ONE STEP AHEAD OF THE BLUES | A Most Memorable Bluegrass Festival

06/26/14 | By | More
FRIDAY NIGHT HEADLINERS the Dave Rawlings Machine featured Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones on mandolin and Grammy winning singer/songwriter Gillian Welch. (Photo by Adam Smith)

FRIDAY NIGHT HEADLINERS the Dave Rawlings Machine featured Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones
on mandolin and Grammy winning singer/songwriter Gillian Welch. (Photo by Adam Smith)

“I can’t go to Bluegrass, I have to work.” Words never uttered by me in my first residence in Telluride. But 15 years later, work beckoned and Thursday and Friday were my two days to festivate. And while I would have loved to spend the entire weekend at Bluegrass, after two days I was replete.

I didn’t want to miss a lick so and I caught every single note emanating from the mandolin of wizard Chris Thile. Thile appeared on the Telluride Bluegrass scene in 2003 and has been a mainstay since appearing with Nickel Creek, his other band The Punch Brothers and as a solo performer.

If Sam Bush is the King of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Thile is the Prince. For two consecutive years, he has opened the festival with a solo set, a great honor for any musician. Thile played a great solo set and his Nickel Creek set was a real treat for me as I had never seen them.

John Cowan was joined for his set by John McFee, a legendary slide and pedal steel guitar player (and many more stringed instruments) who appeared on Tupelo Honey and St. Dominick’s Preview by Van Morrison and Mars Hotel by the Grateful Dead to name a few.

Whenever I think of the Doobie Brothers, I think of the late 1970s television show What’s Happening!!. In one of the episodes, the show’s rotund lead character Rerun meets one of the Doobie Brothers and says, “Which Doobie you be?” On Friday the Doobies you be both McFee and Cowan, the former having joined the band in 1987 and the latter in 2010.

Surprisingly the duo did not play any Doobie Brothers songs. They did play New Grass Revival’s “Baton Rouge” (a favorite of mine as I lived in the Red Sick for five years) and the highlight for me was when they were joined by Little Feat’s Billy Payne for Allen Toussaint’s “On the Way Down.”

I must say it is surprising to me that Cowan, a member of New Grass Revival and a perennial festival regular, was relegated to a Thursday afternoon set, especially since he is promoting a new CD called Sixty with a star-studded list of musicians who appear on the record.

I had not seen Del McCoury in years so I was interested to see if he could still hit the high notes that I remember and the answer is yes. Del is now the senior ambassador of Bluegrass – in the front pew if you will – and at 75 years old he still rips.

My favorite moment was when the band played “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” by Richard Thompson. I wrote about the song in last week’s column (and included the song in the play list that I put together for last week’s column. You can download it at

This tune has been an obsession of sorts for me lately (and my ten year-old daughter Liza Jane). I picked up a CD recently from KOTO called The Red Album by a band called Red Molly, a bluegrass/country band that took their name from the main character of Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”

The song is an outlaw tale about a man who turns to a life of crime to buy a motorcycle – a 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. He falls in love with a girl named Red Molly, who has an equal appreciation for the beauty of the bike, and who eventually inherits the fine machine when the outlaw is fatally wounded after robbing a bank.

Red Molly covers the song on The Red Album and I have been listening to it in heavy rotation lately. I had no idea that Del has been playing “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” for some time. My daughter and I danced together to the song that we have been obsessively listening to together and it was a highlight of the weekend for me.

After the show I went to the liner notes of The Red Album and sure enough the lead singer of the band had seen Del McCoury sing it and decided to name the band after Red Molly herself.

Friday morning opened with Chatham County Line, a Bluegrass band from North Carolina. I lived in the Old North State for the last ten years and Chatham County Line is a big deal there, as they are arguably the best Bluegrass band (under the age of 60) in the state. Their set was dynamite. They played my favorite two songs last “Chip on a star” and “Let It Rock.” I was dancing around and singing to the songs. The guy in front of me came up to me later and said, “I know you know who those guys were, I loved them and bought their CD.” So I think it’s fair to say they won the audience over (or at least the guy in front of me).

Keller Williams and the Travelin’ McCourys set the bar for me up until that point. I have seen Keller do his solo show. I saw him with the Keels, I’ve seen him with his own band, but I had never seen him with the Travelin’ McCourys, Del’s back up band – Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), Robbie McCoury (banjo), Jason Carter (fiddle) and Alan Bartram (bass).

The set was awesome. Hearing a ripping mandolin accompanying Keller’s signature song “Freaker by the Speaker” was jaw dropping, and Keller became the first musician to string together a medley of the Grateful Dead (“Candyman”) and Taylor Swift (I knew you were trouble”). Keller also played contemporary pop hits “Pumped up Kicks” by Foster the People and Jessie J’s “Price Tag” a song extolling the virtues of dancing to a good groove over “cha ching cha ching and bla bling bla bling.”

