Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2014

Kiran Herbert on July 3, 2014

Telluride Bleugrass Festival

Telluride, CO

June 19-22

All photos by Kiran Herbert

The 41st Telluride Bluegrass, while still sold-out, was less crowded than previous years. I saw one man attempting to sell ten separate 4-day passes at the gate; I doubt anyone felt bad for him. The festival officially begins with the Tarp Run Thursday morning, but Festivarians who can manage it get to Telluride days early to enjoy the locale. I arrived Wednesday afternoon as it was just beginning to hail, a reminder that even if it’s 75 degrees and sunny, the weather at Telluride is as unpredictable as the musical arrangements you’re bound to hear.

There’s always the free FirstGrass concert on Wednesday in the resort town of Mountain Village (connected to Telluride via a free gondola), and this year highlighted the folk styling’s of Brooklyn-based (read: hip, clean and stylish) the Lone Bellow. The band played most of their self-titled debut (with a few repeats during their main stage set the following day), and even treated the audience to a track from their forthcoming album, recorded in Brooklyn and produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner. I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, near the Dizzy’s Diner where the band first came together, and lines like “the F train takes us home” were a trip to hear so many miles away.

Sam Bush and Chis Thile

The next morning Chris Thile opened the festival, joking that he was going to play some Bach, but since he’d done that last year, he thought he’d play some bluegrass instead. Sam Bush, who eventually joined him, is the “King of Telluride,” and it appears Thile is being groomed to take his place. The Del McCoury Band also played Thursday, but it was Nickel Creek’s sunset set that everyone was restless for. Nickel Creek played through most of their new album

A Dotted Line, as well as their biggest hits (“The Fox,” “Ode to a Butterfly,” “The Lighthouse’s Tale”). They encored with a “Cuckoo’s Nest” that reminded everyone why the trio was invited to play their first Telluride main stage set when Sean Watkins was 12, and Sara Watkins and Thile were only 8.

Del McCoury

Friday’s lineup was the most stacked of the festival, from Aoife (“Eef-ah”) O’Donovan’s early set, to Jason Isabell’s fantastic country tinged rock and roll. Keller Williams and the Travelin’ McCourys played one of the best songs covered over the course of the weekend: Taylor Swift’s “Trouble.” In the words of Williams, “Yup, that happened.

Also on Friday were Tim O’ Brien and Darrell Scott, two of the most talented musicians around by any standards. Seeing them is like going home. O’Brien’s songs have been covered by everyone from Railroad Earth (“Walk Beside Me”) and the String Cheese Incident (“Land’s End”) to the Dixie Chicks (“Long Time Gone”) and Nickel Creek (“When You Come Back Down”). The pair’s 2013 release Memories and Moments, which was recorded in a mere three days and even features an appearance by John Prine, let’s fans bring the warmth and skill of their live show home.

The event of the weekend was a Telluride first and one that no one is sure to forget anytime soon: Béla Fleck and the entire Colorado Symphony. Commissioned by the Nashville Symphony and conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero, The Impostor is Fleck’s genre-bending concerto extravaganza that was released last summer, and when performed live, turned the valley that is Town Park into one of the coolest musical events to ever grace Festivarian nation. The second half of that same album was recorded with Brooklyn Rider, who joined Fleck on stage for his second show on Sunday. As usually, Fleck kept it classy throughout the weekend, highlighting the incredible range of the banjo, American music and his own emotional depth.

As epic a show as it was though, the highlight of the day was the Dave Rawlings Machine set. The band—comprised of guitarist/vocalists Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and Willie Watson, Punch Brother’s bassist Paul Kowert, and mandolinist John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame (the Punch Brother’s fiddler Dave Witcher also sat in for the entire set)—has perfected originals, but it’s their knack for covers that makes them such a treat to see live. A sampling: “The Monkey and the Engineer” (Jesse Fuller), “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” (Ryan Adams, though he wrote it with Dave Rawlings), “This Land Is Your Land” (Woody Guthrie), “Hot Corn, Cold Corn” and “The Midnight Special” (Traditionals), “Method Acting/Cortez the Killer” (Connor Oberst/Neil Young), “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire” (Bill Monroe), “Queen Jane Approximately” (Bob Dylan), “The Weight” (The Band, played at the Elks Park Workshop stage on Sunday), and the cherry on top of it all, a “Going to California” encore (Led Zeppelin).

Peter Rowan’s Twang an’ Groove with Yungchen Lhamo was an incredible way to recover from such a long night. Among the world’s leading Tibetan vocalists, Lhamo’s sound is spine chilling, an eriee reverberation that makes for the perfect accompaniment to Rowan’s own yodel.

Yungchen Lhamo and Peter Rowan

I spent a good deal of the festival hanging out with Fruition’s Mimi Naja, a longtime Bluegrass attendee who comes to play and usually ends up working. She sat in on John Prine’s “Glory of True Love” during Leftover Salmon’s Thursday late night show, and on Saturday, Greensky’s Dave Bruzza and Paul Hoffman asked her to sit in during their workshop set at the Elks Park stage, the highlight of which was “Mountain Annie” that saw most of the park singing along.

Mimi Naja on the Elks Park stage

The Punch Brothers, heartthrobs of the bluegrass world, killed their main stage show. The quintet moves easily between traditional string music, classical, jazz, pop, you name it. If there’s one band in the past ten years that really embodies the Telluride Bluegrass genre, they’re it. They encored with an a cappella version of “The Auld Triangle,” which they recorded with T Bone Burnett for the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack.

