As if it isn't enough to put one of the nation's premier acoustic-oriented festivals against the 13,000 foot peaks of Telluride's box canyon for four days, Front Rangers are treated to an added bonus for the third year in a row as the state's ultimate venue hosts the hottest hoedown this summer.
It's no easy feat to succinctly summarize a long weekend with 33 eclectic acts spanning the musical gamut from traditional folk to blues and rock, from tabla to Celtic, from dawgrass to slamgrass to newgrass and, yes, even bluegrass. But Tuesday afternoon on the Rocks will come as close as possible to capturing the breadth and depth of what has become known as the Telluride sound.
The gates open at 3:30 p.m., with Susan Tedeschi kicking off the bill at 5:30. Tedeschi has had a dream year, rising from near obscurity to national acclaim and Grammy-nominee status, propelled in large part by a burst of support from Colorado's cutting edge musical barometer of an audience. Barely more than a year ago she was bursting the seams of Boulder's Fox Theater. Her blend of bluesy, reggae-tinged rock 'n' roll is brimming with the kind of musical energy that defines the oxymoron of Telluride Bluegrass, and her stunning guitar work has won over the respect of none less than Stevie Ray Vaughan's old group, Double Trouble, who back her up.
When Bela Fleck takes the stage with the Flecktones, it's probably fair to expect anything but bluegrass. Fleck will play a set featuring a barrage of new tunes from his bottomless well of creativity, culled from Outbound, the group's new album, due in July. The album is a guestfest, featuring Shawn Colvin, Jon Anderson of Yes, Adrian Belew, Paul McCandless, John Medeski of Medeski, Martin, and Wood, Edgar Meyer, tabla player Sandip Burman, Indian classical singer Rita Sahai, and Tuvan throat singer Ondar.
Fleck has thrived on the no-boundaries attitude of Colorado audiences, and his album reflects the open-minded approach that has kept him at the top of the acoustic music circuit, even when he ventures far into the world of synthesizers and disparate genres of music. "The more diverse the audience there is, the better," Fleck said in a recent interview. "If you've got people who would normally be jazz fans sitting in the same room with people who love bluegrass, some funk fans who love Victor, some Deadheads, it turns into this roomful of happy people who are all real different." Fleck describes the album as "a party going on with people from different cultures all there hanging out."
Among the long-term musical relationships that have developed over the 27-year history of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, one of the most interesting and challenging has been Fleck's musical friendship with Bruce Hornsby, who follows the Flecktones onstage Tuesday. When Hornsby first played Telluride in 1988, the crowd was skeptical of the pop star, but he put them at ease from the start, promising the acoustic aficionados "we like all the same people you do" before launching a set backed up by New Grass Revival and turning 10,000 new fans onto his intense and wide-reaching musicianship.
Hornsby's set with the Flecktones two years ago achieved overnight legendary status, although Hornsby later admitted he didn't feel too good about it. He'll have plenty of opportunity to improve on the record on Tuesday.
The night continues to build when Jackson Browne takes the stage, fulfilling a promise made on the Red Rocks stage last summer when he and Hornsby shared the stage with Bonnie Raitt, Shawn Colvin, and David Lindley, who is likely to be at the Rocks and is slated for a Thursday slot in Telluride with Wally Ingram. Browne fills the "troubadour" spot in the lineup, and his legacy of social consciousness and musically integrity should make a clean fit on the bill.
For those who like a little bluegrass in their bluegrass festival, the night ends with The Bluegrass Sessions, a supergroup of innovative pickers who try to stick to the traditional stuff, but can't seem to help letting their genes show, leaking with the collective creative genius that has fueled the spirit of newgrass for more than a generation.
This year's model of the Thunder Jam features Mark Schatz on bass, Bryan Sutton on guitar, Fleck on the banjo, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Jerry Douglas on Dobro, and the inimitable Sam Bush on mandolin. They are each known for their capacity to reinvent themselves and the musical traditions they cloak themselves in, but Tuesday night promises to find them as pure as they get, dancing on the fret boards and relishing the unbeatable tandem of hot string licks resonating off the sacred sound surface of Colorado red sandstone rocks.