Written by: Mikala Lugen | Photo(s) by: Kelly Arana + Benko Photographics
High On A Mountaintop: 49th Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival Showcases The Traditions Of Folk, Country & Bluegrass Music [Photos]
Nearly 10,000 live music fans around the country gathered at 10,000 feet in the scenic town of Telluride, CO over the weekend to celebrate Planet Bluegrass’ 49th Annual Telluride Bluegrass & Country Music Festival.
After being forced to shut down its usual festival operations in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and having limited capacity and reduced programming last year, this year’s Planet Bluegrass celebration was brought back in full “Festivarian” force with four full days of music on the festival’s mountain view main stage.
In case you’re not familiar, Telluride Bluegrass Festival has earned quite the reputation over the past several decades for its exceptional showcase of music throughout the Intermountain West. While its name assumes a lineup of strictly traditional and new age folk and bluegrass staples, Planet Bluegrass has been known to throw in “wildcard” artists and bands, constantly keeping fans on their toes to showcase other rising artists in the music scene while broadening the scope of music. This year, the festival’s biggest “wildcard” was granted to Tenacious D’s headlining set on Thursday night. What really sealed the deal was the complete opposite showcase of bluegrass music on the stage just before with artist-at-large Béla Fleck. Joined onstage by fiddle player Michael Cleveland, guitarist Bryan Sutton, mandolin player Sierra Hull, standing bassist Mark Schatz, and multi-instrumentalist Justin Moses, the banjo virtuoso and the five members played through traditional bluegrass compositions from Fleck’s career, placing an emphasis on his most recent full-length release, My Bluegrass Heart. Of course, the first official day of the festival wouldn’t be complete with an all-star collaboration throughout the two-hour set, welcoming acclaimed musicians Molly Tuttle, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Chris Thile. The transition then into Tenacious D’s completely satirist “heavy metal” dad rock set was quite the experience. Green crystal balls, oxygen tanks, and blowup mega-sized saxophones surely made the end of the night and the duo’s first show back since the pandemic a memorable one. Long live bluegrass and dad rock.
After a solid start the first day, the rest of the weekend was an impressive showcase of traditional bluegrass ballads, new-age country rock, and jamgrass. Rising Appalachia graced the stage early Friday with a harmonizing performance surrounding old Appalachian folk music and rhythmic world melodies. Montana-based quartet Kitchen Dwellers took to the stage at high noon, delivering what would be one of the most captivating performances of the weekend. After competing in the Telluride Band Contest for three years and winning second place in 2014, it was a full circle performance for the group to see themselves on the main stage just a couple years later. Aside from their main stage performance, Kitchen Dwellers played three additional shows throughout the week for a full twisted kaleidoscope of bluegrass, folk, and rock from their three LPs, including their most recent release, Wise Rivers.
“It feels really full circle because we used to play Telluride during the weekdays before the festival started,” upright bassist Joe Funk told Volume backstage. “We got our foot in the door in the bluegrass community through just jamming and playing the bars here [in Telluride]. Our roots really blossomed here. Playing today [on the mainstage] was probably the biggest full circle moment for us as a band.”
Then emerged Tyler Childers who rests somewhere between country, rock, and blues. The top-charting artist performed a strikingly impressive 90-minute set full of some of his notable hits from “Lady May” and “Universal Sound,” while paying an ode to those who came before him including Bob Weir’s “Greatest Story Ever Told” and Hank Williams’ “Old Country Church.” His mix of neotraditional country and rock anthems backed by his band, the Food Stamps, was the perfect transition from Friday’s daytime bluegrass pickings to evening ragers.
