The summer festival season never seems to let up in Telluride, the southwestern Colorado mountain town where the musical kingpin, since its modest start in 1974, has developed into a four-day party in June while outgrowing the bluegrass in its title.
If it's the weekend, there's another festival in town, with events attracting lovers of wine, the Wild West, mushrooms and even yoga. Then there's the Telluride Film Festival, which later next month will have its own 40th anniversary to celebrate while becoming just as world famous as its musical counterpart.
Academy Award-winning actors and directors who also happen to be A-list celebrities will arrive on any given year over Labor Day weekend. You might run into Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker, Philip Seymour Hoffman or George Clooney taking a leisurely stroll down Colorado Avenue or through the modern Mountain Village to the Hotel Madeline bar.
It might seem difficult for a new kid on the block near the intersection of Pacific Avenue and Willow Street to make an impression when the established major players already have a built-in audience. But the Ride Festival, a gathering of straight-up rock 'n' roll musicians that wrapped up its second edition one week ago (July 14), is determined to do just that.
Attracting tasty electric guitar-driven bands and the connoisseurs who admire them, the Ride presents plenty of options in a pleasant, unobtrusive setting. Go crazy in the front row or relax while soaking in the vibes from a low-back chair less than 100 feet away.
Once the secret is out, maybe that will change. But all it takes is a two-day general admission ticket for $125.50 (plus service fees), a sense of adventure and an inner alarm clock to roam near the security-free zone in front of the stage to see sets ranging from 30 to 120 minutes. In 2013, some of the highlights included:
The Drive-By Truckers were a bouncy bunch for an midafternoon Sunday show, with frontman Patterson Hood saying, "Sometimes the greatest things in the world happen unexpectedly," before excitedly welcoming "our new friend" John Oates for an ecstatic blue-eyed soul cover of Eddie Hinton's "Everybody Needs Love." (Oates, above left, with Hood.)
Trucker co-founder, lead guitarist and Stella Artois/Jack Daniel's-sipping Mike Cooley even managed a grin or two (bassist Matt Patton, at left with Cooley, had him beat by a country smile, though) while teaming up with Hood on back-to-back blistering versions of "A World of Hurt" and "Shut Up and Get On the Plane."
Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale preceded them, delivering a lively and entertaining mix of homespun humor, country chestnuts and a sense of off-the-cuff improvisation, all of which appreciably lifted the crowd's spirits after a dreary Son Volt set.
Featured on the beautifully sad "The King of Broken Hearts," Lauderdale showed he was a little bit more country than Miller, who wanted to bypass ballads on the set list such as "That's Not Why I Love You" (which he cowrote with his wife Julie Miller and Lauderdale) and just keep rocking. (Lauderdale, left, with Miller.)
Still promoting last winter's Buddy and Jim album recorded in Miller's home studio in Nashville, they proved that sometimes two is better than one. Even when they play covers of others, including Joe Tex ("I Want to Do Everything for You," with Fats Kaplin's steel pedal a formidable weapon alongside Miller's cutting edge ax) and Jim McCracklin ("The Wobble").
Explosive breakthrough artists
Could Rival Sons' Jay Buchanan (left) and Scott Holiday become America's version of '70s Robert Plant-Jimmy Page?
They have the look, the swagger and the power to push the pedal to the metal with a Led foot, and Page even endorsed them after seeing their show in London, according to an article in Rolling Stone last December. Buchanan's voice and Holiday's guitar kicked it off Saturday with a wailing wall of sound on "You Want To." Yes, you really do.
Of course, the festival was filled with a number of dynamic duos, but one of the coolest, most inventive pairings of this millennium had to be David Byrne with St. Vincent, whose landmark Love This Giant tour stop was covered in a previous article.
Festival organizer Todd Creel was largely responsible for making all this happen. And while responding to a series of post-festival questions via email, he said he felt positive about the progress that was made from the first season to the second.
"Our numbers were up 50 percent," Creel said, citing attendance figures of 4,300 on Saturday and 5,000 on Sunday, with 500 VIPs each day. "Our staff was better than ever and the crowd seemed to really enjoy the lineup and the overall vibe in the park."
After some scheduling conflicts forced a move from late August last year, Creel has decided to keep the mid-July slot, saying it's "a perfect time of year for the event."
