Travel: In love with Telluride Bluegrass, from the hotel to the music |

Travel: In love with Telluride Bluegrass, from the hotel to the music

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesLyle Lovett at the recent Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

TELLURIDE, Colo. – For 16 days, the e-mail attachment sat in my inbox, unopened. It was from Kathleen Cullinane, a p.r. executive in New York, and it contained the itinerary for my press trip to Telluride. I knew, more or less, what the itinerary items would be, the kind of things that most people would drool over: elegant dinners, cocktail hours, spa treatments, a jeep tour. But I was afraid to open the document because an itinerary means places you’re supposed to be, things you’re scheduled to do, and there was only one item I wanted on my weekend agenda: bluegrass.The trip coincided with the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the 36-year-old event that, to me, gets much credit for the resurgence over the last decade or so of string-band music. I had been to the festival several times, but the last one was 13 years ago, when I was still getting a handle on bluegrass, and could still confuse Ricky Skaggs with Earl Scruggs. These days I’m a bluegrass fanatic, and can tell you the difference between a bouzouki and a mandolin. While I avoided the itinerary, with its “Meet heres” and “Enjoy thats,” I had memorized the Telluride Bluegrass lineup, all 31 main-stage acts from Alison Krauss to Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, and I wanted to see it all.Fortunately, my host, the Capella Telluride Hotel, understood my desires. When I finally got the nerve to look at the itinerary – we were three hours into the four-hour drive from Aspen to Telluride – I was relieved to see phrases like “free time,” “your personal itinerary” and “check out a bunch of great music.” The Capella may be a luxury hotel – spa; wide-screen TV in the room; a bed so comfy I was tempted to stuff it into my suitcase and take it home – but it has been infected with the Telluride spirit of friendly accommodation since opening early last year. Every hotel employee, from General Manager John Volponi to Front-Desk Dave, made it clear at every turn that if bluegrass was what I wanted, then bluegrass I would have. I even saw Volponi at the festival one day; apart from Lyle Lovett, he was the most dressed-up person on the grounds. Volponi may still have some of his native California in him, but Bill Marshall, director of sales, is Colorado mountain town through and through, having moved to Crested Butte as a kid, in 1963.My traveling partner J. and I dropped our bags in the room, grabbed some drinks from the fridge (complimentary for all guests), and headed to the fest. The trek from hotel to the festival grounds in Telluride Town Park had seemed, before we got to Telluride, almost as daunting as the itinerary. The Capella is in Mountain Village, high above the town of Telluride; getting to the festival meant going from the hotel to the gondola, taking the gondola to town, then crossing to the far end of Telluride. But the commute became one of the best and (usually) easiest parts of the weekend. The Capella is located steps from the gondola; the gondola is a glamorous – and free – way to travel. And the gondola is adapted to carry bicycles. The trip from door to festival, using bikes, was a pleasurable, efficient 15 minutes.We got to Bluegrass in time to catch the last half of the set by Josh Ritter. The Idaho-bred singer-songwriter closed with “Lantern,” a song so incandescent – “So if you got a light, hold it high for me/ I need it bad tonight, hold it high for me” – it nearly outshone the sun all weekend. I might have said Ritter was the happiest guy in Telluride, except that title was already taken – by me.Amazingly, I didn’t have to wait for things to get even better. The Dave Rawlings Machine is an odd thing. Rawlings used to be the guitarist in singer Gillian Welch’s band, but they have flip-flopped: Welch, who seems to have put her own career on hold, is now rhythm guitarist and backing singer in Rawlings’ group. But the sound hasn’t changed; it’s still old-time acoustic folk, done magnificently, with a mystical connection to a bygone time.I am shocked to make this statement: We blew off the Del McCoury Band, whom I have repeatedly called the greatest traditional bluegrass band ever. But I needed to make an appearance with the press folks, and cocktails at Onyx, the Capella’s handsome restaurant that opens out onto the Mountain Village plaza, seemed a great idea. Sadly, I had to skip dinner, but Alison Krauss + Union Station, an act I had never seen, were set to perform. (I would experience a few nights later the pleasures of Onyx: a memorable mushroom soup, a bartender named Ethan who was well-versed in wines.) Following the set by Krauss, and the late-night show by folkie Tim O’Brien, J. and I got back to our room at the relatively sane hour of 12:30.Day two you could call Sam Bush Day at Telluride, although you could call every day Sam Bush Day. Bush is the festival king, having been present from year one, and he can seemingly do whatever he wants. Which, on Friday, he did: He was a full member of Peter Rowan & Crucial Country, which played crowd-pleasing versions of Rowan’s “Panama Red” and “Midnight Moonlight.” Bush sat in when the traditional bluegrass quartet Hot Rize did their costume change, and reappeared as their own bumbling country cousins, Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers. He was not only the mandolinist in Lovett’s group, but seemed to serve as band director of the 17-piece band. And when Leftover Salmon played its day-closing set, Bush was an honored guest.I had to excuse myself early, once again, from dinner – this time at Allred’s, the restaurant at the ski area with views that awed even this Aspenite. But I needed to catch Lovett, and I’m glad I did. Telluride’s looseness seemed to affect even a perfectionist like Lovett. He welcomed outsiders, dobroist Jerry Douglas and banjoist Bla Fleck, into his band, and the two never left the stage.That night we headed to the Sheridan Opera House, where the excellent Irish folk-rock group Mumford & Sons was accompanied by two bonuses. The first was that Sarah Jarosz, a 19-year-old Texan who could be described as a younger, female Chris Thile, was the opening act. The second was the Sheridan itself, which encapsulates perfectly the differences between Telluride and Aspen. Compared to Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, the Sheridan is smaller and infinitely funkier. No backpacks are allowed upstairs – so concertgoers simply pile their bags at the entrance.Saturday started with a jeep tour that took us to 12,300 feet, and the old mining town of Tomboy. The views and the history were wonderful; the scary terrain, the endless bumping and the two flat tires were not. Our tour guide, Dave, was as well-informed as he was cynical about Telluride.Music on Saturday ranged from the novel (Irish rockabilly singer Imelda May) to the unspectacular (Colorado’s Yonder Mountain String Band) to the subtly brilliant (Bla Fleck, bassist Edgar Meyer, and tabla player Zakir Hussain, a trio that comes to Aspen on Aug. 18). The main-stage closed with Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, an ecstatic hippie collective led by the charismatic Alex Ebert. Ebert is from Southern California – emphatically so – but spent chucks of childhood time in Telluride, and his father lives up the road in Rico. Ebert’s memories of the town, and the presence of his father in the crowd, added to what would have been a memorable show in any event.J. and I, apparently, were consumed with Telluride’s no-worries vibe. How else to explain missing the last gondola back to Mountain Village on Saturday night? I knew in my heart that the good folks at the Capella wouldn’t leave a guest stranded, and in the end, a fine mountaineer/hotel employee found a way to shuttle us back up the mountain, and get us into bed by 4:15 a.m.Waking five hours later, my head was surprisingly unclouded. But the last thing I wanted was a deadline to get my things out of the room. I went downstairs, rehearsing my plea for leniency on a checkout time, but it turns out I didn’t need it. “Checkout time is whatever time you’d like it to be,” said the clerk. With that, I made it back to the festival to see monks chanting, and Swedes playing a folk style using a crazy instrument called the nyckelharpa.As we left Telluride, the only thing preventing severe withdrawal was the old-timey music by a band called the Carolina Chocolate Drops being broadcast live from the festival over the car radio. Between the unaffected luxury of the Capella, the excellence of the music, the dialed-in quality of the overall festival, and the intoxicating nature of the town, I was addicted to Telluride

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