After a three-hour delay in Denver, a prop plane to the Cortez airport (where the Hertz guy looked at me said, “Jackson?” and then just tossed me keys when I nodded), and a two-hour drive through the mountains, it was pitch-black when finally made it to Telluride. So waking up surrounded by mountains was pretty jaw-dropping. It was an appropriate way to start my first trip to the Telluride Blues & Brews Fest, where the beautiful setting was the star of the show.
We started our day driving up a switchback to Bridal Veil Falls, where Nikola Tesla helped build the world’s first commercial a/c power plant. On one side were the 365-foot falls; on the other, a view of the valley where the Telluride village sat along with the site for the scenic festival. It was already worth the long trip from Atlanta.
Fortunately, the music wasn’t bad either.
Back on festival grounds, Seattle’s Pickwick got things going, quickly proving that the festival organizers were not interested in staid purism in their interpretation of the blues. The band has indie-rock roots (vibes player Kory Kruckenberg produced J. Tillman), and a love for both the garage rock of The Sonics and the soul of masters like Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield. None of that might have mattered, though, if frontman Galen Disston didn’t have the vocal chops to make that combination work.
Talking to the band afterward, I learned I wasn’t the only one mesmerized by the setting. “I was up on stage looking at the mountains in the in the background and I just kept losing myself,” said guitarist Michael Parker. “I’d be like, ‘Oh fuck, I’m supposed to be playing.’”
They were followed by San Diego blues-rock duo Little Hurricane, who we stole away afterwards for a couple private performances on the city’s free gondola and at the top of the mountain. With Celeste “CC” Spina beating whatever she could find with her drumsticks and Anthony “Tone” Catalano ripping into his acoustic guitar, it made for a very fun round-trip.
Heartless Bastards added a hint twang to their bluesy rock, with Erika Wennerstrom’s unique voice adding potency and emotion to the band’s songs. We found the band again later in the evening, getting ready for one of the festival’s “Juke Joint” performances at clubs around town. Heartless Bastards got the lucky draw of the town’s gorgeous art-deco Opera House.
The crowd didn’t completely loosen up, though, until Robert Randolph & the Family Band took the stage with his trademark rollicking pedal steel. It was a revival in the mountains. Little Feat kept the funk going before headliners The B-52’s brought the daylong party to a close. By that time, we were recording a session with Heartless Bastards and only heard the Athens, Ga., band’s hits reverberating off the mountains. The night was far from done, though.
The next stop was to watch Portland, Ore.’s March Forth Marching Band turn a “Juke Joint” tent into a gypsy-punk carnival. We’d gotten a taste of the band’s funky spectacle as we recorded them on the playground earlier in the day, one of the coolest videos we’ve frankly ever shot at Paste (coming soon to the site). With horns, drummers and dancers on stilts, the band knows how to close a night down.
It was pitch-dark again when we got back to our mountain home, but this time we hit the hot tub in the 40-degree night air with a couple of growlers from Smuggler Joe’s (including their tasty Daily Dubbel). We found out that the mountains and trees looked just as spectacular enough by starlight if you weren’t too tired to notice.