My daughter exclaimed in the middle of the set, “He’s ruining all of my favorite songs!” to which Keller’s replied, ”I respect her opinion.” I have gotten to know Keller since he transcribed dialogue verbatim from my film Scrapple into a song called “Temple Balls.” He kindly gave me the writing credit. That same day, Keller performed “Temple Balls” on the Gondola Sessions, an on-line series.

I had to run to work for several hours and missed Jason Isbell, Tim O’Brien and Bela Flack and the Colorado Symphony.  Isbell is a former member of one of the greatest bands around in the Drive-by Truckers. For the last decade he has pursued a solo career which hit an apex with his 2013 release Southeastern, a top candidate for best album of last year. It was brilliant.

I have seen Isbell several times and knew I was going to miss a great set. I did hear him open with the haunting “Live oak,” from Southeastern, a song about a serial killer.

I know he played The Rolling Stones “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” because two friends texted me to rub it in.  I can say with some amount of certainty that it was one of the most rocking tunes of the festival because I know what that band can do and it is one of the Rolling Stones’ best tunes.

I regret missing Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott’s set as their song “Walk Beside Me” has become a favorite of mine. I first heard the song covered by Railroad Earth and became obsessed by it’s zensational lyrics, “Put one foot in front of the other, stepping into the here and now, I don’t know just where I’m going, but I’m gonna get there anyhow.” I traced the song back to its origins and landed in the laps of O’Brien and Scott. The song was the opening track on the duo’s outstanding release Real Time (which was recorded in Scott’s living room in one week). I have not seen Scott and O’Brien play so it was a major disappointment to miss the set.

Depending on who you talked to Bela Fleck and the Colorado Symphony was either brilliant or a great time to finally wait out the line for a Won Ton.  As a music lover, I think I would have enjoyed it.

I got off work and ran to the park to hear the opening licks by the Dave Rawlings Machine. There are three words that capture why this is a must see band – John Paul Jones, as in the bass player for Led Zeppelin. He’s playing bass in a bluegrass band? No, he is the mandolin player in the Dave Rawlings Machine.

Not since Dave Grohl went from drummer in Nirvana to guitar player in the Foo Fighters has a musician transitioned so well from one instrument to another.  And the coolest part is that Jones plays in a band named after another musician.  It’s not the John Paul Jones Machine, it’s the Dave Rawlings Machine. The man has no ego, quite amazing especially when you consider the recent public bickering between Jimmy Page and Robert Plant over a Led Zeppelin reunion.

So while Jimmy Page claims he’s “fed up” and accuses Robert Plant of “playing games,” Jones is playing mandolin in a bluegrass band. It feels like a Bob Dylan lyric.

Dave Rawlings is the Partner of Gillian Welch, one of the greatest folk singers of the last 20 years. Rawlings has been backing up Welch as her guitarist for years but in 2009 the two swapped roles and Rawlings took center stage while Welch took a supporting role (she still tours as a solo artist as well).

In addition to Rawlings, Welch and Jones, The Machine is rounded out by former Old Crow Medicine Show guitar player Willie Watson – says Wilson (Rawlings produced Watson’s solo record Folk Singer, Vol. 1) and bass player Paul Kowert (imagine playing bass in a band with John Paul Jones!).

Dave Rawlings Machine released an album in 2009 called Friend of a Friend. The band opened up with two of the tracks from that album “Monkey and the Engineer” and “To be Young (is to be sad, is to be high)”, the former was popularized by the Grateful Dead and the latter song by Ryan Adams opened up the film Old School. The band was tight, tight, tight but took orbit in the last half hour. The band played the Old Crow Medicine Show song “I hear them all”, segued into “This land is your land,” and went back into “I hear them all.” They followed with Creedence Cleerwater’s “Midnight Special,” Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately” and encored with Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” which completely melted my face. It was an amazing set; I have a new favorite band.

I miss Pastor Mustard. Not sure who the MC was but I thought he was an epic fail. They say that writing about music is like dancing to architecture. Reciting poetry live in an attempt to introduce musicians at a festival is like running with scissors into a brick wall. His poetry before Steve Winwood was embarrassing, “his organ is like a writing table…” Really? How about, “Steve Winwood’s work with the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and Blind Faith cemented him as one of the great living legends of Rock n’ Roll.  Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Rock n’ roll Hall of Fame inductee Steve Winwood!”

Traffic was my second favorite band. I went from the Who to Traffic.  Steve Winwood is one of my favorites of the living rock n’ roll legends. I saw him in 1987 on the heels of his record Back in the High Life, the most commercially successful record of his career. “Wake me in Higher Love” went to #1 and won a Grammy for Record of the Year and Best Male Pop Performance. Needless to say I didn’t hear many Traffic songs that night. But I finally got my fix Friday night.

