Friday, June 22, 2007

On Thursday Evening. . .

Nostalgia is recalling the fun without reliving the pain. - unknown

Typically, Thursday evening at a four day festival is booked for those up-and-coming acts that can deliver more than the 40 minute set, or perhaps a major name who's just passing through on the way to a big main stage on Friday or Saturday somewhere down the road. Last night's performances by the Telluride House Band and the evergreen Emmylou Harris completely upended that conventional wisdom.

The House Band, evolved from the Telluride Allstars sets of the '80's, boasts a density of talent so high it's a wonder we didn't witness the acoustic version of a supernova explosion lighting up our corner of the galaxy. With Darol Anger on fiddle, double Genius Grant recipient Edgar Meyer on double bass, Bela Fleck on banjo, Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Bryan Sutton contributing lead guitar and backing vocals and the King of Telluride, Sam Bush, on mando and lead vocals, the THB effortlessly ran through a stunning catalog of rarefied tunes.

Relying on the classic Strength in Numbers disc The Telluride Sessions, the House Band reinvented "Futureman" on the way to amazing the sold-out crowd with extended solos from each player. By the fifth tune of the set, John Hartford's "Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie", each member had laid out an "Oh, wow" moment, especially the meticulously creative Bryan Sutton.

A leit-motif in the midst of this is the interplay between Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer. If you haven't heard their extraordinary "Music for Two" CD, stop reading this and go buy a copy. Fleck and Meyer play with an astonishing rhythmic and harmonic telepathy that can be overlooked in the general sound of a large ensemble. But with the THB that relationship serves as an important driver in the music's flow. In the Fleck-penned "The Lights of Home", for example, a haunting Dobro line was augmented and enhanced by Meyer's sensitivity to tempo while Fleck worked around the clockwork with elegant runs and fills.

The House Band isn't just a group of superior musicians exercising their musical rights to knock one out of the park with every tune, they're also good friends who have a great time on stage. "Ride the Wild Turkey", a Darol Anger composition that apparently refers to "animal husbandry" was an intense rendition that featured Jerry Douglas. Edgar's "The Green Slime" is a hoot and set the mood for a rollicking "Polka on the Banjo" later on. Sam Bush's reinterpretation of "The White House Blues" contributed the little jab at authority that is folk music's heritage. The set ended with an epic "Duke and Cookie" from the Strength in Numbers catalog.

I've got a page on, sort of a MySpace for people who bow toward Rosen, Kentucky five times a day. The folks over there think quite highly of traditional instrumentalists such as Rhonda Vincent and IIIrd Tyme Out and tend to disdain the newgrass elements as somehow inferior to "the way Bill woulda done it". I beg to differ.

Emmylou Harris has been a Telluride regular for years now, sometimes just taking vacations here so she can drop in on other people's sets. This time she brought along a quartet of historic importance, guitarist John Starling, Dobro master Mike Auldridge, bassists Tom Grey and Ronnie Simpkins, all former members of the Seldom Scene. Fans of Emmylou will recall she started out singing folk tunes in the clubs around the Washington, DC area, where she met and was influenced by the thriving acoustic culture nourished by the Seen.

Her set was a retrospective of her career, opening with the classics "Roses in the Snow" and "One of These Days" then veering to the pop side of things with a beautiful cover of CCR's "Stuck in Lodi Again". It's sometimes hard to remember how constant a presence Emmylou has been in the acoustic world, but when she revives Louvin Brothers standards along with James Taylor compositions the breadth of her career begins to come clear. Stories of living room jam sessions at John Starlings' house provide an innocent, historical point of view while her cover of Townes Van Zant's "Pancho & Lefty" recalls her long term relationships with outlaws and vagabonds.

Closing the set was a beautiful "John the Baptist", the classic Bill Monroe tune that brought the performance round the full circle with Sam Bush's supporting mandolin prominently featured.

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