Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2018: It’s a Tradition, Not a Festival
Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2018
It’s more than just a music festival, it’s a tradition.
Telluride Bluegrass Festival wasn’t really on our radar this year. I’m just being honest! Even though we had been once before (several years ago we stayed in a condo in town), the idea of acquiring tickets and camping passes seemed daunting. All of our friends that were going had been planning their umpteenth year for months. They got their tickets through the lottery, they had arranged to get off work for at least a week (if not two). They had long talks about who would be in charge of the “land rush” to mark off their campground at Town Park. Their campsites have names, and their camps have shots with names, and they all know the names of the other campsites and their shots. It sounded like an incredibly fun time, but maybe not something we could wiggle our way into so easily.
Turns out, the Festival Gods had a plan for us. We were meant to be at the 45th Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, camping in the coveted Town Park campground, shaking up Quaalude shots at Camp “Herd on Third”. Thanks to the mighty Michael Colón, our prayers were answered. We were welcomed to take part in the Tradition of Telluride.
You see, Telluride Bluegrass Festival is not just a music festival. Although, it does certainly bring some of the most iconic names in bluegrass music – alongside incredible folk, blues, rock and country icons. “Bluegrass” (as the festival is simply referred to) is a long-lived tradition, passed down through generations of families and friends for 45 years. Ask many in attendance, and this is the only music festival they have ever attended. No matter – they are still legit “Festivarians” even though they may not have traveled the festival circuit very much.
The term “Festivarian” is used by many festival-goers at a multitude of music festivals. However, the folks at Planet Bluegrass (the team that created Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Rockygrass, and Folks Fest) certainly have the trademark on this term. If you don’t believe me, visit www.festivarian.com, the official forum for those attending “Bluegrass” and other Planet Bluegrass festivities. They own that shit.
The Party Before the Party
To be a part of Town Park is to be a part of the history of Telluride Bluegrass Festival. It’s unlike anything I’ve experienced before, and I feel like a pretty experienced festival-goer. As HIGHLY encouraged, we arrived a few days before the festival. We hit the road from Boulder, Colorado on Monday morning, meeting up with our friend, Amy, along the way. It’s about a 7-hour drive from the Front Range, so caravanning with friends is a bonus treat.
We made it to Orvis Hot Springs by early evening, another “Bluegrass” tradition. Soaking up the sulfur pre- and post-festival is a pro-move. We were able to meet several of our campmates, and get the ball rolling on the festivities before we even got to town. We wanted to get to the campground before the sunset, so we cut the soak a little early and finished the breathtaking drive to Telluride. We pulled right up next to the Town Park Campground, unloaded our Subaru, and set up our tent and festival gear.
As is necessary, our camp was pretty much already in order. In order to get enough space for everyone in your camp, someone (or several someones) has to volunteer to get there Friday night for the Saturday morning “land rush”. Not to be confused with the legendary “tarp runs”, the “land rush” consists of getting in line early so that you can get into the campground when the gates open to mark off enough territory for all of your campmates. Most camps return to the same spot year after year, so it’s important to grab enough land for everyone to be comfortable. Not only do you need to ensure space for the tents, but if the camp does it right, you’ve marked off space for a kitchen, a bar and a living room.
Camp Herd on Third has a prime location right on the corner of the main entrance to Town Park. We can see the stage from our tents, and we can also sit in the shade of the aspen trees while listening to the daytime performers – which is key when the heat of the Colorado sun is simply too much to endure. We’re also only a short stroll away from the bathrooms with running water and flushing toilets, which is super important when you’re camping for 7+ days straight.
We grab dinner in town (another luxury of this festival), and then head back to Town Park to mingle. Hours go by, and the late evening turns into early morning as we visit other established camps, partake in traditional shots, and listen to musicians jam around space heaters. (There’s a major fire ban in effect this year, so no campfires allowed!) When our buddy, Chris Lewarchik, informs us that we are “coming in a little hot for Day negative 2”, we take it as a compliment.
Looks like we’re starting to get the hang of this music festival.
