Here it is, the 36th Annual Bluegrass Festival, with a line-up that spans the spectrum of the musical rainbow, all set against the spectacular backdrop of Telluride's stunning scenery.
There truly is nothing else like the annual solstice celebration, and the festival sees the return of many longtime favorites including Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Tim O'Brien, John Cowan, Peter Rowan and Bela Fleck. There are some other familiar faces returning in new formats, with Three Girls and Their Buddy featuring Shawn Colvin, Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin, along with Buddy Miller. The festival also sees the debuts of David Byrne and Elvis Costello in Telluride. Railroad Earth is back, and Works Progress Administration and The SteelDrivers will hammer it on their maiden voyage. There's the international flavor, with The Greencards, Gaelic Storm and Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson all on the docket. Hot young talent is here too, with The Punch Brothers, The Lovell Sisters, Conor Oberst and Jenny Lewis rolling into town. There’s more, with the terrific Todd Snider, Mike Farris, Crooked Still and the Zac Brown Band. Past winners of the Telluride Band Competition return for a romp, including the Blue Canyon Boys and Greensky Bluegrass. And of course, Yonder Mountain String Band returns, celebrating ten years at the festival this season.
Actually, a number of festival artists are having anniversaries of sorts this year, including dobro master Jerry Douglas.
“Twenty-five years seems like an awfully big number,” said the 12-time Grammy Award-winning Douglas. “I remember they gave John Cowan a pony for his anniversary, and they gave Bela a chicken. Of course, for Bela, that had to be a free range chicken that was guaranteed a long and wonderful life,” he said, with a big booming laugh.
It's the magic of the festival that entices artists to return year after year, Douglas said. “If somebody asked where would you like to be able to go and play every year, Telluride would be on everyone’s list. It’s such a beautiful place, and it’s a perfectly run festival. Everybody’s pleasant, except maybe the poor waiters in town, by Sunday afternoon! But, really, it’s wonderful. All of my friends are there, and then there are new friends who come for the first time and discover what it’s all about, like Elvis Costello. I’ve been working with him, and I thought he’d like to check it out. That’s how we brought James Taylor, and he loved it so much he came back.”
Douglas is part of the Telluride Bluegrass Royal Family. “A few of us are lucky enough to be able to come back every year,” he said. “We’ll be here in our wheelchairs eventually!”
The hardworking Douglas reported that “Edgar Meyer and I are doing some dates; I’m making a record with Allison [Krauss] and Union Station, and I’m out with Elvis for the summer.” Of Costello, he said: “He’s just an amazing guy. He got his own TV series, did a duet with Tony Bennett, so he's really genre-hopping. He had all of these songs that he wasn’t quite sure what to do with, so he wanted to see if they fit into this format with acoustic instruments.”
Douglas and Costello met years ago. “When I first met Elvis, I was working with T-Bone [Burnett]. We got stuck on a song, and just couldn’t get it right. So we took a break, and just then, Elvis walked into the studio, I think this was right after King of America came out. Elvis had a song that he had written the day before. We checked it out, and it sort of cleared the palate, and we nailed the tune on the next take.”
It’s the festival’s genre-busting that makes it unique, he observed. “That’s the cool thing about the festival, is that it’s all over the musical map. It’s a little bit self-indulgent of us isn’t it? There are all of these diverse artists, and there are all of the people that bluegrass people love, and you know they’re a tough bunch. But the audience is very open-minded and just loves good music. It’s great vibe, and there's nowhere that I’d rather be.
Douglas will appear in numerous configs over the weekend. “I’m opening and closing the festival this year. Tim [O’Brien] and I are gonna play, and he’s one of my favorite people in the world. We actually rehearsed! I’m just thrilled.”
Look for the amazing Jerry Douglas to team up with Tim O'Brien for the opening set. He'll be with Elvis Costello Friday afternoon, up with his own band on Saturday and at the closing set with the Telluride House Band.
Thursday's roster includes some fresh tastes, with The Lovell Sisters and the Zac Brown Band, followed by Peter Rowan, another longtime festival favorite.
Royal ladies are on the line-up too, with Three Girls and Their Buddy. No strangers to Telluride, Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin are getting rave reviews across the country for their collaboration – which includes Buddy Miller. Special guests on this set? Don't be too surprised!
Look for things to get cosmic on Thursday evening, with the controlled chaos of Conor Oberst and he Mystic Valley Band. The alt-rockers have a brand-spanking new CD, Outer South. Pick up a copy at the festival store!
