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Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2013: day 3 - witnessing the power and the glory

Telluride, Col., June 22, 2013

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

Other recent concert reviews
Really hoping to catch Sara Watkins' morning set, the need for sleep precluded that possibility. So instead we arrived to her closing strains of Ripple, a lovely wake-up call, but also a sad reminder we likely missed an excellent set.

Still, we were rewarded shortly thereafter by a performance of another of Telluride's reigning royalty, Jerry Douglas, whose work-out on resonator guitar have dazzled the Fest masses for 29 of the past 40 years. This year he added an impressive cast of characters to his travelling troupe, including fiddler Luka Bulla, bassist Viktor Krauss and drummer Doug Belote.

Coming on the heels of "Traveler," his highest profile effort yet, he seemed ready to reign once more. A trio of tuneful instrumentals - Unfolding, The Wild Rumpus and Hide and Seek led to an unlikely choice - not surprisingly considering the Telluride MO - an intricate cover of a song by "that Bluegrass band known as Weather Report," in which fiddle and Dobro tackled the electric fusion-esque strains of the original.

Carrying the template even more, Douglas ran through an early Ike and Tina standard (Everything's Going To Work Out Fine), Leadbelly Blues (On a Monday) and finally, a heavy metal version of bluegrass that went on for some length of time and featured Douglas ripping away on what appeared to be a chainsaw version of his signature guitar. The crowd seemed satiated, even though rumors that Paul Simon would appear approved to be unfounded. (Apparently, Mr. Simon had planned to accompany his wife Edie Brickell to Telluride the night before, but failed to show.) Ironically, the song from "Traveler" that was also missed was The Boxer, a Simon song done in collaboration with the Mumfords. Given the combined circumstances, it wasn't meant to be.

If there was any doubt as to who would keep the energy intact, Yonder Mountain String Band proved themselves well up to the task. The camaraderie among the foursome is obvious, and their earnest intent showed them well equipped for the task. Nevertheless, there is a mischievous streak that seems to run right below the surface, as evidenced by bassist Ben Kauffman's somewhat sardonic commentary, the constant Chelsea cat grin of banjo player Dave Johnston and the mugging of mandolin player Jeff Austin, the apparent de-facto cheerleader when it comes to their onstage presentation.

Combination populist pundits, jam band stalwarts and bluegrass devotees, the Yonder Mountain boys offered yet another in a string of satisfying encounters the afternoon would bring. Being that it was Kauffman's birthday, he was greeted with a steady onslaught of marshmallow missiles from the crowd, prompting him to remark, "I got everything I ever wanted, being pelted by marshmallows and parched lips." Indeed, no sooner did the next song start than he was caught by one of those sugary delights straight on in the chest, causing him to erupt in laughter and delight.

Austin's introduction of "a man I'm proud to call Uncle Sammy," that being the omnipresent Sam Bush, took the their set to yet another level of sheer intensity as the number of solos shared between the five musicians went far beyond any number that could be accurately counted.

An extended instrumental that began and ended in a haze of feedback wound its way from psychedelia to frenzied finesse, demonstrating yet again why YMSB remain masters of their craft and ongoing icons amidst Colorado's contemporary vanguard.

Feist proved a somewhat odd choice for an afternoon showcase, given that her hypnotic rhythms and tribal mediations and incantations might have been better served in a morning slot. But where the follow-up to the high energy and exhilaration of Yonder Mountain could have proven somewhat less than fortuitous in terms of the flow, Feist seemed to have her own loyal legions who swayed to her hypnotic hymns as if it was the second dawning of Aquarius.

Indeed, her set separated the hippies from the have-nots. Atmospheric and ethereal in her designs, she managed to take the music from meditative to mesmerizing, winning over the audience, extroverts and all in the process.

Nevertheless, the high energy coda brought on by the Sam Bush Band reapplied the bluegrass MO, thanks to an early ingestion of more enthusiasm and exuberance. The lead-off entry Freight Train Boogie helped up the ante, but it was the swaying lilt of Everything Is Possible, a number Bob Marley might have penned back in the day, that proved the showstopper - albeit momentarily - and returned the crowd to its pensive sway. It was then left to an unlikely medley of Midnight Rider, Grand Funk's I'm Your Captain (?!) and a snippet of Celebrate Good Times to bring it all home. A more appropriate choice of Rag Mama Rag seemed to cap off the funkified frenzy in appropriate mountain misc style.

Making the hard choice to forego Leftover Salmon in favor of a theater show featuring encore performances from the Sarah Jarosz trio and the ever-enchanting Elephant Revival was not without remiss, but varying the setting to the intimate environs of the charming Palm Theater seemed to offer its advantages.

Sitting in the third row and meditating on Jarosz with violin and cello seemed something like witnessing a chamber orchestrated recital, if, that is a cover of the Beatles' Drive My Car and Colin Meloy's creepy True Tale of the Shankhill Butcher were able to accommodate a classical motif. Nevertheless, once the hordes opted to occupy the orchestra pit and turn it into more of a mosh pit, it was time to retreat from our up-close vantage point to the back of the house to enjoy the show relatively unscathed. Elephant Revival proceeded to play into the frenzied fandom, and with the aisles filling with revelers, it was now time to withdraw entirely, choosing not to risk missing the final gondola up the mountain to the guarded environs of the condo environs.