TELLURIDE — The 38th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival closed amid a fiery storm of music and a downpour of rain on Sunday. Festivarians could have done without the rain — what’s up, muddy tarps? — but the music benefited from the natural dramatic tension of the weather. The box canyon was shrouded in a dense fog for the entire evening, and a steady rain fell for two-plus hours, giving a certain weight to the air that filled Town Park. Clouds hung low. Entire peaks and waterfalls disappeared.
It was a visually intoxicating (if intensely uncomfortable) way to say goodbye to Telly — and the music was every bit as stunning. U.K. sensations Mumford & Sons played a moving sunset set that was wet and passionate. The clouds cleared for Robert Plant, who rocked a rootsy, funky set of songs that spanned more than 40 years. Many fans bailed because of the rain, but those who stuck it out were rewarded with some of the long weekend’s best live music.
The day started early with promising sets from people who weren’t named Bela, Jerry or Sam. Andy Falco and his Infamous Friends played a solid, captivating set at the Elks Park stage. “We’re just going to treat this like a jam,” Falco said from the stage. “As somebody said earlier, it’s just like being around a campfire. But instead of a campfire, there are microphones.”
Across the way at Town Park, Abigail Washburn and her band were serenading the audience in the sunshine. Washburn dedicated “Bring Me My Queen” — off the excellent “City of Refuge” LP from earlier this year — to “the many beautiful women at the festival.” The Punch Brothers played a lively set that, as per usual, showed
considerable love to cover songs. Their take on Beck’s “Sexx Laws” was impressively faithful, and their “Paperback Writer” was one of the fest’s most charming musical moments.
While Sunday’s British Invasion was a potent blast of music, the night clearly belonged to Mumford, who was introduced by festival director Craig Ferguson. The setlist was similar to the previous night’s show at
the Sheridan Opera House, starting with “Sigh No More” and leading straight into “Little Lion Man.” Frontman Marcus Mumford stepped out onto the stage’s apron with a big smile as the soaked crowd ate up the attention.
“It’s like a beautiful British summer day — balmy,” he joked.
As the band worked its way through the ballad “Timshel,” the stand-up bass player warmed his hands furiously. The ballad sailed, though, cutting through the rain with pop-rooted folk melodies that stick in your head. And the moment wrapped up much of Mumford’s appeal. The band is formulaic, with hushed intros and big builds and crashing, banjo-lead interludes. But its familiarity with massive hooks and potent
melodies makes the band’s success a no-brainer.
“We played 30 festivals last summer, and this was the one we asked to come back to,” Mumford said, before noting that he and his four bandmates plan on attending the festival annually, whether they’re playing or not.
The band closed with “The Cave,” and the result was a dance party/sing-along that was one of the weekend’s most potent displays of fandom.
The rain let up for Plant’s set, but it was still cold. The ever-thinning audience got a surprisingly funky “Black Dog” to start things off — with an emphasis on a bassline that was downright perverted. (“Dirty!,” one woman behind me screamed.) Singing with Plant was a female back-up singer who hit the notes he used to rock.
As it turns out, Mumford Mania has spread to Plant’s house. He called the group “British bluegrass at its best” as he said hello to the audience and thanked the band early in the set.
Plant’s “Down to the Sea” wasn’t his most memorable creation. But his Band of Joy performance of the song sent a clear message of what was to come in the rest of the set. Roots music with an emphasis on the funk,
the groove and most importantly the voice. It was a sensible close to one of the world’s most celebrated bluegrass festivals, and Plant was more than just icing on an already delicious cake. He was a thoughtful
topper, a legendary rocker who has us looking toward the 2012 event and what it holds. –Ricardo Baca
Pickin’ on Telluride: Reverb editor John Hendrickson sounds off
Rain has a way of ruining any outdoor concert experience. Luckily for Telluride ticket-holders, three out of four days at this year’s festival were bone dry — even if Friday was unseasonably chilly and overcast. Pity then, that on the fourth and final day of the 38th festival, a cold, October-esque rain soaked the grass and gravel at Town Park before final headliners Mumford & Sons and Robert Plant took the stage to close out the weekend.
Telluride is a unique stop in the summer festival circuit given that there is only one main stage — with a secondary, far smaller stage outside the grounds. When the rain comes, there’s no dance tent under which to hide, no art installation at which to kill half an hour. With its fundamental bluegrass acts and contemporary indie/pop/rock hit-makers billed side by side, Telluride requires an unparalleled commitment to the festival, as an organism. Fans camp out overnight for choice tarp and blanket position — then sprint into Town Park every morning like some Chacos-sponsored running of the bulls. They set up shop for the day well before noon and the vast majority stay util the final encore. Whereas mega-fests like Coachella, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo offer a buffet of genres and simultaneous stages, Telluride for better or worse, forces the Bela Fleck fans to sit through the Head and the Heart, and tests a fan’s endurance in more ways than one.
When 2010 breakout Mumford & Sons returned for a second consecutive year — this time as one of the top names on the bill — those festival-goers not only stood, but bounced and sang in the freezing rain after four days of exhaustion. These were the final hours of the weekend, and if Saturday night’s Old Crow Medicine Show reception was any indication, the draw of Telluride is now equal parts scenery and contemporary folk — with the “real” bluegrass, itself, running a distant third. And yet, as Marcus Mumford and his three mates sang hits from their Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling record, the drenched audience found salvation in their poppy, choral anthems. When a lightning-fast rendition of “The Cave” closed the set, the rain had finally stopped, with clear skies in the distance and fresh powder above Bridal Veil falls on peaks overlooking the valley. It was a moment made for a song with 9-million-plus YouTube views, rather than an instrumental pickathon. And if this roots festival is indeed straying from its roots, at least we know it’s going in the right direction. –John Hendrickson
Joe McCabe is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb. Check out his website.