Friday, September 23, 2011

The 18th Telluride Blues & Brews Festival Town Park, Telluride, CO

Day 1

“I love spontaneity” – Steve Gumble

My South Florida homecoming was a catapult back into reality with an initial trajectory of near perfect respite in Colorado. The interview with Steve Gumble upon my return was a proverbial icing on the cake, and by a combination of luck and good timing, four days later I was catching the last flight back into Denver. My sleek, yet ultra-compact rental puttered its way through the Western route on i-70 past a rising sun over Breckenridge, winding canyons beyond Vail and finally a wrap-around Grand Junction before coasting into the mountain oasis of Telluride. The town was noticeably more alive. A buzz was building from the kick off of the 18th Telluride Blues & Brews Festival. Continued good fortune put me into town and a parking spot with ease. As I crossed the bridge into Town Park the delta blues preservationist, The Sugar Thieves, were busy warming up the main stage with a high-energy set that had a captive audience even in the early hour.
The Sugar Thieves
Noticeable differences from a typical mid-tier festival are apparent within the first few minutes of wandering. The topography facilitates a natural perimeter via a serene creek running parallel to jutting mountains. The peaks are constantly visualized in a choice 300 degrees in each direction. The main stage, the only one in the park, sits in front of the tall ridge that carves out Bear Creek Canyon. The crowd fills the space between with standing room in the front and back, while a substantial tarp and chair population is sandwiched in between. The stage is cleverly designed to fit the nature motif, complete with a wooden design accented by a smoke house and a make-shift Juke Joint on stage left and right. The dozens of vendors, beer tents and larger than normal kid’s play areas unobtrusively reinforce the perimeter.
Colorado Avenue 
Furthermore, recycling posts are manned by three volunteers responsible for sorting trash, recycling and compostable material. The temporary restroom facilities are plentiful and that annoying lull while waiting for a turn is nonexistent. At least to start, the fields are layered with handsome grass and defined paths allow for easy navigation from front, back and side to side. Well constructed water faucets encourage reusable liquid receptacles (water bottles were officially banned this year). Every logistical threat seems to be accounted for, solved and improved upon to the point of creating a near perfect environment specifically designed for one thing – the music.
Town Park 
24 hours of travel was an excuse for a noon libation, but justification seemed unnecessary with this crowd. I was simply catching up with those that came in through the gate first. I sprung for the made-for-festival Back Porch Lager, brewed by Sierra Nevada with the help of Blues & Brews officials. Altitude and susceptibility clashed and I was instantly buzzed. Mountain weather was playing its strong hand with the rain card, which was sporadic, but was not overly intense when Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights took up their instruments. The pure rock ‘n roll retrofitted group pumped out a clean, hammering set ranging from New Orleans soul to harmonica driven blues reminiscent of Jim Morrison to Robert Plant. The conventional sound was made fresh by well thought out song structures, technical bass rhythms and soaring vocal breakdowns. As a result the crowd grew near the front, and everything from swaying to two-step dancing was a common sight among the patrons. It was contagious and soon my own gyrations were in the mix. The bar had been set by the time Tyler and crew waved goodbye to their new fans.
Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights 