It was also festival veterans and headliners Greensky Bluegrass on Friday, The Infamous Stringdusters on Saturday, and Grateful Dead‘s Phil Lesh on Sunday that kept the traditional Telluride Bluegrass Festival feel while throwing in the hearty dose of jamband grooves. After winning the festival’s band contest in 2006, Greensky Bluegrass has returned to the festival as a main act for over the past 12 years and it definitely shows. The Michigan-based quintet – comprised of Anders Beck on dobro, Michael Arlen Bont on banjo, Dave Bruzza on guitar, Mike Devol on upright bass, and Paul Hoffman on mandolin – played like they were right at home as they segued through anthems spanning their 20+ career, including “Past My Prime” and their latest album title track “Stress Dreams.” Of course, their set wasn’t complete without a fair dose of trance-like pickin’ jams underscored by deep bass grooves and hard driving rhythms, just to be brought back up by accompanying sit-ins by vocalist Lindsay Lou and festival veteran and artist-at-large Sam Bush.
“There’s something really special about this festival. It’s always been very central to our identity,” Dave Bruzza told Volume in an interview backstage. “To come back year after year is really special to us. I’m extremely grateful to have the opportunity every year to come back here. Telluride is something that is deep in our fabric and it’s the community aspect and connection that really makes it what it is.”
Then there was New Grass artist-at-large Sam Bush that really put the cherry on top of the weekend with his own Sam Bush Band and Telluride House Band sets, multiple sit-ins, and once-in-a-lifetime onstage collaborations. His Saturday night set with his backing band saw some mountainous pouring rain, which resulted in bust outs of The Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” Tower Of Power’s “What Is Hip?” and his own amplified Southern rock anthem, “Stop The Violence.” It was his set closer of Bob Marley’s “One Love” featuring an all-star cast of members of Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters, Big Richard, Twisted Pine, Sierra Hull, and Béla Fleck that was deemed the highlight of the weekend. With over half a century of playing the Telluride stage, Bush closed out his performance by featuring each musician with their own solo. It was also his involvement with the classic Telluride House Band on Sunday alongside bluegrass comrades Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Bryan Sutton, and Stuart Duncan where he revived the group’s long-standing connection and influence over the festival’s history that granted him the long-standing title as the “King Of Telluride.”
Let’s not forget the incredible women that showcased incredible musical moments and historical happenings over the weekend. Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway played through a full-blown mountain monsoon, not once skipping a beat as she played through takes on her most recent album, Crooked Tree. Poised in a sparkling suit, Tuttle took the stage by storm that even Dierks Bentley couldn’t miss her set as he sat front and center. Big Richard deemed themselves as the best badass babes in bluegrass as the quartet literally grabbed Telluride by the scrotum and performed old traditional folk ballads and bluegrass pop covers. True to their name, the band – comprised of Joy Adams on cello, Bonnie Sims on mandolin, Eve Panning on fiddle, and Emma Rose on bass – has garnered quite the following in the year as a band due to their infectious onstage banter and commentary and done-up bluegrass covers spanning from Brittney Spears to Radiohead. Onstage whiskey shots and flying inflatable penises were not harmed during the band’s performance, except maybe the one inflatable penis that was taken away by a grumpy security guard. It was also Twisted Pine’s Sunday performance that set themselves apart thanks to their newest member Anh Phung’s flawless flute offerings on the group’s funk-infused stringed compositions.
If somehow you weren’t tired after witnessing all these incredible music moments throughout the daytime, the town of Telluride lit up every night with several sold-out “late night” shows. For those lucky to snag a ticket beforehand, roots Americana folk duo Rising Appalachia mesmerized the town’s historic Sheridan Opera House late Thursday night with their harmonizing vocals and storytelling, while The Infamous Stringdusters raged the town’s Palm Theatre on Saturday, and Big Richard and their dressed partners picked their way through the night with plenty of fiddle tunes and Irish whiskey at The Moon at O’Bannons.
Whether it was munching on the festival’s delicious baklava in-between the sets, basking in the breathtaking views of the San Juan Mountains, dancing in the rain to the incredible showcase of music, throwing around inflatable balloons and “big richards,” getting your breath taken away by Holly Bowling’s incredible key work alongside Phil Lesh, chatting with all the incredible security guards throughout the grounds, or just stomping around the old historical mining town, Telluride Bluegrass Festival never fails to hold up to its reputation as one of the world’s finest showcases of mountain music.
Scroll down to see a full gallery of photos from the 49th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, courtesy of photographer Kelly Arana.