TELLURIDE — The 38th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival launched on Thursday with a line-up that was as vibrant as the giant, painted Colorado columbines that lined the main stage’s proscenium. It was a bluebird day in Town Park, which was dotted with festivarians’ blankets and tarps. An early set from Seattle group the Head and the Heart was punchy and happy, with the affable bunch running through a collection of pop-rooted folk originals. The crowd was thin, but they felt the music, and pockets of the audience defied the early-day heat by dancing their way through some of the Head and the Heart’s songs.
A few blocks away at Elks Park’s consistently excellent Workshop Stage, folk multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz blew through a set of songs that alternated between traditional bluegrass and potential crossover jams
that might catch the ears of Triple A radio. Jarosz is best when focusing on the sounds of Appalachia, and it helped that she hosted a couple high-powered guests during her Elks Park set — including guitarist Tim O’Brien and dobro madman Jerry Douglas. She and Douglas — proudly wearing a black Mumford & Sons tour T-shirt — joined forces on a Dylan cover, and the packed crowd basking in the sun ate it up.
Her latest single, “Come Around,” was a weak spot of the set, sounding like a questionable crossover attempt. But she closed strong with a straightforward — but completely lovely — take on one of Telluride’s most oft-covered songs, Gillian Welch’s “Miss Ohio.”
Back at Town Park, one of the evening’s headliners had taken the stage for a set of music and thanks. Looking perfectly at home on the modest, wooden Telly stage, ’90s pop star Sarah McLachlan covered all the hits in her allotted 90 minutes, and her voice sounded as strong and alluring as it ever has.
“Building a Mystery” came early, bringing the low-key audience to its feet. “I Will Remember You” got the lovebirds slow dancing. The singer-guitarist-pianist talked multiple times about the natural beauty surrounding her, and she was visibly thankful to the crowd.
McLachlan talked about her “divorce record,” last year’s “Laws of Illusion,” by telling the story of writing her first song after having that “holy-shit-how-did-that-happen” moment — when she woke up and realized she was suddenly single with two young children.
The song was “Don’t Give Up on Us,” and it lead into a gorgeous, almost-acoustic “Good Enough” — accented by stunning back-up vocals from Melissa McClelland — that played as the sun set on the box canyon. The
late-set swing was all hits, jumping from a full-bodied “Adia,” a dance party-inspiring “Sweet Surrender,” a sterling “Possession” and an encore that lead with the ballad “Angel” and closed with the sing-along “Ice
The festival closed out on Thursday night with the so-called Telluride House Band, fronted by Telly vet Sam Bush. And as he and Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton and Stuart Duncan rounded through song after song — filling out a two-hour set that consistently showcases the best bluegrass at the festival annually — the fans got on their feet to take in the crazy amount of talent on the stage.
The set was the unquestionable highlight of Telly day 1. Just watching the band take on the Meyer composition “BT” early in the set was a stunning display of musicality. And it didn’t stop there.
Each night, the venues around town host Nightgrass shows — afterhours concerts that often have a looser feel than the festival sets. On Thursday, Joe Pug opened for Trampled by Turtles at the Palm Theater — nestled comfortably inside the local high school. Pug’s set was focused and determined, and the now-Austin-based songwriter held the rowdy crowd as best as he could. “I Do My Father’s Drugs” came early, and he closed with the astounding “Hymn 101,” one of the best songs written in the last decade.
At one point, Pug covered “a national fucking treasure” in Tex Tommy, and his song, “Start Again,” was short and sweet. Later, a too-loud woman in the crowd asked Pug if she was allowed to dance. Somewhat
befuddled, Pug answered, “If you can figure out a way to dance to finger-picked, brooding folk music, then by all means …” But she had her chance to dance when Trampled took the stage. The band’s fiery brand of bluegrass focuses on thrash as much as it does musicality. As fans flooded the aisles of the all-seated theater, the concert became a cathartic end to a very long first day of Telly. Nobody quite touched the King of Telluride — Sam Bush — and his pals. And that’s the way it should be.
The festival continues through Sunday. Keep your eyes on Reverb for daily reviews and photos from the festival — and click here for an archive page of our coverage so far.
Joe McCabe is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb. Check out his website.