Saturday, June 30, 2012

2012 Telluride Bluegrass Festival

Every June, I attend the annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Telluride, Colorado.  This was my third year, and I have to say, it was the best yet.  This year I flew solo, rented a place in town, and enjoyed the dry weather and fluffy clouds wafting through the sky.

It started with a three day trip to Moab, UT, after which I made a Wednesday afternoon arrival in Telluride, just in time to enjoy the free FirstGrass show in Mountain Village.  This year, Della Mae opened it up with Peter Rowan as a guest, and delighted the audience with some first-rate upbeat all-girl tradgrass.  They were followed by the first of many (by my count, four) official Greensky Bluegrass appearances.  They played a good set, although, admittedly, my head was not really in it.

Later on in the evening, Yonder Mountain String Band played their annual kickoff party at the conference center.  I made it to my first one last year, but found this one to be far more entertaining.  They were just on this year... And they had Bela Fleck sit in during the first set, and Sam Bush during the second.  Someone later told me that Jeff Austin had "cleaned up" in the past year--either that is unfair speculation, or a reasonable explanation for a more exciting Yonder.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Things officially got started with an hour-long gapless improv by Chris Thile and Bela Fleck, under the name of "Thelma and Louise."  This performance was not for everybody, as it was abstract and improvisational in nature, and most improvisations tend to have sections that miss the mark.  I, personally, was impressed by the performance, even though I was a little drowsy during stretches (which, perhaps, could've added to the enjoyment).

I skipped Della Mae in order to catch up on sleep, and returned prior to Dan Mangan's set.  Mangan was a hit for me; I enjoyed his use of feedback and noise, and his philosophical ramblings, although the general consensus seems to be that he was too loud for a bluegrass festival.  Too each his own.

Mangan was followed by Greensky Bluegrass's 2nd official performance, which I skipped in order to see Punch Brothers at the free Elks Park stage.  This is a show that kicked off one of the most pervasive storylines of this year's festival, not just because of their Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and Levon Helm tributes, but because, while explaining the seafaring nature of Josh Ritter's "Another New World," they proposed "Ahoy!" as the official Punch Brothers Telluride salutation.  Thus, "Ahoy!" became the most commonly heard word this year, typically shouted in unison by large groups of inebriated men.  This set was mostly covers; besides the Ritter song, they played The Car's "Just What I Needed," The Strokes' "Heart In A Cage," The White Stripes' "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," and, most memorably, The Band's "Ophelia." Ophelia was the first of four Helm tributes of which I am aware.

After Punch Brothers' Happy Hour, I returned in order to see Laura Marling take the stage 15 minutes late, and perform a slightly unenthusiastic set that was, nonetheless, enjoyable.  I guess I just had really high expectations for this set, after seeing her impress while opening for Andrew Bird a few months ago.

I didn't stay long into John Prine's set (which sounded good from the first few songs) in order to return my chair to the hotel in preparation for a long night, which began with Alison Krauss and Union Station.  As expected, I was highly impressed by their talent, but a little bored with their pop structures.  I like the songs sung by Dan Tyminski, who introduced himself as "the singing voice of George Clooney," because they tend to be closer to bluegrass than pop.

I finished the evening with the Elephant Revival show at the Sheridan Opera House.  I saw them play in Phoenix in January, and they were just as impressive, if not more so, in Telluride.

This was a very strong opening day, and the highlight was Punch Brothers at Elks Park.  

Friday, June 22, 2012

Friday started off with a laid back set from Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall.  I appreciate their skill, but it's difficult to watch them on the main stage.  It would be easier to appreciate their technical abilities in a more intimate Elks Park workshop.  Needless to say, I fell asleep.

Seryn fortunately got things moving on Friday around lunch time.  This band, from Denton, TX, is almost completely unknown, they don't play bluegrass, but they use banjos sometimes, so I guess it "counts."  Bluegrass or not, they were impressive, and despite the lead singer's voice sounding a little too much like Eddie Vedder's, I like this band.

The always-entertaining Head For The Hills were next, but I skipped them in order to see Joy Kills Sorrow at Elks Park.  I figured I would see Head For The Hills later that night anyways, and JKS was one of the bands I was most looking forward to... So I couldn't wait for their Sunday morning set.  I was not disappointed with my decision.

I went back to the main stage for O'Brien Party of Seven and Bela Fleck & The Marcus Roberts Trio.  The first was enjoyable, at least during the part during which I managed to stay awake.  Bela Fleck & The Marcus Roberts Trio was one of the more unique shows of the weekend, as Bela projects are wont to be.  This was straight up jazz music, and it was tight.  I really enjoyed this show; it was one of my favorites of the weekend.

I skipped Del McCoury in order to rest up for John Fogerty, and return my stuff to the hotel.  There was some speculation as to how much of Fogerty's set would be CCR, and how much would be his solo/country set; if you were hoping for mostly CCR, you would not have been disappointed.  This was the set that was talked about for the rest of the weekend.

Rather than see Leftover Salmon, I saw Head For The Hills at the Fly Me To The Moon Saloon.  The first half was totally enjoyable, on account of everybody still being at Leftover Salmon, but once the Salmon crowd started showing up, it started becoming overcrowded.  The band was spectacular, however.

Friday, again, was solid, and the highlight of the day was, far and away, John Fogerty.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Saturday was all about Elks Park.  While at the main stage the band contest was going on, and Run Boy Run was following up as last year's winners, there was an instrument building Q&A with the makers of Shanti Guitars and San Juan Mandolins, featuring some "instrument demonstrations" (i.e., playing) by two of the guys in Head For The Hills.  If nothing else, I learned how difficult and interesting the art of luthiery can be.