This “party before the party” is part of what makes Telluride Bluegrass more than just a festival. It’s a tradition. It’s a reunion. It’s a week-long vacation. The pre-party is filled with scheduled events at different camps – crawfish boils and craft beer happy hours, not to mention wedding receptions and celebrations of life. It’s like summer camp for adults, or maybe more like scheduled activities at a senior home full of alcoholics. Whatever the analogy, it is a non-stop party – and the festival hasn’t even begun.
It’s Only Wednesday
Wednesday morning, it’s a struggle to get everyone to get a little physical activity in before the actual festival begins. Thank goodness we have multiple coffee presses and pre-made breakfast burritos to make the mornings a little easier. We’re at the Bear Creek Falls enjoying a beer before noon (not so shabby!), and back at camp in time for other scheduled festivities.
RUMBALLS! are another camp’s traditional shot, and we are all welcomed to kickoff the 45th Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival by none other than Telluride Tom – a true legend who helps create the spirit of “Bluegrass”.
We follow our shots of fruit-soaked rum with a dip in the pool, and then we’re headed up to the gondola to catch FirstGrass in Mountain Village. We were late to the game and that line was long as hell; so, when an unmarked van offered us a ride, we quickly jumped in. Looks like the bluegrass gods were shining down on us again.
It was like hundreds of our friends all came to dance on the mountaintop, and we got front row seats. We bounced around from blanket to blanket, sharing hugs and hellos before eventually rolling into the first NightGrass of the weekend. Dierks Bentley shared the stage with the Travelin’ McCourys, and the night’s show was full of epic sit-ins by Sam Bush and Del McCoury, proving that this weekend was going to be packed with legendary sets.
Read about the Travelin’ McCoury’s newest album and this year’s Delfest in our recent interview with Ronnie McCoury – HERE!
Thursday: Let the Festival Begin!
The 45th Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival officially kicked off on Thursday, June 21st, 2018 when the gates open at 10:00 am and the “tarp-run” begins. Traditionally, those wanting a good lawn spot sleep in a long line overnight to ensure a prime spot to lay their tarp/blanket/sunshade for the day’s festivities. They’ve recently started a lottery with mixed reviews, but the idea was most likely created so that Festivarians weren’t sleeping on the sidewalk at night. Oddly enough, plenty of people were still setting up chairs and sleeping in line. It’s hard to break tradition, I suppose.
Chris Thile kicked off the festival on the main stage, and we were off to a strong start. We enjoyed the first few hours of music in lounge chairs under the shade at our camp, but we rallied to join our friends in the front row for Billy Strings and his incredible band. Many predict that Billy Strings is the future of Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Perhaps one day Sam Bush will pass the torch down to this young man. He’s already drawing quite the audience, including a stand-up ovation from the VIP section after his powerful a capella solo. The Wood Brothers kept the fire going with their soulful songs and infectious dance moves, followed by the harmonic melodies of I’m With Her. The Del McCoury Band stole the stage with the expected sweetness of Del’s humor and wit, and of course a highly requested Vincent Black Lightning.
As the moon rose, the much anticipated Tedeschi Trucks Band took to the main stage for the night’s closing set. Susan Tedeschi’s powerful vocals can be heard from a mile away, luring you closer and closer. Derek Trucks’ soulful guitar styles leaves the audience wanting more. The horn section harmonizes with the backup singers, and a dozen incredible musicians fill the stage with pure magic. There couldn’t have been a more beautiful way to close out the stage on the first night of Telluride Bluegrass.
But the day is not over, because there’s always a variety of NightGrass shows in town if you’re yearning for more music. Months ago, Festivarians put their names in a lottery to get NightGrass tickets. Lucky for us, there are always some floating around for sale. We snatched up two Greensky Bluegrass tickets and were not disappointed. The local high school’s theatre was lit up with Lincoln-lights, and GSBS gave us yet another reason to lose sleep. Greensky won the 2006 Band Competition at TBF and continues to win over attendees every year.
