Eclectic Telluride Bluegrass Fest Honors Hartford’s Spirit

John Hartford would have been proud. The 28th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival was dedicated to the recently departed clown genius of bluegrass and old-time music, and four days of beautiful weather provided for an amazing weekend. Nestled in the beautiful San Juan Mountains of Colorado, the festival has become one of the most anticipated of the season. The Sunday night tribute to Hartford was the undisputed highlight, but the amazing talent assembled wasted no time in getting things rolling.

Thursday night’s festivities included a set by John Hiatt & the Goners, as
well as a spine-tingling performance by Emmylou Harris & Spyboy. Banjo player extraordinaire Alison Brown brought the house down with her quartet, with special guests including Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien joining the fun.

Crossover virtuoso Edgar Meyer performed in a duo with multi-instrumentalist Mike Marshall. Switching between hoedowns and grandiose classical themes, they revealed to the crowd just how much classical and bluegrass music have in common. The town bristled with excitement Thursday night. Every bar featured musicians jamming together in different and rare combinations, providing an endless stream of music as folks wandered the main strip.

Friday saw the introduction of a second stage located in the middle of town, just a few minutes’ walk from the main festival grounds. Here, folks found some of the most intriguing and unusual collaborations of the whole weekend. Northern pickers Railroad Earth from New Jersey started things off, followed by another set by Meyer, this time with banjo ace Bela Fleck joining him in a duo. Not a bad show to catch at 11 in the morning! Over on the main stage, one of bluegrass’ greatest all-star bands was getting ready to go on. Comotion is a recently formed unit featuring Michael Kang from The String Cheese Incident, Marshall, Darol Anger, Oregon’s Paul McCandless, former Leftover Salmon bassist Tye North and drummer Aaron Johnston. Their amazing blend of sounds was the highlight of the afternoon and left everyone hoping this amazing collaboration would be together for a long time.

Dan Tyminski — recently catapulted to fame by the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? (his voice comes out of George Clooney’s mouth) — played a raucous set, followed by legendary Peter Rowan and his band, Crucial Reggae, who brought Jamaican rhythms to the proceedings. Jerry Douglas and Bush helped Rowan capture the groove and open up the crowd’s ears for the upcoming musical onslaught known as Bela Fleck & the Flecktones. Joined by Bush, McCandless and Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile, the Flecktones did what they do best, namely play two hours of amazing bluegrass/jazz fusion. Coming out for the encore, Fleck reminded the crowd that before there was Kenny G, there was Benny G. Launching into a raucous Benny Goodman number, they proved that no musical style is beyond their reach. Self-proclaimed Cajun slamgrassers Leftover Salmon wrapped up the show on Friday, blending their various musical styles into a potpourri of manic energy, leaving everyone in attendance ready for a good night’s sleep. It was truly an amazing day of music, and the whole town seemed giddy at the prospect of two more days to come.

Saturday wasted no time getting started. In a morning side-stage show, Fleck and Thile played songs each has recorded for the other’s upcoming album. With a little help from guitarist Bryan Sutton, Fleck proved he definitely owns the 11 a.m. time slot. Up-and-comers Acoustic Syndicate got things started on the main stage, followed by New York roots-rockers Donna the Buffalo. Thile’s Nickel Creek played next and showed why they’ve been raising eyebrows all over the country. Thile’s amazing mandolin playing and depth of composition were the perfect complement to brother-sister combo Sara and Sean Watkins on fiddle and guitar, respectively. Over on the side stage, one of the most unusual shows of the weekend was about to start. The Flecktones’ Victor Wooten, Future Man and Jeff Coffin got together with McCandless and Anger under the moniker “Hipnotic Farm.” Wailing horns and thick backbeats permeated the main street of town, as passers-by were drawn to the strange sounds of funk drifting into the mountains.

Back on the main stage, Douglas unloaded his virtuoso Dobro
pyrotechnics on the crowd. His playing was so furious that the schedulers knew they’d better put someone after him who could restore a little calm. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s set was the perfect mixture of plaintive country acoustics and upbeat rockers. Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder were up next and proved to be one of the most popular acts of the weekend. Their country singing and bluegrass wailing made everyone’s ears perk up and led perfectly into the high-energy shenanigans of the Sam Bush Band. Bush has the distinction of having performed at every Telluride Bluegrass Festival except the first, making this his 27th in a row. His rock ’n’ roll-bluegrass band wailed for every second of their two-hour set and left no doubt that Bush will be welcome at the festival for another 27 years. The last act of the evening was Colorado-bred jamgrassers Yonder Mountain String Band. There was a lot of buzz on the street about these guys, and they did not disappoint. Their high-energy ballads and fast picking had everyone dancing long past midnight.

With Sunday came the knowledge that this amazing weekend of music was almost over, but it was hard to get too upset knowing that there were still 12 more hours of music in store. Boomchicks and Blue Highway got things rolling in the sunshine, but it was the late-afternoon tribute to Hartford that captured everyone’s heartstrings. The legendary banjo player, fiddler, riverboat captain, and grandfather of newgrass was honored for a lifetime of great music, including writing the classic pop standard “Gentle on My Mind.” The festival wrapped up with a one-two-three punch of outstanding talent. The Tim O’Brien Band unleashed their astounding depth of Americana melodies, John Cowan howled and wailed like the old days of singing lead for New Grass Revival, and Alison Krauss & Union Station, featuring Douglas and Tyminski, wrapped it all up with Krauss’ sweet voice and wonderful songwriting sensibilities.

There’s something magical about bluegrass in the mountains. Besides the fact that Telluride is one of the most visually beautiful places to see music, there’s a sense that the mountains are where this music belongs. It started in the mountains, was inspired by the mountains, and if the last 28 years of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival are any indication, that is most certainly where it belongs. Hartford would have loved it.