This was followed up by a "workshop" entitled Bela Fleck & Edgar Meyer: How To Play Badly Without Anybody Noticing.  This was, of course, tongue-in-cheek, and they did not play badly at all, but joked about some techniques to hide mistakes (their favorite was pretending to tune the instrument, so the audience thinks they just went out of tune).  They noticed Chris Thile on the side, and invited him to join... He ran and grabbed his mandolin, and half the show was Fleck/Meyer/Thile.  The Bela Fleck Elks Park performance seems to always be a highlight of the festival: it wasn't as memorable this year as it was last year, but it was still very impressive.

Following Fleck/Meyer, I went to the main stage for The Devil Makes Three, and witnessed some upbeat, energetic bluegrass/folk/whatever-they-call-what-they-do.  These guys are fun, and they have an old time style all their own.

Rather than hang out for Jerry Douglas' set, I opted for some lunch, followed by a trip to Elks Park for the Woody Guthrie tribute.  This involved Vince Herman (Leftover Salmon), Tim O'Brien (Tim O'Brien), Emma Beaton (Joy Kills Sorrow), Peter Rowan (Peter Rowan), and some other lady whose identity I'm unsure of.  By now, the air was rather smoky due to the fire burning down by Mancos, which was so pervasive that Vince Herman even referred to it in an impromptu verse of Woody's "This Land Is Your Land" (although he argued that the smoke was related to the fact that it was about 4:20 on the clock).  The Guthrie tribute was entertaining, enlightening, and probably more political than what we're used to at the festival.

Seryn was next at Elks Park.  Rather than witness the Yonder Mountain String Band marshmallow war, I decided to watch the little-known band play an intimate set and chat about polyrhythms, unusual use of bows, etc.

Next, it was dinner/sleep time (I skipped k.d. lang), and back over to the main stage for the annual Sam Bush Band set.  I've always enjoyed Sam's set, but this one was even better.  Midway through, he started a song with Jerry Douglas, during which the rest of the band came out armed with electric guitars, and proceeded to rock the crowd's socks off for about ten minutes.  A guy standing near me remarked that they should've ended with this, as there was no way to possibly top this.  One thing I've learned is you never assume Sam Bush can't top himself; he did when he brought out Douglas, Bela Fleck, John Cowan, Jeff Austin, and Dave Johnston for a rousing, 16-minute rendition of The Band's "Up On Cripple Creek" (the second Helm tribute for those who are counting).  He then brought out all the bass players backstage for an encore performance of Spinal Tap's "Big Bottom."  Only in Sam Bush's Telluride set can you see six bass players playing Spinal Tap at a bluegrass festival.

The final main stage set of the night was Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers, who delighted me with their piano-based jambandery.  Bruce was joined by Thile and Fleck, but I left too early too see Sam Bush's appearance.

The reason I left Bruce early was to catch The Devil Makes Three play Fly Me To The Moon Saloon.  This was my biggest mistake of the festival; the show was more crowded than Head For The Hills the previous night, it was hot in there, I couldn't see the band, and they apparently just played basically the same set they played on the main stage.  I left by 1AM.

The highlight of the day was easily Sam Bush Band.  His performance included some of my all-time favorite Telluride Bluegrass moments (though my TBF career only spans three years).

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sunday was a main stage day for me.  It started with John Cowan Band Gospel Hour, which was entertaining, though I didn't really know any of his songs.  I do know his voice from New Grass Revival, so it wasn't completely unfamiliar.

Joy Kills Sorrow was next.  It was similar to their Friday Elks Park set, just with less intimate chat and more music.  The audience seemed to like them.

I watched the beginning of Peter Rowan's Big Twang Theory, but didn't stick around long, as I wanted to grab some lunch and catch Paul Hoffman and Anders Beck of Greensky Bluegrass at Elks Park (their fourth official performance of the festival).  Their music and banter was enjoyable.

Next was Brett Dennen at the main stage; I was unsure of how I'd like his folk-pop stylings, but I actually found it enjoyable and refreshing.  Perhaps unfortunately, the most memorable part of his set occurred when Marshmallow War Part II broke out near the end.  It was so out-of-control that after the set, a stern warning was issue to the audience to refrain from throwing projectiles on stage.

Punch Brothers were next, and played their most typical show of the festival, with more songs from their new album than at any of their other performances.  This, of course, came with plentiful greetings of "Ahoy!" from the crowd, and Thile even changed the lyrics in "Rye Whiskey" to "A-hoy!" instead of "Oh Boy!" as promised.  The most interesting part of the set came when Rob Moose joined them onstage for a performance of the third movement of Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto."

Glen Hansard took the headlining spot Sunday, and floored me with his emotive voice and more-energetic-than-expected band.  He played a couple of Once/Swell Season tracks ("Leave" and "When Your Mind's Made Up"), several songs from his solo work, and, memorably, The Band's "The Weight" (the third Helm tribute of the weekend).  Hansard impressed.

The Telluride House Band closed the night, but I skipped their set in order to guarantee a balcony seat at the Punch Brothers nightgrass show at the Sheridan Opera House.  Unfortunately, I missed the house band play "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down:"

The Punch Brothers nightgrass show was excellent: they played Weezer, The Strokes, Radiohead, some traditional bluegrass, some of their own music, some wicked solos, and even some R&B (with Noam Pickelny sporting some cool shades).  They were just having fun all night, and they were joined onstage by Bryan Sutton, Mike Witcher (brother of Gabe Witcher), some girl they found to sing the female vocal part in "Here Or Heaven," and even Ed Helms and one of his Lonesome Trio bandmates.

The highlight of the day was, as expected, Punch Brothers.

Overall, this was my favorite Telluride Bluegrass Festival.  The music was solid all around, I met a lot of interesting people, and just had an all around good, carefree time.  I already can't wait for the 40th anniversary next year.

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