Telluride Blues & Brews 9.16 - 9.18.16

Telluride, CO

Words & Photos By Ty Hyten (Ty Hyten Photography)

This year’s Telluride Blues & Brews Festival was one of my favorites in recent years. In part because of the people, combined with gorgeous weather and solid performances, and made perfect by the right amount of good beer. The leaves had only turned fully yellow in a few patches along the Canyon, but the atmosphere in the picturesque town felt like a welcome home party for fall. Lackluster moments from festival headliners were replaced with more than solid midday talent and energetic late-night sets ended each night on a high note.

All three of this year’s headliners drew huge crowds and provided some great music, but failed to leave what I’d call a lasting impression. In full disclosure, with the exception of Gary Clark Jr., my interest in the top slots was already low, due to personal preference. Joe Walsh’s Friday show was the strongest of the three festival-capping sets of the weekend. Walsh played through a personal Greatest Hits, which included “Rocky Mountain Way” with a cameo from Jason Isbell, and the Eagles’ hit “Take It To The Limit.” Fans of widely varying ages were in good spirits and the lights on the newly rebuilt stage were an added bonus.

After endless sample cups of beer during the Grand Tasting, Saturday night came to an end with a much anticipated set from bluesman Gary Clark Jr. Compared to previous Colorado appearances, Clark seemed a bit low energy, especially for a festival headlining slot. An overall low PA volume further prevented his raw, talent-dripping solos and rich vocals from generating the excitement I’d been hoping for, but he was able to entertain.

The last of the headliners was the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band on Sunday night. While there’s no doubt about his legendary status as a drummer and songwriter, it’s arguable that he belonged at the top of the bill for this festival. The older, blues-oriented Fleetwood Mac material that they played was rock solid, but the straightforward twelve bar blues began to lose some of its bite a few songs in. Frontman Rick Vito delivered promising guitar chops, but ultimately I was left feeling like I was seeing top notch bar music, rather than travel worthy blues.

Despite mediocre headlining sets, the festival was saved by otherwise extremely choice acts throughout. Friday started strong with Austin’s Shakey Graves. He came out ready to party with the midday crowd, a lit joint hanging from of his lips and a beer at his feet as he played. His country-blues influenced songs were sent over the top by his growling moans and syncopated guitar playing. He hopped between the full energy of his band and solo suitcase stomping songs that he was first known for. There was no guest appearance by collaborator and Coloradan Esme Patterson, but he and his band delivered a fat helping of Texas’ finest blues rock just fine without her.

Following Shakey Graves, one-time Drive-By Trucker and recent multi-chart topper, Jason Isbell delivered one of the best sets of the weekend. His twangy folk rock was set off by blistering guitar work from both him and second guitarist Sadler Vaden. His expertly penned songs tugged on the heartstrings and had fans singing along. He struck a balance between slower, emotional rollercoasters and hard rocking tunes that showcased backing band, the 400 Unit’s prowess.

Saturday was highlighted by grittiness with badass sets from North Mississippi Allstars and festival mainstay Anders Osborne. NMA frontman Luther Dickinson absolutely destroyed on his Les Paul as well as a homemade coffee-can “diddly bow,” some sort of tin can, wooden stick and slide creation. Anders and his crew of familiar faces were as well received as always as they traded licks and grinded through several areas of his deep discography.

One of the biggest joys of the weekend were late night shows at the historic Sheridan Opera House. Saturday night, The California Honeydrops played a full, sweat drenched set that lasted well past midnight. Their infectious soul, dotted with blaring horns, had the floor in the tiny venue bouncing. At one point the band stepped off stage, instruments in tow, and played in the middle of the crowd for smiling fans. Their never-ending show was certainly a highwater mark of the festival.

As we drove out of town talking about highlights and hangovers, the sadness of an incredible weekend passed was made better by mountain highways through aspen trees that had just made the jump from light green to golden yellow during the festival. Within a few days of returning to town, I promptly booked a place for 2017. See you then, Telluride.

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