Picking and grinning: Notes on Telluride Bluegrass 2011 | AspenTimes.com

Picking and grinning: Notes on Telluride Bluegrass 2011

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesKai Welch and Abigail Washburn on stage at the 38th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

TELLURIDE, Colo. – Thoughts while biking the hillsides of Telluride in search of cell phone reception, praying I hadn’t missed the opportunity to photograph mandolinist Sarah Jarosz, eating many enchiladas at La Cocina de Luz restaurant, searching for suitable bathroom facilities in a town swimming in Port-a-Potties, squeezing in sleep in the free-form Town Park Campground, and catching 28 sets of music over four days. And, of course, marveling at the glory that was the 38th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, held June 16-19.• The final two bands at Telluride ’11 – and easily the weekend’s two biggest draws – were British acts: Mumford & Sons and Robert Plant. Though neither of them played bluegrass, the links to bluegrass were evident, with banjos, mandolins and stand-up bass. Which helps lay to rest the idea that bluegrass is insular hillbilly music.Further regional facts: of the three most-visible festival pickers, one was raised in New York City (Bla Fleck), and another was raised in San Diego and resides in New York (Chris Thile). Sam Bush, the King of Telluride, can claim genuine bluegrass blood – born and raised in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the Bluegrass state.• While Bush remains Telluride royalty, making numerous appearances over the weekend, the crown might rest uneasy upon his head. Sunday came and went without a single Sam sighting, while Thile was everywhere, all weekend – free shows in Elks Park, mainstage sets with Punch Brothers and a duo with guitarist Michael Daves, sitting in with bassist Edgar Meyer, playing a free, two and a half hour show at the Steaming Bean coffee shop.• The picking scene in the Town Park Campground, adjacent to the festival site, is mostly a myth – which was good for my sleep, but messed with my romantic vision of ’round-the-clock music-making. When I dragged my ass back to my tent each night, there was the occasional picker or strummer, but nothing like competing jam sessions. Too much chill in the Telluride air, several people told me.• Favorite activity besides watching the music: Watching Bella Betts watch the music. The 10-year-old former Aspenite would sit front-row center and simply absorb the music with an intensity I only dream of. And when Thile would hit the stage, her concentration amped up. As you might expect, that kind of listening translates into phenomenal picking – check out Bella’s sit-in with Thile at the Steaming Bean (youtube.com/watch?v=3St1CoH1rKU).• As a bluegrass town, Telluride kicks Aspen’s butt (and that of every other town, Nashville quite possibly included). But Aspen edges Telluride in the Edgar Meyer department.Meyer, the extraordinary bassist and composer, played a solo set in Telluride, and it was a festival highlight for me. But Meyer’s solo show is chamber music, better suited to a small hall than an open-air festival. Better, that is, in the Aspen Music Festival’s Harris Hall, where Meyer, a Music Festival faculty member, performs solo on Aug. 17. (Last year, Meyer performed in a trio with Bla Fleck and tabla player Zakir Hussain in T-ride – a good show, but not as good as the one later in the summer at the more appropriate Benedict Music Tent in Aspen.)• I’m not sure I believe in angels, but Telluride is starting to convince me. Last year, it was the people at the Capella Telluride giving me a luxurious room for the entire Bluegrass weekend. This year, it was Amy, a former Telluride mayor, opening the doors (and, mercifully, the shower stall) of her condo – which happened to be directly across the street from the festival entrance.(Note to the Capella, now known as the Hotel Madeline: Ummm, looks like your turn again next year.)• I propose a partnership between Telluride Bluegrass and the Wheeler Opera House, along the lines of the Mountainfilm in Telluride/MountainSummit set-up. They provide the booking and marketing savvy; we provide the venue.• Somehow I made it this far without mentioning that I saw my favorite band, Railroad Earth, twice over the weekend – on the mainstage, and a magnificent Nightgrass show at the incomparable Sheridan Opera House. Maybe if they had played even one of my two favorite songs at either of the shows, they’d have been mentioned sooner.• Is Telluride Bluegrass perfection? Of course not. There’s no food for the press. The weather was just barely good enough (Saturday was ideal, with sun and clouds in perfect balance; Sunday had an hours-long rain shower). Yonder Mountain String Band still has its regular mainstage slot, and the grounds are filled with a fair number of people who think this is a good thing.Solve two of those things – easy enough, right? – and I’ll be happy to call it perfection.• My weekend accomplice, Alan, came in as something of a bluegrass fan. But I loved watching him discover for himself musicians like Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, Steve Earle, Brittany Haas and others. After the weekend, I saw him and he was in this state of awe, still absorbing what he had experienced, but no doubt having his take on acoustic music broadened, deepened and altered.It was an experience I recognized – it was more or less the same one I had after my first Telluride Bluegrass festival, in 1994.• We ain’t nearly done with banjos and fiddles and murder ballads.Steve Earle, who played a great Telluride set, hits Carbondale’s PAC3 on Sunday, July 3, appearing with his Dukes & Duchesses – far as I can tell, Earle’s first valley appearance with a band. To prepare, check out Earle’s new album and new novel, both titled “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”The PAC3 lineup looks like a mini bluegrass festival, spread out over a few months. Reigning royalty of traditional bluegrass, the Del McCoury Band, is set for July 28. Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen plays Aug. 16. And Sam Bush, the King of Telluride, graces Carbondale with a visit on Sept. 16.The Bluegrass Sundays series, on top of Aspen Mountain each Sunday afternoon, features the Defiance String Band, with local pickers John Sommers and Don & April Paine, on July 3. Other series highlights include the Henhouse Prowlers (July 24), a Chicago band who plays the mainstage at this year’s Rockygrass festival; the Hillbenders (July 31), a Missouri group that won the 2009 Telluride Band Competition; and Grand Junction’s Straygrass (Aug. 7).Deer Tick, a Rhode Island folk-rock band that you could picture on the Telluride stage, makes its local debut July 25 at Belly Up.Carbondale’s Mountain Fair (July 29-31) features Colorado’s fast-rising gypsy-grass band Elephant Revival, as well as the Hillbenders.As mentioned, Edgar Meyer plays an Aspen Music Festival date on Aug. 17.stewart@aspentimes.com

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