The Yonder Mountain String Band has been switching their lineup around since Jeff Austin left the band, and though Jerry Douglas wasn’t there to recreate their Delfest set, Ronnie McCoury and Jason Carter rounded out the lineup and then some. By the time Sam Bush, Alan Bartram and John Frazier joined the group on stage, it was shaping up to be on of the most fun Yonder sets I’d seen in years; the “Kentucky Mandolin” was borderline ridiculous.

Andrew Bird’s set was, for me, the highlight of the weekend. Familiar with his name, but not his music, I was literally blown away by the sound one man could make. Once the Hands of Glory (featuring the fabulous Tift Merritt) joined him the set really got going. I’ve seen artists like Phish and Sound Tribe Sector 9 soundscape—or play music that utilizes the surrounding landscape, typically in places like the Gorge in George, Washington, or Red Rocks outside of Denver—but nothing compares to the way Bird played off that box canyon, whistling between the San Juans, making the whole place seem at once intimate and infinite.

Sam Bush Band never disappoints, and considering it was Bush’s 40th year playing the fest, it’s amazing he still finds ways to innovate and up the ante. Claiming inspiration from Fleck’s symphony set, he brought literally every mandolin player who was around—including Sarah Jaroz, Drew Emitt, Hoffman, Thile, and McCoury—out on stage with him to create his own mandolin orchestra. They played “Russian Rag,” a wild ride between Bush classics like “Circles Around Me” and his take on the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Leftover Salmon closed out the main stage set with Little Feat’s Bill Payne sitting in the whole time, which meant the audience was treated to a poly-ethnic Cajun rendition of “Oh Atlanta.” Bush joined the band towards the end for New Grass Revival’s “Reach,” a exceptional moment for anyone who loves Bush’s early work but was born a decade or so too late. I left early, as Leftover was playing The Band’s “Rag Mama Rag,” because one of my best friends surprised with last minute late night tickets to Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott’s Sheridan Opera House show. The Sheridan is one of the most cozy and storied venues in Telluride, and the show was the ideal way to end a long day of dancing in the sun. Jaroz joined the duo for pretty much the whole show, as well as for a hushed and ethereal a cappella encore: Bill Monroe’s “Get Down on Your Knees and Pray.”

Sunday went by too fast, as it always does. Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers were welcomed into the Telluride family early on in the day; she’s now another voice among all the beautiful (and talented) women we hope to see at Telluride every year. There was a little rain early in the day, but it was short-lived and followed soon after by sun. Willie Watson’s Elks Park set—titled Sea Shanties, Work Songs & Sing-Alongs—was one of the best of the entire weekend and I’m adamant it played a part in turning the weather around. Watson is an expert on Americana music and one of our nation’s big talents, so when he’s joined by the rest of the Dave Rawlings Machine, plus Sara Watkins, a few drifting Punch Brothers, and a captivated audience, it makes for a one of a kind show.

Nicki Bluhm

Jerry Douglas is the world’s best dobro player, and in an ideal world he would sit in everyday of Telluride for almost every set. This year we only got him on Sunday, but he wasted no time, first presenting the Earls of Leicester, a tribute to legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and then later on as a core member of the Telluride House Band. Before they took the stage, however, we were treated to our third Greensky Bluegrass show of the weekend (they also played a late night set at the Palms Theater and Thursday happy hour on the Elks Park stage). John Hartford’s “Steam Powered Aereo Plane,” “I’d Probably Kill You,” and Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” (with Sam Bush) were standouts.

Greensky at the Elks Park stage during their Happy Hour set

Ray Lamontagne—one of the big name draws I’d heard of and was looking forward to seeing live—played a mesmerizing set, but he came off as a tad temperamental. The Bluegrass crowd doesn’t take well to being compared to folk festivals (that Lamontagne claimed to hate), or being called zombies who don’t dance (his music is probably the slowest tempo we heard all weekend). Nonetheless, he redeemed himself by calling the crowd “beautiful in their strung-outedness,” admitting he loved us, and playing my two favorite tracks off of his latest album Supernova (the title track and “Ojai,” which could easily be about Telluride).

The last act and main draw of the festival for many is the House Band, featuring Bush, Fleck, Douglas, bassist Edgar Meyer, Bryan Sutton on guitar, and fiddler Stuart Duncan. Del McCoury and Alison Krauss joined the band at various points throughout, but (as always) I wish Krauss could have sung on every single number. More so than any individual song played, the big draw of the House Band is the level of musicianship they bring to the stage, their familiarity with each other’s styles (all have been playing together for decades), and the band’s ability to embody the spirit of Telluride in one single set. Their encore is always a bittersweet moment.

I spent my last night in town rambling around with my friends, and ended up at the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon to watch Mimi Naja and Vince Herman play with Gypsy Moon. At one point I heard an angelic voice singing along to Naja’s rendition of Bill Wither’s “Use Me,” and turned around to find Nicki and Tim Bluhm dancing behind me. They eventually joined the rest of the musicians on stage and stayed until the encore, when Vince led the entire bar out into the streets. It seemed like the perfect ending, until I ran into friends who had made it into the Punch Brother’s late night, where the entire Dave Rawlings Machine ended up joining them on stage. That’s the thing about Telluride though: there are just too many talented folks playing at all times to catch everything. There are no perfect endings and you will always leave wanting more. It’s what keeps the crowds coming back year-to-year.