Sunday, July 01, 2007

Telluride Bluegrass 2007 - The Last 24 Hours

Saturday nights at Telluride are, in many ways, the climax of the festival. Traditionally, the night belongs to veteran hot pickers, like New Grass Revival, Sam Bush, or Leftover Salmon. In later years, as the musicians and I age, these sets were rescheduled to an earlier hour, allowing the booking of an off-the-menu closing act.

The later afternoon slot belonged this year to Alison Krauss and Union Station with guitar legend Tony Rice. Any band that features Alison, Tony, Jerry Douglas and Dan Tyminski is bound to redefine something every set. This performance was a jaw-dropping display of musical precognition. In particular, Jerry and Tony re-wrote "Freeborn Man" with Dan contributing muscular vocals. My personal favorite, though, was Tony's ripping "Manzanita", a version that rivals last summer's RockyGrass performance for power and elegance.

For the last 33 years, Saturday night has involved a Sam Bush band, either NGR or his current lineup. Arriving with his stable and able partners, Sam delivered one of his more technically adept sets, showering the capacity crowd with elegant riffs, runs, and his contagious slide mando figures. Even though his setlist varies little from year to year, Sam projects a relaxed stage presence that brings an element of the front porch to this slickly-produced festival. And nobody stage directs clusterplucks with more confidence and style.

Saturday wrapped up with a rock solid blowout by the New Orleans Social Club, a serious funk unit that features some of the Funky Meters, Henry Butler, and the obligatory member of the Neville clan, Ivan. In classic Nola nonstop fashion the NOSC blew through a set of New Orleans standards, ably assisted by Flecktone Futureman on percussion, encoring with a timely re-write of CCR's antiwar classic, "Fortunate Son".

The Sunday morning vibe is a little less intense, a bit more relaxed. By this time the major night parties are just past, and while there's still plenty of fest ahead, we see that Monday is more part of our immediate future.

Frequently, TBF has featured a gospel group for the Sunday morning slot. This Sunday launched with a stunning set by the Sparrow Quartet, a string ensemble fronted by the gifted Abigail Washburn (clawhammer banjo, vocals), backed by Bela Fleck (banjo, bad Chinese translations), Ben Sollee (cello) and Casey Driessen (fiddle). Fresh from a Far Eastern tour, the SQ blended traditional West Virginia folk music with Chinese tunes. You know, it's really weird to hear a bluegrass tune sung in Mandarin Chinese, but it does grow on you after a while. Highlights included the Ben Sollee tune "Bury Me with My Car", a very mutated "Keys to the Kingdom" and a favorite from the Uncle Earl catalog, "Coffee's Cold".

In a sort of gospel vein, klezmer master Andy Statman took the stage for definite change of pace and style. Starting a set with a quarter hour of clarinet improvisation is a little bit of a stretch even for the TBF audience, but Statman redeemed that indulgence with excellently-played mandolin pieces.

I always look forward to Peter Rowan's set. He's brought a variety of configurations over the years, most recently a quartet with Tony Rice (guitar), Sharon Gilchrist (mandolin, vocals), and Bryn Davies (bass, vocals) with Pete on rhythm guitar and vocals. Bryn, though, left the Quartet to join Patty Griffin. She's been replaced by Catherine Potter on double bass, thus preserving the bluegrass-babes-and-legends configuration of the past eight years.

The unfamiliarity of the newest band member with the core group limited the dynamic range of the Telluride performance. Where once the bass would drive a tempo, as in, say, "Walls of Time", there's now a serviceable but tentative beat. Missing, too, are Ms. Davies soaring backing vocals. Sharon Gilchrist's whispery vocal contributions are on the mark, but too easily overshadowed by Rowan's dominating leads.

One of the amenities at Telluride is the Kid's Tent, this year re-located to the ice rink in Town Park. This provides programs for the younger festivarians that culminate on a Sunday afternoon parade through the fest grounds accompanied by a brass band soundtrack. It was a nice diversion while the ace stage crew turned things over for euphemistically-titled "Drew Emmitt & Friends".

One of the mysteries of acoustic music is the decision by Leftover Salmon to call it a day on the heels of their impressive self-titled CD. Since then, Vince Herman has caught the Great American Taxi while mando/vocalist Drew Emmitt brought out his own band. Hopes of a reunion have followed the LoSers since, but it took Craig Ferguson to make it happen. Lacking keyboard/vocalist Bill McKay it isn't quite the old LoS, but they did enlist spirit drummer Jeff Sipe. Add Greg Garrison on bass and a smiling Noam Pickelny on banjo and I think you've pretty much got the Leftover experience. Introduced by Yonder Mountain String Band, LoS launched a sizzling set of their best party tunes, accompanied by a dizzying series of special guests. Bringing Sam Bush out to fiddle for "Whisperin' Waters" was a masterstroke that just heralded better things to come. By the fifth tune of the set, Leftover had been joined by Sam Bush, John Cowan, Jeff Coffin, Andy Hall, and Tyler Grant. Despite the overpopulation, the set went on to reach new energy levels in "Euphoria" and the stunning encore "Down in the Hollow".

Just a few more notes. I viewed the Bela Fleck/Chick Corea set with some trepidation. Bela can get very far out there where the light is dim and you have to rely on other senses. As I mentioned in an earlier post, his Flecktones material can get pretty hard to grasp. But I was very pleasantly surprised at the cohesiveness of this duo performance. More amazingly, I actually witnessed Bela taken aback by another musician. During a tune where the banjo and piano alternated solos, Bela was clearly impressed by Corea's play. Their CD is pretty cool, too.

For blog purposes, Telluride 2007 ends at Bela & Chick. Officially, Alison Krause and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas closed the Sunday night chapter. Unfortunately, AKUS forbids broadcasting, recording and photography during its shows (although, strangely, not when Tony Rice sits in). It's a short-sighted policy, but it's enough for me to decline the chance to comment on the performance.

But I do have one more tidbit. Just after the Fleck/Corea set, a small war broke out in the crowd. Some aggressive types had smuggled in WMDs and, during a lull in the schedule, opened fire on innocent bystanders. These WMDs (Weapons of Marshmallow Destruction) flew fast and furious, and at short range.

One plucky young lad found a great way to return fire without getting his hands sticky.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I couldn't make it to TBF this year, so really enjoyed your coverage. LoS is playing a few more shows this summer, and I will make a point to get to one! Thanks for the nostalgia-inducing coverage!