here are festivals and there are FESTIVALS. And then there's Telluride Bluegrass. Like most of your finer music gatherings, the vibe at Telluride isn't only about the music, although throughout its 40 years of existence, the festival's attracted some of Americana's most extraordinary artists.
The fact is, it's more about the vibe, a natural occurrence that takes place when you gather the loyal hordes - known collectively as Festavarians - at heights of 14,000 feet above sea level in a natural box canyon surrounded by splendid peaks in the heart of the Rockies. Like most gatherings with a similar lineage, those that attend become part of a community whose point of pride is telling the newbies how many years they've participated in the festivities.
Fortunately, extended tenure isn't a prerequisite to getting into the spirit of what these environs have to offer. That feeling of euphoria is obvious on arrival, from the sheer beauty of the magnificent surroundings to the obvious enthusiasm of those who have traveled from near and far to share in its sounds.
It also has to do with a storied heritage. While Bonnaroo, Stagecoach and the like tend to extol the virtues of building a legacy that's lasted a decade or so (if that), Telluride is celebrating its 40th anniversary, bringing it from humble, homespun beginnings as the brainchild of the late Fred Shellman, to one of the most celebrated gatherings on the planet. Only the Monterrey Jazz Fest and the Newport Folk Festival come to mind in terms of a longer tenure.
Still, all that would pale in comparison if the music itself didn't rate well with the overall experience. Fortunately, Telluride is able to tie its performers to the festivities by virtue of the number of times they've performed there.
Sam Bush, the indisputable and widely-acclaimed "King of Telluride," has played the festival 39 years in a row, a festival forebear if ever there was one. Peter Rowan can claim 33 years. Even the new generation of relatively recent arrivals can chalk up the experience as a highpoint of their collective careers. Even Yonder Mountain Band, relatively recent arrivals to the scene, can now boast 14 consecutive appearances, no small feat in itself.
With that in mind, it's on to the musical highlights, a formidable feat of notating in itself.
Thursday, June 20: Day One (A splendid return)
While the aforementioned Mr. Bush represents the ultimate Telluride royalty, the presumed heir apparent and unofficial Prince of Telluride may well be Chris Thile, mandolin player supreme, who actually played the Telluride stage for the first time at the tender age of 12 as a part of the seminal Nu-Grass band Nickel Creek.
Now fully matured into a solid showman, he had the auspicious honor of opening the four-day musical onslaught with a solo show prior to returning on day two with his band The Punch Brothers. Even on his own, he held the crowd spellbound, from a semi-gospel-like Gaelic instrumental to a stately Louvin Brothers number accompanied by a recitation of the brothers' tragic tale. At the same time, Thile did what he does best, expanding the parameters of his instrument into unexpected realms. Evidence lies in his upcoming solo venture, an album of Bach partitas that may take even diehard devotees a listen or several to fully absorb. Indeed, it was the more traditional entries that hit home on this particular morning, a vintage Civil War soldier tune entitled Richmond It's a Hard Road to Travel and another tune about heartbreak with a lyric - possibly autobiographical - that went, "It just sucks to hear it on the phone, going from town to town, knowing you won't be there when I get home..."
Regardless, there was pure joy in the delight Thile expressed about being in this particular place, sentiments that would be echoed by every act that followed. "It's like music Christmas," he exclaimed.
Elephant Revival, a relative newcomer to much of the crowd, followed next, a modest combo whose main instrumental assets consisted of guitar, washboard, banjo, bass and fiddle. It was the latter, played by frenetic fiddler Bridget Law, that stood out as the combo's main attraction.
Opening offering, Go On and Sing to the Mountain, seemed an apt intro, and when even the photographers are whooping it up and dancing in the pit, it's evident that the music hits the mark. Likewise, the lyric to a song entitled The Grace of a Woman expressed best what everyone was feeling. "So Mother Nature, here we are/The greatest teacher of them all."
The duo that dubbed themselves the Milk Carton Kids followed, first-timers and by definition, Telluride virgins. Their exceptional new album, "Ash and Clay," is the first to bring them to the masses, a follow-up to two previous albums generously offered for free download. Noting the fact that they appeared overdressed in their matching suits, they remarked how undressed the crowd seemed by comparison. Although their songs and harmonies most frequently bring to mind Simon and Garfunkel, even freakishly at times, in concert they recall the brotherly harmonies of the Everlys, with Joey Ryan's bespeckled appearance and '60s era mop top also bringing to mind vintage pairings like Peter and Gordon and Chad and Jeremy.
On the other hand, Ryan's comedic introductions, often at the expense of his straitlaced partner Kenneth Pattengale, might make the Smothers Brothers the best basis for comparison. Introducing one song, Ryan remarked that Pattengale had composed it in anticipation of the arrival of his daughter. Never mind the fact that they've been singing it for two years, and he's yet to find a mother to bring a child into the world.