Rounding out the first day's events, it's a delicious treat with David Byrne closing out the Main Stage sets.
Byrne is out on his year-long Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno world tour, and makes his initial foray into Telluride this weekend. Byrne is performing songs from his numerous collaborations with Eno over the years, including tracks from several Talking Heads albums; he'll dig deep into My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and get into the now with Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.
Byrne's show has been lauded as “gorgeous, melodic and spiritually uplifting by the Chicago Sun-Times.
It will be fat Friday; the tarps will fly and festivarians will be in it for the long haul, starting with the Blue Canyon Boys. Last year's winners of the Telluride Band Competition earned themselves a slot on the Main Stage, and bass man Drew Garrett says the win has been a boost for the band.
“We are extremely excited about our new CD, House Full of Sorrow,” he said. “It's our third release as the Blue Canyon Boys, and our second album as a quartet. We started as a duo, and quickly expanded, adding Jeff Scroggins who is a National Champion Banjo player. We're so jazzed to be coming back to Telluride.”
Fans may recall the BCB's blazing cover of Cheap Trick's I Want You to Want Me, which has now become a staple at their shows. “People go nuts over it. So we put it on the new CD,” said Garrett. “It’s gonna be a wild weekend!”
No doubt about that, and look for the Blue Canyon Boys to fire up the park first thing Friday morning!
Up next is Crooked Still, dubbed by the Boston Globe “the most important folk group to emerge from Boston since the early 60s.” Their latest effort Still Crooked dazzled fans last year, and the young alt-bluegrass band will blow more than a few minds.
Take a stretch, and get ready for The Greencards, featuring the seamless vocal and bass work of Carol Young with fellow Aussie Kym Warner on mando and bouzouki, plus Eamon McLoughlin on viola and cello. The Greencards weave marvelous tapestries of sound. Beautiful stuff, don't miss 'em.
Then at 2:45 p.m., get on your feet, as it's time for the one and only John Cowan Band. “The Cow” has surrounded himself with monster players, and the current band is sensational. Cowan's soaring vocals are legendary, and the band gleefully mixes old and new, with a good dollop of newgrass thrown into the mix. Telluride Royalty, Cowan has a number of new releases in various states of production, including a new band project, a collection of songs from his past performances in Telluride plus a Christmas album that's on the way. Welcome the magnificent John Cowan Band back to town, and look for the incomparable Johnny C. to pop up on stage throughout the festival.
The juicy Jenny Lewis is up next, and the former Rilo Kiley girl has come into her own with last year's incredible release Acid Tongue. Lewis creates magical moods with her seductive style, and she’s sure to steal a few hearts this weekend.
Friday evening at 6:15, it's the return of Bela Fleck, who teams with Toumani Diabaté, the marvelous Malian Kora player. With their mind-boggling technique and consciously open minds, Fleck and Diabaté will explore the far reaches of the musical universe, and Fleck will undoubtedly sit in with a few other sets this weekend. Be sure to catch Bela’s innovative and beautiful film, Throw Down Your Heart, screening this weekend at the Nugget Theater. Then at 8 o'clock on Friday, who would have thunk it – Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes at Bluegrass? His new CD Secret, Profane and Sugarcane is a triumph. You can't help but notice the signature vocal style and brilliant songwriting, but this is a new format for Costello, with acoustic roots-oriented arrangements that work marvelously well. Welcome Costello and the 'canes on their debut to Telluride.
And then it's all aboard with Railroad Earth, who return to Telluride after a hiatus.
“This will be our first time back since 2002, so we're really excited,” said fiddler Tim Carbone, adding that the band is barreling across the country. “The summer tour is starting to heat up. We played Del Fest, and survived the tornado there, so that was interesting!”
The band went back to the woodshed last year, he said. “We put out a record about a year ago called Amen Corner. Our guitar player has an old farmhouse, so everybody took a room, and it came out nice. We're really happy with it. It has a nice live feeling.”
He added that the six-piece powerhouse had a humble start in Telluride just eight years ago. “The first time we played was in 2001, and it was only the tenth gig the band had ever played,” he recalled. “Telluride is always one of our favorite festivals to play. There are only so many bands who get to come every year, and we're so lucky to be asked to come back!”