Yet Telluriding out those unpredictable, mountain storms can be a bit of a gamble. Miller, Plant's lead guitarist in Band of Joy, recalled seeing snow in June 2011, when Mumford and Sons preceded them on a memorable bluegrass Father's Day weekend that bonded everyone who also encountered a cold, hard rain.
The Friday night before the official start to the Ride, there were some lightning strikes that nearly stopped the gondola rides going in both directions from the Mountain Village to downtown. But other than a sporadic shower on Saturday and Sunday, the beautiful weather fully cooperated.
First-time visitors couldn't believe the view from the Fred Shellman Memorial Stage. "If I were you, I'd be looking at the other side," said Rodrigo Sanchez, the hunky half of the exhilarating speed-strumming duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. "It's a fucking amazing place." (Sanchez, right, with Gabriela Quintero.)
Though the festival stayed on schedule and there were no major musical mishaps, some last-minute adjustments had to be made that mostly affected the NightRide programs. That series of after-shows each night featured up-and-coming bands such as Escondido and the Soft White Sixties playing some of the cozier clubs in town, including the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon, the Roma and the New Sheridan Bar.
Matthew Curry and the Fury, a blues-rock group led by a 17-year-old wunderkind whose smooth, soulful voice and stirring left-handed licks belie his age, had to be the hardest-working band of the weekend.
They followed Escondido with a free performance in the Mountain Village's Sunset Plaza on Friday, played the cramped New Sheridan Bar downtown later that night, made it to the Town Park's main stage just after noon on Saturday to fill a slot previously occupied by the Weeks (a Southern band that was stuck in Spain after a flight cancellation), then hit the Fly Me to the Moon for a Sunday NightRide show after everyone in the park had cleared out.
Escondido, the dreamy Southwestern-flavored duo of Jessica Maros and Tyler James, expected to be on the regular Ride Festival bill but, inexplicably, that didn't happen. Neither did their Friday NightRide show at the Roma (also known as Honga's).
Instead, they "opened" the festival with that early-bird special (4:30 p.m.) Friday followed by an 11 p.m. Saturday engagement at the cool Fly Me to the Moon. The pair still packed the basement bar despite another sudden shift -- this time from the Floradora Saloon. But unless you were on Twitter (above), it was hard to keep up.
Dealing with complaints is part of the business, and Creel said the festival is planning to work out the kinks and make improvements to camping, the VIP area and park logistics but overall was "pretty happy with how everything went."
A chain-link fence split the spectators who wanted to be near the stage. On one side, attendants willing to pay $250 (plus service fees) for the VIP treatment got a roomy area with protection from the sun and elements, seating, a bar (along with upgraded restrooms) and a catered brunch on Sunday. GA pass holders were left to stand on their own two feet if they wanted an up-close-and personal musical experience, but the lines for food and portable toilets were surprisingly short.
Some of the performers spoke from the stage about the division. Sanchez can't wait to come back, but said next time he hopes the barrier doesn't exist. Cake frontman John McCrea even did a whole humorous bit on the Border War.
Creel promised to address the problem, saying, "We have to have a VIP area to make the budget work but we will be reworking how we set the fence so that it is less intrusive.
"We do believe that it is better to give both groups access to the front of the stage instead of setting a fence which creates a pit in the front and separates the GA crowd from the stage. It will be an improved situation next year."
On Page 3 of the festival program, Creel wrote in his welcoming message to attendees: "We want to hear from you, our visitors, and we appreciate your feedback and suggestions."
While a forum isn't currently on the festival's website, there is a place for comments on the Ride's Facebook page.
Your opinions could ensure that everyone's on board for the Ride next year.
Guess the Guitar Hero Contest
Readers of this article may have noticed an accompanying slideshow that includes eight of the leading electric guitarists of the festival, some of whom might have been previously mentioned.
The first Twitter respondent to supply all the correct names with the corresponding letters (from A. to H.) @mjbialas will receive a to-be-determined CD featuring one of the festival artists and a mention in my next music post at The Huffington Post. Good luck.
Photos by Michael Bialas. See more from the 2013 Ride Festival, featuring David Byrne and St. Vincent, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Drive-By Truckers and Steve Earle and the Dukes. Check it out, and you just might find some answers.