Bliss can take many forms, and when Greensky Bluegrass took the stage, the Michigan-based quintet demonstrated that exhilaration is definitely part of the quotient. Suffice it say, their rousing performance really got the crowd going, an elevation of energy that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Performing their songs at breakneck speed, they defined the sound of Telluride itself with a whirlwind of banjo, guitar, mandolin and pedal steel. "This is definitely the most beautiful place to play in the entire world," they exclaimed, echoing the sentiments of everyone, onstage and off. Notably, the Greenskys would be the band most mentioned when audience members were queried about their favorite act of the day. Singularly and practically unanimously, it was an impressive feat in itself.
Notably then, North Carolina's Steep Canyon Rangers managed to maintain that high bar, little surprise considering their dexterity in blending various musical forms with the bluegrass that provides their point of departure. Their latest album, "Nobody Knows You," proved the highlight of their set, offering the title track, Rescue Me and Asheville Town, songs clearly destined to become standards in their set. A new percussionist added to the rush of tempos and melody, but as always, it was fiddler Nicky Sanders that threatened to steal the show. Yet, for all their remarkable syncopation and interplay, the tuneful trappings of their material still sway even those lacking bluegrass bearings. Indeed, the first of two appearances they'd make on day one - the second would be in the company of Steve Martin - proved to be a definitive definition of why Steep Canyon Rangers may be the genre's most able ambassadors to the world at large.
Richard Thompson, appearing solo, provided a delightful respite, and while his pedigree is in British folk - "pre-grass" as he referred to it - his performance was a singular delight for his many fans and devotees. His dry wit and somber songs may have seemed out of place, but regardless, the crowd consistently cheered him on. "Thank you for dancing," he remarked to a group of revelers clearly caught up in it all, before turning his notorious sarcasm on an individual attempting to shout out a request. Yet, he also reserved a self-deprecating comment for himself, noting his recent appearances on the Cayamo cruises of this year and last. "Celtic music is so miserable," he noted. "You can't just play it anywhere, unless you were going to simply circle Iceland. It's not a happy sound."
Indeed, while much of his music carries a dark undertow, the string of songs that he performed represented some of the most magnificent music borne from his singular view - I Misunderstood, Vincent Black Lightning, Galway to Graceland, Persuasion, Dimming of the Day, Down Where the Drunkards Roll, Walking on a Wire, Feel So Good and occasional selections from his recent album "Electric." They're songs of pathos and humanity, eerie circumstance and inescapable irony. In other words, Thompson in top form, and, as always, at his best.
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, two other personages acknowledged as Telluride royalty, proved their able combination could easily overshadow whatever solo sets the two would have offered on their own. Like June and Johnny, Porter and Dolly, or dare we say, Gram and Emmylou, the pair radiated the presence of a king and queen, Sam Bush's own distinction as king of Telluride notwithstanding. Surprisingly, even though the two are Telluride stalwarts in the strictest sense, they had never appeared together for a full set on the Telluride stage.
Drawing several songs from their exceptional new album "Old Yellow Moon," both looked radiant - Harris with her massive furrows of gray hair and black fringed jacket, Crowell clad old country style with a vest, black polka-dotted shirt and flat brimmed hat. The two exhibited the synchronicity of two artists pegged to ever divergent careers; having met in the early '70s, they played together in one of Harris' early ensembles and continued to collaborate on various occasions in the decades since. Their chemistry allowed for heartfelt harmonies that played off staples of their individual repertoires - Wheels, Pancho and Lefty, 'Til I Gain Control Again, If I Needed You, Red Dirt Girl, The Houston Kid and other songs that sounded that sounded like they were tailor made for their combined harmonies. Even so, Back When We Were Beautiful seemed particularly poignant, drawing the two together as a couple with mutual history and remarkable resilience.
Mumford and Sons were to be the evening's headliners - no small stature considering the notables that were to precede them - but a sudden traumatic blood clot afflicting bassist Ted Dwane caused the cancellation of the remaining shows of their tour. Scrambling to fill the void, the promoters managed to get Steve Martin to fill in with the Steep Canyon boys in tow. Although Martin made for a decidedly different type of performance, he and the band added an extra dose of delight to the evening's facilities, courtesy of both musicality and Martin's comic asides. "I've always dreamed of playing Telluride," he remarked. "And tonight I feel I'm one step closer to realizing my dream." Speaking of his relationship to the band, Martin was quick to define their relationship. "I do not consider them my back-up band," he insisted. "I consider myself their celebrity addition." Going on to describe their mutual feelings about the collaboration, Martin maintained that they all agreed that when it stopped being fun, they would go their own ways. At which point the band promptly left the stage.
Nevertheless, the performance boasted numerous highlights, not the least of which were those featuring singer Edie Brickell who joined the ensemble onstage to perform songs off of her new album with Martin, "Love Has Come For You."
Wonderful renditions of the title track and the stirring Shawnee found Martin's banjo picking as impressive as it is on the album ("I think of my banjos as my children," he told the crowd. "Which means that one of them is probably not mine.") Likewise, Martin's original tune, Atheists Have No Songs, a send-up of the many signature songs that are a part of Judeo-Christian tradition, was a real hoot. As was the entire evening.
Appropriately, Thursday marked the beginning of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. The variety of great music made that occurrence seem especially significance. Amazingly. this had only been day one.