PREVIEW: Telluride Blues & Brews 9.16 - 18.16
Words By Ty Hyten
If you travel out of the city, up 285, cut through dusty one stop light towns, like Salida and Ridgway, you’ll arrive in one of the most beautiful little towns in America. Telluride, Colorado, is a living daguerreotype photograph of the Old West, unmolested by the ski corporations, void of a single Walgreens or Wendy’s. In the 120 years since Butch Cassidy pulled off his first bank robbery on the main street in town, it appears as though little has changed architecturally. Nestled at the bottom of a box canyon, surrounded by twelve thousand foot mountain walls, over nine thousand music fans set up camp every September. For the last twenty-three years, the 2,300 person town has been home to the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival – an isolated three-day weekend (September 16 - 18) of blues music, craft beer, late night shows at historic venues, and breathtaking fall scenery.
The festival is laid out at the end of town, across the babbling San Miguel river, in Telluride Town Park. At one end of the festival grounds is the camp ground with Ingram Falls overhead in the distance, trickling down a gigantic bald mountain. At the other end, the mainstage is backed by another mountain dotted with golden, newly turning aspen trees.
The festival has two large stages and one campground stage that sits just in front of a raging waterfall. This year, over thirty bands will keep these stages nearly constantly occupied with music with deep roots in America’s cultural history. The festival does a good job of keeping the show going, by providing live music while equipment is being swapped out. After the festival ends for the day, the town also has a handful of “Juke Joints” which provide intimate settings to see big acts a second time, in some truly unique venues like the historic Sheridan Opera House and the Elks Lodge.
Telluride Blues and Brews always strikes a good balance between legacy acts, buzzworthy new artists, and both traditional and modern interpreters of the blues, funk and soul. This year’s headliners hit that balance quite well with acts like Shakey Graves, Jason Isbell, Joe Walsh, and Gary Clark Jr.
Shakey Graves has continued to gather momentum since his first Blues and Brews appearance in 2014. His frequent Colorado appearances have sequentially moved up the venue chain, with a show at Red Rocks this summer and a killer surprise set for thousands in downtown Denver a few weeks ago. His country-blues influenced rock is defined by an earnest growl in his voice and his lilting, syncopated fingerstyle guitar. Some of his most popular songs on his most recent record feature Denver’s Esme Patterson. As of now, her tour schedule indicates she might be around. One can hope.
One-time Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell will surely be a highlight of the festival. Isbell can most accurately be described as a country artist, though his most recent album spent time at number one on the folk, rock, and country charts. Isbell successfully avoids the pitfalls of what Isbell’s friend and contemporary Sturgill Simpson recently and properly described as “the formulaic cannon fodder bullshit they’ve [the mainstream country music establishment] has been pumping down rural America's throat for the last 30 years.” Isbell’s songwriting is expert and opens a direct window to the underlying emotion in the stories he tells. He’s also no stranger up the neck of a guitar, something I’d expect to be highlighted at a festival like Blues & Brews.
Keeping with tradition of having big headlining legacy acts, Friday night ends with Joe Walsh. Walsh, rated one of the greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone, has a number of hits as a solo artist, as well as being a contributing member of The Eagles, James Gang, and Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. In recent festival dates he’s been playing a mix of Eagles hits as well as classics like “In The City,” “Rocky Mountain Way,” and “Life’s Been Good.”
Continuing the list of guitar greats, is Gary Clark Jr. who will be making a return to this year’s Blues & Brews. At only 32 years old, Clark has played alongside Clapton, Jimmie Vaughan, Buddy Guy, BB King, Mick Jagger, and several other icons of blues guitar. His gritty driven blues guitar connects his mixture of Chicago style blues, smooth R&B, and pop. You can hear hints of Albert King and Hendrix in the chaotic extended solos Clark tends to go to on stage.
As though the lineup isn’t reason enough to make the six hour drive from Denver, there is also the brews component of the festival. Saturday afternoon boasts a beer tasting featuring fifty-six different microbreweries. The lines are reasonable and if you’re feeling ambitious, you might find a handful of new favorites and definitely a buzz. As the Grand Tasting wraps up, festival-goers will be treated to sets from North Mississippi Allstars and Anders Osborne, which will seem all the more special with 56 five ounce beers in the stomach.
2016 is set to be three long days and late nights filled with music and beer in the gorgeous setting of Telluride. I can think of no better way to spend the last weekend of the summer.