Save some juice, as Saturday's line-up is jam-packed, starting with the Band Contest Finals. Winners of the festival often go on to big things, and following the finals, it's the winners of the 2006 competition, Greensky Bluegrass. “We're back, bona fide,” said Greensky's Paul Hoffman. “We've been keeping really busy, and touring nonstop,” playing “ about 180 shows a year.
“It's funny, back in 2007 we had Anders Beck of the Wayword Sons sit in, and since then he's joined the band and we recorded our new album, Five Interstates.” Greensky plans to hook up this weekend for some pickin’. “We have lots of friends in Telluride, and are really excited for the show at the Sheridan Opera House. We could probably have a guest for every song!”
Hoffman noted that the festival is often a springboard for young bands. “Some bands just are contest players, and other bands take it and run with it. I think we've really done that, we're playing a ton of shows and getting the chops up.”
Plan on staying all day, because there's no stopping the train that's gonna roll on Saturday. At 12:30 p.m., it's the Punch Brothers, featuring the incredible Chris Thile. Maybe we should call them the prodigious Punch Brothers, as Julian Lage will join the boys for this set, and Lage is a phenom, with his dazzling debut, Sounding Point. At the ripe old age of 21, Lage has some special guests on the recording, with Bela Fleck and Thile lending their talents. “I've known Thile for about a year and a half,” said Lage. “We wrote a few songs together, and I find myself on the same bill or city as the Punch Brothers, so we play together when we can.” Playing with the fabulous Fleck was an honor. “Omigod, he just has this monster ability, and he's so humble. Just amazing.”
With the Punch Brothers, Lage says it just flows. “They are so fluid, it's easy to jump into their circle. I love that.”
Lage, who makes his debut in Telluride, said he's been dreaming of this for a long time. “My teacher was at the jazz fest there and he would always say that I should play in Telluride one day. I've always wanted to come out, and I hope to become a familiar face there.”
We hope so too, and look for The Punch Brothers to nail it, and set the tone for Saturday afternoon.
The Jerry Douglas Band is up at 2:15, and cross-pollination is definitely a possibility during this set!
Then look for the crush up front, as Yonder Mountain String Band hits the stage at 4 o'clock on Saturday. If you've been in Telluride for Yonder, well, you know what is about to ensue. If you've never been here before, well, prepare to party with YMSB. Happy tenth anniversary, boys!
The winner of the Telluride Troubador competition gets a slot on the Main Stage Saturday evening, and best wishes to all of the finalists in this year's extremely competitive event.
Then at 6:15 p.m., it's the Australian husband and wife sensation, with Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson.
After that, put on your dancing shoes, and all rise for the King of Telluride, Sam Bush, who says he’s got some new stuff to lay on the crowd.
“Something I'm really happy about right now is I just got done with the new CD, which is scheduled for a mid-September release,” Bush said, adding he’s returning to a signature sound. “I'd say it's a little more Newgrass than the last couple of albums. I have a great band, and some special guests, including Jerry and Edgar. Also, Del McCoury joined me for some vocal duets, which was really a thrill for me.”
Always in high demand, Bush stays plenty busy with his various projects, including teaming up with Bill Evans for a stint in NYC, hitting the road with Lyle Lovett, and jamming with Douglas and Meyer in their trio. “At this advanced age, I've never enjoyed playing more, and the music seems to reflect that,” he mused.
Bush marks 35 years at the festival that holds a special place in his heart. “I've been playing since the 70s, and never dreamed I'd be coming back for all of these years. Festivals come and go, but it's to the credit of Planet Bluegrass for continuing this festival for so long. They make it look easy, but it takes a tremendous amount of work. It's not a normal festival at all. It feels like coming home when we hit town and see Bridal Veil Falls. I never get tired of that feeling.”
And Telluride never tires of the energetic Bush, who will undoubtedly pop up in all kinds of configurations over the weekend. “With all the jamming that takes place, you really never know until the day before what's going to happen! That's the neat thing about it. We just play it by ear. I remember the year the Jean Luc Ponty sat in, and he's one of my heroes. I had asked him if he was interested in playing his tune New Country with us. Anyway, we were on stage, and my wife Lynn came out and said ‘Jean Luc is here and he's ready to play.’ It was one of those feelings where your heart jumps up in your throat! We had never rehearsed with him, but the band knew his arrangement, and we had a ball. It led to him recording with us. That kind of thing happens at the festival.”
