It was Kevin Welch who informed Telluride Americana Music Fest founder Steve Stagner that despite the townwide blackout, he would be taking the stage with his son Dustin and Texas cohorts Walt Wilkins and James Eady. Given the lack of power, the typically dim-lit Sheridan Opera House now found its sole illumination from a handful of candles. Truly capturing the essence of the historic venue, the singer-songwriter quartet proceeded to put on a completely unplugged set for the Telluride record books.
In a down-the-line format, each artist carefully approached center stage, or sat on a monitor speaker, and hugged a makeshift flashlight-turned-spotlight coming from the side of the room. With their faint silhouettes barely visible, the notorious country chart-toppers pushed into a sonically dramatic space that may have been a first for the seasoned veterans. They took the subdued listener format of the festival one step further, at first a territory of uncertainty, but the quick movement of digits on strings coupled with the raw sound waves bouncing off the walls of the historic theater was powerful. The approach was also better received by the festival patrons than anyone could have expected.
It will forever be a mystery as to whether Wilkins called an audible, or if the song was fated to surface in the set list, but the chorus of “Poetry” reverberated with the lyrics, “Just one thing is clear to me, there’s always more than what appears to be, and when the light is just right, I swear I see poetry.” The auditory implications were undeniable in the context of the moment. Refusing to be outdone by their partner, Dustin and Kevin Welch’s “Jersey Devil” dug deep into their souls to produce a moody nine-minute pick-and-stomp jam.
Shortly after, the power returned and most present seemed to instantly miss the aphotic setting. Jason Eady reeled the audience back in with a captivating and heartfelt version of his hit “Cry Pretty.” The boys chose to remain unplugged for another round, and audience encouragement kept it that all the way through a cooperative effort from the foursome during set closer “Long Black Veil.” The gimmick free spirit of the singer-songwriter lives to fight another day, and this unique narrative marks the Telluride Americana Music Fest as a noteworthy institution embedded into the town’s music fabric.
Long time fans from around the region, most boasting decades of dedication, packed out the Sheridan Opera House for yet another noteworthy visit from the tenacious icons Hot Tuna. Welcomed by explosive applause, the acoustic triumvirate sauntered on stage, and the borderline giddy audience approval hooked a knowing grin from guitarist Jourma Kaukonen. The deviation from his typical poker face demeanor revealed that a track record of performing in front of millions over the past half-century does not smoulder the fire that an intimate room of Tuna buffs can spark.
Quick to get down to business, bassist Jack Casady lead the band through the set opener with a dexterous solo on his oversized Epiphone during “Hesitation Blues.” The same contagious thought about a strong opener hit the attentive audience, and promoted one of many post-song ovations. Feeling the vibe, the band jumped up the chronology line to their 2011 release Steady As She Goes. Kaukonen harmonized with his bandmates on a powerful “Children of Zion” before guest mandolin player Barry Mitterhoff produced a ukulele for the Thomas Dorsey cover “The Terrible Operation.” He would also trade out his mandolin for a buzzing electric guitar and other obscure instruments, adding fitting texture to perfectly executed cover tunes the likes of Slim Smith’s “The Breadline Blues” and John Lomax’s “I Know You Rider.” The former tune dug so deep into an improvised picking section that the three string sharks brought it back with a full reprise.
The instrumentation was precise and bold, and the mature vocalizations layered on the historical connotation of soul transported from simpler eras. Keeping with this theme, more homage was paid to old timey blues during the second set with Papa Charlie McCoy’s “Vicksburg Stomp.” The depth of their historical musicology puts any audiophile to the test, but the extended solo trading between Mitterhoff and Casady during Blind Arthur Blake’s “The Will Happen No More” locked in their ability to place a unique modern touch on songs dating back to the Roaring Twenties. Jumping only a decade ahead to close the set, Kaukonen’s soothing vocals took off during a soulful rendition of Merle Travis’ “Nine Pound Hammer” that remains a welcome staple in the Hot Tuna playlist. Not quite done with Telluride, Casady and Mitterhoff followed their leader back to the stage to close out a three hour blues marathon with a tear jerking presentation of Leroy Carr’s “How Long Blues.”
The Western Slope has been bearing witness to a new breed of California-raised progressive bluegrass this summer, and this go around Ridgway’s Sherbino Theatre will host Los Angeles folk-rock outfit Rose’s Pawn Shop. Boasting a track record of opening for acts like Jack White, and headlining rooms like the Georgia Theater, the quintet of multi-instrumentalists push an authentic Appalachian sound facilitated by their arsenal of guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins, drums and upright bass. Sincere and twangy narratives of redemption and loss toe the line with danceable and punkish drinking anthems. If you dig smooth vocal harmonizations, well crafted tunes, and fierce acoustic instrumentation that you can groove to, this is the show of the week.
Americana Stars Shined When the Lights Went Out