Telluride Bluegrass Stirs ‘A Perfect Storm’
by Marta Tarbell
Apr 14, 2011 | 5964 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
<b>MAN AT WORK</b> – Telluride Bluegrass Festival Promoter Craig Ferguson said that the festival’s relatively small size lets his organization keep to a mellow game plan. (File photo)
MAN AT WORK – Telluride Bluegrass Festival Promoter Craig Ferguson said that the festival’s relatively small size lets his organization keep to a mellow game plan. (File photo)
TELLURIDE – Those proverbial earlybirds got this year’s worm, when it came to four-day (and merchant) passes to the 2011 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, in a ticket-selling frenzy that Promoter Craig Ferguson said, in hindsight, surprised even him.

“I don’t know what I could have done differently,” Ferguson said this week, of getting out the word about the rapid-fire ticket sales to a festival featuring perhaps an even wider-than-usual range of talent, which saw merchant passes sell out in a record-setting one hour. “It started going so fast.

“My professional opinion is that it’s really a perfect storm,”

“You’ve got a couple of serious headliners,” he said, pointing to Sarah McLachlan, who even five years back, he pointed out, was selling out “20,000-seat venues,” making her “probably hotter than anyone on the lineup – except for Led Zeppelin,” in its heyday (whose lead singer is closing-night headliner Robert Plant.

Then there are the bands that appeal to the indie-rock crowd – The Decemberists, The Head and the Heart, and Grammy-sweethearts Mumford and Sons.

When they performed at last year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Ferguson observed, Mumford and Sons weren’t yet the huge draw they would become, just a few months later. But he and other Bluegrass stalwarts were so enamored, Ferguson said, that he called Mumford’s agent in September to say, “We haven’t done this in ten years,” and invite the band back for this year, even though they were hardly part of the festival’s sprawling “house band,” whose members return year after year after year.

The manager “got back to me maybe a month later,” Ferguson said, saying: “I’ve got good news for you – and I’ve got bad news.”

The good news: Mumford and Sons “asked me to schedule their North American tour around the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.”

The bad news: “They don’t want to play – they just want to come to the festival.”

At this point, Ferguson went into back-burner mode with the message that, sure, they could come, but as for not playing, no, “that just wouldn’t do.”

Ferguson explained his strategy. “You know, they’re from England,” he said of the band, “and they have such a real admiration for all the roots musicians in our lineup. They’ve become deep friends with Jerry Douglas; they hang out in Nashville all the time, going out of their way to pick with Old Crow and Gillian Welch; one of their main influences is Allison Krauss.”

He saved the clincher, however, for the band’s manager. “A lot of thought goes into a band like that,” he said of Mumford, “that all of a sudden blows up into one of the hottest bands in the country. And one of the things the manager considers is not getting pigeonholed.

“So I told him, ‘We aren’t really a bluegrass festival. I’ve got a spot before Robert Plant, and I don’t think anyone would confuse him with a bluegrass band.’”

So Mumford and Sons signed on – and, in these heady days with their two early-June shows at Denver’s Fillmore selling out “in just five minutes” – at Telluride Bluegrass prices.

“They certainly aren’t the only band on the bill outside of the Bluegrass pay scale,” Ferguson said, going on to observe, “There’s quite a lot of diversity in what’s happening in festivals” these days, ricocheting from the recent demise of Denver’s Mile-High Festival to mega-festivals “like Bonnaroo and Coachella,” which although easily quintupling Telluride Bluegrass attendance figures, “are selling out in a day.”

Ferguson said he’s OK with his festival’s scale – “I like to think Telluride Bluegrass relies on its reputation as much as on who’s the headliner” – and that while it once was “the biggest festival in the country” in its 1990-91 heyday, those days are gone.

“Now, we’re just a little boutique festival,” in a world with “a ton of festivals, with 30 or 40 that are bigger than us.”

On the positive side, Ferguson said, that smallness lets his organization keep to a relatively mellow game plan. “We don’t really plan where to go until we start going,” he said.

This year, look for some beefing up of the Nightgrass offerings, and for newcomers like Abigail Washburn and Trampled by Turtles filling out the long list of festival regulars and longtime friends.

Asked about a reprise of something like last year’s sellout Phish concert, which Ferguson promoted, he said: “It’s still quite frustrating to bring in any kind of new show, to try to figure out everything from the camping to the gondola and the parking and the lodging.

“The Phish thing was such a rarity,” he said, mostly because the band, with its early Telluride history, “wanted to play in Telluride so much that they were willing to do it for a discount.

“Not many bands can shoot into Telluride and sell out,” he said, citing Lyle Lovett and Jackson Browne as two more exceptions to that rule. “And if you want to bring really cool shows to Telluride,” he added, “it’s not going to happen if you leave it to the producer to do it all by himself.

“I go in and say, ‘Here’s my spreadsheet,’” he said, and “people tell me they need to recover their direct costs. They want to pass on all their expenses to me.

“If there was a way to work with the lodging community and Marketing Telluride Inc. and the town governments, so they would chip in some of the revenues” they see from Bluegrass – he estimates the Town of Mountain Village alone gets roughly $250,000 in Bluegrass parking revenues – maybe a Phish reprise could happen. He went on to hint that he fielded an offer to host “the most epic show you could ever see in Telluride” sometime this fall, but that current economics make that virtually impossibe.

“Most band’s business managers won’t let them come here,” with what Telluride can afford to pay, he said. Instead, they’ll tell them: “Go play the Hollywood Bowl,” where the pay-scale starts at $500,00, “take some of that money, and go to Telluride for a nice vacation.”

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