Winwood opened with a jazzy rendition of “Rainmaker” from the Traffic record Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. He followed with the Spencer Davis track “I’m a man,” and then a slow grooving version of ”Fly” from his 2008 record Nine Lives (excellent record by the way). Winwood followed with a stunning rendition of the Blind Faith classic, “Can’t Find my Way Home.” From there on out, Winwood created his own traffic jam in town park as the next five songs were all Traffic tunes – “Low  Spark of High Heeled Boys,” “Medicated Goo (played on the same stage at Brews and Blues in September by the Black Crowes),” “Empty Pages,” “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and a 15 minute jamsational “Light Up or Leave Me Alone.”

Winwood’s band, Jose Neto on guitar, multi-instrumentalist Paul Booth on flute, saxophone, back up vocals and organ, Richard Bailey on drums and Café de Silva on percussion, was tight. And what blew me away the most was how good Winwood was on guitar. He picked up the axe on “Can’t Find my way home” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” He wasn’t playing rhythm, he was playing lead and shredding on both tunes.

Winwood played the mandolin on “Higher Love.” The bass player for Led Zeppelin and the organist for Traffic played mandolin on the Fred Shellman Memorial Stage in the span of two hours. Pretty cool.

Winwood encored with Spencer Davis’ “Gimme Some Lovin’,” a tune Winwood wrote when he was 17. The show was over the top, one of my favorite shows on the Bluegrass Stage ever.

That was it for me at the fest but I did catch Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers at the Fly me to the Moon Saloon Saturday night.

I had never seen her before but am a huge fan of her record Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers. Bluhm is married to keyboard/guitar player Tim Bluhm, formerly of the Mother Hips. The Gramblers are rounded out by guitar player Daren Ney (ripper), Dave Mulligan on guitar and vocals, Steve Adams on bass and Mike Curry on drums.

The show was fantastic. Bluhm is a first rate performer and the band sounded great. 21 years ago, I saw an unknown female vocalist walk onto the same stage. Her name was Cheryl Crow and within one year she won five Grammys. I predict in 21 years, I will say I saw Nicki Bluhm at the Fly me to the Moon Saloon.  She’s going to be a star.

I first became aware of Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers through their genius You Tube videos called the Van Sessions. The Van Sessions are just what they sound like, songs sung in the band’s van.  The Gramblers have covered an eclectic mix of songs, from Madonna’s “Material Girl,” to Parliament’s “Can You Get to That” to Kenny Roger’s “Islands in the Stream” to the Grateful Dead’s “Dire Wolf.” Their rendition of Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That,” has gotten 2.5 million hits on You Tube. After the show I asked Tim and Daren whose idea the Van Sessions were.

“Tim couldn’t be with us on a tour, so we sang a song for him as we drove down the road and sent it to him. Tim thought it was pretty cool and we just started making more.” When I asked if he had a five chip fancy camera to shoot the videos, Tim responded, “Nope just an iPhone.” Talk about a cost-effective marketing tool.

That was it for me. I have got to hand it to the folks at Planet Bluegrass. They have got it down. A friend of mine told me he went to the Willy Watson Elks Park session Sunday and the rest of the Dave Rawlings Band showed up. They ended their set with “The Weight,” with the entire audience in the park belting out the lyrics, “Take a load off, Annie, take a load for free…” What a festival.

01 Dear Mr. Fantasy                                                            Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood

02 1952 Vincent Black Lightning                                    Del McCoury

03 Wagon Wheel                                                            Dave Pawlings Machine

04 Little Too Late                                                            Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers

05 Outfit                                                                        Jason Isbel

06 Empty Pages                                                             Traffic

07 Price Tag                                                                        Keller Williams w/ Travelin’ McCourys

08 Monkey and the Engineer                                    Dave Rawlings Project

09 Hey Stranger                                                            Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers

10 Can’t Find My Way Home                                    Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood

11Walk Beside Me                                                            Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott

12To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)            Dave Rawlings Machine

13 Different Days                                                            Jason Isbell

14 Fly                                                                                    Steve Winwood

15 Freaker by the speaker                                                Keller Williams

16 Nothin                                                                        Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers

17 Pocahontas                                                            Dave Rawlings Machine

18 Chip Of A Star                                                            Chatham County Line

19 Medicated Goo                                                            Traffic

20Best Felling                                                            Keller WIlliams

21 Till I’m Blue                                                            Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers

22 Traveling Alone                                                            Jason Isbell

23Pumped up Kicks                                                             Keller Williams w/ Travelin’ McCourys 24 Ravenous                                                                        Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers

25 Live Oak                                                                        Jason Isbell

26 calling baton rouge                                                New Grass Revival

27 Let it rock                                                                         Chatham County line

28 I Hear Them All                                                            Dave Rawlings Machine

29 The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys                        Traffic

30 Miss Ohio                                                                        Gillian Welch

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Category: One Step Ahead of the Blues

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