Another beer and set change brought out Blues & Brews veteran Reverend Peyton and his not so Big Damn Band. The combination trio of guitar, washboard and drums is an unlikely pairing for high-energy, blues-infused folk and gospel tunes. Regardless of that fact it somehow works - really well. The good Reverend was jovial and as charismatic as they come. He took a mid-set break to comically debunk circulating rumors that he used loops, triggers or programs to achieve his technical guitar results. To prove his case, he demonstrated his technique of thumbing low strings of his guitar to create a bass rhythm, while at the same time plucking the high strings for melodies. Impressing the crowd by soloing the "Peter Gun Theme", and even combining two songs at the same time, came off as an effortless endeavor. As the set returned to staple songs like "Everything's Raising" and "Sure Looks Like Rain", ironically the rain stopped and the cloud cover lifted. The soothing string plucking was cause for a quiet, attentive crowd that was lost in the aesthetics. The moment was intense, but short lived, as the Reverend's bursting version of the potation anthem "Two Bottles of Wine" gave way to an explosive finale. Let's just say a washboard was lit on fire and then smashed on stage.
Reverend Peyton
Switching genre gears, next came lounge funk specialist Fitz and his back ups The Tantrums. Smooth, danceable blends combined like the intonation of the Cure mixed with a tight horn section. Well rehearsed showmanship and theatrical choreography, both of which seem to have become a lost art in performance music, added a nostalgic flare in the vein of James Brown. Perfectly adapted covers of The Raconteur's “Steady As She Goes” and Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” were only out done by a groovy rendition of crowd favorite "Rich Girls." The set closed with airtight big band peaks, and James King's soaring saxophone blasting through Town Park before bouncing off the mountains above.
Fitz and the Tantrums
The evening was settling as Dweezil Zappa and the Zappa Plays Zappa crew prepared for a sunset of epic proportions. Sound crews battled difficulties, but Zappa took the opportunity to gush over the setting. Seemingly inspired, he began emulating the soul of his father, Frank Zappa. For those who know, this is no easy feat. Playful teases of "The Twilight Zone Theme" and Deep Purple's "Smoke On the Water" were strewn throughout the off-beat, often purposefully chaotic tunes of Dweezil's patriarch. The tones were close enough, the execution right on and the feel of Zappa was there. Judging by the knowing looks and smiles of vibing experimental rock enthusiasts, it was not a figment of the imagination.   
Dweezil Zappa Plays Zappa
The Flaming Lips’ elaborate stage set up built anticipation among a packed out field. Even the pit was arm to arm with photographers and crew equally curious and excited to see what the Lips would do for their Telluride debut. True to form, lead man Wayne and the boys made quite an entrance - complete with a semi circle projection screen of psychedelic goodness, bright strobe lights, confetti canons, lasers and two dozen Telluride dancers dressed as bar maids. It was their typical spectacle, but put to the backdrop of Telluride’s non-synthetic visual appeal.
The Flaming Lips
The contrast was tastefully artistic and completely appropriate. Apparently unfamiliar with this level of performance art, the crowd seemed half shocked and half amazed. Deep cuts ranging from ambient instrumental to title tracks like "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" took the the form of a trippy auditory journey. Witnessing Pink Floyd's "Eclipse" and an extended “Do You Realize” encore gave reason for a blissful confetti explosion. Before exiting the stage, a perplexed Wayne reasoned, “do you people do this for a weekend? A week? Forever?”
Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips
Downtown came alive and every bar was filled with boozed up festival-goers unable to quit just yet. Bands featured at the festival occupied a number of the Juke Joints, while blues artists from around the region played in others. Jonathan Tyler sparked a noteworthy set at Fly Me To The Moon, a basement venue with just enough square footage to facilitate perfect sound and room to boogie. Soul goddess Mo Brown tore the place down in between animated solos from guitarist Brandon Pinckard and more aggressive bass lines from Nick Jay. Going deep into the late night, this was the easy choice for a highlight selection. As if summoned by the Gods of Blues, a precipitation presence turned into an extended heavy storm that made for humorous, inebriated dashes from club to club. All in all, five different bands hit my ears through out the evening, and it was safe to say a music addict could overdose here.
Telluride Dance Troupe during The Flaming Lips
Day 2