Topping off the Saturday line-up, it’s the Celtic phenomenon, Gaelic Storm, who got their big break a decade ago in the film Titanic. The band quickly vaulted out of the pub scene onto the international circuit, and wows crowds around the planet with their kaleidoscopic sound. Be there for a rollicking ride Saturday night.
Sunday morning, get a little blue-eyed soul with the Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm. The high-energy Farris has just released the Shout Live! CD, and his rockin' set will get you moving and grooving for the day.
Make room on the stage, because next up is the Works Progress Administration, the big supergroup comprised of heavy-hitting musicians, whom you may know from their various other bands, including Nickel Creek, Tom Petty, Toad the Wet Sprocket and Costello's Imposters. Expect WPA to shred, Sunday afternoon.
The Steeldrivers take the stage at 2 p.m. Sunday; this group of Nashville heavy-hitting songwriters and session players features the soulful, soaring vocals of Chris Stapleton, Tammy Rogers on fiddle, Richard Baily on banjo, Mike Henderson on mandolin and Mike Fleming on bass.
“Chris and Mike are well-known songwriters and Tammy still does session work, but we’re really focused on the band,” explained Fleming. “So many of us have been a sideman for somebody else. Recently we were at the Grand Old Opry, and thought, ‘Wow – we're in the artist room? Hey, we're the artist! It's a good place to be.”
As for playing Telluride, Fleming says the band has a couple of butterflies. “It's one that was always on our list. Coming from Tennessee, we know that to get to play Telluride is definitely a feather in the hat. We know we have to be on our toes, and have our 'A' game on here!”
No worries, The Steeldrivers will nail it!
On Sunday afternoon, it's time for a good dose of humor, and Todd Snider is just the ticket. Snider, who hit Telluride over the winter with a show at the Opera House, said he's stoked to return to town. “I just love that place; it's a tough town to leave!”
Well, he's back, and packing along his new CD, The Excitement Plan, which was produced by the legendary Dan Was.
“I worked on the songs for three years and made the whole record once, but I tossed it out and made it all over again,” said Snider. “It's kind of folky but it's not down tempo. Don played bass and Jim Keltner was on drums, with Greg Leisz on steel guitar and dobro. It's the most acclaimed group I've ever worked with.”
Snider will be playing songs fro the new record, plus a few from his phenomenal Peace Queer CD. “There's one Peace Queer song I've been playing a lot lately called ‘Stuck in the Corner.’ People clap at the end, so I guess that's a good thing.”
The wildly popular Snider usually plays solo, but he may have a few guests. “I'm hoping that Jeff Austin, Ben Kaufmann and Vince Hermann will sit in. Last year we all had some time off and did four or five shows together. They're some of my favorite players.”
Some of ours too, and you know it, Snider will undoubtedly provide a few grins, as the witty songsmith has a thing about shoes. “I'll be barefoot, rain or shine.”
The final sets of the festival are truly class acts, with the Tim O'Brien Band, Emmylou Harris and the royal Telluride House Band closing out Sunday's line-up in style. There really are no words to describe these fabulous musicians, just be there and soak it all in.
But it's too soon to think about the end of the festival, and there's much more going on beyond the Main Stage events, including the NightGrass shows at the Sheridan Opera House, Fly me to the Moon Saloon and the film screenings at the Nugget.
Nestled in the Nightgrass lineup is Oakhurst at the Moon, and the Denver-based “Guerilla grassers” will be tearing it up. Former Tellurider Chuck Hugenberg recently joined the band and Hugenberg will be making the rounds as he's also playing with his buddies, the Turkey Creek Ramblers. The local pickers will be serving up their own brand of smokin' mountain grass at several locations this weekend, including at Las Montanas on Saturday night and at the closing bash at the Moon on Sunday.
By the way, Oakhurst will also be at the Bubble Lounge Friday night, where there's a heap of music on tap, including Aftergrass, The Hillbenders, Turbine, Delcoa and more. Stop in for a hit of oxygen – you're gonna need it!
At the Floradora, swing by to check out Blues Old Stand with the Reverend Jenkins and his Flock. The band will be firing it up late-night Thursday through Saturday with some special guests.
Tommy's will be popping too with The Mostest and more.
Of course, there are all kinds of free concerts and workshops happening in Elk's Park.
Check the schedule, as things do change and you never know who might drop in for a jam!
There's much more than can be contained here. Get out and soak up as much as you can.
Here’s to a glorious weekend. Happy Bluegrass!