Friday Festivating Starts Out Easy
Friday morning, the stage is full of international, instrumental acts whose songs seriously take me to another world. As I rest in a hammock, recovering from another crazy night in Town Park, the soothing sounds of The Maes and Frigg rejuvenate my soul and remind me how blessed I am to have made it this festival. Violins, cellos, and fiddles (the Frigg consists of 7 fiddle players from Finland) warm the stage for the upbeat ballads of Phoebe Hunt and the Gatherers. Jerry Douglas and his band take us into the heat of the afternoon, making his 34th TBF appearance since 1981!
The beauty of camping in Town Park is how close we are to the stage. Not only can we listen to the music from our tents, we can run back quickly between sets to refresh and regroup. As a good camp does, we all take care of each other. Meals are communal, and there are plenty of Quaalude shots to give us an early-morning/afternoon/evening pick-me-up. (Don’t worry, guys. We aren’t holding out on a large hidden stash of quaaludes. It’s simply a delicious shooter created by Camp Herd on Third years ago. If you want the recipe, you’ll have to visit camp next year.)
Of course, if it’s late-afternoon and you haven’t made it to the main stage yet – you certainly rally the troops for the Infamous Stringdusters. This powerful group has been headlining major bluegrass festivals for the past several years, so it makes sense that they made a plea to be given a full-length set next year. We’d vote for that!
“If your heart doesn’t burst open and your brain doesn’t melt this weekend – I don’t know what’s wrong with you!”
-Travis Book, Infamous Stringdusters
This year, the Infamous Stringdusters impressed hundreds with their Friday main stage set – and hundreds more with their Saturday NightGrass set! But perhaps the most memorable set was when Andy Falco (guitar) and Travis Book (bass) joined Jacob Joliff (mandolin, Yonder Mountain String Band) on Saturday afternoon at the Elks Park stage in town for a Jerry Garcia tribute set. If you didn’t have goosebumps and a few tears in your eyes during that Ripple, you must have been across the street drinking at the New Sheridan – because that set was downright emotional.
As the day started to cool, Emmylou Harris took the stage, and we were graciously reminded that without the legends leading the way decades ago, the Infamous Stringdusters would have never won that Grammy this year. Emmylou brought a fresh new twist to the bluegrass scene, and all of these bands continue to push the envelope for what really defines bluegrass – or newgrass – or jamgrass. But perhaps the guy that everyone should thank for making all of this possible is Mr. Sam Bush! He’s been a part of Telluride Bluegrass Festival for 44 of the last 45 years, and he truly is the King of Telluride. He ultimately created this sound, pushing the limits of the normal bluegrass instrumentation. So, it’s only fitting that he leads the next band on stage.
It’s as if Friday’s stage was telling us a little story about the history of bluegrass – kicking off the morning with traditional fiddles and violins, and having the sunset over the Telluride House Band. Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Bryan Sutton and Stuart Duncan – some of the best pickers in the history of bluegrass coming together to wow the crowd. Then wrapping it all up with Greensky Bluegrass, a band that won the 2006 Band Competition and proved that there are no limitations to bluegrass music. The trail was blazed, and then the road was paved with gold.
Unfortunately, there were decisions to be made this year as NightGrass sets started before main stage sets were over. UGGGHHH! Life is hard! After hearing Greensky Bluegrass play two brand new songs (they’re currently recording a new album!), we opted to go check out Leftover Salmon at the Palms Theatre – and we were not disappointed. Leftover Salmon has been hard at work pushing their brand new album, Something Higher, and it seemed as if they just wanted to let loose and give us all a tripped-out, psychedelic, old-school show. (They know us all too well.) We danced like crazy, and then followed Vince Herman as he walked off the stage wearing his washboard – and headed right down Main Street back towards Town Park. Keep in mind, it’s about a mile walk to the park. But he kept the rowdy lemmings entertained as we caroled through the 12-days of Christmas and wished everyone a Happy New Year. (I can’t make this stuff up.)
Saturday: The Bluegrass is Kicking In
Needless to say, the jams continued well into the wee hours of the morning, and we were faced with another struggling morning come Saturday. Thank goodness for the bagpipers that graciously kick-off our mornings as the tarpers run to claim their land.
