Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Interview With Steve Gumble, Founder and President of The Telluride Blues & Brews Festival

Update: As of this morning, I Live Music will be on-site covering all the action!  

Two weeks ago I embarked on a welcomed respite from what has been a whirlwind of live music, writing and an intricate combination of the two. Back on the road with my travel companion of many years, we navigated West before settling in the mountain town of Telluride. A loosely sketched plan, if it could even be called that,  was to simply pass through after a night or two. Not wanting to face the reality of leaving, the pseudo-agenda organically transitioned into a 6 night extended stay. 

The quaint town of roughly 2,500 residents possesses such charm and appeal that I quickly felt myself becoming enamored, and on my way to falling in love. Until this point Telluride was a far off, almost unattainable location that encouraged continuous feedback bordering on a certain level of mysticism. It always seemed that it was too good to be true. Everything I pictured in my mind fell short, everything I heard was  only half the story and neither of the above senses could independently translate the realities of being in this region during the peak weather month of September. This might seem like exaggeration for effect, but in truth, words are actually a limitation in this instance.
As a matter of fate, or simply a statistically significant numbers game, I happened to cross paths with Steve Gumble, Founder and President of the Telluride Blues and Brews Festival on a particularly perfect sunny afternoon. Beyond being one of the cooler people I have had the pleasure of meeting, Gumble was completely open to exchanging words about his 18 year old baby. A man-child event that he has nurtured into one of the more dynamic festivals on the circuit.

Originally baptized as The Telluride Brewers Festival, Gumble started the annual event in 1994 as a rally point for the craft beer wave of popularity that was gaining momentum at the time. A crowd of over 1,000 showed up for the inaugural event and proved that Gumble was on to something. The String Cheese Incident, then in their infancy, graced the stage. Looking back on what would become a keen knack for scheduling talent, Gumble recalls, "I paid them $500, and I was pissed about it!"
Aeriel View of Town Park in Telluride, CO
Three years later the fitting addition of more artist to accompany the libation carousal came to form, and was rechristened The Telluride Blues and Brews Festival. Now in its fortitudinous 18th year, Blues and Brews boasts former bills marked by the likes of James Brown, The Allman Brothers Band, B.B. King, Joe Cocker, Lou Reed and Bonnie Raitt. In 2011 upwards of 26,000 patrons over three days are expected to descend upon the town of Telluride for a chance to continue the tradition. Veteran musicians returning this year are Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Robert Cray and Anderson Osborne, while new blood comes in the form of Willie Nelson, moe., The Flaming Lips, Fitz and the Tantrums, and Zappa Plays Zappa.

Just days away from kicking off the first night, Gumble found the time to sit down and talk in more detail about raising a festival in the current era.
I Live Music: How would you describe The Telluride Blues and Brews Festival in one sentence?

Steve Gumble: More fun in three days than some have in a lifetime!

ILM: How did the concept of Blues and Brews first come about? What sparked the idea for you to host the event?

SG: It started out as a beer festival. I used to own a liquor store and when the microbrewery scene exploded in the early nineties I exploded with it. Right time right place. It was an overnight hit but I quickly realized I needed to divert people’s attention from just drinking beer, so I added the music element in 1997. 

ILM: Are there any special arrangements made in preparation for Blues and Brews in terms of the venue Town Park or the City of Telluride? 

SG: Telluride has been doing festivals for 30 plus years, and the town knows how to do it right. We enter into a yearly contract with the town which provides us access to the park. It is a very thorough contract which results in well run festivals in Telluride.

ILM: Having one stage is uncommon in the current festival climate, is this on purpose to focus the attention on the artist performing? 

SG: Well space is an issue as the venue is in our Town Park, walking distance from the town. However, this year we are adding a stage at the town pavilion which is on the festival site. This holds 1800 people and this year will be just for night shows. We are going to determine if this venue can run simultaneously with the main stage, so expansion may be on the horizon. We also do 5 venues [Juke Joints] at night to add variety.
Main Stage at Telluride Blues & Brews Festival
ILM: Is the vibe looser than your standard festival? For example, is it common for artists to sit in with each other, roam around in the crowd or in town for the late night shows? 

SG: Yes very much so. I like to think of us as the intimate alternative to the big mega-festivals out there these days. This gives a warmer, friendlier environment for artists to play in. They tend to want to hang out. I find being surrounded by 13,000 foot peaks on three sides very inspirational to artists. I can’t count how many times people have come up to me and said I have seen "x" band many times and I have never seen them play like that. We also encourage them to sit in with each other, relax and make new musical connections. Also Telluride fans are chill and tend not to be star struck, so it is very easy for artists to roam around and “fit” in. Last year Bonnie Raitt took her entire entourage off tour for three days so that they all could rest and hike. That is the kind of place Telluride is, and the kind of vibe we hope to project on artists – we want them to feel welcome and treat them like family.

ILM: What are the constant themes or goals of the festival outside of providing a great party? 

