated to some of the finest, fastest, most accurate bluegrass you are ever likely to hear. They brought out Peter Rowan to sing on a few numbers as well. With schedules that require that they travel all over the world to perform, rarely do we get to experience the pleasure of seeing all these pickers play together on the same stage. They chose from the bluegrass standard catalog and dug a little deeper into the bluegrass rarities collection. Their set, although last, was far from least, as they performed effortlessly and looked like they were having a great time doing it. Seek out a recording of the set’s closing number if you are ever in need of a good laugh, But the evening was far from over as we still had one more late night show at the Sheridan.

Punch Brothers & Friends played the final 2 sets of the weekend. They started their set as a 5 piece and played about an hour of original material, sprinkled with bluegrass standards. They then brought up the members of Vasen to sit in on a few numbers, and took a quick set break. The backstage room was packed with pickers, ready to help out in any way they could. Chris had his work cut out for him trying to get everyone on stage. Even comedian Ed Helms, also an avid banjo player, was in the room. With friends like Bela Fleck, Bryan Sutton, Drew Emmitt, Luke Bulla and Jeff Austin, its good work if you can get it. The finale was crazy with the small stage of the venue filled to the brim with grinning, world class pickers. The last note rang from the stage at 2:05am, but Chris was not done playing yet. He said “Hey, we have acoustic instruments, we don’t need amplifiers if you guys are quiet enough” and he jumped from the stage into the front rows of the General Admission crowd. Bryan Sutton also joined him there as the room fell silent, except for the random drunken cat call. Chris and Bryan played an improvised jam that went on for more than ten minutes and had everyone in the room in rapt attention. At about 2:20 they finished the jam and I thought my Telluride 2010 experience had come to an end, but boy was I wrong! As I worked my way closer to the backstage room, I could hear the sound of strings being plucked from within. I opened the door to find Chris and his band still playing, and joined by Bela, Drew, Jeff, Bryan, Luke and a host of others. It was a musical hot potato as the leads were passed around at lightning speed with just a glance. This went on for a good hour as the lucky few non-pickers in attendance pinched themselves to confirm that this was real and not a dream. Not content to finish at 3:15, Chris began to sing some more songs with his friends from New York and Nashville. It wasn’t until the friendly security folks at the venue informed us that it was after 4am that the music finally stopped after a couple “one mores.”

We walked home to the sound of birds waking up, adding their music to the morning air.
It was the perfect finish to a perfect, 5-day weekend in Telluride.

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