Crossing muddy grounds in Telluride |

Crossing muddy grounds in Telluride

Story and photos by Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times

Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes

I was ready to leave Telluride, ready to say goodbye to a very wet and brutally muddy Telluride Blues & Brews Festival, and get a head start on the process of drying out and driving back to Aspen. I had achieved my goal, to see and photograph almost every mainstage act, and had made it through maybe half of John Hiatt’s stellar Sunday evening set when the urge to pull my shoes out of the muck and hit the road became too strong to resist. I packed up my gear and headed for the gates, searching for the route that was least likely to have me disappear into a sinkhole.

And then Hiatt and his band started playing those gentle, acoustic, minor-key chords that open “Crossing Muddy Waters” — not only a perfect theme song for the weekend, but my favorite Hiatt tune. Clearly I wasn’t going anywhere just yet. Then he launched into the fan favorite “Cry Love,” which, naturally, further delayed my exit. I vowed that the next song, whatever it was, I would listen to on my way out. But it was the chugging (and irresistible) “Memphis in the Meantime.” When it ended, I found my resolve, and dashed for the exit. I made it out of the festival grounds — just as the band swung into the anthemic “Perfectly Good Guitar,” which gave me a perfectly good reason to do a 180, and re-enter the grounds. Hiatt then told the crowd that if it weren’t for a nice woman singing this next number, he probably wouldn’t be standing on a stage right then, and he launched into “Thing Called Love,” which Hiatt wrote and Bonnie Raitt recorded, giving a major boost to both their careers. I escaped the festival with “Thing Called Love” as my exit music.

And that’s the way all of the 20th annual Telluride Blues & Brews went for me —conditions that were far from ideal, but saved by exceptional music. Blues & Brews — which was founded and is still run by Steve Gumble, who also launched the Snowmass Mammoth Festival this past June — has a solid feel for live acts, and nearly every set I witnessed, in my first visit to Blues & Brews, made it worth the wet shoes, the precautions with camera gear, the schlepping of raincoats, hats and waterproof bags. (Confession: I shouldn’t complain too hard. The house I was staying at was directly across the street from the festival entrance, and if that was too far, I could always take shelter under the on-site media tent, which was dry and cozy enough that twice I napped there. So yes, I had it slightly better than those who were camping.)

My so-called buddy, Tim, and I had been planning the Blues & Brews trip for just about a year when Tim informed me, three days before the festival, that he had a house-sitting gig in Aspen he couldn’t turn down. I figured the odds of finding someone who could go, and could find their own place to stay in Telluride, were slim, and I adjusted to the idea of a solo sojourn. I had one last, great hope — Barry Smith, who has many friends in Telluride, loves blues, has a flexible work schedule, and lives en route to Telluride, in Paonia. With just a day’s notice, Barry declined my offer, but 20 minutes later his number came up on my cell phone.

“Are you changing your mind?” I asked. He was.

With this spirit of improvisation pervading the trip, we nearly missed the highlight of the festival. On Friday night, we accepted a dinner invitation, with the promise of a casual dinner, New Orleans cuisine cooked by a New Orleans native, and the chance to scoot out whenever in time to see the Black Crowes, the evening’s headliner. But the dinner was more intimate and sit-down than we imagined, the company and food were great, and we listened to the Black Crowes set from across the narrow valley. But after dessert, with the band still playing, I excused Barry and myself, headed to the festival, and took in the last 40 minutes of the set.

Smart move. Whether brothers Chris and Rich Robinson, singer and guitarist respectively, were inspired by the death that week of their father, I can’t say. In any event, the performance was electrifying, the Black Crowes offering their high-powered take on Southern jam-rock. It was nearly good enough to make me regret opting for that second helping of jambalaya over catching the first part of the set.

The music earlier that day was a mixed bag. I had feared that ZZ Ward, a young woman from Oregon, would be more pop-oriented than I liked, but her singing was comfortably grounded in blues and her set was appealing. Allen Stone, another young singer from the Northwest, was nearly the exact opposite — more flash than substance. His performance seemed to be more about his vintage hippie clothes, his dance moves and the American flag draped over the mike stand than his soul sounds.

The 29-year-old Texan Gary Clark, Jr. proved he merits all the praise that has come his way the past few years. His expert guitar playing is wide-ranging, touching on country blues, psychedelic rock, and electric blues-rock. I’d say the chances are good that he continues to develop more of a signature style. Clark’s neighbors in Austin, the quartet the Bright Light Social Hour, lit up the Elks Lodge in a late-night set.

Saturday’s music, served up alongside a grand tasting that featured 171 beers, was tasty for most every course. The New Mastersounds, a British foursome that takes up the funk where the Meters left off, were outstanding, led by soul-filled guitarist Eddie Roberts. It was a more genuine slice of New Orleans with the Rebirth Brass Band, who brought a Mardi Gras kick to the mountains. Front Range group the Otis Taylor Band gave a lesson in blues and African-American history with help from guest Mato Nanji, guitarist of the South Dakota band Indigenous.

Drummer Mickey Hart led his eponymous band through a set that had more to do with groove-heavy funk and fusion than the jamming style associated with his former group, the Grateful Dead. The group, with three percussionists and a soul-oriented lead singer in Crystal Monee Hall, satisfied the Deadheads with takes on “Bertha,” “China Cat Sunflower,” “I Know You Rider” and “Fire on the Mountain.”

Jim James, the lead singer of My Morning Jacket, appeared under his own name as Saturday’s headliner. He didn’t quite live up to my expectations, but I credit that more to my high hopes than any failure on his part. I didn’t much care for his theatrical side, repeatedly twirling across the stage and violently shaking his hair. But the songs, most of them from his excellent recent solo album “Regions of Light and Sound of God,” were delivered convincingly, even if the live performance sounded an awful lot like the recordings. He tacked on a few My Morning Jacket songs, including the heartwarming “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).”

Wonderful aptly describes what I heard on Sunday. My day opened with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, whose old-school acoustic style would seem better suited to a club, but who were surprisingly robust on the festival stage. The beat of New Orleans chestnuts like “Liza Jane” easily reached to the back of the grounds, and the personalities of the players, especially trombonist Freddie Lonzo, came through clearly. The came yet another side of New Orleans: Anders Osborne, the Swedish-born singer-guitarist who has found a home in southern Louisiana, and in guitar-heavy rootsy rock laced with Neil Young & Crazy Horse and Mardi Gras street parades.

And then came John Hiatt, whose endless catalogue of beautifully written songs just wouldn’t let me leave.

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