The steady rain that opened Saturday’s Telluride Blues & Brews Festival slowed just after noon, revealing a gift for the 9,000 soggy revelers wallowing in the mud on the valley floor. The craggy San Juan peaks flanking the valley were coated in brilliant white.
But the herald of fall was short lived, melting away quickly as the sun pierced clouds and the blues-fed heat rising from the Town Park stage reached scorching levels.
The 20th annual festival was barely dimmed by the relentless rain and muddy morass that grew thicker as New Orleans’ Rebirth Brass Band, England’s the New Mastersounds, guitar virtuoso Otis Taylor, the Mickey Hart Band and Jim James spurred the packed park into a foot-stomping, mud-flinging party.
The New Mastersounds, the ever-touring funk outfit that simmers a scorching boogie, turned on the heat early. Guitarist Eddie Roberts locked with drummer Simon Allen in simple, repetitive grooves that slowly roiled, accumulating a horde of rubber booted dancers. The band – which recently stopped in Denver to begin recording new tunes for its upcoming album – is no stranger to Colorado. Roberts’ Melvin Sparks-style – sleek and groovy Acid Jazz – has accumulated New Mastersounds disciples across the Rocky Mountains.
“Colorado is our favorite state,” Roberts said as he tried unsuccessfully to foment a clap along.
(At Saturday’s afternoon apex of a free beer tasting with dozens of breweries flooding the park with brew, everyone was holding a glass, making clapping a difficult task.)
Rebirth Brass – with two trumpets and two trombones scaling to climactic peaks – ferried the fiesta into high gear with a thumping “Mardis Gras in New Orleans.” The white handkerchiefs were twirling as the Crescent City’s brassiest delegates represented with explosive twists on traditional arrangements, including a churning “I Used to Love Her (But It’s All Over Now.)”
Otis Taylor infused a country vibe with his magnificent banjo work, but his roots blues guitar blasted through the valley and churned the formerly pristine lawn into an even deeper quagmire of sole-sucking swamp.
Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and his band kept the rain at bay with his lumbering, locomotive-beat takes on Dead classics like “Bertha,” and “China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider.” Hart’s Africanized “Fire On the Mountain” tried to part the building clouds, but by the end of his set, the dark thunderheads returned and a deluge was imminent.
Thousands scurried to pack up tents and umbrellas as the rain reached tropical storm status for closer Jim James. The frontman for My Morning Jacket tried, but the rain kept the animated singer from fording the lake that formed in front of the stage and reaching the remaining, saturated revelers.
The festival’s Juke Joint series kept the heat alive through the night with Anders Osbourne rocking the Sheridan Opera House and the New Mastersounds packing the venerable Fly Me to the Moon Saloon.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band up in the Mountain Village kindled a cultural experience, sharing New Orleans traditional big-band jazz sound mixed with a sprinkle of new school funk. The eight-piece collection of veteran musicians – dapper in suit and tie – blasted through two hours of rich, diverse tunes, with consistent solos featuring the clarinet, sax, trumpet and trombone. Jim James, who produced the band’s latest record “That’s It,” joined for several tunes, exuding the raw energy he struggled to share during his swampy set down in the valley.
James was tempered in “Louisiana Fairy Tale,” slowly building his vocals in step with Mark Braud’s haunting trumpet and Clint Maedgen’s bellowing sax.
But James threw a bucket of fireworks into the Preservation Hall’s mellow campfire with “Those Gambler’s Blues,” flipping his locks around and sledgehammering the stage with his mic stand. James’ howling, growling moans mesmerized the crowd and seemed an odd yet somehow alright fit with the dashing black musicians on stage.
Karl Denson joined the band next, looking professorial in thick-framed eyeglasses and a touch of gray in his goatee. Denson melded with the band and found several opportunities to expand jams with his signature sound on sax. The encore “The Saints” saw Denson meld with Charlie Gabriel’s resonant clarinet in a stirring rendition of the gospel staple, buoying the swaying crowd as it ambled into the night to prepare for a final day of the festival.
And preparation was needed. Once again overnight rains left the venue a morass, but give-it-up for Telluride organizers and the valley’s hardened festivarians. Despite the mud and despite the deluge-to-drizzle rainfall, the 20th annual Blues & Brews went off without a hiccup. Festival veterans girded themselves for the elements and event organizers ran a full-blown albeit soggy party. Organizers reported tickets sales for Friday, Saturday and Sunday reached 8,900 each day, just shy of the 9,000 limit.
Rain and mud don’t matter when the music is right.
Sunday dawned graybird but Dallas’ the Relatives warmed the scene with a gospel-fired set of electrifying choir jigs. Preservation Hall Jazz Band continued the boogie with energetic horns, playing the same set as the previous night.
Swede Anders Osborne’s potent lyrics and searing guitar parted the clouds and blue sky shone above the fog lined canyon walls by midday. Osborne’s songwriting has blossomed in recent years and his latest LP “Three Free Amigos” roils with festival-friendly pop and dark guitar.
Sunday’s rich “Marmalade” swung with a laid-back reggae groove, aided by Karl Denson keyboardist David Veith. Rolling through a trio of Fender guitars, Osborne veered from tender to scorching. His new “Peace,” off his upcoming album of the same name showed Osborne’s compelling, growling voice in a song detailing an endless, daily struggle. His confessional “On the Road to Charlie Parker” off the 2010 album “American Patchwork” details his fight to kick heroin, the same drug that haunted the jazz giant.
Donning his Saints beanie, the New Orleans musician melded into a defining groove with bassist Carl Dufrene in the fun “Jetstream.” Dufrene’s ease on bass lends Osborne the room to roam. And roam he does. Osborne’s ability to rock ambient guitar solos within powerful, emotive tunes is elevating the 38-year-old’s profile after decades on the scene.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, John Hiatt and Melissa Etheridge closed out the festival.
Jason Blevins is a strange dancer, but that has never stopped him.
Evan Semón is a Denver freelance writer and photographer and regular contributor to Reverb. See more of his work.