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Bloody disasters? Not for Palisade festival

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times

Joshua Black Wilkins

As Homer Simpson famously put it, alcohol is the cause of — and solution to — all of life’s problems. In the case of the Palisade Bluegrass and Roots Festival, alcohol was the solution; the cause was another, generally more benign liquid: water.

In the festival’s debut year, 2009, the town of Palisade was deluged with rain.

“The Grand Valley gets 5 inches of rain a year. We got 5 inches that weekend. A tragic weekend,” said Aspenite Josh Behrman, who operates the festival with Carbondalian Amy Kimberley. “Our saving grace was the Bloody Mary. We greeted the artists with a Bloody Mary as they drove up, and that seemed to make them happy. The festival has become known for it.”

The following year brought another liquid-related disaster. The Colorado River overflowed its banks, and the festival had to relocate at the last minute to a different part of Riverbend Park. But Behrman and Kimberley, possibly fortified by a few of the festival’s signature cocktails, didn’t let their spirits be dampened. They saw huge potential in Palisade, and especially in Riverbend Park, a grassy parcel a few blocks from the quaint downtown of Palisade. The park, as promised, nestles against a bend in the Colorado.

“You can literally hang out in a tube or raft on the river and hear the music, potentially even see the music,” Behrman said. “The park is beautiful, pristine. Everything is right there. You get there and never get in your car the whole weekend. I never thought about giving it up because we felt this had all the ingredients. We just needed that break of good weather — which we had last year, and it killed.”

With last summer’s fine weather came solid attendance. Capping the weekend was a performance by headliners the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who were on the verge of big things. Since the Palisade gig, the old-timey North Carolina trio has been nominated for a Grammy and landed a song on the “Hunger Games” soundtrack.

The Palisade Bluegrass & Roots Festival enters its fifth year (today through Sunday; http://www.palisademusic.com) with momentum. Advance ticket sales nearly match the total sold for all of last year’s event. The music lineup even features a potential match for last year’s appearance by the Carolina Chocolate Drops: Playing Sunday afternoon is old-timey act Pokey LaFarge, whose self-titled album, released last week, is on the label owned by Jack White and was produced by Ketch Secor, of Old Crow Medicine Show.

Among the festival’s other key ingredients are the support of the town of Palisade and the agricultural bounty of the area. Behrman says that Palisade, which funds the event, offers its full resources. The Public Works crew builds the stage, the Fire Department handles the electricity, and the community turns out in force to form a substantial volunteer corps. Palisade is Colorado’s premier fruit-growing region, and all the food and drink sold at the festival is locally sourced. (The Bloody Mary uses the Goat Vodka from Peach Street Distillers, located a few blocks from Riverbend Park.)

One ingredient that might work against the Palisade Festival is the presence of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, a 40-year-old institution that draws 10,000 fans to a magnificent site in southwestern Colorado, a few hours’ drive from Palisade. As it happens, Palisade falls just a few days before Telluride.

Kimberly has worked Telluride to her advantage. Kimberly, who also organizes Carbondale Mountain Fair, keeps in regular touch with Telluride Bluegrass to see who might be available for Palisade.

“Artists tell me they’re holding out to see if they’re going to get into Telluride. And a lot of times I know before they do whether they got in,” she said.

Often, the consolation prize for acts that don’t make it to Telluride is a slot in Palisade. The Palisade festival also uses Telluride to its benefit on the music-fan side; Kimberly says some hard-core festivalgoers go on a bluegrass tour that starts in Palisade and ends with Telluride.

Behrman and Kimberly see the Palisade festival as an alternative to Telluride, not a competitor.

“I think a lot of people are choosing smaller festivals like Palisade. More relaxed, a better family situation,” Kimberly said.

They also believe that, while Telluride Bluegrass is a place for top-tier acts, Palisade is establishing a reputation as a place where fans can see acts on their way up.

“It’s an interesting lineup this year. A lot of these bands are popping: Pokey LaFarge, Justin Townes Earle,” Kimberly said. “I hope we get to be known as the festival that has bands that are just starting to explode. There’s some discovery going on.”

Palisade is also a place where midlevel acts that have played Telluride, but have not earned the status of Telluride regulars, come to play. This year’s lineup in Palisade includes the Devil Makes Three and Joy Kills Sorrow, both of which appeared on the main stage in Telluride last year.

“We’re like a minor-league team: You can’t see the Yankees, so … ,” Behrman said. “We’re like what Telluride was 30 years ago. Laid back.

“You think of Palisade, you think of peaches. But somewhere down the road, you’ll think of bluegrass. Peaches, wine and bluegrass.”


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