Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2014
Telluride Bleugrass Festival
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.
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).