Not that Telluride didn't try. An early morning set by a solo Bela Fleck turned on the natural wonderment of what the man can accomplish with a traditional stringed instrument, stretching its parameters into realms heretofore unimagined. Indeed, who would ever have dreamed that he would single-handedly tackle side two of "Abbey Road" and provide such a straight on reminder of those melodies?
Likewise, a spirited set by the Infamous Stringdusters proved an early afternoon cause for revival, what with the band's excellent five-part harmonies and integrated instrumental interplay. All in all, they offered early elevation in the festivities.
Nevertheless, the fiddle frenzy of Natalie MacMaster and husband Donnell Leahy proved an unequivocal highlight of the afternoon, thanks to the duo's remarkable instrumental prowess, a pair of pianos played in support, and some high-kicking Celtic dance steps that reflect their native Nova Scotia heritage. Trading licks back and forth, clogging and keeping time, the quartet went from studied recitations of age-old Scottish airs to breathless high octane work-outs, capturing the crowd's devotion in the process.
Leahy, one of 11 siblings in a family of musical devotees, has obviously passed the tradition onwards, given the fact that he and Natalie have sired five children in seven years. Not surprisingly then, when they brought out their seven-year-old daughter for a solo spot followed by her high-stepping jig, the parents seemed particularly proud. A standing ovation from the crowd led to another once the set concluded, earning the group the only encore of the afternoon.
A return to old-school bluegrass was prompted by Telluride traditionalists Hot Rize, a breezy ensemble that includes founding member Tim O'Brien and new recruit Bryan Sutton. While their well-suited ways befit the Telluride tradition, a spin-off in the form of alter-egos Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers proved a real hoot, right down to the cornball narratives, classic cowboy garb and honky-tonk hijinks.
Jackson Browne's much anticipated feature performance came on the heels of the previous evening's cameo with Leftover Salmon, a showing that suggested his voice might have been a bit strained. Fortunately, there was no evidence that he was any the worse for wear, although it did seem the hour and a half allotted for his segment went by much too quickly. "We're going to attempt a six minute song in the five minutes we have left," Browne remarked when reminded of the time.
Fortunately, he also managed to squeeze in several of his standards, among them I'm Alive, The Naked Ride Home, These Days, The Pretender, Redneck Friend, Running on Empty, Before the Deluge and Take It Easy, the song he says has been his most successful.
Sara and Sean Watkins, Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush comprised the obligatory roll call of guest stars, but surprisingly, it was a guest turn from backing guitarist Val McCallum and a reading of his own Tokyo Girl that proved a highlight of the set and equal incentive to track down his solo album, "At the End of the Day."
Indeed, the end of the day had arrived with the festival's final offering, the all-star ensemble comprised of Fleck, Sutton, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Edgar Meyer. Traditional Telluride closers, the house band's affinity for their audience and especially each other was evident at the outset.
With Bush acting as the de facto musical director, the musicians shared jokes, egged each other on, and traded licks with rapid-fire efficiency. Of course, there were the obligatory guest appearances, among them the Watsons, Noam Pikelny (who seemed in contention to claim as many guest appearances throughout the festival as Bush himself), Browne (who unfortunately forgot part of the lyric to his featured song, You Ain't Going Nowhere and Chris Thile (whose masterful mandolin duet with Bush proved another standout of the set.
Sadly though, the time had come to give the Telluride Bluegrass Festival our farewells as the 40th anniversary pomp and circumstance came to a close. Four days of fortuitous circumstance made this Rocky Mountain high an experience readily remembered for years to come.