Dispatch: Telluride Bluegrass Festival

Astute observers have noted that his summer marks the fortieth anniversary of the Monterrey International Pop Festival, the event that established the blueprint for the rock festival concept and spawned the possibility of booking a variety of bands and artists to perform over the course of consecutive days in a single setting. It’s a template that’s been repeated innumerable times since, forming the basis for Woodstock, the Isle of Wight and the plethora of musical events that litter the summer, both here and abroad.

For the past 34 years, Telluride Colorado has honored the formula with its own annual extravaganza, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which takes place in the latter part of June and winds its way over four days within the idyllic setting of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Nestled in the town park, within the box canyon that nestles this historic mountain community, the scenery takes center stage alongside the dizzying array of performers, many of whom add the festival to their tour itineraries year after year. Having been established by a group of local music pickers as simply a town celebration in 1974, it’s now ably managed by the organization Planet Bluegrass, a festival promoter based in Lyons, Colorado, under whose auspices it’s become a well-attended magnet for artists and enthusiasts who converge from throughout the world.

It ought to be noted though that the name itself, Telluride Bluegrass, is something of a misnomer. While the central core of the proceedings often seems all about the banjos, not to mention the fiddles, mandolins and stand-up bass, there’s a startling assortment of sounds emanating from the musicians who take part, from the regulars like Sam Bush, John Cowan, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas and Peter Rowan to a younger generation who tamper with tradition, such as Chris Thile, Crooked Still, Abigail Washburn, Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon and the Avett Brothers. So too, there are those whose dazzling diversity seems to defy any notion of adhering to a traditional template, as represented this year by Counting Crows, Guster, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Los Lobos and Chick Corea. “Where do you find all these great musicians?” an obviously impressed observer was overheard asking Planet Bluegrass’ chief impresario Craig Ferguson. “I’m a professional,” Ferguson replied, giving a nod and a wink. “Actually, they find me.”

In fact, it’s a mix that sometimes startles those who are new to the proceedings. Indeed, Counting Crows singer Adam Duritz seemed positively in awe of the company the band was keeping, seeming like a star struck fan to find himself accompanying Emmylou Harris on a remarkably convincing take of “Return of the Grievous Angel,” the song Harris first performed during her apprenticeship with its writer, the legendary Gram Parsons. “I don’t know how to follow that!,” an obviously dazzled Duritz remarked once she left the stage. Fortunately, they managed to do so in fine form, tempering their set with an acoustic burnish as befitting the festival’s down home ambiance.

“This is the most amount of facial hair and shirtless guys we’ve ever seen at one time,” the guys from Guster joked, expressing their own surprise at being admitted to the cowboy crowd. “Way to exploit those man boobs!” Satire aside, they showed themselves adept at adhering to the festival’s unspoken musical mandate, that is, the ability to switch instruments almost on impulse. A terrific band, their wealth of good material only lacks that one great song to elevate them into a more prominent profile.

In fact, it was often left to some of the musical upstarts to steal center stage, not to mention the workshops that take place for free elsewhere in town and the after-hours gigs, dubbed “Nightgrass” offered for a moderate additional charge at various venues. Day one had its share of transcendent moments, from the solo opening spot accorded Chris Thile, a 20 –something mandolin player whose work with Nickel Creek has afforded him a pedestal towards stardom, to the quartet that calls itself Crooked Still, whose able singer, bassist and banjo player were all but overshadowed by a mad cellist displaying such offbeat antics, madcap stage patter and outlandish outfits as to suggest he’s nothing less that Keith Moon’s undocumented offspring. Then there was the Avett Brothers, an acoustic trio whose latest album, Emotionalism qualifies as one the great discoveries of the year. Mining an unconventional mix of wit, sentiment, acoustic instrumentation and sheer punk veracity, they showed themselves to be a band well worth watching. So too, showing there’s very little divide between Celtic and cowboy, Scotland’s Dougie MacLean and his able backing band turned their portion of Sunday, day four, into a sublime celebration of beautiful, tear-stained anthems that effectively belied his admonition that they’d been struck simultaneously by jet lag, altitude sickness and heat stroke.

In fact, the veteran acts weren’t always the ones that could be counted on to ignite the proceedings. Although Emmylou Harris obviously enjoyed the performance by Los Lobos from her vantage point out front in the pit (the seating area reserved for artists, press and VIPs), their determination to abstain from playing their “hits” – shockingly no “La Bamba” – cooled the reaction of many observers. Likewise, the New Orleans Social Club, a band made up of members of the Meters, the Neville Brothers and other musical mainstays of the Crescent City, took awhile to ignite, apparently crippled by altitude sickness and unnerving climate conditions that can send the temperature soaring from 90 degrees in the afternoon to the lower 40s once the sun sets. Even the venerable Flecktones, a band whose intriguing array of sounds regularly defies any notion of genre and categorization, seemed to excite the crowd less than usual.

In most cases, however, it was the mainstays that shined. In most cases they proved why they were perennial crowd pleasers year after year. Festival favorite John Cowan showed his ability to segue effortlessly from soulful serenades to country croons. Sixties veteran Peter Rowan, accompanied by the amazingly nimble Tony Rice on guitar and two talented and much younger women on stand-up bass and mandolin, retooled venerable classics “Panama Red” and the Stones’ “Wild Horses” to make them his own. Emmylou Harris -- dubbed by some the Queen of Telluride – was joined by former members of the seminal folk group The Seldom Scene for a stunning set that mined the best of her extensive back catalog. Likewise, the always affable Sam Bush dazzled in both the sheer exuberance of his performance and his generosity of spirit, evident in his undeniable rapport with the crowd (“Got any old hippies out there? Then we’ve got a song for you!”) and his willingness to share the stage with his fellow musicians. He graciously deferred to Emmylou Harris, though somewhat at her insistence when she reminded him that she was once his boss in her one-time backing band the Nash Ramblers, and by the time his set concluded in typical rowdy fashion, there were more than two dozen players onstage joining in the revelry.

Indeed, freeform jamming and recurring guest spots in other artists’ sets continuously mark the music at Telluride, as does other signature quirks that enhance its sights and sounds. There’s the seemingly endless rainbow array of wristbands that provided everything from general admission to restricted access to the pit and beyond; a plethora of port-a-potties, always available but suitably smelly; a wonderful array of stalls featuring reasonably price foods, fashion and festival fare; the absolute efficiency of the Planet Bluegrass MO that ensured the sets always ran on time; a dedication to eco-awareness that extended to exacting means for proper waste disposal, free transport by enclosed ski lifts from parking to town and back again 7 AM to 2 AM); the reminders to hydrate, hydrate hydrate (hence those port-a-potties, but then again, at 9.000 feet, altitude and aptitude go hand-in-hand) and the general humor and laidback vibe that pervades the festival overall. The result is four days of pure bliss, a mix of engaging music, great company and a setting that’s nothing less than pure paradise on earth.

It’s the return to reality after the festival that provides the biggest jolt, one that offers lessons for those hamstrung and stressed out over incessant traffic, overdevelopment and the general malaise of our cookie cutter world. Next time someone tries to convince me that anything – ANYTHING – compares to the experience of those four days in June, I’ll suggest that while daily life is the hell you ride, Telluride is the antidote well worth savoring. -- Lee Zimmerman

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