The first thing you should know is that I'm not a hippie. I tried in high school, but tie dye is hard to pull off without the drugs. The crunchy-new age-hippie culture at Telluride is not exactly my cup of local, organic, humanely ground chai. But I picked up one of those steel water bottles as a concession that I would at least try. It's not as if I'd fit in at Coachella or Bonnaroo either. The second thing you should know is that I'm here for a songwriting contest.
And I'm all by myself.
My wife couldn't come because she just had surgery (husbandoftheyyear.com awaits your vote) and all my friends are too responsible. So I'm lone wolfing it. The drive was gorgeous, if not a rainy preview to the main feature. It's rained on and off since I pulled in on Wednesday evening.
Driving into Telluride for the festival, you're struck by a few things: 1) the flooring beauty, 2) the uncomfortably, near-to-even banjo-to-person ratio (it's never been easier to say "I played Telluride." Just grab a piece of sidewalk.), 3) how unproficient you are at your instrument because EVERYONE is a picker here, and few have met a note they didn't like, and 4) your lateness. People have been camping for weeks. And I don't say that like people say "I haven't seen him forever!" Literal weeks, double digit days. So, by the time I got there on Festival Eve, there were no good camping spots. I'm crammed in between about a gajillion other tents, half of whom decided to have a Bluegrass Jam at 2 am Thursday morning. Wasn't it Bob Dylan who wrote, "Ain't it just like the night to play a banjo when you're trying so hard to be quiet"? If you've read this far, you're ticked because you came here for something resembling a review, not a travelogue by some obscure songwriter.
The Troubadour Contest is a lot like a reality show- 10 people thrown together, supposed to bond, supposed to be fast friends. And nearly everyone's friendly (There's always Token Jerk. Count on it.) and getting along. Until the competitive part begins and somebody (or somebodies) are getting cut. Cuts and competition will strain any relationship, but especially one that a) is hours old, and b) may or may not have been founded on convenience. But these are nice, good people who happen to be putting something very personal out to be judged. It would probably be weird if we DIDN'T take it at least a little personally. There were some fine songs played and I made the second round. That's for sure already more than you were hoping to know.
The Festival. There's simply too much bluegrass for a Gentile like me. I like bluegrass, especially the classics, but I'll admit that it's best for me in controlled dosages. Here and there. So, this week, I pick and choose. Being solo lets me do that since I don't need much space (at least horizontally) in the crowd, can make decisions on a whim. All of this lets me skip the Telluride Tradition of "the running of the tarps" which is like the Running Of The Bulls but instead of bulls, you're trying to outrun people in hemp bodysuits, tie dye bandanas that will never lose the pitchouli stench, and some species of microfiber fleece. And they've been in line for hours. And it's early in the morning. Which begs the question: which would make you run faster? The bulls? Or the hippies? I'm gonna bold the acts I saw, so you can skip around.
Jim Lauderdale/John Cowan Band One of the great things about Telluride, I'm told, is all the spontaneous collaboration that occurs. Jim Lauderdale sat in with the John Cowan band and played a fine set of bluegrass-ish songs. Like I said, I wade in shin-deep in the ocean of bluegrass, but this was good stuff. Incidentally, Cowan and Lauderdale would be the two judges in the songwriting contest who were most complimentary of my stuff. Buddy Miller/Patty Griffin/Shawn Colvin/Emmylou Harris My folkie roots are showing like a Hollywood C-lister, but I was pretty excited for this. Unfortunately, the sound was uneven- lots of voice, not much guitar.
The collaborations were fun, if a little more ragged than I expected. Patty covered a Merle Haggard song, covered her own Dixie Chicks cover of "Truth #2." Emmylou and Buddy made everybody else sound good. And Shawn Colvin, fresh off of the 2006 boat, covered Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" as well as a pretty great version of Tom Waits' "Hold On," which I can only imagine everyone was just bursting to help out with.
Conor Oberst Et Cetera Confession: I was so spent from the Troubadour Contest, I had to go take a timeout in my tent, to ensure I had enough energy to really get into David Byrne. But, my tent is close enough to the venue that I could hear and Conor didn't play anything off of my favorite album of his nor did anything jump out at me, so my decision was validated.
David Byrne There's no way to do the musical, choreographic, artsy Tour De Force that this show was justice. Suffice it to say, the all-white-clad Byrne and band/dancers didn't play a note of bluegrass and still destroyed. I can't imagine the soul of the person who couldn't get into this show. Inspiring. Celebratory. Visually stunning. Tight. Beautiful. He played almost entirely new-ish material for the first half of the set, before diving into the Heads' catalog with songs like Once In A Lifetime, Heaven, Take Me To The River. The latter inspired my favorite comment the next morning by one of the many hungover college kids in my immediate (like Sigourney Weaver/Alien face-to-face immediate) vicinity. "I can't believe he played that song (Take Me To The River) because my parents totally have that fish." Now, if you're wondering why that's so amazing, it's because a) she believes that those wall-mounted, motion-activated animatronic fish that sing "Take Me To The River" are the actual origin of the song, and that b) David Byrne took his inspiration from a tourist trap gimmick gift, and c) Al Green anyone? Sometimes being a music snob is annoying. Anyway, David Byrne ruled. Any list of Still Relevant Rock Musicians would have to include him.
I told you a Bluegrass Gentile like me wouldn't give you rundowns for everyone. Tomorrow: John Cowan, Jenny Lewis, Elvis Costello & The Sugarcanes. And probably some rain.