“Beer is the cause of, and solution to, to all of my problems.”

The wet weather stayed consistent throughout the night and morning, but then took a turn for the worse in the early afternoon. Despite its efforts, the heavy rain proved to be no match for the droves of beer enthusiasts. The infamous Grand Tasting , featuring 50 breweries with over 150 beers, drew a respectable crowd at the noon hour. Patrons awkwardly danced to the classic funk of the Lionel Young Band while trying to remain as dry as possible. Whether it was the booze, or an attempt to pretend like the weather wasn’t a factor, the sporadic rush of contagious hoots, hollers and woots had everyone grinning and making the best of it. A particular loud response came when the rain slowly transformed into snowflakes. The white speckles clouded the sky and fell into tasting glasses. Yo Momma’s Big Fat Booty Band took the climate transition as their cue and dosed the crowd with a favorable breed of pseudo-psychedelic funk rock that was an odd, yet successful pairing for imbibing the best craft beers the area has to offer.
Banjo Man 
Anders Osborne took everyone back to the blues side of things with his heavy, solo-filled guitar craft work accented by thick rock bass drives and slow building drum cascades. A particularly well-executed version of “Knocking On Heavens Door” rose to an extended jam that crashed into a bass and guitar duel. The crowd was feeling the shredding Osborne and the beginning of some sunshine. With this, the aquaphobic were ready to come out and play as well. Attentive to the vibe shift, Osbourne transitioned to a feel good rock tone, and the crowd responded in kind by shedding rain gear and warming up their feet for an afternoon of mingling. Before letting the crowd pull their jaws off the floor, Osborne welcomed moe. guitarist Al Schnier on stage for a classic game of my solo is bigger than your solo. Both six string mavericks couldn’t help but wear a grin as the jam concluded.
Stilts in the mud
Much like experiencing all four seasons in a six hour vacuum, the sun was now high in the vividly blue sky when Bill Kreutzmann and the 7 Walkers brought out a circus of jesters on stilts, 15 foot tall Dancing Bears and a flag parade to complement their Grateful Dead reincarnation. Children stood side stage and flung beads into the crowd. The jazz infused improvisational rock from the famed Dead drummer and company showed symptoms of New Orleans funk and old school blues.  All preoccupations with weather were completely disregarded as the temperature rose to perfection. Homeostasis was achieved. Old and neo-hippies alike relived the days of Jerry via the best off shoot of the legendary jam band. To cap things off, an earth shattering “I Know You Rider” was the foundation for Matt Hubbard to show his chops on the ivory, but Kreutzman stole the show with his flawless, locked-in percussion work.
Bill Kreutzmann and the 7 Walkers Bring a Circus
Buffalo headquartered moe. sauntered on stage, gazing out into the crowd and picturesque backdrop. Bassist, Rob Derhak, sighed and said, “Its hard to play here, it's so distracting.” Being the professionals that they are, the accomplished jam quintet went deep this time. The end result was a statement show. The kind of set where it was apparent the band wasn’t playing to the vibe of the festival or even the energy of the crowd.
Rob Derhak of moe.
They were putting down a gold performance that would debated by moe. archivists and reflected upon by Telluride local music obsessed as a high light in the Brews & Blues history books. Keeping with the sit-in theme, Anders Osborne snuck on stage to accent a reaching “Happy Hour Hero”. The audience responded with full glasses in the air. A steady upward pace culminated into classic tracks “Spine of A Dog” melting into “Buster” to wrap the show everyone was talking about in the crowd and backstage alike.
Al of moe. and Anders Osbourne 
Schedule flow is a key component to the success of Blues & Brews. Whether the promoters of are aware of it or not, moe. is a guilty party in reviving 90s bands at their own namesake festival moe.down. Given that, the follow up headlining set with Big Head Todd and the Monsters made sense in the context of the day. The darkness of the sky allowed the stars to provide natural lighting on par with that seen on stage. Saturday night shenanigans were in full effect and it was evident that Friday was a beer drinker’s warm up and Saturday was the Iron Man Triathlon.
moe. late night 
Hanley Pavilion is an ice-skating rink in Town Park with an overtly obvious ability to facilitate a late night concert. Strategic mood lighting, natural air conditioner and a capacity for over 1,600; the room is what I consider to be a sister venue to the Summer Camp Music Festival’s “Interstellar Galactic Barn.” After a thick appetizer, the Buffalo boys would return to "gimme some moe.!" The first set took on the theme of a subterranean journey through the dark reaches of the mind. A segue series started with "Zed Naught Zed" into "Tubing The River Styx" into "The Pit" before a no huddle stop punctuated with "Deep This Time." A reality check came from a rocky twang in "32 Things," but the mental plateau was short lived when a prophesized "Sensory Deprivation Bank" stirred the pot. The second set that followed is up there among the best jam band performances this writer has been fortunate enough to witness. Consisting of only four songs played in continuity, the solo war was fought above breaks, build ups and incredible layers upon textures.
moe. lost in lights 
Day 3

