Words by David Burnett
All photos by Tim Benko
Forget Glastonbury and its mud. Few festivals can match the Telluride Bluegrass Festival – spread over four June days on a single stage before a crowd of 10,000. The setting is as stunning as the music. The small Colorado town of Telluride is 9,000 feet up in the Rockies. Waterfalls and snow-capped peaks ring the festival site, which for 51 weeks of the year is the town park. Tickets sold out in minutes. But no matter. You can always listen to it streamed live on KOTO.org, the local radio station and one of a handful of independent stations still on air in the US.
The only similarity between Glastonbury and this year’s TBF, the 41st, was the appearance of Stevie Winwood, who with Traffic played at the first Glastonbury, and whose Hammond organ (described by the MC, Jo Craven, as his ‘writing desk’) and still soulful voice echoed out into the June evening. Much of his audience was not born when he first sang ‘Dear Mr Fantasy’, but that didn’t stop them belting out every word as darkness fell and a thin shard of moon rose over Bridal Veil Falls.
The appearance of Winwood says much about the character of the Festival. Over the 41 years bluegrass has morphed into ‘newgrass’, personified by Sam Bush, the undisputed ‘King of Telluride’ (who has played at all but the first and whose New Grass Revival reshaped the musical trajectory of bluegrass), ‘jamgrass’ (a nod here to the influence of the Grateful Dead), ‘slamgrass’, and is now being reinvented again by a new generation of singers and performers – many of whom were on this year’s Telluride bill.
Amongst the most gifted of these is the 33-year-old virtuoso mandolinist Chris Thile, who with Nickel Creek and now also with the Punch Brothers, pays scant attention to musical boundaries. He first played at Telluride aged 12, and ever since has regarded it as a test ground, a place for innovation and breaking down the walls between ‘a folk or intuitive approach to music-making and a classical or learned approach.’ Thus the Beach Boys, Bartok and Bluegrass. A high energy bendy-toy on stage, Thile’s visceral musicianship was in full evidence at the traditional late Sunday night end of festival jam at the tiny Sheridan Opera House (once the bank and robbed by Butch Cassidy). But here he was amongst his peers. At one point the pocket handkerchief of a stage boasted Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, John Paul Jones (who admirably shuns the spotlight), Willie Watson, the rest of Punch Brothers, Sara and Sean Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan and Ronnie McCoury – music-making royalty to a man. Once again, the jam-packed opera house sung along to every song, blurring the distinction between crowd and performers, each feeding off the other.
And this sense of camaraderie, of a shared experience, holds the key to what gives TBF its character. Never one to rest on his Grammy, Peter Rowan returned with the Twang and Groove Band for his 34th Telluride and a slowed-down spine-tingling ‘Land of the Navajo’, his lament for a lost America given added weight by the presence alongside him of the Tibetan songstress Yungchen Lhamo, another whose lands have been occupied against the will of a nation. Or take the hard-working The Lone Bellow, a Brooklyn band blessed with three contrasting voices but shed of its fiddle and horn section for Telluride. Not content with playing the opening night free concert at Mountain Village, a vertiginous gondola ride high above the town, followed by a main stage performance the following day, they plunged headlong into the crowd for an impromptu acoustic set that had everyone craning their necks to hear their ‘You don’t love me like you used to’ – a song so catchy it merits a slot on every radio station play list.
Equally in evidence was the permanently grinning Sam Bush, a musical jack-in-the box who popped up on stage to lend a hand with his venerable 1937 Gibson mandolin for virtually every act, from jamgrass bands like Yonder Mountain String Band and Greensky Bluegrass to the Cajun slamgrass of Leftover Salmon. For this his 40th appearance at Telluride, he lined up 9 other mandolin players for ‘Russian Rag’, a ragtime reworking of a Rachmaninoff piano prelude, before calling on Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne to join him on ‘Spanish Moon’.
Sam Bush’s ‘one night only’ mandolin orchestra was a nod to an extraordinary performance by Bela Fleck, a Telluride stalwart and surely the world’s finest banjo player, with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra for the premier of Fleck’s ‘The Impostor’, whose 3 movements were followed by Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ and the arrival on stage of Sam Bush, who briefly seemed blown away by accompanying a full orchestra to an old Strength in Numbers tune. But perhaps the biggest cheer came for the opening of the ‘William Tell’ overture, played over the tannoy every morning at 9 am when the gates open and the daily ritual of the ‘tarp rush’ begins.
Laid back gentle good humour is the order of the day at Telluride. The audience ranges from babes in arms wearing outsize ear muffs against the noise to grizzled veterans of the 60s. Most are young, white, feisty and stoned (dope is now legal in Colorado). Remarkably, there is no litter and the loos are emptied and kept clean. Water and sunscreen are provided free. Backstage there is no division between stars and workers or guests. Everyone queues for supper, which is wholesome and organic and served at two long tables. You sit where there’s space, which could as easily mean squeezing in next to the ‘emperor of bluegrass’, the great Del McCoury, or Alison Krauss (who with the dobro player Jerry Douglas joined the Telluride house band on Sunday evening).
Telluride’s Michael Eavis is Craig Ferguson, who rescued the festival from crisis 25 years ago and guides its fortunes with the lightest of touches from the Planet Bluegrass ranch at Lyons, north of Denver. It’s rare to see a grown man openly cry in front of 10,000 people, but nothing could staunch Ferguson’s tears when he took to the stage to relive the day 6 feet deep flash floods swept away their offices last September. For a while this year’s festival hung in the balance, but as Chris Thile said, there are only 3 dates in his diary, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Telluride. Nothing could stop it. The tragedy is that no British festival booking agency seems willing to take a chance on any part of the Telluride line up. But if you fancy four days of sublime music and a reminder of just how uplifting a festival can be, put it in your diary as well.