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The Women of Telluride

Story and photos by Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times

Emmylou Harris

Last week, at the 40th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Sam Bush was everywhere, jumping on stage to jam with most everyone, hosting his own Saturday night mainstage bash and otherwise celebrating his 39th appearance at the festival. Bush remains the undisputed king of Telluride.

That might not be the title that matters most, however. At the most recent four-day outing in the unmatchable beauty of Telluride, it was the women who stood out. Vying, perhaps, to be crowned queen of Telluride were Elephant Revival, a Colorado band led by a pair of women; Canadian fiddler Natalie MacMaster; and the 22-year-old marvel Sarah Jarosz.

It wasn’t just that three of the finest sets came from women. The ladies were represented on the main stage in abundance, with strong appearances by Emmylou Harris, Sara Watkins, Edie Brickell, Feist and two upstart bands fronted by women singers, Lake Street Dive and BlueBilly Grit. The acoustic realm seems particularly inviting to female musicians — the fiddle clearly being the instrument of choice — and at Telluride 2013, it was evident how much of a difference this has made for bluegrass and its related styles.

Probably the most inspiring of the Telluride artists was Jarosz. The 22-year-old is a native of Texas, but she polished her music primarily by attending Telluride Bluegrass and its sister festival, Rockygrass in Lyons. It has proved to be an ideal training ground. Jarosz demonstrated an incomparable voice, one that revealed different shades of tone and emotion with each song. The pair of Bob Dylan tunes she performed — “Simple Twist of Fate,” accompanied only by her cellist, Nathaniel Smith; and “Ring Them Bells,” a wonderful song that she has made more wonderful — were weekend highlights. Jarosz also played many of her own songs, including several from an album due out in the fall, and showed her skill on mandolin, banjo and guitar. Jarosz was given the Friday morning opening set, a slot that usually marks a musician as an up-and-comer, but Jarosz is a fully formed artist.

Matching Jarosz in audience buzz was Elephant Revival, a band with a slightly mystical aura and an undeniable appeal. The center of the band since its formation in 2006 has been Bonnie Paine, the lead singer who also drives the worldly rhythm on washboard, hand drums and saw. But rising to prominence in Telluride was Colorado native Bridget Law, a fiddler who has become the group’s impressive instrumental center.

Earning the title of surprise hit of the festival were fiddlers Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, a married couple that represents two of Canada’s most famous musical families. The two performed in an unusual configuration: two fiddles, two pianos. But the musicianship was astounding and the entertainment value even higher as MacMaster and Leahy clogged, smiled and charmed their way through a captivating set.

Emmylou Harris showed again that she is a master of the duet form. She was paired with singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, and the two were a great match, working through songs from their respective catalogs, several Townes Van Zandt tunes and tracks from their recent collaborative album, “Old Yellow Moon.” The Canadian singer-songwriter Feist was a memorable figure, as spiky in her presence as she was in her rhythms. Singer-fiddler Sara Watkins, a Telluride veteran from her days in Nickel Creek, gave a solid performance of her own, working in the leading edge of the singer-songwriter mode. She also was a featured guest in Jackson Browne’s appearance.

The late cancellation by Mumford & Sons could have been a disaster, the Mumfords being kind of the biggest band on the planet at the moment and having a warm spot for Telluride Bluegrass. Instead, the festival scored a winning replacement in Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers, who were joined by Edie Brickell on vocals. The former pop singer brought nice depth to old-style Appalachian songs; Martin took care of the humor side and also showed solid banjo skills.

Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Lake Street Dive offered an intriguing mix of rockabilly, torch jazz and ’60s girl-group sound. Though the quartet is centered around singer Rachael Price, string bassist Bridget Kearney was able to make a deep impression. BlueBilly Grit, a slightly left-of-center bluegrass combo from Georgia, was similarly anchored by singer Amber Starr Hollis.

* * * *

Not to slight the usual gentlemen of Telluride. Dobroist Jerry Douglas, banjoist Bela Fleck, bassist Edgar Meyer, singer-songwriter Tim O’Brien and old sage Peter Rowan were all in attendance and showed their distinguished talents. Punch Brothers showed again why they merit an annual slot on the main stage, as they continue to push outward on the boundaries of contemporary string-band sounds. Their frontman, Chris Thile, also opened the festival in style, with a solo set featuring just his mandolin and voice.

Colorado jam band String Cheese Incident, in its first festival appearance in a decade, didn’t adjust its style much for the setting, focusing on reggae and other world rhythms in a relaxed, pleasing set. Trampled by Turtles, Greensky Bluegrass and the Infamous Stringdusters all leaned more toward acoustic sounds but also showed how jamming bluegrass could be. Richard Thompson, playing a solo set on acoustic guitar, was masterful in injecting Celtic flavor to the weekend.

A real treat was the Masters of Bluegrass, a gathering of old men from an earlier time of bluegrass. The quintet brought not just old-time charm but in, singers Del McCoury and Bobby Osborne and banjoist J.D. Crowe, enduring musicianship.


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