“Tell her I am a dragon slayer in Telluride, yes, I slay dragons” - Random Brewser
Backstage Tapestry
Sunday morning upheld its end of the bargain and continued the pattern of impeccable weather. Reiteration of the atmospheric conditions occurs here because of how often it was vocalized during this experience. Stating the obvious seemed to be the only fitting way to make sense of how a place like this can even exist. A well-deserved slow start had me dashing down Colorado Avenue to catch the angelic vocalizations of Mavis Staples. The VIP lounge was setting a fine example with a Bloody Mary and Champagne Reception that guilt me into making my rounds at the beer tent. Staples put on a spiritual ceremony and self-declared church-like experience that was backed by a stellar group of bluesy brothers dressed to fit the part. It was empowering and beautiful to share the moment with an icon. The kicker being this was only the beginning.
Mavis Staples
Putting the blues in his own breed of stringy bluegrass, The Eric Bibb String Band set to work on creating a universal sound that told stories that everyone knows, but are impossible to grow tired of. In truth it didn’t even matter what he was saying, it was how he was saying it - music you feel more than you hear. Mental projections of deep-root blues artists living out of a case and playing smoky back room bars align perfectly with the auditory representation. Bibbs was not the only award winning talent billed for the vocal all-star Sunday.
Eric Bibb String Band
Next on the list was Marcia Ball, a masterful pianist delving into zydeco and swamp blues with a sultry range and Grammy nominated wrap sheet. Jason Isbell, former guitarist for the  alternative country clan The Drive-By Trucker, and The 400 Unit moved through tracks off their new self-produced record Here We Rest. The pace of the day was brisk as the end was now in sight. Indulging in as many microbrew ales and lagers as I could stand seemed to slow things down.
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit
The purist inside had a strong inclination for the artist that truly represented the namesake of the weekend. The Robert Cray Band blanketed the auditory pallet with bliss licks of Deep South origin that translate flawlessly into the isolated context of the Western Slope setting. Each ringing note hung heavy as the five-time Grammy winner put on a clinic. He wasn't playing to the audience, he was playing into them. The 70 minute set was proof enough of why Clapton took him on tour and the Blues Hall of Fame inducted him. This is why the festival existed and the embodiment of the moment was reason alone to make the trip.
The Robert Cray Band
In between set changes the crowd size seemed to have doubled. Everyone was inching their way towards the stage in hopes of catching a glimpse of the living king of outlaw country. Willie Nelson would close the three day affair with a heart warming slur of sing-a-longs and western jukebox anthems. The mountain air mixed with the aroma of sweet charred plant buds. The Red Headed Stranger did not miss a beat and proved without a doubt he was not simply a nostalgia act, but the man for the job of cementing a sublime weekend in supernal town of Telluride.
Willie Nelson
A huge and special thanks to Steve Gumble and Alex Colville for being instrumental in making this happen for me. I am truly blessed to have been afforded the opportunity to be a part of such an amazing event in music history. Truly one of the best experiences I have had to date. Also thank you to Ariane B. Davis for the custom I Live Music logo.


CHeeSeHeaD said...

nice review. very comprehensive. good photos, too!

Aidan said...

Your narrative style makes us feel we were there . Good reviews.

Anonymous said...

Great review. Any of the artists you wrote about would be thrilled to read it, as you bring them to life for you readers.