Sugar and The Mint, winners of the 2017 Band Competition, brought us our first sweet sounds this morning. If you didn’t get a chance to actually see the band, you might not realize that this powerful sound is coming from six young kids under the age of 21. Talk about the future of Telluride! Our camp’s Saturday brunch was accompanied by the sweet strings of Béla Fleck and the Brooklyn Rider, as many at our camp drank Bloody Mary’s and enjoyed smoked salmon from Alaska. (Thanks, Beaker!) And as the day heated up, Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Airforce led us on a cosmic expedition through bluegrass music.
Making history at Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Chris Thile returned to the stage to host the festival’s first ever “Live from Here”. This two-hour set brought some of the weekend’s highlights back on the stage – and broadcast it to millions around the world! We were amongst the fortunate to actually SEE it Live – from Here – lucky us!
Saturday was a scorcher, but the day cooled off as the stage heated up! Thanks to a tip from a friend, we were sure to not miss St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Full of soul, St. Paul danced across the stage and made us all shake off a little of that bluegrass. As much as I love bluegrass, sometimes you just need a little change of pace. And St. Paul and the Broken Bones were just what the doctor ordered to wake up the crowd and get us ready for an amazing Saturday night!
And what a night it was! Sam Bush Band brought us back to the roots of newgrass, and brought up so many guests it was hard to keep up. It’s incredible the amount of talent at this festival – it all feels like a dream. With Leftover Salmon closing out our Saturday evening, we’re heading back to camp feeling truly blessed and ready to rest. We opt out of NightGrass with some serious hints of FOMO, but manage to make our own crazy memories and hear plenty of jams back at the camp.
Sunday Morning and We’re Ready Headed to Church!
It’s a revival on Sunday morning, as The War and Treaty takes over the stage with their spiritual soul and blues set. This power-duo is sure to get you up on your feet, throwing your hands up to the sky, and praising the festival gods above that you’re alive and at Telluride! Edgar Meyer & Christian McBride are next up – but we’re on our way to town for a secret Leftover Salmon show at the Liberty.
In case you’ve been living in a cave the past few months, Leftover Salmon has released a new album, Something Higher, and it’s straight fire. They’ve been promoting the hell out of it, and they didn’t slow down just because they were playing a half-dozen sets at Telluride this weekend. Leftover Salmon created a Scavenger Hunt that took participants to several businesses and vendors to get points for prizes, and they also hid tickets to their secret show at a bunch of random places around town and the festival. Since we uncovered two tickets (and a free hat) from under a rock, we joined the party along with lots of Leftover Salmon’s loyal fans. If there is a prize for the hardest working band, these guys definitely WIN Telluride Bluegrass Festival this year.
We head back to town to finish off the last of our breakfast burritos, shower up and catch the afternoon sets. Tim O’Brien played his 42nd “Bluegrass” set, followed by the 19th showing of Yonder Mountain String Band. Again proving that Telluride is not a festival, it’s a tradition.
It’s hard to believe that Sunday night is nearing an end as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band takes the stage. The crowd belts out their familiar songs in chorus, bringing the Telluride community together as if we’re holding hands around a big, imaginary campfire. (Seriously, it’s imaginary. There’s a Stage 2 Fire Ban, people!). Punch Brothers bring out their mic as the day turns into night and the realization that the festival is wrapping up sets in. (No worries, rockstars. The actual last show of the weekend is the Punch Brothers’ NightGrass set at the Sheridan Opera House – so there’s still time to festivate.)
It’s time for the final act, and everyone in attendance heads out to the field for Sturgill Simpson. It’s our last time to dance on the tarps, our last chance to watch the bright moon resting in the canyon of the hills, our last moment to be with our fellow Festivarians for this historical 45th Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
As Sturgill and his band take the stage, he ensures us this will NOT be a bluegrass set. He encourages us to embrace the psychedelics and dig deep into that jar of peanut butter. And then he rocks that stage perhaps harder than it has ever been rocked before, giving us all exactly what we didn’t even know we needed.
A full-blown, electrifying, powerhouse set that sends the crowd into a frenzy and leaves us full of passion for everything that is Telluride – traditional or not.
“We haven’t slept. We’re high as fuck! It’s the last night of the festival. Let’s do this shit!”