Monday, June 23, 2008

Sam Bush brings a whole lotta Led to Telluride

By Donald Frazier

Perhaps it’s too soon to name the high point of the festival season. But the peak of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival took place at precisely 9:37 p.m. Saturday night of the Summer Solstice, when Sam Bush swung from a jazz fusion violin homage to Jean-Luc Ponty into a Celtic fiddle improv that segued, with a vast collective gasp from the crowd of thousands, into Whole Lotta Love.

Prancing and weaving about the stage, he showed us what it would have been like if Jimi Hendrix had played the violin. Led Zeppelin started out, surprisingly enough, as a Celtic roots revival band. But it takes an energetic music scholar like Sam Bush to demonstrate the bloodlines connecting bluegrass with its forebears and everyone else who followed, even big-hair rockers. One onlooker even expected him to set fire to his fiddle.

The entire evening was like that. A lengthy version of Bob Marley’s Freedom laid down the right reggae beat, but his treatment of the classic was anything but a druggy ganja reverie. In his hands, it gained a propulsion and urgency that made it new. John Oates – yes, that John Oates – sat in for classics such as Maneater. Even the standards kicking off the set forged the new direction that Sam Bush was thinking of when he conceived The New Grass Revival some years ago.

Like so many of the acts here, the Yonder Mountain String Band traces its lineage to his seminal act from the seventies. No Expectations, the center of their set earlier on Saturday, was not simply a countrified version of the Rolling Stones classic. True to its roots as an homage to Robert Johnson, it attained a wide range of tone and feeling reaching deep into the Delta Blues. This is in keeping with Yonder Mountain’s mission: with one foot in the conventions of bluegrass and another in the free-wheeling, eclectic experimentation of the jam band movement, they seem to be putting levels of personal expression into a style that used to prize form over feeling.

The Frames closing set took the program far beyond anything a bluegrass purist would recognize. Leadman Glen Hansard, familiar to Americans as the star of the Academy Award winning film Closer, traces his musical roots to the street buskers of Dublin. Moody, contemplative, and at times even turgid in the mode of The Cowboy Junkies, this Irish act exposed a vein of astringent romanticism as far as possible from the lively moods of a bluegrass event. Music from the underground clubs of a rainy country, here in a high country box canyon.

Sam Bush’s Led Zeppelin moment was so electrifying that the next day, Canadian folk-rockers The Duhks, when called upon for an encore, tried out their own version of Whole Lotta Love with wheeling and soaring violins. It capped off a decidedly non-bluegrass morning: the Duhks, with Cajun, Gospel and even Latin grooves; and the patriarch of country soul, Grammy-winning Solomon Burke. Not a mandolin in sight.

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