Telluride Blues & Brews Festival has been delivering expressive music to this gorgeous mountain town annually for two decades now, but it’s not just the lineup that left me with newfound appreciation for the fest. From the moment I arrived (after a tumultuous day of flight delays, rain and other travel hiccups) it was all smiles, as I explored the streets with a beautiful mountainous backdrop. Strangers asked if I needed directions (I did), and the entire town was welcoming and buzzing about the festival. Although the town is as much a destination alone, the music (and beers!) certainly deserved the spotlight it received this weekend. Here were some of my favorite moments.
I’d already been sold on Allen Stone’s soulful voice (especially paired with his unassuming appearance), but even after countless views of his fantastic live videos I’d somehow gotten this far into festival season without seeing his performance in-person. After my dicey day of travel, I puddle-jumped my way onto the festival grounds in time to hear Stone’s performance come to an energetic start, and even with the damp weather it was clear the audience shared my eagerness. Wailing through a set peppered with covers, a highlight was watching couples of all ages jam to a cover of Chaka Khan’s “Tell Me Something Good.” Stone panted his way through the steamy song like an old pro as many in the crowd grabbed their significant others and belted along with the lyrics.
Missing James Bay’s early set was a big disappointment, so I can’t describe my delight when it was announced the singer-songwriter, in from across the pond, would play a few songs during the set change between Stone and Gary Clark, Jr. And charm he did—anyone familiar with Bay’s recent release The Dark of the Morning surely wasn’t disappointed with the simple, stunning set-up of acoustic guitar and vocals. Although the performance only lasted a few songs, Bay’s clear connection with the audience and mastery of the basics made me more determined to catch him live again soon. On another note, I loved that the festival had this side-stage performance scheduled during set changes instead of house music: it certainly exposed Bay’s music to a larger audience of potential new fans, and as an audience member I could keep my spot and still enjoy continuous live music. I’d love to see more fests follow suit.
Gary Clark, Jr.
If you’re been paying attention to live music this year, you’re attending any Gary Clark, Jr. performance with a set of high expectations. Clark didn’t disappoint, and it seemed no one was too cool to get down to the bluesy music. Bodies were moving from the front row to the side stage crowd to the security guards and the fans on the outskirts, and Clark’s casual, humble air in front of a clearly adoring crowd (several times you could hear a fan shout “We’re here for YOU, Gary!”) made his other-wordly talents on the guitar even more incredible.
The Black Crowes
Although it’s obvious that The Black Crowes are going to deliver exactly the kind of captivating rock show that catapulted them to popularity in the ‘90s, my favorite part of their performance at Telluride was seeing the way guitarist Jackie Greene fit into the band’s dynamic. It was clear from his first guitar solo that he can hold his own with these guys on-stage, and through fan favorites like “She Talks To Angels” and even closer, hit “Hard to Handle,” Greene’s inclusion in the band’s current lineup had my rapt attention for the entirety of the performance.
The Grand Tasting
One of the best parts of Telluride Blues & Brews is the expansive selection of craft brews available on-site, but the menu was even greater during the “Grand Tasting” on Saturday afternoon. The beer tents were spread across the festival grounds. The event was a little bit different from the separate tasting tents and beer villages you often see at other festivals. Here, scampering around to try each brewery’s offerings didn’t detract from the music.
Rebirth Brass Band
Rebirth Brass Band may be most known for blowing out a big brass sound in New Orleans’ tiny clubs, but the jubilant, muddy crowd at Telluride was a distinctly different yet fitting audience. Jazzing up the traditional song “When The Saints Go Marching In” with their own rhythm and paying homage to their home city by peppering the song with “Who Dat?” chants, the audience was beaming despite the looming clouds overhead.
By the time Saturday’s headliner was set to hit the stage, the festival grounds had become a muddy swamp, but that didn’t stop the crowd from anxiously waiting for the My Morning Jacket frontman’s solo set. Known for so many epic sets in the rain, it almost seemed like James was waiting for another downfall to erupt. But James finally took the stage a half-hour late, shuffling across the stage to “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U)” as the muddy crowd finally got a taste of what they’d been waiting for. He danced his way through recent release Regions of Light and Sounds of God, and his groovy set was the perfect lead-in to a night of Blues and Brews’ now-infamous late-night lineup.
Late Night: Preservation Hall Jazz Band with Karl Denson (and A Surprise Appearance from Jim James)
I was eager for my first time to see old favorite Preservation Hall Jazz Band on-stage, so I braved the rain and cold to take a gondola ride over to the Telluride Conference Center for the late-night set, which promised to host sax player Karl Denson as well. It was a treat for many reasons: the venue wasn’t crowded or sweaty and PHJB’s supremely danceable tunes allowed us all to capitalize on the room to move around. Not long into the set, That’s It! producer and collaborator Jim James came out on stage, singing with the band for a few songs and giving a performance (complete with breaking a microphone stand to bits) that I won’t soon forget. The proximity of the stage to the audience gave us an up-close, more casual view of the day’s headliner, now dressed in a t-shirt rather than his stage-ready suit and tie. (I should say, though: just because you can shove your iPhone six inches from a performer’s face for a photo, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Just a friendly tip, y’all!) Denson, by the way, was later on greeted with a healthy amount of applause and didn’t disappoint, and as a whole this late-night set was the highlight of my weekend.
This Dallas band certainly served up some gospel on Sunday morning, which began with clear skies despite the muddy aftermath of Saturday’s showers. It was powerful, easy listening that justifiably excited the crowd, preparing us for the final day of the festival. Although the group certainly performed for the large crowd, the show really made me eager to catch these guys in a smaller, more intimate venue.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Leave it to these New Orleans-based pros to make my Sunday morning as fun as my Saturday night. One of the most delightful things about seeing these guys in person is seeing 81-year-old Charlie Gabriel deliver the same kind of spirited and impassioned performance that I imagine he’s given for decades, but I also love the way that the band divides the spotlight between all of its members. Given the recent successes of That’s It!, their first album of original content in the band’s long and rich history, I would argue that there’s never been a better time to see the way this band performs.