SG: We try to project being environmentally and socially conscious. We require everyone to recycle and compost, we require all our vendors to carry compostable plates and silverware, we purchase carbon offsets that go towards building renewable clean energy such as wind farms, education and tree planting. Festivarians can purchase “green credits” to offset the carbon footprint of their travel to Telluride. Last year was our first year we banned bottled water. We provide hydration stations throughout the festival grounds and encourage people to bring in their own reusable water containers. This year we are working with Love Hope Strength, an international, music-centric cancer charity dedicated to saving lives one concert at a time, and they will be on-sight collecting mouth swab DNA samples for people who wish to be on their bone marrow database.

ILM: How are you feeling about this year's lineup and overall experience now that you are less than a week out?

SG: I am super excited about this year’s festival, and judging by ticket sales, so are a lot of other people. This is by far the most eccentric line-up we have had in a while, from The Flaming Lips to Willie Nelson there is something here for everyone.

ILM: How important is the setting to the overall vibe of the festival? Does the town benefit from hosting the event?

SG: The setting is what makes us so unique and one of the most scenic festivals in the country. Like B.B. King said once, “out of the 90 some countries I have been too, I have never seen anything as beautiful as you have here”. Telluride is the “vibe.” Blues and Brews marks the end of the Summer season for Telluride, and is one last economic boost to the town bringing in millions of dollars to the local economy.

ILM: Tell me about the how Telluride Acoustic Blues Competition started. Where did the idea come from?

SG: We are fortunate to be able to put up and coming people in front of 9,000 people. We wanted to give struggling musicians the opportunity to get their talent in front of a lot of people so what better way to do it than via a competition.
ILM: What efforts are made to ensure the town and festival grounds are kept clean, safe and intact? Is this mainly a self-policing dynamic? The greening efforts and recycling are impressive, how important is it that Blues and Brews gives priority to having reputation for being a low impact event?

SG: In addition to what I said before, we also man every trash/compost/recycling station with a human being to ensure we do not contaminate our program, and thus recycle and compost 100%. Many festivals attempt to do this but in the end throw most of their recycling into the trash because it is just too contaminated.

ILM: The town becomes a part of the festival with the additional late night "Juke Joint" shows. Do you find that the locals are welcoming to opening up their home and take part in the fun? 

SG: Yes, very much so. I am proud to say that most locals consider this to be their favorite festival of the year. I live here so it is important that we produce an event that is good for our community, and one that we all can be proud of. Do the math – we are a town with 5,000 pillows and 9,000 attendees. I think there is a lot of couch surfing going on and I love it, it’s a big party not just in the Park, but throughout the town and neighborhoods.

ILM: What is the Blues Train and how does that tie into Blues and Brews? Is this something that could grow or incorporated in the future?

SG: My best friend works for the Silverton/Durango Narrow Gauge and we have tossed around this idea for many years. Last year I spent a day on the train with him riding in a tiny little inspection car. It reminded me just how cool that train is, and rekindled the concept of the Durango Blues Train. June 4th was our inaugural train and it was so well received we are planning on doing it again. I think it could really grow into a regular thing, and the train company wants us back! The smiles on people’s faces as they disembarked the train was worth every penny and I knew once again we were on to something!

ILM: What plans do you have for the future of the festival? Is there a need to grow or will the exclusive, low capacity standard remain a constant for Blues and Brews? Any chance for a sister festival during another season or in another location? 

SG: We are super spoiled and fortunate to have what we have. We constantly try to fine tune the experience but all in all we are very happy exactly how we are, and don’t have any big changes planned for the future. The intimate alternative is just fine with me. There is something about being able to walk up to the front of the stage anytime you want and see Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips pound confetti all over you – not something you can always experience at a super large festival. We did head down to Taos, NM to head up the Taos Mountain Music Festival and create our signature vibe there. Weather was not in our favor but the musically the event was a success…we shall see what the future brings.

ILM: As a festival founder and producer, how do you foresee the music event landscape changing? From a purist perspective, how do you resist the influence of major production companies that would be interested in taking over a seemingly hidden gem event? 

SG: Well this event is a lot of work. Most of the major production companies are used to hosting 50,000 to 75,000 people, and that is the kind of numbers they need to be economically viable. Telluride is a boutique venue with similar amount of effort needed as a mega festival – just a lot less economic return (laughs). The musical landscape changes constantly and we are having fun trying to change with it. As you can see we are not what you would call a traditional blues festival and I like that fact. It affords me the opportunity to stretch the boundaries, book bands outside of the traditional blues genre, and hopefully keep up with the ever evolving music scene. One thing we try to do is maintain some blues backbone. Every band we book can most likely say that the “blues” has somehow musically motivated or influenced them in their life and hopefully they let that shine on our stage. 

The 18th Telluride Blues and Brews Festival takes place this weekend, September 16th-18th, at Town Park in Telluride, Colorado. Limited tickets are still available.    

1 comment:

Steve Gumble said...

Great article - thanks Adam