Telluride Bluegrass: Thursday Recap & A Modest Proposal
Great first day at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Tim O'Brien and Kevin Burke started things off at 11:00 a.m. Tim O'Brien plays just about everything, but he had a fiddle in his hand Thursday morning and was playing with one of the finest Irish musicians around, who also plays the fiddle. Like ringing a bell. If you don't know Mr. Burke, here's a link to his bio - quite an interesting guy.
To the right is a pic of Mr. O'Brien (left) and Mr. Burke. During their set, they played jigs, reels, waltzes and polkas. Mr. O'Brien even cracked a jolka, as he so often does, and sang just a bit. "Well if I was a sinner, I tell you what I would do, I'd quit my sinning and work on a building too." Near the end, Mr. O'Brien's son, Joel, came out and danced up a little percussion to go with the high-quality fiddle playing. It was an excellent way to get the party started.
What a party it is. I've been to TBF's where you could walk up and buy a one-day pass for Thursday on Thursday. This year's festival has been completely sold out for months. So, instead of playing to a smaller group of die hards, Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Burke were playing to a large crowd on a sunny Thursday morning that demanded SPF 50 or higher and lots of hydration. Beer has water in it, doesn't it?
Regulars bookended the Thursday lineup, with the Telluride House Band closing it down just before we clicked over to Friday morning. More on them in a minute, but in the middle there was some really good stuff from The Head and the Heart, Cornmeal, Steve Earle and Sarah McLachlan. [Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper also played, but we had to listen to them on KOTO as it was necessary to get out of the sun for just a bit.] If you're not in Telluride but want to listen to the rest of TBF, KOTO streams it here.
I didn't know much about The Head and the Heart before learning they were in the Telluride lineup. As I listened to them, I kept wondering how they should be categorized. (Everyone must have a category!) The problem was solved during their introduction Thursday, when their music was described as "eclectic folk pop." Good enough for me, and good enough for the crowd, too. The younger folks were up at the beginning of their set, and everyone else was up by the end.
Cornmeal was up next. I stood next to Jeff Austin (of Yonder Mountain String Band) when I took this photo. Cornmeal was rocking him the same as the rest of us. I'm not sure, but I think Austin took a shot of them in action on his cell phone camera. I'd say that's high praise. Their speed-jam bluegrass was the perfect follow up to The Head and the Heart and is just another example of how young people are stretching the limits of acoustic music and how Planet Bluegrass continues to stay tuned.
After our break from the sun, we made our way back in to the festival for "Steve Earl & the Dukes (& Duchesses) featuring Allison Moorer." Already awarded the prize for longest name of any act on the bill, Mr. Earle and his wife, band and baby won the crowd with a solid hour and 15 minutes of great music. They started with the first 3 songs on the new album (Waitin' On The Sky, Little Emperor, The Gulf Of Mexico). Before those songs were done, my wife Malinda leaned over and said, "I get it," meaning, "I understand why you like this guy so much."
Earle's band is, as usual, tight. The Mastersons are now a part of the Dukes and Duchesses and round things out well, not to mention that it puts a redhead on each end of the stage. The group moves easily from acoustic to rock, with Earle changing from various guitars to mandolin to banjo (Earle said his banjo "scared sheep" - not true).
After doing Galway Girl, Earle made a comment or two about the Civil War and war generally, then launched in to Ben McCulloch ("goddam you Ben McCulloch, hate you more than any other man alive") and Dixieland, another Civil War song told from the perspective of a soldier named Kilraine of Joshua Chamberlain's 20th Maine. War is hell, but listening to Steve Earle is not, even when he preaches a little.
Earle and his wife Allison Moorer later combined on The Days Aren't Long Enough. It was good to see them on stage together again. I was there at the beginning, when she opened for him in San Francisco on The Revolution Starts Now tour. Back then, you could tell there was a ton of energy between them, but it was a few weeks later before word came that they were actually together. He still smiles every time he looks at her, just like he did back then. When Ms. Moorer turned in a show stopping cover of Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come, Earle was off stage smiling like a proud spouse. When he came back on stage he said, "am I overmarried or what?"
The show closed out with Guitar Town, Copperhead Road, Taneytown and The Revolution Starts Now. It was good to see them rock out at the end - the crowd was clearly into it. After the show Earle reappeared on stage with little John Henry, holding him up for all to see. I can see why he didn't play I Ain't Ever Satisfied. That song wouldn't work on this day.
Sarah McLachlan was next. She's uber talented and makes no bones about playing a lot of love songs. And she plays a lot of love songs. Generally, that's not my thing, but I have to concede I was very impressed with her and her band. The crowd seemed to know her songs and was really into the show. It was a nice transition from Earle to the House Band. By the time she sang "Angel" for the first of two songs during her encore, we were putting chairs away and getting ready to go down front for some hardcore bluegrasss/newgrass.
Rather than give you a recap of the Telluride House Band's 2 hour set that included songs by John Hartford, Bill Monroe, The Country Gentlemen, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas and many more, let me make a modest proposal. Let's take these guys on the road so the world can see what makes us all come to Telluride. Dates in New York, Chicago and L.A. just to get the buzz going, then let them take the country by storm.
My second son, Jake, compared The Telluride House Band to the '92 USA Basketball team. (I looked it up this morning - that team was so good it didn't take a single time out in its run to the gold medal.) The comparison is apt. Like the members of the Dream Team, Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Bela Fleck (banjo), Edgar Meyer (bass), Sam Bush (mandolin), Jerry Douglas (dobro) and Bryan Sutton (guitar) are simply the best. Together, however, they produce something that is greater than the sum of their parts, something transcendant. They were transcendant Thursday night.
So, Planet Bluegrass, in your spare time, why don't you put together a Down From Telluride Tour and offer it to the world, as long as they promise to only come to Telluride in limited numbers for TBF each year, as we like it the way it is around here. On second thought, never mind. It's kinda nice knowing that this show only happens once a year and we get to see it.
You can follow Mando Lines on Twitter @mando_lines. He took the photos above except for the USA basketball pic.