Ryan Adams and the Infamous Stringdusters featuring Nicki Bluhm at Telluride Bluegrass
Ryan Adams on June 18, 2016
Ryan Adams took the stage at the 2016 Telluride Bluegrass Festival flanked by a full bluegrass band that turned out to be the Infamous Stringdusters featuring Nicki Bluhm. Most in the audience were surprised, since the festival program billed the set as an “unforgettable solo performance.” Turns out that festival promoter Planet Bluegrass had only known for a couple of weeks that the collaboration was a possibility, and even then it was unclear whether the Stringdusters would just sit in for a few songs or do something more. It turned out to be something more.
There were clues suggesting that this show might come together as it did. We learned last month that the acts would share the stage at the Newport Folk Festival, so the Telluride set made sense with the Stringdusters in town for their own show later in the festival. This writer got his first clue in the artist merch tent, which had Ryan Adams/Infamous Stringduster t-shirts for sale.
Adams has a bit of a tense history with the Telluride crowd. He played in 2008 with the Cardinals, and, well, let’s just say it wasn’t a great fit. He was in a different place then, and seemed determined not to give us something good. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) Buzz on the Town Park tarps going into his 6:00 p.m. Saturday set ranged from cautious optimism to trepidation, and Adams seemed to realize it. At one point, in response to a shouted request, he said, “I’m going to do the most non-Ryan thing ever and play that song you just asked for.”
Adams has no history with the Infamous Stringdusters. Word around Telluride is that they met for the first time a day or two before the show, and practiced together very briefly. So how did they get together? Text messages between Adams and Bluhm started the process, then he and the Stringdusters planned the gig by further texts. Adams told us that a band member texted a message about a particular song, “F sharp to G sus”. Adams texted back, “#what?” After telling that story he introduced the next song by saying to the boys in the band, “Capo second, J flat, suspension of disbelief.”
The onstage banter was vintage Ryan Adams. He faux complained about the gondola connecting Mountain Viillage to Telluride (one of the finest examples of free public transportation in the United States, by the way), then claimed he saw an “orange sherbet” cat at the top of the peak, and in the same story worked in a reference to the quality of the marijuana in the Telluride area. He asked the festival crowd to remember him to the orange cat if they happened to see it. Not sure it was the cat reference, the dope reference, or both, but he was accepted by this sunburned bunch of festivarians.
The way you really get accepted at Telluride is that you play your music, and play it well. He and the Stringdusters did just that. Adams said near the end of the set, “Without [the Stringdusters] you’d be so depressed right now.” An overstatement perhaps, but the combination worked, and the folks in Town Park were anything but depressed. Adams and his Buck Owens acoustic guitar sounded great, and there was something truly Telluride about hearing some old Ryan Adams songs with a dobro and mandolin playing along. The set started with a bluegrass version of “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad)” with the Stringdusters on stools on either side. Adams reached back into the song chest and dusted off some good ones, including “Trains” and “Tears of Gold”. “Jacksonville Skyline” was particularly poignant, giving the hard core fans a sweet taste of the Whiskeytown days. “My Sweet Carolina” brought the crowd alive on the first chorus – even those who haven’t lived the Ryan Adams journey seemed to know that song, and sang along. Near the end, he served up a cover of Dio’s “Holy Diver”. “Come Pick Me Up” closed out the set, and Ryan Adams and the Infamous Stringdusters left the stage to a long applause.
Adams, in some ways, is the difficult cousin at the family reunion. He’s gifted, but he often causes trouble, and sometimes makes you wonder if getting everyone together is really worth it. But on this beautiful Colorado evening, he was at his best, full of charm and talent. The family was glad he showed up, and seemed to be looking forward to their next time together.